Some months back, during the Indian national census, this booming city on the Arabian Sea passed a dubious milestone. In April, Bombay's slum population passed the 6.8 million mark - a staggering 55 percent of the city's population.
That Bombay has a problem with slums, of course, is nothing new. In the '60s, then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi called for "slum eradication," saying that all the shanties and lean-tos were destroying the ambience of the commercial capital. It proved easier said than done.
But this month, a new law has come into force that may finally give the city some control over its burgeoning slums. Under the law, all slum-dwellers with photo identification proving residence since Jan. 1, 1995 will be provided with alternative housing. Those who arrived afterward are subject to eviction.
Now, all of Mumbai, as the city is now known locally - from slum-dwellers to the rich and middle-class families who employ them - is waiting to see if this rule will be enforced.
"I think Mumbai requires that 200,000 people should be relocated immediately, with 25,000 from sidewalks alone," says Nawab Malik, state housing minister for Maharashtra. But even "immediate" relocations will take 10 years, he admits. And each day, 400 new homeless arrive. "Everyone is migrating to better opportunity. But if you don't make planning for poor people's housing, you will always have this problem."
Like many Indian metro areas, Bombay has focused more on developing housing for its rich and middle class than for its poor. In a society where even middle-class families have servants, the lack of affordable housing simply forced this group to make homes on their own, or to rent illegal huts where they could find them.
At a time when the Indian government is struggling to create jobs, and build schools and amenities to keep its rural citizens in their home villages, leaders in major metro areas are faced with a dilemma: Enforce the law, and risk appearing harsh, losing the votes of slum-dwellers. Or ignore the law, and watch the slums grow.
"Whoever planned this city, they were only looking out for the middle class; they never planned for the servants, the drivers, the maids," says Joachim Aruptham, director of the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centers, a nonprofit group that aids slum-dwellers. Rents have gotten so expensive in Bombay that even white-collar workers live in slums. "Now the middle class is living in the slums. You have salaried clerks, bank tellers, and policemen living in slums, because real estate is so expensive."
Even slums are expensive. Shopkeeper Kasim Khan bought his slum shack 12 years ago for 70,000 rupees, about three month's salary for a government official. Since then, he has torn down the old shack and spent 300,000 rupees (about $6,400) building a concrete-walled two-story, four-room home with a kitchen and an indoor toilet.
Technically, the Khan family home is illegal, built on city land without a deed, and government officials have occasionally talked of tearing down this slum and replacing it with low-cost apartments for slum-dwellers. But Mr. Khan says he and his family - which includes three married brothers, their mother, and several younger sisters - would never give up the home they have built.
"Will the government give me such a big place as I've made?" asks Khan, a beefy black-belt in tae kwan do who owns a metal work shop that makes iron grills and shutters for windows. "This is 800 square feet. The government only gives 225 square feet. In our village, the cow sheds are 225 square feet."
In other slums, the conditions are much more precarious, and the environmental effects more devastating. At Sanjay Gandhi National Park, a patch of dense jungle on Bombay's north side, nearly 61,000 families have encroached on parkland, cutting down forests and threatening the habitat of leopards, monkeys, and crocodiles.
Laxman Waghe, a wiry young fisherman from rural Maharashtra, built his shack on the park three years ago, after paying a forest guard a 7,000 rupee ($150) bribe. Now with six adults and several children living in the mud-floored, palm-frond-covered hut, Mr. Waghe realizes he could lose it all if the government follows through on its pledge to clear the forest of all slums.
"A local legislator ... came here and said our hutments will be protected, but nothing is certain," says Mr. Waghe, watching his teenage wife Anita weave fishing line into a makeshift fishing net. "But if this slum is removed, I'll just go to the forest and live there. It doesn't bother me."
In any case, Waghe's short time on park property means that he doesn't qualify for the housing scheme offered by the national forest agency, which has recently begun demolishing slums on park territory. With nothing to gain, and with politicians promising protection in exchange for votes, thousands of encroaching squatters like Waghe make it nearly impossible for forest officials to ever remove them completely.
Even so, A.R. Bharati, divisional forest officer at the park, is going ahead with an ambitious plan to move thousands of slum families far from the park into apartments of their own. To date, the forest service has spent 90 million rupees ($1.9 million) building apartments, schools, and vegetable markets; laying water, electrical, and waste waterlines; and moving 5,000 families to a distant Bombay suburb. Mr. Bharati knows that his job is far from over.
"I have 60 forest guards patrolling 100 acres in Mumbai, with no weapon, no means of communication, protecting a park which is surrounded by millions of people," says Bharati. "When I first started working here, if we had one forest guard patrolling 20 acres of forest, people had a fear of the law. Now, even if I deployed 10 or 20 forest guards for those 20 acres, you cannot control people. Things have changed."
Indeed, Bombay's slum-dwellers, whose numbers compare to the entire population of Haiti, have become a potent political force to be dealt with; and for politicians of every ideological stripe, an attractive source of votes.
"Despite all the schemes, the influx into Mumbai will continue," admits Madhu Chavan, a Congress Party parliamentarian and president of the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority, one of several state agencies in charge of the city's housing policy. "Physically, the problem can be contained, but politically ... a lot of politicians go to the police and tell [them] not to demolish slums because they need votes from the slum-dwellers."
"Every party does it, irrespective of ideology." He chuckles ruefully. "On this plan they are united."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor