Hem In Development Sites;
A Potent Political Force
March 17, 2006; Page A1
MUMBAI When Pushpa Ramesh Pawar moved to the teeming Vakola Pipeline slum on the edge of Mumbai's airport in 1989, she spent most of her time fighting off snakes, insects and disease in a makeshift plastic tent.
Today, her struggle to avoid eviction from her illegal dwelling represents one of the central challenges facing India's booming economy: How does the world's biggest democracy bulldoze the homes of voters who are squatting squarely in the way of progress?
Pushpa Ramesh Pawar and her son, Mahesh, above, stand in front of the Mithi River, which serves as the garbage dump for her slum's residents.
An urgently needed upgrade to Mumbai's moldy airport threatens to uproot the precarious life the 49-year-old has built only 100 feet from a runway. For four sweltering days in February, the normally unassuming Mrs. Pawar joined 3,500 fellow airport employees -- many illegal slum-dwellers like her -- in a strike opposing the sale of the airport to private investors.
As violence flared, a policeman pulled her to the ground by the hair. She returned the next day even more determined. "My job and my house could disappear," she said, as union leaders with bullhorns denounced the selloff to a crowd including hundreds of women in sky-blue sari uniforms. "We'd lose everything."
The standoff highlights the tension between India's go-go growth and the hundreds of millions of citizens on the margins who feel left behind. They have the power to derail the best-laid plans of investors and the government with votes, protests and the courts. India desperately needs to fix its archaic infrastructure -- potholed roads, rundown airports and decrepit power plants -- if it wants to seriously compete with China for investment. Yet getting it done often runs counter to the interests of those just beginning to share in the new prosperity.
In China, the other billion-person economy struggling to square rapid growth with colossal infrastructure needs, illegal squatters like Mrs. Pawar are dealt with decisively and unceremoniously. One day they are there; the next they are not. Democratic India is a different story.
A Jet Airways plane flies over the river, which is flanked on both sides by slums, on its way to the Mumbai airport where Mrs. Pawar works as a cleaner.
In Mumbai, the city formerly known as Bombay, the paupers have real political clout. Slum-dwellers constitute half of Mumbai's 12 million citizens, and they are faithful voters. That makes them an important bloc for local politicians, most of whom promise to fight efforts to relocate them.
Last year, Sonia Gandhi, president of the Congress Party and the most powerful politician in India, grew wary of a voter backlash and intervened to stop demolitions in Mumbai. She reappeared early this year to check up on the situation. Mrs. Pawar always votes Congress, head of the coalition government, because she thinks it is the most slum-friendly party. "We are a very important vote-bank," she says. "People who live in the buildings don't vote; slum-dwellers do."
Even in the nation's capital, New Delhi, the provincial government recently had to back down in the face of protests against its demolition of slums to make way for wider roads. In Bangalore, the epicenter of India's world-class information-technology industry, slum-dwellers have taken the government to court to stop demolitions.
Moving Mrs. Pawar also promises to be tough. She came to Mumbai nearly three decades ago to escape the poverty in the rural village of Chanderi 130 miles away. There, as a low-caste Hindu she had few prospects for decent jobs. Today, the widow earns enough as a salaried government worker on a cleaning crew at Mumbai's international airport to educate her two children. She also built a concrete house where her tent -- little more than a tattered plastic tarpaulin -- once stood. As her living conditions have improved, those at the airport have deteriorated.
The Mumbai airport is bursting at the seams. Private airlines have blossomed and foreign carriers now have free access to the market. That's good for India's economy. But there's no space to park all the new aircraft. The airport needs to expand but is surrounded by 90,000 slum households that illegally occupy 160 acres of airport land that would otherwise be tarmac and hangars.
Waiting to Land
Planes routinely circle for 40 minutes before landing because there's only one main runway. Animals wander from the slums onto the tarmac. The airport dispatches special teams to shoot stray dogs. Children jump the fence to retrieve balls and kites, while adults forage for scrap metal near the hangars.
Failure to clear India's economic runway of this chaos will have important implications for the country's ability to sustain its strong growth rate, which is expected to hit 8% in the fiscal year ending March 31. "The Indian economy could be doing a whole lot better if we could get infrastructure going," Montek Singh Ahluwalia, deputy chairman of the Indian government's planning commission and a key architect of economic policy, told a conference in New Delhi recently.
The latest effort to bridge that gap is playing out on Mrs. Pawar's doorstep. Until recently a global laggard in aviation with fewer than 200 locally owned jetliners for its one billion citizens, India has thrown open its skies to private airlines and foreign carriers, boosting passenger volumes by about 20% a year for the past few years. Mumbai is India's commercial capital and its airport handles one-third of the nation's traffic.
When monsoon floods closed the airport for two days last July, slums were blamed for clogging up waterways with garbage. Flights were further delayed when a plane skidded off the runway while landing, blocking traffic for hours. Waters receded to reveal the single runway for international flights littered with boulders and dead water buffalo.
But change comes slowly in Mumbai. It took more than five years to shift some 10,000 shanty families away from the railway line that runs down Mumbai's spine. The shanties had so crowded the line that trains had to slow down, delaying service. The chief problem with moving the slums is that they're filled with people whose votes keep politicians in power.
"Slum votes are very crucial for any politician," says Suresh B. Thakur, a representative in Mumbai's municipal government whose ward consists entirely of shanties on land owned by the airport. Mr. Thakur has lived in one of them since leaving impoverished Bihar state in eastern India 40 years ago. He makes a decent living from his barber shop and a phone booth he owns and operates. He also pushed through a government project to build a public toilet for people at his slum, only yards from a new hangar for the country's biggest private carrier, Jet Airways.
