A nauseating smell permeates the air in Secunderabad’s Mudfort ‘basti’, as dogs and pigs gather around in one corner of the slum that accommodates a toilet.
Yellow fecal matter can be seen bubbling out from a leaking pipeline in the ground, which then spreads across the ground in the surrounding area.
Barely a few metres away, 35-year-old Jahnvi narrates her woes.
“The stench is unbearable no matter how long you live here. The toilet attracts all kinds of insects and mosquitoes in hordes. Even closing the door does not help,” she says.
A sign of apathy
There are hundreds of residents in this slum, also known as ‘Uttaraiah basti’, who live in appalling conditions, with no direct access to drinking water or electricity, under the jurisdiction of the Secunderabad Cantonment Board (SCB).
Making matters worse, they are presently entangled in a legal battle with the SCB that is trying to evict them stating that they are living on encroached land.
“The SCB is planning on taking away our voter rights. Many of us have been deleted from the voter list and the board is saying that they won’t count our votes even if we go to the polling booth,” says Lingaiah, a youngster from the area.
A large number of people in the slum are ragpickers, while many more are daily wage labourers, construction workers, drivers and so on. Most of them hail from the Mudiraj, Vaddera and Madiga communities, which are listed as Scheduled Castes in the state.
“We are ready to pay our power bills, but the electricity department refuses to give us connections unless we get a no-objection certificate from the SCB. However, the SCB is not at all willing to do that,” says R Sandeep, another resident of the area.
While the SCB has constructed a bio-toilet nearby that can be used by the general public, slum-dwellers rarely use it, as the toilet situated inside the slum is much closer, though filthy.
Ironically, even if one uses the bio-toilet, the entire waste is directed to a giant sewer that runs through the slum, with huts on each side.
A legal battle
Residents say that they have been living in the area for decades and more than one entire generation of people have been raised in the slums.
“I have personally been here for more than 40 years. I have been running this shop for around 20 years. The SCB never cared for us that much, as we have always had water problems. But now, they are just making it worse,” says Sivamma, a local shopkeeper.
According to the locals, several poor labourers had migrated to the area in search of work a few decades ago and were allotted land in the Cantonment area.
“Things were fine and everything went on normally. Many more poor people migrated and now it has become a sprawling slum. The SCB is irritated by this and is now calling us encroachers, as this is Defence land that comes under the Central government,” explains Uttaraiah, a local leader who has taken up the case of the slum-dwellers and has even moved court.
Whatever the SCB may say, the slum-dwellers are armed with ample proof. Almost every single one of them has Aadhaar cards, voter ID cards and ration cards, which recognise their address as ‘Mudfort huts colony’.
We can’t refuse the rights of poor people who are working hard and trying to make a living. It is even harder when the same Central government has issued us Aadhar cards. Now, the state government must either give the Defence Ministry compensation in the form of land or money. We do not want to shift from here,” Uttaraiah says.
“There have also been talks of giving us accommodation as part of the state government’s 2BHK scheme, but we have not gotten any written assurances so far,” says Lingaiah.
“They have even halted the construction of a school in the area, so that we are unable to educate our kids. While we have one anganwadi where children are being taught, we wanted to use this school and enrol more children,” Uttaraiah adds.
Uttaraiah says that it all rests on the ruling of the High Court later this month.
In June 2011, a Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs came up with the ‘Rajiv Awas Yojana’ under the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation, which aimed for a slum-free India.
The scheme said that in case of slum-dwellers encroaching Cantonment land, the local board was expected to work with the state government to either redevelop or relocate the slum, with due property rights.
However, the SCB has been citing a Supreme Court judgement from September 2016, which said that ‘encroachers’ of Defence land had no right to vote in Cantonment elections.
The case now rests on decoding the judgment, which also distinguished between the terms ‘residents’ and ‘inhabitants’, adding, “Even if a person is residing in an unauthorised structure, he will be entitled to be included in the electoral rolls under the Representation of the People Act.”
A larger problem
It is not just the residents of the Mudfort slum whose names are being struck off the list.
Under the Cantonment Act of 2006, Secunderabad is classified as a Category 1 cantonment due to its large civilian population.
The SCB, which is the local municipal authority, comes under the administrative control of the Ministry of Defence and functions as a local self-government. Half the members on the board are civilians while the other half are military nominations. There are eight civilian ‘wards’ in the SCB where political parties contest and put up their candidates.
The Congress has currently taken up the case of the slum-dwellers being evicted and says that it is a sign of a larger problem.
“It is not just this ward. Similar instances of names being deleted from the voter list have been reported in the slums of almost all wards of the Cantonment. It is estimated that around 30,000 people totally are to lose their voting rights,” says Krishank Mane, spokesperson for the Telangana Pradesh Congress Committee (TPCC).
The Congress is presently conducting a survey, noting down details of all the residents in these areas. The survey includes the socio-economic status of the alleged encroachers, and also their Aadhar card and voter ID card details. As of now, 794 families have been surveyed.
“We plan to compile a detailed list and put it in front of the CEO of the SCB and hope that he will put the SCB’s list before the board members. A board member from the Congress has also asked for a special session of the SCB to debate this single issue, so that each member of the board can spell out their stand,” Krishank says.
“When they were recognised by institutions all these days, why are they suddenly being exempted? In some cases, the locals have been living in the area for a century. Their attachment is strong, and rehabilitation will be tough,” he adds.