In Asia's largest slum, free new digs are scorned

Reishma Rathore lives in a dilapidated one-room shanty in Dharavi slum, Mumbai (formerly Bombay), a stinking sea of corrugated iron shanties and rubbish. Last week, she was offered a spanking new apartment with a kitchen and bathroom free of charge. She turned it down. "This is mine," she says, patting her brightly painted front step.

Dharavi is Asia's largest slum – covering about one square mile of central Mumbai – and it is slated for the largest slum-clearing ever.

Within days, says the city's Slum Redevelopment Authority (SRA), the government will invite bids from developers to raze Dharavi and rebuild it as a 21st-century "township."

Ms. Rathore's reaction to the plan to flatten her home is not unusual. "Not a single slum dweller has given consent," said Jockin Arputham, president of the National Slum Dwellers Federation (NSDF). "We will fight it and fight it."

Dharavi's transformation is the latest example of a conflict that is sweeping India. On one side is a government committed to India's go-go growth; on the other are millions of poor citizens who feel left behind.

For the government, the redevelopment of Dharavi is an innovative solution to a land shortage in one of the world's most expensive cities. Developers will demolish the slum's low-level shanties and rehouse inhabitants in high-rise blocks, freeing up precious land for middle-class apartment blocks, malls, and business parks.

Few places in the world need the space more than India's commercial capital. Home to more than 13 million people, Mumbai is expected to become the world's second-largest city after Tokyo by 2015, with a population of nearly 25 million. Half of Mumbai lives in sprawling slums; elsewhere, the scarcity of land threatens the city's economic growth.

But many of Dharavi's estimated 600,000-plus residents say they will not budge. A sizeable voting block, their views are not easily dismissed.

Low-rent property in a high-rent district

For property developers, the issue is simple: Dharavi is a gold mine. Located between Mumbai's two busiest train lines and near a flourishing business park, it is likely to attract international investors hungry for a slice of the Indian real estate market.

Even the requirement that they rehouse the slum dwellers for free is unlikely to deter developers, who plan to foot the (US) $2 billion-plus bill for Dharavi's face-lift. The government will sell the land at below market prices and for every square foot of accommodation created for slum dwellers, developers will get 1.3 square feet for commercial use.

Free housing may sound like the perfect cure for the ugly scars that are India's slums. But the reality is more complicated. The SRA, which has already redeveloped pockets of slum in Mumbai, has determined that developers may rehouse inhabitants in seven-story blocks of 225 square-foot apartments and develop the remaining land, provided that 70 percent of slum dwellers agree.

But in Dharavi, the 70 percent condition has been scrapped. The slum will be bulldozed whether residents like it or not.

"You have to ask why, if this deal is so wonderful, it is being pushed though like this," says Parth Shah, president of the new Delhi-based think tank, Centre for Civil Society.

For some residents, the reason is simple: A small apartment is no replacement for homes that often double as businesses. Dharavi is as squalid as any slum, with open drains and grimy, labyrinthine lanes so crowded with shanties that little sunlight penetrates. But it also has more than 4,500 industries manufacturing everything from glass bangles to soap to bread. And some slum dwellers are achieving more than survival.

In a dimly lit hut twice the size of the others in its lane, young men sit bent over mounds of waste plastic, sorting it into piles. This is Rajesh Chawla's home, which doubles as a recycling center, and business is good. "It's people like me who will lose out," he says. "I won't be able to employ ten people in 225 square feet."

He does not add that he, like most Dharavi businesses, operates on the thinnest of margins. Survival in the formal economy, with taxes and regulations, will be tough.

Others fear homelessness. Only those who have lived in Dharavi since at least 1995 will get new housing. Given the alacrity with which Indians are leaving the countryside for cities, many have doubtless settled here since then.

Residents fear social divisions

Activists also fear the social fabric of the slum will be torn by change. Life is lived in an intimate jumble in Dharavi: People cook, work, bathe, and gossip on every patch of pavement, and the air is filled with the sounds of IndiPop, sewing machines, and hammers.

In high-rise apartments, life will be lonelier. With the arrival of the middle classes, it will become segregated too. "It will be like Manhattan on one side and a ghetto on the other," says the NSDF's Mr. Arputham.

Mukesh Mehta, the architect who is managing the development, disagrees. "Dharavi will be divided into five sectors, and in each there will be housing for slum dwellers and mor-middle-class buyers," he says, adding that he plans to make India "slumless" by 2020. Dharavi is his first experiment.

But clearing the slums will not, in itself, consign them to history. Until there is affordable housing in India's burgeoning cities, new slums will always spring up. "Rent control and draconian building measures make low-cost housing a high-risk, low-return business," says Mr. Shah. "Fix this, then clear the slums."

In the meantime, Dharavi's transformation will require some careful handling. Poor as they are, slum dwellers' powers are not limited to political clout.

In his Dharavi office, Arputham points to an aerial map of the slum and the train lines that slice through it. "When the building starts, I will ask a few thousand people to spend the night sleeping on the tracks," he warns. "Mumbai will be brought to a standstill."

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