Varun Yadav was taking an afternoon nap when he was jolted out of bed by what he thought was an earthquake. Utensils rattled in the kitchen, and his television set vibrated as it slid towards the edge of the table. Yadav and his family ran to the window and saw people rushing out of their building in a state of panic—women sobbing as they held children in their arms, men helping residents too old or sick to walk themselves. That’s when they heard an explosion, quickly followed by another. “In all four directions, there was just noise and terror," says Yadav. “People were yelling, there was thick smoke everywhere."

At 2.45pm on 8 August, a major fire broke out at the hydrocracker unit of the Bharat Petroleum Corp. Ltd (BPCL) refinery in the little-known Mumbai suburb of Mahul, just off the Chembur East stretch of the Eastern Freeway. This was followed by a boiler blast . At least 45 workers were injured, two critically. Soon, TV news crews and reporters were relaying live information about the ongoing efforts to quell the fire.

A couple of hundred metres away, ignored by the camera crews, Yadav and about 200 fellow residents of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) colony, separated from the boundary wall of the refinery by a narrow road, had gathered by the kerb. Many of the women and children were carrying bags stuffed with clothes and sundry essentials. Angry and on edge, they refused to go back home, insisting that they’d rather spend the night on the streets. In the centre of the crowd, members of the Mahul Prakalpgrast Samiti (MMRDA Colony)—a group of local activists who have been fighting for the colony's residents to be shifted out of what they call a “human dumping ground"—were trying to organize a sit-in. Suddenly, a burqa-clad woman stood up and shouted, “Nothing is going to happen with a sit-in, let’s go and block (Eastern Freeway)." When the activists said such an act might invite violence by the police, she retorted, “As it is we’re dying a slow death, so why be afraid of the police?"

Over the past seven years, the Brihanmumbai municipal corporation (BMC) has shifted over 30,000 of the city’s poorest citizens to Mahul from illegal settlements in Powai, Ghatkopar, Chembur, Vakola and Bandra (East). Most of the residents of these localities were forced to move in the past year and a half, when the BMC demolished their homes in accordance with a 2009 Bombay high court order mandating a 10m secure corridor along the length of the water pipeline running through the city. They came to Mahul excited about their new lives in a modern apartment complex, expecting it to be much better than the slums and settlements in which they were living. Instead, true to the script followed by most of Mumbai’s slum resettlement projects, they found themselves trapped in crumbling buildings, miles away from their workplaces, with not a municipal school or government hospital in sight. Just like the residents of Mankhurd’s Lallubhai Compound in Mumbai, or, for that matter, the Narela resettlement colony in north-west Delhi, and the Perumbakkam tenements on the outskirts of Chennai, the people in Mahul had been left to fend for themselves.

“What’s the meaning of rehabilitation?" asks Anita Dhole, one of the activists from the Samiti, who moved here from Vidyavihar last June. “We should be better off than we were in the jhopadpatti. There should be a school, there should be a government hospital, there should be transport facilities. We have nothing here, just a hall and a cremation ground nearby. They’ve sent us here to die, get cremated and have our funeral in the hall."

To add to their woes, Mahul is home to oil refineries, chemical plants and other hazardous industrial units that contribute to dangerously high levels of air and water pollution. Hundreds of residents suffer from a wide range of health issues, and activists claim that over 100 people have died since June 2017. Even for a city where slum rehabilitation buildings seem to be “designed for death"—a recent study conducted by IIT, Bombay and NGO Doctors For You found that poor access to sunlight and ventilation in MMRDA buildings were behind abnormally high rates of tuberculosis mortality in three similar colonies in Govandi and Mankhurd—the situation in Mahul is particularly dire.

“These people have been moved away from their livelihoods and schools and dumped in a toxic and hazardous part of the city," says Bilal Khan, the convenor of housing rights movement Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan, which has been working closely with the residents of Mahul for the past year. “This has happened without any public consultation and without their consent. The end of rehabilitation can’t be just to provide a house and then wash your hands off the matter."

