Sunday, December 28, 2008

Sambhu Singh vs. South City: the battle against corporate retail and real estate in a microcosm

Partho Sarathi Ray, Sanhati.

Since December 25, something is happening in Kolkata which might turn into a major battle against corporate retail and real estate.
Many of you, who are from or have stayed in Kolkata, know about the huge South City complex (company logo: Live the way the world does), consisting of the largest mall in Kolkata and a huge residential complex consisting of 4 tower buildings. The complex has come up on the grounds of the erstwhile Usha Engineering works, a factory employing around 7000 people, which was shut down and the land handed over to South City. The workers were all thrown out and their living quarters were demolished.
Their story is one of the little known tragedies of the process of “development” , one of the facets of which is the conversion of urban industrial land into real estate. Anyway, the mall came up in a very questionable process, filling up a huge water body (Bikramgarh jheel), and is now a major source of traffic congestion in the area.
What I didn’t know was that a single worker, Sambhu Prasad Singh, had decided to fight it out! His is an epic story. He had challenged his retrenchment by Usha Engineering in court, and had stayed back in the workers quarters with his brother, the latter’s wife and their 10 year old son. Disregarding threats by South City, he had stayed on amidst the construction going on around him. He was staying in the workers’ qaurters all of which had been torn down leaving only his rooms, as there was a stay order from the court. In this situation the family had stayed on and struggled, sending the son to a good school and living a life of dignity. Their struggle was being documented by a film maker, Ranu Ghosh, who had been closely following their lives for the past 10 years. Some of her postings are at: https://mail.sarai.net/pipermail/reader-list/2007-July/009568.html and https://mail.sarai.net/pipermail/reader-list/2007-July/009568.html. You might find moreabout it if you do a search on internet.
Yesterday (25th December) morning, I received a call from a reporter at one of the Bengali TV channels, who told me that something horrible had happened to the family of Sambhu, but his channel and other media wouldn’t report on it as South City was involved. I informed Samik Chakrabarty, one of our Sanhati comrades, and both of us immediately rushed to the spot.
We found out that on 24th evening, when the city was taken up in Christmas eve fever, and the two men (Sambhu and his brother) were away from home, security guards of South City, under the direction of their security chief and property manager, had broken down their door, come in and tied the hands and feet of the mother and the 10 year old son, assaulted them and thrown them out on the streets. Then they had looted all their belongings, loaded it on a truck and taken it away somewhere. Then they had broken down the roof and the stairs leading up to their 1st floor house, practically rendering it uninhabitable. The two men came back late at night and found them out on the streets. Then they called up Ranu and she went there immediately.
From 25th morning, the battle started. We went to the Jadavpur police station and lodged a FIR. The police stated that it was a patently illegal act to evict sometime when the case is sub-judice, but they cannot put them back inside their home. However, they said that they have the right to stay in their home. Many activists, organizations and media had been informed by then, and some activists, from organizations such as FAMA started coming in.
During the day, we also found that the police inspector came in a jeep and entered the premises. After some time we came to know that people were demolishing what remained of the house of the worker inside the premises. We realized that they were trying to demolish the house in order to make it a fait accompli, so that there would be no hope of proving Sambhu Singh’s right to the place.
By that time some faculty of Jadavpur University and members of the intellectuals and cultural workers association had also arrived. We decided that we would try to enter the site and if prevented we would start a demonstration. As we tried to enter, the security guards set up a cordon infront of the gate and their head said that he wouldn’t allow us to enter. We insisted on the right of Sambhu Singh and us to enter and we went into a heated altercation with the security guards. People started collecting and soon there was a huge crowd. We had called the students of Jadavpur university and they, notably from the student organization PDSF, arrived. Soon they were joined by other students. It became an impropmtu public meeting.
Meanwhile, the authorities tried to move out the workers who had been breaking down house in a Tata Sumo. We blocked its exit and it turned tail and fled in another direction. We had also called up the local councillor, Mr. Ratan Dey of Trinamool Congress, and he also turned up after some time. When he came,some of us accompanied him and entered the site. We found that the house had nearly been completely demolished with its roof, the walls and the staircase completely destroyed. After sometime more people, accompanied by reporters of some TV channels entered.
We then decided that Sambhu Singhu would be staying inside there, in order to prove his right to live at that site. It was also decided that a protest meeting, where everybody would participate, would be held outside South City mall on 26th December. It was a partial victory as we had been able to reinstate Sambhu Singh in his house, which was rightfully his. He and his brother somehow managed to spend the night in that broken down house.
On 26th morning, I again accompanied Sambhu Singh, his brothers wife and her son, together with some activists from a local citizen’s forum and a lawyer to the police station. The woman lodged a detailed complaint and also added a list of her belongings that have been looted. The police now were quite hostile, unlike the previous day and tried to harrass and intimidate us. In the evening a public meeting, attended by around 500 people started infront of the gates of South City mall. Nearly all organizations and activists of Kolkata participated. Different student organizations participated. The students put up posters, distributed leaflets and talked to people, including customers who were coming to the mall. Some students stood with posters in front of the main door of the mall informing people about the incident and appealing to them to boycott South City.
It was a demonstration the likes of which South City has never seen before.
As you can understand, this will be a long battle. We have to explore all the legal options in front of Sambhu Singh and his family. It is difficult now as South City chose a time when the court is in vacation. Another protest meeting is planned for Sunday. People want to continue this protest against this grossly unjust and illegal act. I request everyone to express their solidarity and support for this movement which has started as a battle of justice for a wronged person but which is taking up the nature of a battle against corporate retail and real estate and their land-grabbing in the urban centres.

Source: http://sanhati.com/excerpted/1183/

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