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Bombay Slum Dwellers Face Threat of Demolition

Slideshow with Audio Report (Flash)

It is one of Asia's most cosmopolitan cities: Bombay - India's business capital, a thriving art and cultural scene, home of the "Bollywood" film industry, which churns out idealized love stories by the score. But Bombay is no dream come true for everyone. Roughly half the city's 16-million residents live in slums, and their homes are falling victim to the government's plan to modernize the city. VOA's Patricia Nunan recently visited Bombay, and brought back this report.

Mumtaz Begum has salvaged what she can of her home, now little more than plastic tarp stretched across a simple bamboo frame. The home was all but swept away in the mammoth rains that inundated the city in late July.

The 50-year-old mother of two lives in the Bombay slum of Ekta Nagar. The rains were just the latest blow to the roughly 1,800 residents of Ekta Nagar, which the government demolished in January.

Ms. Begum says she and her family had been living there for about 12 years. The government kept demolishing the houses and the slum-dwellers kept rebuilding them. But this time, the action was very severe. The police had a lot of bulldozers and they demolished everything. She says her family still had their belongings in the house and she pleaded with the police to be allowed to get them, but the police set fire to everything.

A recent round of slum demolition followed a plan outlined last year by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, to make Bombay into "the new Shanghai" - China's fast-modernizing financial powerhouse.

The five-year plan, estimated to cost $2 billion, was crafted with the help of McKinsey and Company, an international management consultancy firm. The plan includes new rail and highway links, improvements to the harbor and airport - and the tearing down of slums to be replaced by low-income housing.

"The prime minister had a vision about that city and he still has - it's not as if it's changed," said Tom Vadakkan, a spokesman for the Congress Party, which leads the government." "He wants Bombay to be one of the top cities in the world, he has a plan, he has a vision. But unfortunately the ground realities don't match up."

Altogether, aid workers estimate some 30,000 homes were destroyed by the demolition. Local media estimate that least 100,000 people were left homeless - causing a huge outcry locally and internationally.

Mr. Vadakkan, however, says the only slums meant to be torn down under the prime minister's plan were those close to the airport, which represent a safety hazard to airplanes. He says residents there were provided alternative housing - a statement that aid workers dispute.

Mr. Vadakkan admits that Bombay, which is also called Mumbai, has a governance problem. Local politicians can pay police to tear down slums for their own pet projects, and at the moment, there is little that can be done to stop it.

No one can say who was responsible for demolishing Ekta Nagar. However, the solution, Mr. Vadakkan says, is to create a more responsive city government - a concept he says the Congress Party is looking into.

"The political will needs to come, a political consensus needs to be arrived at, and local government must be strengthened," added Mr. Vadakkan. "This can happen only if you have Mumbai-centric governance."

Bombay is India's financial capital, and home to many of the nation's wealthiest individuals. In spots, analysts say, property prices here match those of Tokyo or Manhattan.

A demolished slum dwelling on the other hand might only represent a $2,000 investment, but that is a huge amount to a working-class family that cannot afford housing elsewhere. What's more, aid workers say, tearing down shanties without providing alternative housing does little to solve the slum problem.

"When you're reconstructing, you construct more than what you had," said Celine D'Cruz, who is with the aid group the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centers. "You want one [house] for your son, one for your daughter, one for your grandson … So overnight, it's like giving birth to many more houses."

Raju Sharma is among a group of men building the bamboo frame for what will be Ekta Nagar's new kindergarten - to replace the one destroyed in the recent rains.

Residents here say no one from the government has discussed providing low-cost housing with them since the slum was torn down, and no one has visited to see if any assistance was needed after the destructive rains.

A few items, such as the plastic sheeting used as walls and roofs in the makeshift homes, have been provided by the local aid organization that Mr. Sharma works for. To him, the situation is clear.

"Have you ever heard of the government trying to take over the property of the rich? It's only ever the poor who have been evicted, whose houses have been demolished," he said.

Making Bombay into Shanghai, Mr. Sharma says, just means driving the poor out of the city.