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Last Updated: Monday, 21 January 2008, 00:22 GMT
Mumbai airport slums face closure
By Prachi Pinglay
BBC News, Mumbai

Twelve-year-old Sunita Biswakarma has been listening to the roar of aeroplanes and watching the big birds coming in to land for as long as she can remember.

Slum dwellers living close to Mumbai airport gape at an Airbus 380
Mumbai slum dwellers gape at an Airbus 380

She and her family live in a tiny 100 sq ft concrete home in a thriving slum next door to a runway of the busy international airport in India's financial capital, Mumbai.

Azadnagar shantytown is a thicket of homes, some of which are half-a-century old, in narrow lanes. Small factories employing many dwellers dot its fringes.

For decades, people flying into the city have gaped out of their windows watching their planes almost skimming over the dense patchwork of slums when coming into land.

Saurabh Khedekar, a frequent air-traveller to Mumbai, says the landing still gives him the jitters.

"If your flight is landing during the day, sometimes you feel the plane is going to land on the shanties and not on the runway. It doesn't look safe for anybody," he says.

Now the government is moving to clear the 200 acres of encroached land on which the slums sit and share a boundary with the 2000-acre international airport.

'No cause for alarm'

Sunita's mother, Geeta, keeps the home fires burning with her elder daughter, Gudiya, by weaving beads for artificial jewellery. She says some of her neighbours have left already.

"There have been talks about shifting us for a long time and the lanes next to ours have been vacated," she says.

Slum near the Mumbai airport
Some people have been living in the slums for the past 50 years
Moves to demolish the slums have met stiff opposition from some residents.

They fear the disruption to their work, the problems with moving far from the markets where they sell their goods and the distances their children will have to travel to school.

The authorities say there is no cause for alarm.

"The slum dwellers will be resettled. These structures are on the airport land and very close to the runway," says Manish Kalghatgi, spokesperson for the Mumbai International Airport Limited which is revamping the airport.

Azadnagar residents do not want to leave their homes despite listening to deafening roar of planes and living perilously close to the runway all their lives.

Even when Mumbai was flooded during monsoon rains three years ago and the airport runway went under water, slum dwellers did not leave.


Aamina Mohammad Una Sheikh says the floods did not scare her. But the sight of neighbours quietly taking up resettlement offers and moving out make her nervous.

"If people go away what will we do here? Ours is the only house with residents remaining in this lane. Now I don't feel like staying here. Even if the new houses are far, it is better go than be alone here," she says.

Most of the residents, she says, are being moved to the outer city limits.

Slum near the Mumbai airport
The slum sits on the boundary wall of the international airport
Human rights activist Mohammad Yasin says the resettlement of slum dwellers in Mumbai -an estimated 60% of the city's 12 million people live in slums and shantytowns - has always been mired in controversy.

"In Azadnagar, people of all communities and religions have coexisted for decades. They are in the centre of the city and have set their lives. We understand the need for airport land but we are sure that all these people can be resettled on the same land in high rises," he says.

"It will be sad if they are pushed to the outer city limits simply because slums do not look good."

Back at the slum, Sunita is hardly aware of the controversy swirling around their home - and life goes on as usual.

After returning from school, she cruises Azadnagar's congested lanes with her friends and swaps stories. Her sister weaves beads and her mother waits for father to return from work.

"I can hardly understand why my mother is so worried these days," she says.

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