Sprawling Bombay seeks answer to overcrowding

Bombay, a sprawling city of 8 million people, is being slowly but surely strangulated.

This grim warning has come from a former mayor of Bombay, Murli S. Deora, of the opposition Janata Party.

''Bombay is beautiful and ugly,'' says Mr. Deora. ''For every centimeter of vertical poshness, there are 20 centimeters of horizontal filth. It is rich and poor, cheek by jowl. It is generous yet heartless. It is crowded and also lonely. The paradoxes and contrasts are sharp and endless. Among the world's greatest human concentrates, Bombay is also helplessly schizophrenic.''

On the one hand, the ''City of Hope'' provides opportunity for the 400 to 500 people who analysts say arrive every day. But with each new arrival, the crowding of 8.3 million inhabitants on a small 233-square-mile slice of land grows more critical. Bombay already is 50 percent more densely populated than New York City.

The city's overcrowding, as well as its spreading slums and lack of jobs and elementary facilities, have been highlighted by the Bombay administration's decision to push out the 1 million pavement dwellers. They live in slums and what officials call unauthorized dwellings.

One year ago, Bombay city officials declared war on the pavement dwellers. Notices were served, asking them to leave and threatening a $100 fine if they stayed.

But a determined journalist and the Union of People's Civil Liberties moved the Supreme Court in New Delhi to halt the eviction. A public-spirited judge in the Supreme Court declared:

''It is the fundamental right of the man on the pavement to live, procreate, and even die on the pavement if he so chooses.''

Still the future of these more than 1 million slum people remains uncertain. The Supreme Court has asked the Bombay government to come out with a convincing case or provide alternative accommodations for the slum dwellers.

As one commentator remarked here, ''It is the beautiful people of Bombay, the elite, the rich, who are angered by the presence of the ugly slum dweller. How dare these people disfigure the beautiful city of Bombay.''

Critics of the city administration say that it is spending most of its income on providing amenities to the rich at the cost of the poor. This administration, known as the Bombay Corporation, does not provide even basic amenities like drainage, sanitation, or garbage collection to the slums or pavement dwellings.

According to a study conducted by the head of the Unit for Urban Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, more than 50 percent of the slum dwellers earn between $20 to $50 a month. And 10 percent are earning up to $70 to $80 a month. Some of them are civil servants who work for Indian Railways, Bombay Telephones, and even the municipal administration.

The people whom the rich of Bombay would like to forget have merged with the landscape. Their contact with their more fortunate neighbors who live in multi-story apartments is mostly casual. They are a peaceful lot. They would lose their shelter if they disturbed the affluent.

However, the commissioner of Bombay Police has a sharply contrasting view of the situation. John Riveiro insists that his main problem is law and order - which is made more complicated by the reckless growth of slums. Mostly it, he says, is a case of land-grabbing by unauthorized colonizers who build slums to accommodate a large number of people who are lured to the city.

''All of Bombay's people are engaged in 'Operation Grab,' '' he says. ''They are all the time trying to grab this or that -- jobs, tenements, toeholds in buses and trains, water, electricity, food, hawking space on pavements, and even husbands and wives.''

He says that even water is tapped from the main water pipes and the result is lack of water.

Another leading official, the municipal commissioner of Bombay, says, ''If the city is to be saved, we cannot allow people to live on roads and pavements. The residents of the city, after all, have their own rights. There are taxpayers to whom we owe civil services and who cannot be left high and dry.''

This official calls for a humanitarian approach to the problem by building more housing units for the slum dwellers and stopping the land speculators who have become millionaires overnight.

''The combination of big money and, to an extent, political forces has taken its toll of integrity among civil officials,'' he says.

There is tremendous strain on the suburban railway networks. In 1951, they carried 150 million passengers in each of the trains. Last year, each train carried 750 million commuters.

Thousands travel hanging on to the steel bars in the doorways. And what is surprising is that no one notices the death of some 14 passengers every day right in front of fellow travelers on these fast-moving trains.

There is a move to build what they call a twin city of Bombay across the harbor. The aim is to move hundreds of industrial units, particularly 60 textile mills, to the new city.

But vested interests, it is alleged, are halting this pace of progress. It has been estimated that the cost of building another city would cost $500 million, if not more.

Some analysts say that it is not impossible to raise this amount. If the textile mills decide to sell the land on which they are located and sell some of the most ancient equipment in Asia, millions of dollars could be collected. And the vacant land could be used by the city authorities for construction of flats and cheap housing units.

Another remedy suggested is that work permits should be issued to people who want to work in Bombay. But those who uphold fundamental rights of the Indian Constitution argue that it will be a gross violation of human rights.

So the city continues to live and hundreds of families find new space on the old pavements of a dying city, breeding pollution, disease and, of course, poverty.

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