In Bombay, home for many is a sidewalk shack

She was born and raised on the sidewalk, married on the sidewalk, and at age 20 calls the same stretch of Bombay pavement home.

''Can you help us find a better place?'' Sita Pawar asks a visitor. ''After all, this is a road. How long can you live on a road?''

It is a question her neighbor, Datta Ram Shirke, stopped asking a long time ago. Twenty years on the same pavement, Shirke normally works at a Bombay textile mill, where he earns only $60 a month. It is closed now in a citywide textile workers' strike. ''I have five people to feed,'' he says. ''I can't do that and hope to have a place to stay.''

But Mrs. Pawar, the wife of a garbage collector, and Shirke are among the more fortunate of Bombay's huge sidewalk population, estimated at anywhere from 100,000 to nearly 1 million people.

Undisturbed by municipal authorities over the years, they and their neighbors built sturdy shacks of wood and corrugated tin and roofed them with burlap and plastic sheets to keep out the monsoon rains. Two water taps installed by the city enable the sidewalk settlement's 250 families to draw drinking water and bathe right at their curbside. Their chief complaint is that the nearest public latrine is a 15 minute walk away.

But half a mile down the same road, a newer, poorer sidewalk settlement is caught in a controversy raging in the Bombay courts and press. It pits the penniless, landless villagers who stream into the city in search of jobs and a better life against the city authorities - and much of Bombay's middle class - who are concerned about the traffic obstructions, hygiene hazards, and unaesthetic sidewalk dwellings.

Civil-rights activists are arguing in court to block demolitions of settlers' huts. They contend the poor have a right to live on the footpaths as long as they don't block road traffic - and as long as the government fails to provide decent housing for the poor, whose cheap labor props up Bombay's booming economy.

Indeed, it is conceded all around that there is little hope of decent housing for the poor and marginally employed in the overcrowded island city of 8.2 million. Some 30 percent of Bombay's population lives in sprawling shantytowns that have official blessing and are fitted out with amenities such as water taps , latrines, electricity, and paved footpaths.

Another 30 percent line in tenements or in chawls (barracks-like buildings of one-room units into which entire families squeeze).

The city made little effort to clear the sidewalk settlements until last July. Then, in a move ordered by the then-chief minister of Maharashtra State, city work crews swooped down on selected pavements to smash the dwellers' huts. The residents were offered bus or train fares to get out of town.

But even middle-class Bombayites who cheered the demolitions were appalled by the timing. The crackdown came during a monsoon downpour, leaving 10,000 people shivering in the ruins of 2,000 demolished huts. Volunteer lawyers successfully petitioned the courts for a temporary injunction against the demolitions on humanitarian grounds.

Sita Pawar and Datta Ram Shrike's settlement was untouched. But by the time the courts acted, Kamal Bhaskar and Asha Gaekwad's neighborhood half a mile down Senapati Bapat Marg had been smashed.

The two women said their families were given no choice: They were loaded into buses and driven back to their home villages.

Now they and most of their old neighbors are back on the same strip of sidewalk. There was no work in the villages, Mrs. Bhaskar explained. In the city, she said, her husband could make 10 to 15 rupees a day ($1.10 to $1.60) selling mangoes in the street.

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