No concern too small for mediators trying to limit Mumbai land disputes

September 13, 2016 9:06 AM EDT

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By Rina Chandran

MUMBAI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When India's Tata Power engaged SPARC, a group focused on housing for the urban poor, to help relocate hundreds of families living under and around its distribution towers, it was the start of a long, complex process.

Six years on, more than 200 of the 900 families living in makeshift homes by the towers are yet to be resettled elsewhere in Mumbai - highlighting the difficulty of resolving land disputes in the emerging economy.

"Relocation and resettlement is never simple. It's tough and complicated because human beings are involved," said P. Murugan, a general manager at Tata Power.

"There are so many factors to consider: homes, businesses, children's schools, and many different emotions and opinions," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Conflict over land rights in India has increased as one of the world's fastest growing economies expands, and land is sought for industrial use and development projects.

India has introduced several land laws in the past decade to give the vulnerable more rights. A 2009 Mumbai court ruling made it mandatory for officials in India's financial hub to resettle displaced people.

But the city, where almost 60 percent of the population lives in slums, has seen repeated clashes over land with residents forcefully evicted from homes that are then razed by bulldozers, and their belongings thrown on to the street.

In a bid to avoid conflict, Tata Power approached SPARC, which has worked with city officials to resettle people affected by infrastructure projects, including the widening of roads and the construction of flyovers and railway tracks.

"Our policy is to communicate and convince. Threats and ultimatums don't work," said M.G. Shekhar, secretary of the National Slum Dwellers' Federation, that is a part of SPARC.

"It is important to involve the community so they feel a degree of control. It also ensures greater transparency and fairness for everyone," he said.

SPARC typically organizes the community into groups to oversee various aspects of the relocation and resettlement, including an extensive survey of each household.

Then there is a debate on the merits of the relocation. The risk from high-tension wires in this case offset some of the concerns about distance from train stations, and proximity to children's schools or their place of work, Shekhar said.

There were also concerns about where the residents were to be located and the size of their new homes - apartments measuring 225 sq.ft. that Tata Power bought from the city for 300,000 rupees ($4,520) each.

"No concern is too big or too small," Shekhar said.

"A lot of it is just logistics - showing them the flats, helping with school admissions, jobs, alternate sites for businesses. But some of it is also about emotions," he said.

Between 1950 and 2005, about 65 million people were displaced in India by dams, highways, mines and airports, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center. Less than a fifth have been resettled.

More than 650 families affected by Tata Power's distribution towers have been relocated, while 16 families chose to stay. The remainder will be moved over the next year, Shekhar said.

The families staying behind were given money to rent a home nearby for up to two years, he said.

"It has taken six years, and we did not move everyone," Shekhar said.

"But it can't be done any other way. We need to involve the community and arrive at solutions through discussion and agreement, not coercion," he said.

($1 = 66.36 Indian rupees)

(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran, Editing by Katie Nguyen. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.)



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