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India's richest city struggles to resolve water supply problems

India's richest city struggles to resolve water supply problems

Sari-clad women gracefully carry sparkling metal pots of water on their heads through winding alleys leading to their homes.

It's a scene from eternal India, oft romanticized as a daily part of a wholesome country life.

But these mothers and children who queue hours for municipal water live not in isolated villages.

They eke out a living in an overcrowded slum in the shadow of the World Trade center, at the heart of Mumbai, India's richest city and spearhead of a national drive for economic superpowerdom.

"We have no taps in our huts to give us clean, drinking water," says Laxmi Chavan, who fetches 10 aluminum pots of 20 liters each every day.

"We have to walk half-a-kilometer to a public tap."

Two taps function irregularly between 11 am and 2 p.m., and between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m., to supply 50,000 people living close to the sea at Ambedkar Nagar, a colony of fishermen.

Ambedkar is by no means the worst slum in Mumbai - it enjoys official status, has a tiny school where children squat in the dirt, basic drainage and some electricity lines.

But it well illustrates the scale of the problems the state government faces to meet pledges to clean up a city blighted by decades of urban neglect.

Efforts to re-house slum dwellers have failed miserably in a megalopolis where more than a third of the 17 million population today live in shanties.

A new plan went before the rulers of Maharashtra state this week with a price tag of more than US$20 billion spread over 15 years, officials said.

Slums cover 3,500 hectares, encroaching inside the international airport to within meters of one side of the runway.

With 1,500 migrant workers flooding into the city every day, according to government statistics, many people even with decent jobs are forced into "jhopadpattis" or shanty huts in the financial and entertainment capital of India.

M.M. Consultants on last Tuesday presented a blueprint outlining a public-private partnership designed to make Mumbai slum-free by 2020.

Building developers would be charged a premium making the scheme cost-free to the government, the architectural company's chief executive officer Mukesh Mehta announced.

Vested interests, corruption and rocketing property prices have traditionally undermined government efforts to remove the slums.

The government will now debate whether to back the scheme which follows stinging criticism of the official Slum Rehabilitation Authority which has little to show for its efforts over the last 15 years.

Only 20,000 houses have been built for slumdwellers during that period, notes Chandrashekhar Prabhu, a former government adviser and an urban development expert.

"Only 20,000 houses have been given to the people staying in slums against the actual need of 1.5 million," he tells AFP.

Prabhu accuses a cabal of blocking the development of cheap housing for the poor.

"There is a strong nexus between the government, the builders and the mafia," he says. "In fact after giving the houses to these slumdwellers, there have been cases where builders force these poor people out and later sell the houses at higher prices."

The state government set up a committee this week to look for land to build new houses for slumdwellers, but land prices are soaring again.

A chartered accountant paid a record 40,000 rupees (US$890) a square foot this week for an apartment in southern Mumbai's upmarket Cuff Parade area.

Ironically Ambedkar Nagar is adjacent to the seaside Parade.

You get a whiff that the slum is out there as you drive pass the leafy, well-watered Badwar Park where the neighboring rich go jogging.

Water-carrier Laxmi Chavan, 31, says she never expects to have a tap in her hut at Ambedkar.

"A water connection costs 10,000 rupees (US$220) and that's too expensive for us."

Her brother Raju scoffs at slum re-development schemes.

"Many local politicians come and promise that they will provide us with basic amenities, but nothing is done," says the 25-year-old electrician.

"Many of us do not even know that a government scheme is on to rehabilitate slumdwellers and even if it is, it has to meet our requirements."

Raju refers to the fears of slum-dwellers that they will be relocated miles from where they work.

Nine out of every 10 men in Ambedkar are fishermen and cannot shift inland.

"We can't just be shifted out to some distant location," Raju insists.

Pandu Chavan, a fisherman, says he has the money to have a tap fitted by the municipality but still can't get one.

"Most of us do not have that much money to give as our monthly income is around 3,000 rupees,"

In Ambedkar, people were taking little or no notice of reports that Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh had Tuesday ordered the construction of 200,000 homes for the occupants of slums.

"Water is the biggest problem," says Laxmi. Just a few more connections would be a good start.