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Last Updated: Monday, 1 March, 2004, 00:38 GMT
Bombay's billion dollar slum

By Zubair Ahmed
BBC correspondent in Bombay

Bombay shanty town
About 40% of Bombay's population live in shanty towns
Dharavi, in India's commercial capital Bombay (Mumbai), is Asia's largest slum.

Made up of ramshackle corrugated tin sheds it is home to more than 600,000 people.

But it is a unique shanty town.

Thanks to a thriving crafts industry, Dharavi generates business worth nearly $1bn a year.

Local workshops turn out leather goods, pottery, and jewellery, much of it destined for shop shelves in the West.

Now, the authorities want to harness Dharavi's business potential with an ambitious plan to turn it into one of Asia's best neighbourhoods.

A massive re-development plan, costing some $1.3bn, is in prospect.

Good times

But what do Dharavi's residents think of the proposed makeover?

Leather merchant Malik Yusuf says his family has lived here since before India won its independence in 1947.

Leather briefcase
Leather goods made in Dharavi are exported worldwide
Dharavi is where Mr Yusuf too was born.

Like his neighbours, he lives in a small shack that is far too small for his family of up to 10 members.

But if the government follows through with its ambitious plans, the next generation of the Yusuf family might have a brighter future than its predecessors could ever have dreamed of.

Many of Dharavi's youngsters have never been to school.

Now, the government wants to build schools and proper playgrounds, as well as hospitals and brick houses, to replace the flimsy metal huts.

Dharavi is to get a modern commercial centre which, it is hoped, will triple its current earnings from the craft trade.

We want to make Dharavi one of the most liveable places in Asia
Suresh Joshi, head of the state housing board
"Dharavi is the biggest slum in Asia," says Suresh Joshi, head of the state housing board.

"But we want to remove this label and we want to make it one of the most liveable places in Asia. We want Dharavi to get a complete facelift."

Scepticism

But Dharavi is not entirely convinced.

Many residents believe the government has one eye fixed on state and federal elections just weeks away.

Raju Chauhan is a potter who has seen politicians and tall promises come and go in Dharavi.

I think the money will not come to us, it'll go to the politicians
Dharavi resident Raju Chauhan
"Earlier they had put in 100 crore rupees (1,000m rupees; $22m) that got finished," he says.

"Now they say they'll sanction 500 crore or 5,600 crore rupees. I don't know if they'll use it for development or not. I think the money will not come to us, it'll go to the politicians."

Suresh Joshi insists that the proposed refurbishment has nothing to do with the impending elections.

"Preparations for Dharavi have been going on for one to one-and-a-quarter years. Before we embark upon such types of big projects we really want a large amount of consultations with the parties concerned."

But it is not just Dharavi that does not dare to believe.

Local journalist Kalpana Sharma was one of the first to highlight Dharavi's many problems in a series of newspaper articles on it some years ago.

Now, she is suspicious about the timing of Dharavi's planned make-over.

Wait and see

Dharavi, she says, is not the worst of the many slums in Bombay, also known as Mumbai.

In fact, makeshift townships account for about 40% of the city's population.

"If you are talking about dealing with slums as part of doing something about the city of Bombay then I think you have to prioritise," she argues.

"In that order of priorities, I would put Dharavi much lower down."

The government protests its good intentions.

It argues that there's a rare political consensus on Dharavi's crying need for attention.

Officials point to Dharavi's location - bang in the middle of Bombay and right next to a newly-developed swanky business centre.

Asia's largest slum or tomorrow's business village? For now, Dharavi remains very much a work-in-progress.


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