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Poor struggle in shadows of India's richest city

Millions are spent on exclusive brand clothes, private schools, holidays abroad, while about half the city's 17 mn people live in slums.

india Updated: Feb 01, 2006 16:05 IST

When authorities cleared the way for a multi-billion-dollar facelift of India's richest city last year, Mohammed Allahjan lost his home and then a daughter.

"The bulldozers razed our home. We were left watching," he says, his tin-walled hovel among the thousands of shanties flattened to make way for a cleaner, swankier Mumbai.

Allahjan's family has lived in makeshift plastic shacks ever since the demolition eight months ago. His youngest daughter, 11, died from jaundice six weeks later as the family lived on the pavement in central Mumbai, in the shadow of glistening new office buildings and shopping malls.

"We lost our homes because the city is being spruced up. So, Mumbai will be for the rich only, is it?" said the 48-year-old tannery worker, railing against government plans which have been widely mocked for their ambition.

Economic growth has changed the lives of many Indians, and nowhere is that more obvious than in the city once known as Bombay. More than a quarter of India's 311 rupee-billionaires live in the city, but abject poverty and creaky infrastructure remain a sharp counterpoint to its aspirational gleam and glitz.

While millions like Allahjan remain deprived in India's city of opportunity, crowded malls, booming property values and record car sales suggest many are riding a tide of urban prosperity.

Millions are spent on exclusive brand clothes, private schools, holidays abroad and spas and gyms, while about half the city's 17 million people live in slums or on sidewalks.

"Two completely different worlds exist side by side in Mumbai," said Parth Shah, president of a New Delhi-based think tank, Centre for Civil Society. "If there is unbelievable opulence on the one hand, there is also poverty and squalor."


The poor live in hundreds of garbage-filled slums without safe drinking water, proper sanitation or health services, leading the Indian media to dub the city "slumbai".

Yet Mumbai has more cars than most Indian cities, more cinemas, malls and amusement parks and more of its citizens fly off for vacations, an unthinkable luxury for most Indians.

"It's a difficult life, particularly because we know there are rich people who live very differently," said Sudesh Gawali, a resident of Dharavi, Asia's biggest slum, a 2-square-km patch of land occupied by about a million people.

His two-room shack is occupied by another family of six who share one toilet and a kitchen, like many other homes in Dharavi.

For decades, these thickets of hovels have sprouted illegally on government land, offering cheap accommodation to streams of economic migrants coming to Mumbai to escape countryside poverty.

The influx is on the rise, stretching Mumbai's resources to breaking point and adding to the city's shambolic appearance.

"The levels of income in the city are higher than in the rural areas. That's the magnet for migrants," said Subir Gokarn, economist with the National Council of Applied Economic Research.

"But even those levels are not enough to ensure decent housing and many end up living on roads or in shacks."

Murtaza Ahmed, a resident of a slum in northern Mumbai, said his father came to the city and settled in the slum. "We have continued to stay here because we cannot afford anything new."


Rubbish from the homes of Ahmed and his neighbours choke a nearby sewage channel, now a sea of faeces and grimy plastic.

Most shanties stand on land near railway tracks, sewage drains or creeks that soon are encroached upon, clogging natural outlets for storm water. The problem became apparent to all last July, when a fluke downpour flooded Mumbai for days and killed about 300 people in the city alone, some drowned in their cars.

The government says it wants to rehabilitate slum-dwellers in alternative housing, but many say Mumbai's $20 billion transformation package is impractical since it ignores the poor.

"Because you don't want the poor or the ugly, you can't wish them away," says author-activist Neera Adarkar, who opposes Mumbai's plans.

Analysts say the rich-poor divide is only likely to widen in the big cities, fuelling discontent among the have-nots.

But people like Allahjan live in a world far removed from debates on socio-economic equality.

"What can the rich people do about our fate? They give us jobs that feed us," Allahjan said. "If there is anyone who can help, it's the government. It is throwing us out."

First Published: Feb 01, 2006 12:39 IST