Residents on the roof of a colony building—the boundary wall of the BPCL refinery is only 30m from the colony’s entrance. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Residents on the roof of a colony building—the boundary wall of the BPCL refinery is only 30m from the colony’s entrance. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

Living in a gas chamber

The MMRDA colony in Mahul is a cluster of 72 seven-storey buildings packed so tight that many of the flats never see direct sunlight. Sewage leaks from overhead drainage pipes and fills the narrow alleyways between the buildings, often seeping into the underwater tanks that supply drinking water. An acrid chemical stench permeates the neighbourhood, and broad plumes of white smoke from the BPCL and Hindustan Petroleum Corp. Ltd (HPCL) refineries dominate the skyline. The Trombay Thermal Power Station is just down the road, as is a Rashtriya Chemical and Fertilizers plant, while the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre is also nearby. Just this June, two other industrial units near the colony, Aegis Chemical Solutions and Sea Lord Containers, were issued closure notices by the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) for discharging untreated chemical effluents directly into Mahul creek. The notices were withdrawn two weeks later after the companies agreed to comply with certain conditions.

The MPCB’s Comprehensive Environment Pollution Index categorizes Mahul as “severely polluted". A 2013 survey by the Environment Pollution Research Center (EPRC) of King Edward Memorial hospital found that 67% of the residents in Mahul complained of breathlessness more than three times a month, 86.6% suffered from eye irritation and 84.5% reported a choking sensation due to bad air quality. The EPRC also noted that these symptoms match those caused by exposure to toluene diisocyanate, a possible carcinogen that is toxic even in low concentrations. This ties in with the high levels of toluene in air samples analysed by the MPCB in 2014, which formed the basis of a 2015 interim judgement by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) that stated Mahul was “unfit for human habitation", and criticized planning authorities for “a failure... to plan and maintain a minimum buffer area between the industrial and residential areas".

Municipal commissioner Ajoy Mehta refused to comment when contacted for this story. Assistant commissioner (estates) Parag Raghunath Masurkar also refused to comment on the issue of pollution in Mahul, apart from saying that “at present, these are the only tenements available for resettlement". The BMC has shifted thousands of the city’s most vulnerable to Mahul, when the municipal body should have been fully aware of the potential health risks.

Medha Patkar speaks at a protest organized by Mahul residents outside the BMC ward office in Chembur. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Medha Patkar speaks at a protest organized by Mahul residents outside the BMC ward office in Chembur. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

Victims of toxicity

On the day of the fire, while hundreds of residents congregated at the entrance to the colony, raising slogans against chief minister Devendra Fadnavis and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, an eerie silence reigned over Sagar Gaikwad’s nondescript sixth-floor flat. His mother had died that morning. She had suffered an unexpected paralytic attack two days earlier, followed by three cardiac arrests. “My mother was only 47, she had no health problems when we were living in Ghatkopar," says Gaikwad. “Everything started only after we moved here."

“There are so many diseases that have cropped up since we moved here," says Dhole, sitting on a plastic chair in her small ground-floor flat, the charpoy in the corner laden with stacks of newspapers, files and other documents related to the writ petition that the residents filed in the Bombay high court late last year. In her lap is a thick folder full of medical records, which she flips through as she lists off symptoms and diseases. “Toddlers are getting tuberculosis, there are breathing problems, asthma, skin rashes, blood pressure issues, thyroid problems. Those with pre-existing diseases are only getting worse as their immunity has lowered. Many of us are having trouble with our eyesight."

Soon after Kusum Gangavne’s family shifted to Mahul in 2012, her parents started complaining of breathing issues and severe asthma. Within six months, they were both dead. Gangavne fell sick as well, developing swollen limbs, respiratory issues and severe weight loss. “She was so sick she couldn’t leave her bed," says Samiti member Nandu Shinde, who is taking care of Gangavne in his rented accommodation in Ghatkopar, where he moved after his home was destroyed in the Tansa pipeline demolition drive. Shinde is one of many project-affected people who have refused to live in Mahul, citing concerns about pollution and the lack of infrastructure. “She’s a software engineer, but she’s so unwell that she can’t work, she can’t do anything."

