Mumbai: Neelam Mishra says she feels like a scavenger.

The mother of two spends her days worrying about filling every vessel in her tiny one-room dwelling with water. Yet, even as a muddy, slightly brackish liquid trickles through the tap, she frets. “When I am not worrying about the water, I am worrying if it is safe for my children to drink this," says Mishra, 25.

It’s hard to know where to begin with the list of complaints in this cluster of 12 run-down buildings housing 2,016 families in Kanjur Marg, a suburb on the north-east fringes of Mumbai: broken water tanks to erratic water supply; leaky roofs to peeling walls; cracking beams to ruptured drains; longer commutes and no places for worship.

This 225 sq. ft apartment is home to the seven-member Sharma family, which has divided the room with plywood boards to afford some privacy

Building No. 12 launched 3,000 journeys out of the Ghazinagar slum in August 2006. Months before, in talks with encroachers around the city, the Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA), a rehabilitation division of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA), promised and peddled a modern future—concrete roofs, running water, electricity, a 225 sq. ft apartment—and home ownership. Under a proposed Rs550 crore public-private partnership announced in 2004, the government planned to raze several slums and move residents into these 12 buildings.

Ghazinagar sat in the path of the city’s first viaduct—a link road between the western suburb of Santacruz and eastern Chembur, which would cut a journey that takes one-and-a-half hours to just 10 minutes. Some 150 families living in those slums would move 10km away, most into Building No. 12; after 10 years, they’d have the ownership rights to sell. The buildings were erected on land owned by Nicholas Piramal India Ltd in exchange for tax benefits on real estate in other parts of the city.

Yet, the resulting failure—crumbling infrastructure to residents’ dissatisfaction—offers insight into the problems of the urban poor and the complex reality of rehabilitating slum dwellers.

Mumbai’s planned future redevelopment includes several more such removals and relocations, including 300,000 people in the teeming Dharavi, Asia’s biggest slum.

And with countless infrastructure projects around the country rooted in partnerships linking the public and private sectors, Kanjur Marg’s woes demonstrate that, sometimes, shared accountability can end up no one’s.

SRA officers now concede that the biggest challenge in creating a modern Mumbai will be the movement and displacement of people. Others say it is a mistake to assume “these people" will know how to live in apartments, blaming factors from a lack of education to the government’s failure to prepare them.

Cities worldwide face the same dilemma of how to lift up the poor while moving ahead with development on precious land, but India’s problems are more complex. While the homeless in countries such as the US do have a little social security to rely on, India lags far behind and is likely to miss the 2015 deadline set by the Millennium Development Goals to halve hunger and poverty rates.

In Mumbai, observers say there’s no shortage of places to disburse blame: 16 agencies play some role in the city’s slum rehabilitation. In Kanjur Marg, it seems the collective effort to give people better homes and lives did little more than create a legal slum void of economic vitality.

Endless thirst

The Kanjur Marg apartments look like concrete slums.

Residents’ woes began within weeks of moving in. Siyaram Moriya, a former factory-worker-turned secretary of the apartment complex, recalls that two months after moving in, “one of the plastic water tanks on the roof cracked and broke". The builders, Piramal Holdings Ltd, replaced the 15,000 litre tank at a cost of Rs90,000. Two months later, another tank burst. Then a third and a fourth.

Alarmed, the residents say they decided it was safer to get a concrete tank and asked Piramal as much. They reasoned that since Piramal’s warranty (on the construction) expired in two years, they should ask for durable equipment while they could. Besides, nobody could afford the Rs90,000.

So residents refused to let Piramal replace the plastic tanks and began fighting for the concrete ones. While everyone—from Piramal group to the city’s authorities—agrees that residents have a right to clean water, nobody has a solution. The contract, after all, called for Piramal to put in plastic water tanks.

“We did not anticipate this problem and it is true that there have been construction lapses, especially at the Kanjur Marg location. We will fix this problem within two weeks," Rajendra Sonavane, the chief rehabilitation and resettlement officer at SRA, had pledged in an interview with Mint in early October. Days after the interview, Sonavane was transferred to Jalgaon. Sonavane said he wanted the transfer, but no one at SRA was willing to discuss it. It is not clear what will happen to his promises.

