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Mumbai's Largest Slum Slated for Bulldozers

  • Simon Marks

As Indians continue going to the polls in the country's month-long general election, the future of Asia's largest - and now, best-known - slum may hang in the balance. Dharavi was featured in the Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire. VOA reports from Mumbai, many of its residents are battling government-backed plans to bulldoze their homes and begin a process known as "slum rehabilitation".

If the scene looks familiar, that's because this is the place where Slumdog Millionaire was filmed.

Dharavi is Asia's largest slum, 216 hectares in the heart of India's financial capital, Mumbai, and home to about one million people. It's prime real estate at the junction of two commuter lines, and a few kilometers from Mumbai's international airport.

Now it is the focus of heated controversy over government-backed plans to bulldoze the area.

Its residents will be rehoused in high-rise apartments.

The rest of the land - some 3 and a half million square meters - will be used for up-market housing, as well as office and commercial space for India's upwardly mobile class.

Shaan Mehta is one of the designers who brought the proposed slum-clearance project to the government. "I think the whole country is waiting and watching for the first bulldozer to come in and bulldoze those slums so they can start doing it in their cities too," Mehta said. "I think this is really a pilot project for the rest of India, and maybe even the rest of the world as far as slums are concerned".

But the project doesn't sit well with some Dharavi residents, like Siddharth Medhe who runs a small transportation company and has lived here for 40 years. "We have never asked the government for new houses. The government came to us. We are very happy where we are. Some people even say that if we move into bigger houses, there will be problems because we'll have to pay property taxes and live alongside people who are wealthier than us," Medhe said.

There are also concerns about the local economy. Dharavi is a warren of small stalls. Some, like the potters, can't easily move to high-rise apartments.

John Bai has lived in Dharavi since 1976. The stars of Slumdog Millionaire used his home as a dressing room, but he raised four children in it.

He's an active member of a community group campaigning to save Dharavi.

"Everyone wants good facilities, good amenities, safe water, toilets, all these things, schools and all kind of facilities," he said. "Everybody wants - but not at the cost of our own bread-and-butter."

Developers hope to break ground here in the coming months.

But John Bai says the global economic slowdown may delay the bulldozers.

And India's general election could also have an impact. One local opposition party is vowing to alter the project to benefit the slum's existing residents.

And so it could be, according to John Bai, at least a decade before the view from his rooftop, and his rooftop as well, disappears.