Justice Lentin visits Kamraj Nagar, and What Happens Next

at CED (Centre for Education and Documentation)
3, Suleman Chambers, 4 Battery Street, 
Behind Regal Cinema, Colaba, Mumbai.
Wednesday August 2, 2017
7 pm to 8:30 pm. 

Including in person:
Journalist Olga Tellis
Lawyer Kranti L.C. 
Poet and critic Ranjit Hoskote,
John D'Souza of the CED, among others. 

In mid-monsoon exactly thirty-six years ago, Chief Minister A.R. Antulay initiated Operation Demolition, whose objective was to bulldoze and evict pavement dwellers in a corridor "from the Airport to the Taj Hotel". 

On the morning of July 23rd 1981, bulldozers ran over an estimated 1600 pavement homes, and the people in them were put in state transport buses and taken to locations outside the city limits, including to train stations such as Bhusawal and Solapur, where non-Maharashtrians were given tickets to "home" states. On July 23rd itself, the rights organisation PUCL obtained an interim stay on the demolitions and deportations, but they did not stop entirely. The stay was granted by Justice Lentin at the Bombay High Court.

On Saturday August 1st, amid news of continuing demolitions, Justice Lentin visited a basti in Vile Parle, on the now Western Express Highway, called Kamraj Nagar by its residents. Unannounced, and wearing a brown coat, he spent 90 minutes talking to people and instructing that unbroken shacks be marked with a white cross. Three days later, he passes an order instructing that people in Kamraj Nagar could return to marked huts, and that demolitions city-wide be put on hold till October 15, after the monsoons. 

Lentin would later write, "I resolved that if I could bend the law, even twist it, to ameliorate, be it in a little way, the lot of those who were helpless, for those who could not speak for themselves...".  

The Centre for Education and Documentation (CED) on Battery Street was in those days a place where people doing archival research and journalists would gather practically every evening. Their discussions could end up at Gokul or in the papers the next morning. Among the participants was the young journalist  Olga Tellis, writer of an anonymous column in the Blitz called Garibi Hatao, My Foot! that had been running through the Emergency years. 

Meanwhile, PUCL has moved the pavement dwellers case to the Supreme Court, asking essentially for a more humane demolition procedure. In an unusual move that seems to stem from discussions at CED, Olga Tellis writes a letter to the Supreme Court on 5th August that makes a different, more radical claim than PUCL's, stating that the pavement dwellers issue was about a right to life and livelihood for all city dwellers. The people of Kamraj Nagar suffer another set of demolitions in May 1988, but alongwith Nivara Hakk, one of many city-based housing organisations that have come up in the 1980's, they resist removal and are alloted land in Santosh Nagar, Dindoshi in 1994. 

Thus a range of strong positions are taken up by people in city institutions in these few weeks, addressing the perennial Bombay question of housing or lack of it. Some months later, Antulay has to resign as CM because of a high court judgement on the cement scam, also by Justice Lentin. This milieu forms the backdrop for two extraordinary Bombay films released in the following years: Kundan Shah's black comedy Jaane Bhi do Yaaro, and Saeed Mirza's housing-courtroom tragedy Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho! Olga Tellis' letter to the court is accepted as a public interest litigation, and transforms into the landmark "Olga Tellis case", which has effects on legal debates and the teaching of law, to this day. 
On August 2nd 2017, we revisit this event and its reverberations via legal, newspaper and document archives, film and audio materials, at CED and in conversation with a group of people who participated in the CED addas of the time, and in city histories that unfolded, or could have unfolded, thereafter. 

Tea will be served. Please RSVP.  
This event is organised by CAMP as part of its research project Past, Present, Future. 
With many thanks to CED for hosting. 

Gallery: Justice Lentin visits Kamraj Nagar on August 1st 1981, and What Happens Next
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