A quick survey of Mahul’s residents shows that these are not isolated cases. Inside a sixth floor flat, Kalavati Hamitkar lies curled up on the floor, barely responsive to our presence. Her feet are covered in bleeding sores, and her son Prasad Hamitkar says she also has rashes on her groin and upper body. Since moving to Mahul from Ganesh Nagar in Powai, Hamitkar’s arthritis has worsened to the point that even straightening her legs leaves her in incredible pain. “We’ve taken her to KEM hospital, JJ hospital, Sion hospital, but the medicine they gave us has no effect," says Hamitkar. “The lift doesn’t work, so we have to carry her down six flights of stairs to go to the hospital. Now she refuses to go, because it hurts too much."

“How many applications can I give, how many letters can I write?" says her husband Ganpat Lakshman Hamitkar, breaking down in tears. “They won’t even let us move to a lower floor."

Alongside senior citizens, Mahul’s children are the most vulnerable to respiratory issues and skin diseases. Almost every child we saw had rashes or visible scarring, which the residents attribute to poor water quality. On the way to Hamitkar’s flat, we are intercepted by a woman carrying her three-month-old daughter, whose skin has turned translucent and scaly all over her back and stomach. As her neighbours clamour for attention and thrust their medical records at us, the young mother just holds the child up, her silence more eloquent than words.

Mahul has no municipal hospital, and the BMC clinic, opened a few months ago in response to a Bombay high court order, is a small room with none of the facilities required to treat the residents’ more serious ailments. The two private clinics in the neighbourhood are not much better, and expensive as well. Residents have to travel to Rajawadi hospital in Ghatkopar, 11km away, a trek made all the more difficult by the lack of public transport. The nearest train station is 8km away, and the bus service is infrequent and unreliable. Residents have to hire rickshaws and taxis, if they are available at all.

Anita Dhole is one of the petitioners in the case being heard in the Bombay high court. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Anita Dhole is one of the petitioners in the case being heard in the Bombay high court. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

A definite pattern

The health problems are compounded by the lack of infrastructure, facilities and access to employment, all of which seem endemic to Mumbai’s resettlement and rehabilitation colonies. Many of the residents are daily labourers and domestic help, who have been rendered jobless by Mahul’s lack of train connectivity and distance from their former workplaces. The area itself has scant jobs to offer. The lack of a municipal secondary school or college means that their children now have to travel for hours every day to get an education, with many forced to drop out since their parents cannot afford the additional bus fare.

Shweta Damle, founder of the Habitat And Livelihood Welfare Association, believes that the Mahul case is representative of a larger problem with the city’s slum rehabilitation policies. “The government picks up people from high land value areas and places them in low land value areas that are ill-equipped to handle the population coming in," she says. “Usually, these are the same areas where polluting industries are located, on the fringes of the city. There has been a definite pattern of pushing poor people into such spaces."

Members of the Mahul Prakalpgrast Samiti (MMRDA Colony), along with other Tansa pipeline project-affected people, had resisted the move to Mahul ever since the BMC indicated that they would be shifted there. They claim that the BMC and local politicians had promised they would get accommodation within 3km of their settlements, as per the guidelines laid down under the National Rehabilitation and Resettlement Policy, 2007.

“On 28 December 2016, MLA Prakash Mehta (who is now the cabinet minister, housing department) invited Devendra Fadnavis to a function in Ghatkopar, where they gave over 400 families keys to SRA (Slum Rehabilitation Agency) flats in HDIL Kohinoor City, Kurla" says Dhole. “He told us that the rest of us will also get flats in the same development after the BMC elections were over. He told us that he’ll never send us to Mahul, that place is a toxic hell not worth living in. Everyone was there, (BJP leaders) Ram Kadam, Kirit Somaiya, Vinod Tawde. But after the election happened, they changed their mind." A news report from August last year shows that the BMC eventually asked those 425 families to move to Mahul as well, amid allegations of irregularities.

