BOMBAY, India — By most standards, Bombay is one of the poorest cities in the world. More than half of its 8 million people live in squatters' slums. About 350,000 of them live on sidewalks.
Yet, real estate in prime areas such as Malabar Hill and Nariman Point is among the most expensive on earth, as expensive as in Hong Kong or Manhattan.
To rent a comfortable apartment here, one must usually pay, in advance and under the table, several hundred thousand dollars in "black money."
The U.S. Consulate in Bombay does not pay black money, but it does pay as much as $5,000 a month for the apartments of junior officers. One diplomat, a New Yorker, said of his apartment here: "It is a nice apartment with a small garden. But I keep thinking that you could set yourself up in Manhattan for much less."
Office space is no less expensive. The Bank of America recently considered expanding into a nearby building until it was asked for a $2-million deposit on 12,000 square feet of space. The bank declined.
The high costs can be attributed, in part, to geography. Bombay was once an island in the Arabian Sea, but now, after much draining and filling, it is a narrow peninsula. Thus, it has developed as a linear city, and the most expensive land, along with the government offices and most of the cultural facilities, is at the very tip of the peninsula.
An admirable suburban railway system was built by the British during their rule to bring office workers and government clerks to the business district. But the system was designed to accommodate no more than 150 million passengers a year, not the 750 million that use it today. Now it is widely detested, and dangerous besides.
Tragedies Not News
"Commuters fall off and are cut to pieces before the benumbed eyes of their fellow passengers," according to Times of India columnist Prem Shankar Jha, "but such tragedies have long since ceased to be news."
Commuting to the inner city by bus or any other form of transport takes several hours, for all traffic must pass through a constricted corridor.
Bombay, it has been said, is like a wine bottle with a narrow neck. "And it needs to be decanted," Bombay architect Charles Correa remarked.
Twenty years ago, Correa drew up an ambitious project to save the city by moving most government office buildings and several major businesses across the bay to a development site on the mainland. The plan was approved by the Maharashtra state government in 1969 but has since been virtually ignored.
A graphic example of political insensitivity to the city's problems took place in March at a slum called Sanjay Gandhi Nagar in Cuffe Parade, a wretched cluster of 300 huts in the shadow of several of Bombay's most modern office buildings. Policemen and municipal workers arrived one morning with bulldozers and trucks and, in a matter of hours, cleared the area of the huts and the 1,500 people who lived in them.
Ram Pher Barai, 35, a cook who had lived there, told a reporter: "My hut was very strong and wouldn't come down easily. They tied a rope to it and pulled it down with a truck."
In any other city, Barai would have lived in the servants' quarters in his employer's house, which was near the slum. But in Bombay, Barai needed the hut because his employer had leased the servants' quarters to a middle-class family.
Barai said he came to Bombay in 1965 from the state of Uttar Pradesh in northern India. "Our family had less than an acre of land, and there were seven brothers," he said.
From Hut to Lean-to
Since their huts were destroyed, Barai and many of his neighbors have moved into a lean-to set up on the sidewalk across the street from where they had lived.
Their plight generated a wave of public sympathy after one of India's most famous actresses, Shabana Azmi, undertook a "fast until death" at the site on their behalf. After five days, she won a promise from the state government that new housing would be found.
A number of locations have been suggested for new housing, but all have been rejected by the sidewalk dwellers as being too far from where they work. Slum dwellers in Bombay differ from slum dwellers in many other places: Most of them have a job of some kind.
Vir Sanghvi, the editor of Bombay Magazine, wrote that before the incident at Sanjay Gandhi Nagar, the Indian middle class was generally apathetic toward the slum dwellers.
Apathy Toward Poor
"Middle-class persons in Bombay regarded the slum dwellers as a nuisance, as filthy subhumans who encroached on other people's land and defecated on the streets," Sanghvi wrote. "Each time the municipal corporation sent its demolition squads in and destroyed a slum colony, the typical middle-class reaction was to stand up and cheer."