“Our land is our life, we shall never part with it,” actor-turned-politician Rajnikanth thunders in Pa Ranjith’s Kaala, highlighting the urban poverty landscape the country is presently reeling under.
Rajinikanth’s name itself evokes multitude of sentiments, and his films and persona stands tall, days surpassing the 70mm screen. Hence, when his latest film Kaala discusses the land struggle between Dharavi's ‘have-nots’ and rich grabbers, laced with caste sentiments, the subject becomes larger than life leading to reel-to-real discussions.
Pa Ranjith’s movie Kaala is rooted in the power-nexus between the police, politicians and the public. Set in Mumbai’s Dharavi, the 185-minute long movie highlights how the folks from Dharavi shed their blood and sweat to safeguard their thriving land from the hands of the mafia, and about the white-clothed politicians in the garb of ‘development’ and ‘digitisation’.
“A Tamil cinema talking about social issues and standing up for society is nothing new. Multiple movies, including Rajinikanth’s in the past, have discussed such issues. But yes, Kaala is highlighting an issue which is relevant,” says Dr Sumanth Raman, a Chennai-based political analyst.
The premise of the movie is not new — the eternal struggle between the rich and the poor, the rags-to-riches storyline, or even the underdogs’ struggle for their rights, and battling corruption. However, the movie takes precedence due to the director’s sensitive depiction of present-day government schemes, and its inter-play at the implementation level in the slums.
In an interview with The Hindu, Ranjith highlighted that Kaala is highlight land as an ‘important and crucial resource’, without which citizens are crippled into the development mode. “The ownership gives people confidence that they don’t have to depend on anyone. Removing the link between a person and his land is the first step in enslaving people. When Dalits are without land, they have to work in fields owned by a dominant caste person. Here, the caste hierarchy becomes much sharper as class and caste merge,” he said.
Land grabbing is nothing new in 21st century India, rather since the British colonial era, the government has annexed land for multiple projects. However, the contentious point lies in rehabilitation.
"As per the government rules, if they are taking over the land in slums, the concerned department needs to ensure that they replace and rehabilitate them and provide them houses within a 3 km radius. But, in Chennai, they are giving houses in 30 km radius. Similar stories are heard in other cities as well,” says Thevai Iyakkam Iiangovan, a Chennai-based activist, who is working for the citizens welfare in cases related to land grabbing.
In the past four years, majority of the programmes of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, focus on creating urban infrastructure. The Deendayal Antyodaya Yojana - National Urban Livelihoods Mission (DAY-NULM), has the explicit objective to alleviate urban poverty. Besides NULM, Swachha Bharat Mission - Urban and Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana have also being given the mandate to provide housing and civic infrastructure to the urban poor.
While multiple programmes are aimed at addressing to alleviate the urban poor, provision of infrastructure and even digital access requires land. This begs the question, what is the legality of any human settlement? Who owns the land and whose property is it?
“It is simply a result of power equations - doesn't matter what is written on the paper, or in the land use plan/ map of the city. So many rich localities are also illegal, but not denied civic services the way slums are,” says Kriti Mittal, an urban planner and a policy analyst, working with National Urban Livelihoods Mission, Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs.
The mention of Dharavi tends to evoke images of tightly-packed shanty dwellings in one of the largest slums in the world. Immortalised by both Bollywood and Hollywood, Dharavi has always been the home of the protagonist who rises above the squalor, and goes on to achieve great things. What you never get to see is the thriving informal economy, estimated to be over $500 million, wherein residents are employed in small-scale businesses that manufacture leather goods, textiles, and pottery, most of which is exported all over the world.
“Dharavi, one of the largest slums in Asia, has been an area of contention for almost two decades now, with the government making conscientious efforts to give the slum a major facelift, and thus fulfil the central government’s target of affordable housing,” says Anuj Puri, Chairman of ANAROCK Property Consultants.
While the slum has been constantly under the radar of both the builders and the government, people in the real estate community believe that Dharavi’s redevelopment project, when completed, will change the way the area is viewed. The fact that it rubs shoulders with ‘upmarket' Bandra, makes Dharavi an attractive option for both homebuyers and builders alike.
However, barring a few buildings constructed by the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority in sector V, things have not progressed as planned. As of today, Dharavi has five sectors that were earlier divided into 13 sub-clusters.
“The plan is to have just one cluster so that the redevelopment process becomes smoother, more efficient and be expedited. The state government even released two tenders early on, but there has been no bidders. Moreover, earlier this year, it decided to float an SPV to raise funds, and thus carry out the redevelopment plan smoothly,” Anuj explains.
Almost one-fifth of the land in Dharavi is privately owned. As per the redevelopment policy, once a developer gets the slum land post permission from at least 70 percent of the slum dwellers, he/she has to rehouse the slum dwellers free of cost in a multi-story building tenement of at least 270 sq. ft. carpet area per household. Earlier, only those slum dwellers were eligible for this scheme who had documents to prove that they had been living in the slum prior to January 1, 2000. But, the current state government decided to rehabilitate even those who live in dwellings constructed after this cut-off date. To this effect, the housing department proposed modifications to the Maharashtra Slum Act, 1971 in 2017-end.
However, the residents of Dharavi echo the sentiments as depicted in Kaala.
“Everybody wants to raze Dharavi, people come here often with papers and builders talk about development and sky scrapers. But, nobody talks to us to find out what we want. We have problems of sanitation and cleanliness, but we also have unity here. We are contended with this ‘chaos’— it makes us, us! Solve our daily problems but don’t erase our identity,” says Ravi Gopal, a business dealing with scraps in Dharavi.
While the subject of land grabbing is not new in reel or real life, the fact that Rajinikanth, the southern superstar, has emerged as the latest crusader for the public, definitely has once again sparked the debate of development - how is it for and who benefits from it.
“Dharavi for me is not a slum, but a vibrant urban community that has been denied legality and civic services because of its prime location,” Kriti concludes.