India's urban poor threaten to cripple Mumbai's air and rail links

Hundreds of thousands of slum dwellers could paralyse air and rail links to one of Asia's most populous cities — Mumbai, India — unless they are involved in plans for their resettlement.

News, 29 May 2007

Jockin Arputham, president of India's National Slum Dwellers Federation, outlines the threat — and the alternative, a promise of partnership — in an open letter published today on the International Institute for Environment and Development’s website.

Mumbai's international airport and the city's Dharavi area, which is Asia's largest slum, are both due to be redeveloped under plans that threaten the homes and livelihoods of one million slum dwellers as well as thousands of local businesses.

"These people are not opposed to redevelopment and resettlement," says Jockin. "They just want to be consulted and involved in the plans. They offer the private companies and government agencies a real partnership, but if this offer is ignored they will be forced to protest."

Past experience shows that such partnerships can save developers time and money, while ensuring that the needs of the urban poor are addressed. But the slum dwellers of Dharavi and land next to the airport are not being involved.

"The slum dwellers have some easy ways to make their opposition felt," says Jockin. "Two of Mumbai's main railway lines run along Dharavi's borders. These can easily be blocked – and this would bring chaos to Mumbai, as such a high proportion of the workforce rely on these railways to get to and from work."

"The airport runways can also be blocked – and the slum dweller federations will inform all the airlines that operate there as to when and where this will happen," says Jockin. "We do not want to resort to this; we want a partnership in making both these development plans and other plans in Mumbai a success."

Jockin has previously helped to organise successful partnerships between the urban poor and developers. Between 2001 and 2003, slum dwellers and their federations in Mumbai worked with the state government and railway authorities to move 60,000 people whose homes were next to the railway tracks to allow rail improvements.

There was no conflict and they moved on the designated day. Slum dwellers' federations are involved in many other partnerships with local governments and businesses – for instance in making space for public works and building and managing hundreds of community toilets and many housing schemes.

"The key here was that they had been involved in all aspects of the redevelopment – in deciding who should move, and where to, when and with whom," says Jockin. "We do not oppose the official plans, but we will do so, if our needs and priorities are ignored. We have the right to benefit from city development plans too."

David Satterthwaite, senior fellow in the Human Settlements Group at the International Institute for Environment and Development, says: "Jockin and the savings groups and federations formed by slum dwellers in Mumbai have shown their capacity to work with government and businesses in improving slums or re-housing slum dwellers on a very large scale."

"But they can also quickly mobilise thousands of people to close the railway tracks and the airport if their homes and livelihoods are threatened by redevelopment," he adds. "Why don’t government agencies and developers recognize not only their right to be involved in redevelopment but also their capacities to make these redevelopments work?"