(Author’s Note: This piece was originally written in December 2019 and reflects the conditions witnessed back then during reporting.)
Dressed in school uniform well after classes ended earlier that day, Yash Kamble (11) watches on as two of his friends play a game of badminton in the street using plastic racquets the size of ping pong bats. Wide enough to let only two motorcycles or a mini truck pass through Asalpha village’s Ambedkar Nagar slum at any given moment, the game is adjourned every time a vehicle approaches the spot they are playing.
“This game does not interest me. What I really love is climbing to the top of this hill and watching the planes fly high into the sky from the airport,” said Yash, when asked why he was not playing. Unsurprisingly for someone of his age and inclination, he wants to become a pilot.
But 29-year-old businessman Gagan Bansode, who lives in the adjacent slum of Bhim Nagar, feels children in Asalpha harbouring big dreams like Yash is pointless. The reason: crime.
“Crime is the biggest issue here. It’s everywhere. Illegal sales of alcohol (bootlegging), drugs, charas, ganja — you name it,” he said. According to him, the youth in these slums are bound to go astray growing up in an atmosphere like this.
At Ghatkopar police station, whose jurisdiction Asalpha falls under, a woman official on the condition of anonymity said, “More than 50 per cent of Ghatkopar’s crime cases (in any given year) happen in Asalpha.” She too listed bootlegging and drug-peddling as the biggest problems there.
“Aadat ho gayi unhe (they are now used to it),” she added, upon being asked about the proliferation of such activities.
Asalpha is not a village in the strictest sense but classified as one for revenue purposes. A cluster of slums in Mumbai’s Ghatkopar suburb built on two hillocks on opposite sides of the Versova-Ghatkopar Metro line, the settlements are more than five to six decades old and house up to ten thousand residents per slum, sometimes even more.
“Given a piece of land, man tends to go and live on higher terrain,” a Slum Rehabilitation Authority official said about the people who settled on the hillocks that take up most of Asalpha. He added that in a city like Mumbai where it rains a lot, building one’s house on higher ground was common sense.
That was certainly the logic Keshav Paraji Dahiwade (65) had in mind when he arrived with his family in Ambedkar Nagar from Maharashtra’s Beed district back in 1974.
“During the monsoon, the water flows straight down the hill. It does not stagnate,” Dahiwade said.
In January 2018, Asalpha gained wide media attention when 750 volunteers across Mumbai came together and painted murals along its walls over two weekends as part of the “Chal Rang De” initiative.
According to Dedeepya Reddy, who masterminded the initiative, the makeover aimed to change perceptions around slums and their residents. Since then, Asalpha has witnessed numerous photo walks and increased footfall among foreign tourists as well.
“There were a few of them some days ago — fair-skinned people from outside. They were walking around, taking photographs the whole time,” recalled Dahiwade. However, he was not aware of the ‘colourful makeover’.
Even as the initiative earned it comparisons to southern Italy’s Positano village, the lives of Asalpha’s residents are anything but. In the city that never sleeps, no auto-rickshaw driver dares to venture or drop a fare in Asalpha past midnight, if Bansode is to be believed.
Locals in Ambedkar Nagar pointed out a police outpost that had been constructed in the slum around two years ago, whose doors remained locked as no policeman was ever stationed there permanently. As a result, the locals had to travel all the way to Ghatkopar police station for resolving any major issues about law and order in the area.
Bansode felt this only showed how the area had been neglected by the police. He alleged that the police, like auto-rickshaw drivers, were reluctant to visit the area after dark since any policeman on the beat would be outnumbered in case any problems arose.
However, the Ghatkopar police official felt that was untrue. According to her, Asalpha was the most important neighbourhood for them and the police were responsible enough to respond every time a call came through from the area on the Dial 100 helpline.
“When our vehicles are unable to go up the hill, we go all the way on foot,” she added.
On the police outpost being locked, she stated that it depended on manpower available there. “Agar log hote toh chowki mein baithe hote (If there were people available then they would have been sitting there),” she said. When pressed on whether that implied that the police were understaffed, she replied in the affirmative.
“Nearly 70 per cent of Ghatkopar’s residents live in Asalpha. And Ghatkopar is so big a place, even two police stations like this one wouldn’t be enough,” the official said.
The SRA official felt that crime festered in slums because there were “just too many people, too many places to hide”. However, he felt the SRA’s ambitious goal to convert the slums into tenements by 2022 would bring that down.
“It’s difficult to run a business like that from a building,” he opined.
Other residents of Ambedkar Nagar cited alcoholism as a persistent issue that emanated out of rampant bootlegging. Keshav Dahiwade’s wife Sarubai (60) said it was one that affected almost every household in the slum, pegging the figure close to 90 per cent.
On the presence of rehabilitation centres for alcoholics, she remained sceptical. “Theek ho kar koi bolega kya ki main nahi piyega (does anyone ever say that I won’t drink after I get better),” she said.
Sanitation was another major concern. The people in the slums use community toilets built by the government, which are shared by those living in Ambedkar Nagar and Bhim Nagar. Both men and women have separate toilets built at a short distance from each other, but cleanliness and irregular water supply have caused much consternation.
“Two months ago, someone removed the motor that pumped water into the toilets. Since then, we have been cleaning the toilets ourselves with the water that comes into our homes,” said Dahiwade, who also mentioned that tap water was available for about four to five hours between 5 PM and 10 PM every day.
The Asalpha Metro station is hardly a kilometre away from the slums but that has not made any difference in their lives, according to Dahiwade.
“People who have money can afford to travel in the Metro between Andheri and Ghatkopar. Poor people like us can only take the bus,” he said.
Bansode, however, believed that despite all these problems, the attitude that the residents had towards life kept them soldiering on.
“Jhhunk kar nahi rehna hai. Agar koi aapko do maarega toh aapko chaar maar ke hi aana hai (You cannot bow your head here. If someone hits you twice, you have to hit back four times),” he quipped.