Bid to Develop Indian Slum Draws Opposition

One of India's most squalid slums sits on extremely valuable property. The government has a plan to let private developers build projects for the rich in exchange for free housing, schools and health clinics for the poor. But many long-time residents oppose the plan.

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India's economy is booming - nowhere more than in the commercial capital, Mumbai. But the city faces a problem. More than half of its 13 million people live in slums.

NPR's south Asia correspondent Philip Reeves traveled to a giant slum on prime real estate in the middle of town.

PHILIP REEVES: Open the palm of your hand and spread it out as wide as you can. Raise it upwards. Imagine your thumb's touching the outside wall of your house. On the opposite side of the road, there's your neighbor's home. Your little finger is touching that. That's what it's like here.

We are creeping through of the depths of one of Asia's most notorious slums. Some of the upper parts of the buildings are separated only by the width of an adult hand.

Mr. MUKESH MEHTA (Architect; Property Development Consultant): Look at the plight of people here. Would you believe that this is bright daylight right now over here? And I would need a torch to read something out here.

REEVES: Mukesh Mehta, an architect in property development consultant, has brought us here. He wants to show us why this place should be knocked down. Dressed in an immaculate shirt and tie and gleaming shoes, he picks his way along a mud alley. He stoops to avoid a lethal tangle of overhead electricity cables.

Mr. MEHTA: Even to walk, we have to bend. We have to bend to walk through alleys. These are roads. These are the so-called roads.

REEVES: In the middle of the alley, an open gutter brims with evil-smelling gray liquid. Toilets are a rarity around here.

(Soundbite of splashing water)

REEVES: A young man crouches down and plunges his hand into the drain. He's trying to clear a blockage. There are hobbles on either side. Within these, amid the flies and unbearable heat, we see men, women and tiny children. Entire families live in this shrunken world, crammed into spaces the size of closets.

Mr. MEHTA: It makes me upset that we are allowing people to live like this. If one of us had to live in this kind of plight, can you imagine what will happen to us?

REEVES: This place is called Dharavi. Dharavi occupies just under a square mile of Mumbai - or Bombay, as many still call the city. Not all of it is as bad as this. This is the nastiest part.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: Most of the lanes are too narrow for vehicles. This truck driver made the mistake of trying to get in. Here, it's better to carry your possessions on your bike or on your back.

Dharavi's in the middle of town. It's close to the international airport, and bordered by two major commuter rail lines. India's economy is booming, so property prices have soared. That means the people in these hobbles are living in some of the world's prime real estate. Mukesh Mehta knows a lot about land prices. He used to build million-dollar mansions on Long Island. These days, he lives in a spacious apartment overlooking the ocean from one of Mumbai's most exclusive neighborhoods.

Mumbai is the capital of Maharashtra State. The states hired Mehta as a consultant for Dharavi's redevelopment. He's the mastermind behind the master plan.

Mr. MEHTA: From a developer's point of view, it was goldmine, which the government was not seeing. And I try to take the opportunity to cash in on that.

REEVES: Mehta's approach boils down to this: hand over the land to private developers, allow them to build luxury apartments and offices for profit on condition they supply free housing for slum dwellers. Invite private schools to come in, on condition they provide free schooling for the slum children. Do the same deal with private health clinics, and set aside land for open spaces and local industry. The developers profit, and so, says Mehta, does government.

Mr. MEHTA: Because they'll get a cash premium of almost half a billion dollars, and they'll get amenities, which means schools, colleges, hospitals, sewage lines, water supply lines - all these will be built in by the developer.

REEVES: This sounds simple, but it isn't. And there are critics.

Ms. KALPANA SHARMA (Writer): His design for Dharavi is not for the people of Dharavi.

REEVES: That's Kalpana Sharma. She's written a book on the people of Dharavi.

Ms. SHARMA: In the case of Dharavi, the interest of the developers, to me it seems is not so much to ensure that the people who have built Dharavi into what it is get the best deal possible, but the value of the real estate on which the houses are built.

REEVES: Roughly one million people live in Dharavi. Some have been here for generations. Government, which is blighted by corruption, has failed them.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

REEVES: Yet look beneath the surface, and you find a highly complex and enterprising community. A place that for all its squalor, generates lots of jobs and cash - a place that's now divided between those who favor the redevelopment plan and those who don't.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

Pandor Vatca(ph) and his wife Ranjiva(ph) have no space at home for a dining table. So they eat lunch on the floor with their two children. To brighten up their pocket-sized home, they've painted the walls pink, and to brighten up their pockets, they've added an upper floor, which they've turned into a schoolroom.

(Soundbite of children chattering)

REEVES: Space is so scarce, you have to climb up the steep classroom stairs with the help of a rope. Here, working in shifts, they educate more than 160 fee-paying kids everyday. Under the re-development plan, the slum's families will move into seven-storey blocks. They'll get apartments of only 225 square feet, less than a third the size of a badminton court.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: The Vatcas are worried this means they'll leave the school and their $500 monthly income. They say they can't afford to buy a house elsewhere. The Vactas put in long hours, and so do many others in Dharavi. In fact, the place vibrates with the sound of work.

(Soundbite of drilling)

REEVES: Dharavi has hundreds of sweatshops filled with migrant workers knocking out (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of banging sound)

REEVES: In a backstreet factory, workers repair old cooking oilcans. There's no such thing as trash here. Virtually everything's recycled, from cardboard boxes to plastics to oil drums.

(Soundbite of banging sound)

Mr. JOCKIN ARPUTHAM (Head, National Slum Dwellers Federation): The largest recycling in the whole city is Dharavi. Number two, leather industry. Part three: food-processing industry, shops…

REEVES: Jockin Arputham is head of an Indian NGO called the National Slum Dwellers Federation. He's the most vocal opponent of Mehta and his plan. Arputham says he wants Dharavi redeveloped from the bottom up. In other words, according to the wishes of the slum dwellers, not Mehta or the property developers.

Mr. ARPUTHAM: There's not money. I like it, making money. To make money, it really easy to send a dollar into the world market.

Mr. MEHTA: I have 10 million other opportunities to make money. Why will I go after this? It's only because I'm encouraged and because people want that I'm there.

REEVES: Mehta insists, under his scheme, everyone wins. He speaks of plans to make the slums traditional industries - its pottery and leather craft, for example, far more profitable. He hopes Dharavi will eventually become middle class, which is why he's come up with this idea for the place.

Mr. MEHTA: Why not give the mainstream people an opportunity by creating a golf driving range, which Mumbai doesn't have?

Mr. ARPUTHAM: What more stupidity than this? People doesn't have a (unintelligible). You're talking about golf.

REEVES: Mehta's convinced his plan for Dharavi will go ahead soon, but it won't be without a fight. Jockin Arputham's equally determined to stand in his way.

Mr. ARPURTHAM: Let the bulldozer come. We'll show them. Let them come. People has always won. He will no win it.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Mumbai.

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