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In Bombay, a battle over slums

City wants slum dwellers in apartments, but demolitions have left thousands homeless.

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With government bulldozers idling outside his door, Suresh Laxmi and his family were given just one hour to clear away their belongings on the morning of Jan. 2. The bulldozers tore down in five minutes what it had taken 10 years to build, all in the name of modernizing Bombay and turning it into the next Shanghai.

Today, Mr. Laxmi keeps his belongings shoved under plastic sheets and bamboo poles. The government has built high-rise tenements for slum dwellers nearby, but Laxmi says government officials told him he doesn't qualify. So for now, Laxmi is staying put on the land he has called home for a decade.

"Society has abandoned us," he says. "But I'm not afraid. We'll fight for our rights. We have spent so much money to build our homes - do you think we'll just leave this place? We'll give a powerful resistance."

It is hard to imagine Bombay - or Mumbai, as the city is now called - without slums. Fly in to Bombay's Chhatrapati Shivaji Airport, and you'll nearly scrape the roofs of Dharavi, the world's largest slum, before coming down on the airport's smooth tarmac. Take a train, and you'll pass by thousands of shacks built right up to the tracks. Today, nearly 55 percent of the city's residents live in slums.

The city has long given tacit approval and even some basic services to the illegal settlements. But now, city planners - mindful of pressure from Bombay's middle-class to gentrify the eyesore - say the slums are an unacceptable problem. Their proposed solution, however, is causing as much tumult as the slum issue itself.

Movin' on up?

The current dispute stems from the government's plan to give tenement apartments to slum dwellers who can prove that they have resided in Bombay since 1995 or earlier.

Previous efforts to confer ownership backfired when slum dwellers promptly sold units for cash, only to seek out another slum. As a result, this program requires residents to own an apartment for 10 years before they can sell.

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