ULHASNAGAR - A Glance down History
from Shambles to a Settlement
By Sundar Iyer
The township of Ulhasnagar, situated to the north of Mumbai and a part of Thane district is considered by many in the community and others, as one of the prime Sindhi residential pockets not only in Independent India, but also in the whole world. This township has over the years become synonymous with the Sindhi community who have contributed more than the proverbial sweat in building the Ulhasnagar of today. During the past 52 years of its existence, the Sindhi community, despite the adverse conditions has reshaped this set of villages into a proper urban town with their exemplary will power and determination.
The story of this Sindhi settlement begins way back in the year 1947. The joy of Independence put behind them, the Sindhis had to battle a lot of initial hardships as the unfortunate circumstances of communal tensions that engulfed Sindh, forced them to leave their homeland. Leaving behind their property and golden memories, the Hindu community of Sindh, left their homeland carrying with them the hope of a better tomorrow. The heavy influx of refugees from the newly formed state of Pakistan, and their subsequent rehabilitation was a huge responsibility on the Government of India. It was natural for most Sindhi Hindus once away from their homeland, to take shelter in Bombay, as Sindh once belonged to the erstwhile Bombay Presidency. Thus, a fairly high percentage of these Sindhi Hindus came to this part of the country and were asked to take refuge initially in places, such as Matunga, Sion, Thane and in the military camps situated in the district of Kalyan, which were used by the Italian soldiers during the Second World War. About 60,000 refugees were asked to take shelter in the five military camps of Kalyan, which later evolved into the Ulhasnagar of today.
Dayal Asha, former educationist and now renowned Social worker, while reminiscing his early days in the city of Bombay, says, “After the rising tensions in Sindh, my family had to leave the shores of Karachi as we were transported by ship to the port of Bombay. For the initial few days we were asked to live in makeshift tents on the seaside at the port itself. The authorities provided us with rice bhath (rice mixture) twice a day. Then, nearly after a week, the authorities informed us that the arrangements for our living had been made.” The authorities had arranged from special trucks and buses to transport the refugees. Hardas Makhija, current mayor of Ulhasnagar says, “Little would have the refugees realised what was in store for them. In the hope of being provided with reasonable housing, they were stunned on being offloaded in the barren lands of Kalyan. Most of the refugees exclaimed, ‘God, where have you sent us?’ They were taken to the military camps, and were asked to take refuge in the huge dormitory type halls and barracks.”
Dayal Asha further continues, “The Ulhasnagar of today comprises of five military camps that were set up for the rehabilitation of Sindhi refugees. They later developed into being recognized as Ulhasnagar 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5. Since my family was among the first to take refuge in this area, we were allotted small barracks, whereas majority of the refugees were made to take refuge in the huge halls, where at any given point of time not less than 12 – 15 families resided with makeshift curtains being used for partition and privacy.
He further says, “The place reminded one of a jungle. There were no signs of transport, no buses at all. The authorities provided us with free ration supplies. We were given wheat, but there was not even a single flourmill in the area. People had to walk all the way to the nearest railway station to grind the wheat.” Hardas Makhija informs, “The nearest railway station to Ulhasnagar is Vithalwadi, which was earlier known as ‘James Siding’ and received its name after a military officer. There were no roads or streetlights. Basic amenities such as water were a problem too with the few water taps being positioned at distant corners. The place was also infested with snakes and scorpions. People did not dare to venture out of their homes after sunset.”
The township of Ulhasnagar was formed on the 8th August 1949 with the inauguration ceremony being performed by C. Rajagopalachari, then Governor General of India. Mayor Hardas Makhija tells us, “The township received its name because it is situated on the banks of the river Ulhas.” He continues, “During the day of the inauguration ceremony, there was a huge agitation for renaming the place as ‘Sindhunagar’”. Mr. Anand Bijlani in his book on Ulhasnagar writes, “It was then assured by none less than the Governor General that when the local body came into existence, the township could be renamed Sindhunagar.” Unfortunately for the community till date this remains only a dream.
Hardas states, “In those days to make ends meet, people used to sell confectionaries, cloth, etc. in the local trains. The women used to make and sell papads. It was a matter of their very survival. Despite receiving no support from the government and authorities, the community grew by dint of sheer hard work and determination. Gradually, after the 50’s the community, which has a considerable understanding of business, ventured into setting up industries in the region.”
Prem Tolani, former member of Ulhasnagar Municipal Council and currently editor of the fortnightly Sindhi tabloid, ‘Sandesh Bharat’ says, “The cottage industry set up by the community flourished in quick time. Their policy of large turnovers and minimum profits reaped them rich awards. Thus, without compromising on quality the community with its sharp business acumen established itself in the industrial arena.”
He further states, “Today, Ulhasnagar is as cosmopolitan as any other part of Mumbai (Bombay), and the entire town has prospered primarily because of the community’s efforts, who comprise about only 50% of the population.” Dayal Asha adds, “Even the locals prospered because of the Sindhis. The Sindhi community has set up business houses, provided locals with employment opportunities, established educational institutes and hospitals. Sindhis have set up nearly seventy five percent of the educational institutes in Ulhasnagar. But even today there are about 50% of the Sindhi population who live below the poverty line.”
The Mayor adds, “The Ulhasnagar Municipal Council was initially formed in the year 1960, but despite the fact that Ulhasnagar started its life in 1949, the first development plan for the region was assigned in 1974. By then, haphazard and unplanned development of the city had already begun.”
When asked on the backward appearance of the township, the mayor answers, “Because of the heavy influx of outsiders, there has been a strain on the local township and a rise in infrastructure problems. The township is spread over 13 Sq. Kms. And has an official population of about five lacs, though it is said that there are about seven lacs residents in Ulhasnagar. In comparisons to New Bombay, which has a population of about 12 lacs spread over a distance of 350 Sq. Kms, Ulhasnagar certainly seems to be a gas chamber. Due to the scarcity of land, and considering the rising population, the growth of the region has not been horizontal but vertical. There has been heavy violation of FSI rules and many unauthorized buildings have sprung over the years.”
Hardas Makhija states, “The Municipal authorities have somewhat successufully managed to put an end to the haphazard development of the previous years. The township now is heading towards achieving the right levels of improvement. Ulhasnagar and its people have emerged successful despite the hardships, and are heading towards being one of the proud localities of not just Sindhis, but also the whole of India. Exuding an equal amount of confidence and optimism, many Sindhis of Ulhasnagar state that at the current hour of cultural crisis, Sindhiyat shall be better preserved in Ulhasnagar than in any other Sindhi pocket. Are the Sindhis from other pocket listening?