Aparajita Ghosh: Punjabis Made Refugees Again As Mumbai Evicts Colony In Guru Tegh Bahadur Nagar
Punjabi-Sikh Refugees that initially migrated from Pakistan during Partition are now left in a lurch in Mumbai’s Guru Tegh Bahadur Nagar
November 30, 2022 | 5 min. read | Original Reporting
In 1947, the three-year-old Mahendra Thapar boarded a train to Amritsar with his family from Hazara district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, formerly North-West Frontier Province in what is now Pakistan. While thousands settled in several Punjabi-dominated states, Thapar and his family chose to travel to Mumbai with fellow refugees and settled in Sion-Koliwada’s Guru Tegh Bahadur (GTB) Nagar, the largest concentration of Punjabi-Sikhs in the city today.
For nearly 10 years, the refugees lived in makeshift camps in the abandoned military barracks until the Central government constructed the Punjabi Refugee Colony in 1958 which stretched across 11 acres of land rehabilitating 1,200 Punjabi-Sikh and minority Sindhi refugee families. Under the Displaced Persons (Compensation and Rehabilitation) Act of 1954, the refugees were solicited to pay nearly INR 5,000 for ownership transfer in 1957-58 and around 900 families underwent the process to own the apartments.
Over a period of time, the 25-building colony became dilapidated due to state negligence and the refugees began receiving eviction notices from the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), the governing civic body of Mumbai.
After receiving the civic body’s notice declaring the colony uninhabitable as early as 2014, the residents carried out a structural audit privately which disclosed that the 25 buildings fell in the C2B category and are in fact repairable. Since several dilapidated buildings have collapsed in the past, the municipal corporation has divided structures into categories - C1, C2A, C2B and C3 in order to avoid mishaps.
Structures classified as C2B category suggest repair works without evacuating the residents and structures under C1 category are immediately evacuated and demolished under the BMC Act, following which the residents are provided alternate accommodation. However, despite the Refugee Colony being categorized into the former, the residents were forced to vacate their houses and were later ignored.
In 2017, BMC reached the colony with an eviction notice that brought over 1,000 residents to the streets in protest which eventually turned ugly and injured many. Bunty Sehgal, a resident of the colony who was present at the protest site said, “[The BMC] abruptly came with four to five bulldozers to demolish the buildings and evict us. We protested. But it turned violent and the police resorted to lathi charge.”
In the same year, the residents filed a petition in the Bombay High Court challenging the eviction by the municipal corporation which resulted in the latter's favour and the residents were asked to evict the colony in 2019 as they lost an eight-year-old long legal battle. Despite the notice, many residents stayed back due to being unable to afford the exorbitant rents in the city.
“I left my home in 2020 and we are now paying thirty-five thousand rupees rent to live in the city,” said Thapar. “The residents have even sold their jewellery in order to pay the rent. How will we continue to pay?” he added.
A few months later, as Punjab Maharashtra Co-operative Bank (PMC) Bank was shut down due to financial irregularities, the scam traumatized the already distressed residents. The bank, which was situated in the same area as the Refugee Colony was initially started by a Sikh refugee to facilitate loans for fellow community members who faced difficulties to opt for loans, and offered good interest rates for senior citizens, which intrigued many to invest in the bank.
Nearly 16 lakh account holders from the community, including the members of the United Singh Sabha Foundation, a Sikh body that has millions stuck in the bank, protested and petitioned the courts. Following this, several depositors have lost their lives to suicide and cardiac arrests since the scam came to light in 2019.
Sehgal, who had six accounts in the bank, stated that the scam affected scores of families emotionally, including his own, who had lost their life savings to the scam.
As the city underwent a lockdown during COVID-19 restrictions to ensure safety, BMC disconnected the water and electricity to evict the residents, forcing the lower middle-class families to abandon their homes.
Suman Kochar, a resident of one of the buildings that were razed down last month, used to live with her husband Ashok who has been paralyzed and bedridden for a long time.
“We were terrified since the services were shut. We had little savings left, so we used to borrow electricity from the neighbouring building and pay them INR 500 monthly.”
While the land on which the Punjabi Refugee Colony was built belonged to the Indian President initially, the ownership was later transferred to the Maharashtra government which eventually gave freehold land rights to the refugees.
Since the residents lost the case against the civic body, pressure to demolish the buildings and fear of land encroachment was mounting. Therefore residents had requested the High Court to grant them permission to raze down their homes. After receiving the order, the residents demolished the buildings through a private contractor, however, they are yet to assign a builder to develop a new housing society.
“I have a daughter who is married. Now that we have no money left, my husband and I are living with her in-laws,” Kochar, who vacated her house in October, stated in a brittle voice.
Today, the colony has only three out of the original 25 buildings standing which will be demolished soon. Sehgal, who is paying INR 40,000 and living on rent for the last four years, states that the buildings were indeed never properly maintained.
“We have lost our homes as well as got our buildings demolished. We are in worse condition than our forefathers were 50 years back,” said Sehgal.
The poorly educated refugees lived with limited means in one-room flats either drove cabs for a living or ran local automobile repair shops that did not pay them well. They feel that the situation has further pushed them into the dark.
This Gurupurab, Eknath Shinde and Devendra Fadnavis, who were sworn in as the Chief Minister and Deputy Chief Minister of Maharashtra respectively earlier this year, visited Sri Guru Singh Sabha, an umbrella body of various gurdwaras in the city and assured the residents of redevelopment.
“Nobody pays attention to us because we are poor. [State authorities] give us false promises, get applauded in return and forget us,” said Suman.
The 78-year-old Thapar, who has written several letters to Indian ministers appealing to solve the longstanding issue, has failed to receive any response.
“We have been living here for the last 75 years and we do not wish to be refugees again,” he stated.
Aparajita Ghosh is an independent journalist based in Mumbai, India. She covers human rights, minorities and cultures. You can find her on Twitter at @_aparajitaghosh
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