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Despite surface calm, Navi Mumbai simmers
Shiv Kumar
Tribune News Service

Navi Mumbai, March 19
After decades of playing the poor cousin to Mumbai’s glamorous business hubs of Nariman Point and Bandra-Kurla, Navi Mumbai came into its own only in this century.
The Ambanis of Reliance and the IT sector woke up to a well-planned near-ghost town just a short distance from Mumbai and Navi Mumbai got a fresh breath of life. Suddenly, BPO companies moved into once pastoral villages like Nerul, Khoparkhairane and Belapur and the yuppies began to zip around in fancy wheels.

The calm of Navi Mumbai was shattered on Holi last week when an ordinary eve-teasing incident resulted in a full-blown riot between migrant porters and the original farmers in the area. “It was a fight waiting to happen since relations between the porters and the farmers were never cordial,” says Shashikant Mhatre, a local school teacher.

Local residents blame the politicians from the ruling NCP for the ongoing trouble. About five years ago, the state government earmarked land acquired from the villagers at Ghansoli village for a housing complex for the porters — the Mathadis, most of whom were employed in the wholesale steel and vegetable markets in the area that service Mumbai.

The villagers felt that the Mathadis, manual labourers like themselves, were depriving the original inhabitants of employment opportunities. The immediate cause of the conflict happened to be the location of the sprawling Simplex housing colony of the porters which cut across the ancestral lands of the villagers, thereby causing bad blood between both communities. “The local villagers used the housing complex compound as a short-cut to their lands, thereby sparking off conflict,” said a police official. The residents of the buildings fenced their properties and prevented the villagers from passing through the area.

Though the City Industrial Development Corporation (CIDCO) had paid off the farmers whose lands were acquired in the 1970s, they continued to cultivate the land in the absence of any development work being carried out. The farmers were subsequently pushed out without any fresh compensation when the authorities decided to construct houses and factories in the wake of the economic boom in Navi Mumbai, say observers.

The simmering anger of the villagers, mainly from the Agri community, has been successfully exploited by Ganesh Naik, Maharashtra’s environment minister. A Shiv Sainik-turned-Sharad Pawar loyalist, Naik has been accused of running several illegal stone quarries in Navi Mumbai. However, thanks to the quarries and other businesses run by him, Naik emerged as the biggest employers of Agris, the community to which he himself belongs.

Naik, however, received a major blow to his influence when the Navi Mumbai Assembly constituency was split into two following the delimitation of the constituencies in Maharashtra. Amidst reports that the newly created Airoli assembly constituency would have Shashikant Shinde, a Mathadi leader, as its candidate in the next elections, the Agris hit the streets to oppose the creation of the new powerstructure in the area.

Egged on by the Agri leadership, the villagers are out on the streets, accusing the Rapid Action Force and the police of excessive violence. “Local police inspector Shamsher Pathan is opposed to Naik and hence ordered the police to open fire,” screams Anna Dalvi, a villager at Ghansoli. With more than 5000 villagers coming out against Pathan, Maharashtra’s Deputy Chief Minister R.R. Patil transferred the police officer out though not very happily.

On Sunday, there was a semblance of normalcy and curfew in parts of Navi Mumbai was relaxed in the afternoon. Patil called representatives of the villagers and the Mathadis and held talks with them to resolve the dispute. He also managed to obtain an undertaking from the leaders of both sides that peace would be maintained. State government sources say a few sops to the residents may be doled out to bring about peace.

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