In Bombay, a battle over slums

City wants slum dwellers in apartments, but demolitions have left thousands homeless.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

With government bulldozers idling outside his door, Suresh Laxmi and his family were given just one hour to clear away their belongings on the morning of Jan. 2. The bulldozers tore down in five minutes what it had taken 10 years to build, all in the name of modernizing Bombay and turning it into the next Shanghai.

Today, Mr. Laxmi keeps his belongings shoved under plastic sheets and bamboo poles. The government has built high-rise tenements for slum dwellers nearby, but Laxmi says government officials told him he doesn't qualify. So for now, Laxmi is staying put on the land he has called home for a decade.

"Society has abandoned us," he says. "But I'm not afraid. We'll fight for our rights. We have spent so much money to build our homes - do you think we'll just leave this place? We'll give a powerful resistance."

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It is hard to imagine Bombay - or Mumbai, as the city is now called - without slums. Fly in to Bombay's Chhatrapati Shivaji Airport, and you'll nearly scrape the roofs of Dharavi, the world's largest slum, before coming down on the airport's smooth tarmac. Take a train, and you'll pass by thousands of shacks built right up to the tracks. Today, nearly 55 percent of the city's residents live in slums.

The city has long given tacit approval and even some basic services to the illegal settlements. But now, city planners - mindful of pressure from Bombay's middle-class to gentrify the eyesore - say the slums are an unacceptable problem. Their proposed solution, however, is causing as much tumult as the slum issue itself.

Movin' on up?

The current dispute stems from the government's plan to give tenement apartments to slum dwellers who can prove that they have resided in Bombay since 1995 or earlier.

Previous efforts to confer ownership backfired when slum dwellers promptly sold units for cash, only to seek out another slum. As a result, this program requires residents to own an apartment for 10 years before they can sell.

The government says it has built 50,000 apartments of 225 square feet apiece to house people relocated from sites in Bombay.

But slum-dweller advocates argue that the city has already torn down 73,500 shacks and has thus rendered nearly 350,000 of the city's poorest residents homeless.

"Many people will be inconvenienced and will have to make sacrifices if the city has to develop," Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh told the Indian Express newspaper last week.

The chief minister admits that some of the slums have been razed by mistake, since those residing in Bombay since 1995 or before are protected from demolition. Yet he vowed to continue the campaign.

"The situation in Mumbai has deteriorated so much that there is hardly an inch of space left for migrants," he says.

Shabana Azmi, an actress and chairwoman of a slum dweller's advocacy group called the Nivara Hakk Suraksha Samiti (Protection for the Right to Shelter), says the city's demolition campaign is inhumane and will ultimately fail to rid the city of slums.

"What is important is not demolishing shanties, but upgrading them, giving them clean water, basic sanitation, and above all, giving them unconditional land tenure," says Ms. Azmi.

Azmi admits that it's difficult to build sympathy for the slum dwellers among Bombay's middle class, who mostly applaud the current antislum campaign.

But this same middle class, she comments, benefits from the cheap labor that slum dwellers provide in cleaning their homes, looking after their children, chauffeuring their cars, and cooking their food.

"The one thing I tell the middle class is, if you don't like slum dwellers, then the best way to get rid of them is to stop giving them employment," says Azmi with a smile. "Then your life will come to a grinding halt."

Campaign supporters

Riding a commuter train home to the Bombay neighborhood of Mankhurd, where most of the slum demolition has taken place, law student Rajesh Vartik says the demolition campaign should continue.

"What the government is doing is right," he says, as the train rides past stagnant ponds of sewage from a track-side slum. "For those who have come here illegally, I have no sympathy. They are trying to get something for free.

"But for those who came before 1995," he says, "they should be given compensation."

"All slum people should get an apartment," says friend and fellow law student Rajender Kumar, who also lives in Mankhurd. "But after there are no slums, it is the duty of government to prevent new slums from being built. The problem is that politicians are opportunists, and the slums are vote banks for them."

'Accidental' demolitions

In the slum of Ambedkar Nagar, part of a sprawling complex in Mankhurd district, most of the residents living in the ruins of their demolished shacks can point to photocopies of election voting cards, ration cards, and even land titles that prove residence here since 1995 or before.

By all appearance, they appear to be part of what the government of Maharashtra calls the "accidental" demolitions that have taken place in this campaign.

One of these slum dwellers is Raju Saroj, a migrant from rural Maharashtra who says that he has lost all faith in government officials, and particularly politicians.

Mr. Saroj says that Congress Party politicians came to power with the votes of slum dwellers by promising to protect their homes from demolition.

Now the Congress's promises have been dropped and the bulldozers have arrived.

"Okay, fine, we are here illegally," says Saroj, bitterly. "But why do you come to ask for our vote? If I am illegal, then my vote is illegal, and your election is illegal."

Om Prakash Jaishwar, another slum-dweller, carries the thought further.

"Now you want to take our names off the voting rolls," Mr. Jaishwar says. "Fine. So then can you give me my vote back?"

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