Correction to This Article
A May 8 article misstated the size of a mill property envisioned for new development in Bombay. The area is about 600 acres, not 6,000 acres.

Bombay Moves to Push Out the Poor

Mohammad Badruddin, left, squats outside his makeshift tent in Bombay, with his wife, Rahsul, center, and his daughter Sahmim, right. He lost his tin-walled home recently when his slum was razed.
Mohammad Badruddin, left, squats outside his makeshift tent in Bombay, with his wife, Rahsul, center, and his daughter Sahmim, right. He lost his tin-walled home recently when his slum was razed. (By Rama Lakshmi For The Washington Post)
By Rama Lakshmi
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 8, 2005

BOMBAY -- Mohammad Badruddin, a mason who lived in a cramped, fly-infested slum with open drains, said he was laying floor tiles in a gleaming residential high-rise recently when he heard that four bulldozers had flattened his neighborhood of tin-walled homes.

"I rushed back and saw the whole slum demolished," recalled Badruddin, 52, whose home was in the center of India's commercial capital of Bombay. "We resisted the bulldozers, and the police beat us. All my hard work was razed to rubble."

Badruddin and his 4,000 neighbors now live in makeshift plastic and bamboo tents on a burial ground nearby. To prevent their return, the government dumped heaps of putrid garbage on the slum land and posted security men to guard the area.

"They say they want to turn this city into Shanghai," Badruddin said, referring to a multibillion-dollar government development program. "I don't know what the word Shanghai means, but it is an excuse to kick poor people in the stomach."

To free up hundreds of acres of land for new building, about 90,000 shanties were flattened in the slum clearance drive this year, leaving about 300,000 people homeless.

Bombay, 7 1/2 miles wide at its broadest point and nearly 25 miles long, has been a magnet for rural migrants seeking jobs and an escape from the poverty of their villages for more than a century. Today, more than half of Bombay's estimated 16 million people live in overcrowded slums in the heart of the city, on the streets, along railway tracks and near water pipelines. Slums even hug the boundaries of the Bombay airport, hindering expansion plans that include a new terminal and taxiways.

Successive governments have legalized new slums or doled out free alternate housing hoping to secure votes from people who live in those areas. But officials now declare that the city's fragile infrastructure is collapsing under population pressure and that Bombay had no space for more migrants.

"All these years, our politicians have encouraged these encroachers of public land," said Sanjay Ubale, an official in the state government of Maharashtra, of which Bombay is the capital. He said new rural migrants made up 37 percent of the city's population increase from 1991 to 2001. "With the slum demolitions, we showed political courage for the first time and sent a strong signal that you cannot expect free space in this city anymore," Ubale said.

Even as more people stream into this teeming and diverse metropolis, the city's economic fortunes have decreased in the past eight years, Ubale said. Meanwhile, he said, southern Indian cities such as of Bangalore, Hyderabad and Madras have upstaged Bombay in wooing foreign investment.

"Real estate prices in Mumbai," as Bombay is now called, "are among the highest in the world, cost of living and doing business is very high," Ubale said. "We have added no new railway lines in 50 years and our public transport is choked. Water pipelines were laid 100 years ago. There are slums everywhere," he said. "The city is decaying and needs to urgently reinvent itself into an efficient world-class city, like Shanghai and Cleveland did."

India's Finance Ministry has earmarked funding this year for urban renewal projects in six cities, including the start of a subway and what has been called a trans-harbor project in Bombay. That project will include a multilane highway and rail connections from wealthier south Bombay to poorer sections outside the city.

"The trans-harbor link will be Mumbai's Brooklyn Bridge. It will decongest our city. And the hinterland can be developed for manufacturing and would absorb Mumbai's migrants too," said Milind Deora, a parliamentarian from South Bombay. "But ultimately we will have to find our own model for renewal. We can't just hope to copy, cut and paste Shanghai onto our city."

The state government's actions have fueled an impassioned debate about whether there is room for the poor in Bombay's Shanghai dream. Activists argue that the poor alone cannot be blamed for squatting on public land. Slums, they claim, come into existence because of a corrupt collusion among slumlords, police and politicians.

One controversial part of the renewal plan is to develop land occupied by shuttered cotton mills. The mills gave Bombay its first economic impetus in the 1800s, but were closed 20 years ago. A prolonged workers' strike in 1982 and the use of modern equipment proved fatal to the mills, affecting about 250,000 jobs. Today, 54 textile mills occupy about 6,000 acres in central Bombay. A report prepared for the government by McKinsey &Co., an international consulting firm, recommends the creation of "islands of housing and commercial excellence" by selling old mill and port land, widening roads, and building upscale homes, retail outlets, urban plazas, museums and hospitals.

Owners of the closed mills want the land for shopping malls and luxury high-rise apartments, while the city hopes to reserve a share of the land for open spaces and affordable public housing. The former mill workers are lobbying for movie studios and garment or gem cutting factories that will create jobs for their children.

"My heart breaks every time I see a mill being torn down," said Narendra Kargaonkar, 42, a second-generation mill worker who lost his job at Phoenix Mills, now the site of a bustling shopping mall, nightclub and a bowling alley. The only reminder of the old structure is the tall chimneystack protruding out of the mall. Kargaonkar now works as a door-to-door milk deliveryman, earning a fraction of his salary in 1982.

Mohammad Badruddin, the slum dweller, and Kargaonkar are among the hundreds of thousands of poorer residents who feel left out of Bombay's race to become a new global city.

"What kind of a city renewal is this?" Kargaonkar said. "There is now a discotheque where our looms once stood."


© 2005 The Washington Post Company