"Any bulldozer will have to pass through my body," he says. Slums provide the drivers, maids and mechanics that keep Mumbai running. The tough part is housing them all. Rent control and strict building codes make low-cost housing a high-risk, low-return business.
Passengers walk past Airports Authority of India employees in New Delhi during a February protest against government plans to privatize the country's two largest landing facilities.
With India's growing middle class buying homes, cars and cellphones like never before, developers need space for malls, apartments and parking lots. Land prices have jumped 40% in Mumbai during the past year. Developers are hungrily eyeing big tracts of slum land and are willing to put up millions of rupees to resettle inhabitants.
Getting them to move isn't easy. In 1996, the state government promised longtime slum-dwellers in various places across the city 225-square-foot homes, with bathrooms, kitchens and electricity. But India's bureaucracy never delivered.
The Slum Dwellers Association of India, a nonprofit advocacy group, opened a new residential block for slum-dwellers in Mumbai last month that has been hailed as an example of what should happen. But the intended residents had to wait 11 years in a transit camp before moving in. "Slum-dwellers know stories where people have been in transit camps for 20 years," says Vinit Mukhija, an assistant professor of urban planning at the University of California in Los Angeles. "Given that, how can they trust anybody?"
Praful Patel, India's civil aviation minister, is confident that slums can be cleared by the consortium chosen to upgrade Mumbai airport as part of a $1.5 billion redevelopment plan. A Mercedes-driving industrialist, Mr. Patel says slum-dwellers will be compensated. "If someone has been given alternative accommodations or has been paid, he has to go."
But the rising quality of slum life and booming cost of housing elsewhere is making residents dig in. An Indian government survey in 2002 found that 92% of slum-dwellers had electricity, compared with 75% a decade earlier, even though the slum population had grown by about eight million households nationally. Two-thirds of slum-dwellers had access to public toilets.
A policeman stands guard at the Mumbai airport during the strike.
The winding alleys of Mrs. Pawar's slum are freshly paved -- courtesy of the Congress Party -- and electricity is finally available all day. Mrs. Pawar gets up at 4 a.m. to stand in line for water that gushes from community taps for a few hours a day -- another service brought to the slum by doting politicians. Strapping teenage boys stroll to cricket practice in white uniforms.
Nearby, workmen erect a temple to the Hindu saint Sai Baba. The temple isn't only about faith. Peppering slums with temples is also a standard ploy to ensure that Hindu nationalists will rally to fight any threat of demolition.
Mrs. Pawar's struggle to attain a life of relative comfort illustrates how entrenched squatters have become throughout India's big cities, and how difficult they will be to uproot.
Seventeen years ago, when she first arrived at the Vakola Pipeline slum, named after a water pipeline, Mrs. Pawar knew she couldn't afford a regular apartment so she simply picked a vacant spot near the airport. For weeks she, her husband, Ramesh, and daughter, Gita, lived on open ground, finally scrounging enough money for some plastic sheeting and gathering sticks to make a tent.
She recalls weeping uncontrollably and being unable to sleep. She was sick much of the time, enduring monsoon rains that turned her dirt floor to fetid sludge. She also missed her young son, Mahesh, who was at a hostel for the deaf. "I felt like running away," she says.
A part-time cleaning job at the airport earned her a meager salary, but she had to borrow money just to eat. For light, the family burned oil lamps. Her husband, an ailing drunk, died soon after coming to Mumbai. She and her daughter lived in the tent for five years, during which time Mrs. Pawar started building a house with a small bank loan.
She supplemented her earnings by selling lentil and rice lunches to neighbors and washing their dishes. In the mid-1990s, she and her neighbors pooled their savings to get water piped to a community tap. She also signed up for a phone connection. Reliable electric service followed. These services were provided even though her dwelling is illegal.
Life really began to improve when she landed a permanent cleaning job nine years ago with the Airports Authority of India. Once on the government payroll, an Indian is usually there for life, backed by strong unions and traditions of civil service. Indeed, her salary quickly doubled and has been going up ever since. Today, she makes the equivalent of $285 a month -- well above what a bathroom cleaner working for a private company would make.
As a public-sector employee, she gets free lunch, allowances for Hindu festival days, unlimited free medical care and a $15 monthly stipend for bus fare to work.
The changes enabled her to add a bedroom upstairs (she rents it out for $7 a month as a preschool for slum kids), white marble flooring downstairs and a bathing area out back. A color television with a DVD player recently replaced her old black-and-white.
She watches DVDs and Hindi soap operas on cable TV over the roar of planes taking off. Her favorite drama concerns a young woman named Kumkum who battles to keep her family together, which she says reminds her of her own life.
She has to wait in line to use the nearby public toilet; private toilets are rare in the slums. There is no garbage pickup. "We just toss it there," she says pointing to the fetid river near her home, which has been slowed to a trickle by millions of plastic bags.
Mrs. Pawar says she likes her job. But all the new passengers and the new management have her working harder and worrying more. "With more passengers there is more litter and more juice and tea spills everywhere," she says. "My boss keeps warning us that we could lose our job with privatization -- so stop sitting around."
Likewise, her grip on the home she has struggled to build is tenuous. When she first moved to the slum, she says, the airport made her sign a piece of paper authorizing it to evict her whenever it wants.
Paper or no paper, she's not going to go quietly.