A young woman claims her skin infection has been caused by the polluted water in the colony. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
A young woman claims her skin infection has been caused by the polluted water in the colony. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

Security risks

Interestingly, both BPCL and HPCL are also against the settlement of people in the vicinity of their refineries, due to security and public health concerns. Since 2008, the BPCL has lodged a number of protests against the construction of the MMRDA flats, citing security threat perception reports by the local police and the Intelligence Bureau, but these were ignored by the BMC.

“The refineries are category A prohibited areas, which should have a buffer zone of around 1km to avoid misadventures," says security expert Hemant Shah, a former deputy director with Topscaipre, a division of Tops security services limited. “But here the buildings are less than 35m from the refinery wall. If you see the latest trend in terrorist activity, they are taking vehicles and ramming them into crowds. And here there isn’t even a security cordon. They let you just walk up to the gate."

The BMC allocated all the flats in the 10 buildings directly facing the refinery to Mumbai police constables in a bid to alleviate BPCL’s security concerns. There’s only one problem. Not a single policeman has moved in, and the buildings remain empty. “Now they’re offering two-three flats for one officer, but nobody wants to move here because of the pollution and lack of infrastructure," says Dhole.

Last year, a group of residents and Tansa pipeline-affected people moved the high court to stop the further resettlement of people in Mahul and to relocate those already there to a different location. Their case rests on the 2015 NGT judgement, as well as a 2014 MPCB report that found concentrations of benzopyrene and nickel were, respectively, 32 and 7 times higher than permissible levels.

In affidavits filed in the high court, the BMC and the state government cite a later MPCB report that states that pollution is now within permissible levels. They have also filed a review petition with the NGT to modify its judgement. But the petitioners point out that the MPCB did not measure the presence of volatile organic compounds (VOC), which are known by-products of the industries in the area, and have proven long-term health effects.

Litmus test

The results of this ongoing judicial process in the NGT and the high court will have far-reaching ramifications, not just for the 30,000 odd people in Mahul but also for the rest of the country. “This is going to be a precedent-setting case because it covers a wide spectrum of issues related to industrial areas and civilian populations," says advocate Kranti, who represents the petitioners. “It’s not just the fact that there are noxious gases present. There’s also the need for a buffer zone around industrial areas, and the fact that the parameters to measure air pollution used by the government do not cover VOCs. This case brings up a lot of issues that need to be looked into."

The close proximity of toxic industry and civilian populations is leading to more and more conflict—the protests against the Sterlite copper plant in Thoothukudi, which led to the tragic deaths of 13 people in police firing, are only the latest example. Indian cities are among the most polluted in the world. It’s vital that the government takes stock and puts in place rules and regulations that safeguard the health and security of citizens.

It is also essential that the state ensures the poorest and most vulnerable don’t bear a disproportionate amount of the human cost imposed by industrial progress. What happens to the residents of Mahul will be a litmus test for how we can expect our governments to balance the environment and public health with commercial and industrial concerns.

Courts step in

For now, the signs are looking good. On 8 August, the Bombay high court ordered the BMC to stop any further resettlement in Mahul, and to decide on rent compensation or temporary accommodation for the remaining Tansa pipeline-affected people. It also said that those who have been allotted flats in Mahul but have not taken possession have till 1 October to return their keys and apply for the appropriate compensation. Those who are already living there, however, will have to wait for the results of the government’s appeal in the NGT. The high court has also asked the IIT to conduct a holistic survey of Mahul, which will take at least four months.

The residents fear that by the time they get justice from the courts, it will be too late. The BPCL fire—and fears of a lethal accident—have only added to their urgency. Having already organized a few small protests with the help of the Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan, and its founding member and social activist Medha Patkar, they are now preparing to raise the stakes. “Nowadays the state doesn’t respond to dialogue, one has to get on the streets to make them listen," says Patkar. “The residents have made multiple representations to the BMC and the state government, but there is no response. Obviously, people are very upset. The state will regret the callous way with which it has treated them," she added.

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