Return of the slums

Arun Sharma, 27, shares 225 sq. ft with his wife, brother, sister-in-law, niece and parents. The tight quarters forced the family to divide the room with plywood boards. Thin sheets of wood block the light from the lone window, but don’t muffle the sounds. Sharma’s wife, Kiran, the youngest woman of the house, is shy and reticent. Mostly, her mother-in-law speaks for her. Kiran said it is impossible for her to have a private conversation with her husband.

In the slum, which has now been razed to the ground, there were open drains, slush and squalor outside, but inside their homes, families had erected lofts for privacy and retired to private spaces for evening conversations. Wrapping her yellow sari more closely around her shoulders, Kiran shyly and quietly says that she spends the rest of her day waiting—waiting for water, waiting on her in-laws, waiting for her husband to return, waiting for a chance to exchange a few words with him.

Arun and his brother, Arvind, work at a Café Coffee Day outlet and make about Rs10,000 between them. After taxes, bills, groceries and commutes, there is just enough to make ends meet and running two separate houses is out of the question. By some estimates, the flats are worth Rs10-12 lakh, but since the residents cannot sell for a decade, it’s not even worth thinking about what could one day be. “It is worse than the place we lived in," Arun says. “This is just not working."

Responsibility, anyone?

Sixteen government agencies run the city of Mumbai right now, an alphabet medley of bureaucracy, including acronyms such as MMRDA, BMC, BEST, Cidco, TMC, KMC and NMMC. Roles overlap, organizations often pass the buck, and frequently, they don’t talk to each other.

While MMRDA handles arterial roads, the Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC) looks after internal roads. MMRDA helps build SRA buildings, but BMC refuses to recognize them as slum rehabilitation dwellings until paperwork arrives officially, saying that a building houses people who once lived in slums.

At Kanjur Marg, residents were promised lower water bills, at Rs2 per litre, in SRA buildings. When the bill arrived, residents were shocked to see they were charged Rs3 instead. “When we went to BMC for a correction, they said that they did not recognize Kanjur Marg buildings as a slum rehabilitation building because MMRDA had not sent the papers to them," recalls one resident, Raj Bahadur Lal.

When approached by this reporter, MMRDA said that the papers had been sent. SRA’s Sonavane sheepishly said the agency is fixing the problem (then he got transferred). Officials at BMC did not return repeated calls for comment.

Another issue is assigning responsibility between the government and the builder.

When asked for comment, Giridhar R., the engineer at Piramal Holdings, who constructed these buildings simply hands over a contract.

“We handed over these buildings in perfect shape. While it is our job now to make sure that there are no defects, and replace equipment if it is broken, it is not our job to fix things that are broken because of recklessness. It is the job of the residents to maintain what was given to them," he says.

SRA spokesman Dilip Kawathkar calls the residents “poor things...becharas... They have never seen this kind of life," he says.

It is a recurring refrain—blame the residents. And the residents blame the builder. And the government. And their luck.

Due to these kind of problems, non-government organizations such as the Society for Promotion of Area Resource Centers (Sparc) have become builders and rehabilitation authorities at the same time. M.G. Shekhar, coordinator of projects at SPARC, says his organization’s role is rightfully expanding: “It is important to get this human element right because there is so much at stake."

The agency is involved in several projects, including Kanjur Marg. Almost all of Mumbai’s projects on the drawing board—from the Metro rail to the Bandra-Worli sea link to storm drainage projects to a ferry network to the 16 planned flyovers—involve some movement of existing residents, whether they occupy tents, shanties or simply the road.

The projects, worth more than Rs20,000 crore, will transform Mumbai into a real “maximum city", says T. Chandra Shekhar, a bureaucrat who has been at the helm of the metropolis’ redevelopment for the last five years.

It cannot and will not be an easy process, Shekhar says. “No other city in the world has rehabilitated 800,000 people before," he adds.

The encroachments, after all, have birthed businesses and families. And their denizens also work in the homes of countless Mumbaikars, helping hassled households with everything from mundane chores to raising their children.

In the name of Mumbai’s transformation, at least one eight-year-old girl in Kanjur Marg feels she has already paid a precious price: Rekha Yadav was pulled from school because the commute became too long. Her mother, Hiravati Yadav, now fears her daughter’s life will mirror her own: concrete tales of squalor, a life committed too early to cooking, cleaning and worrying about water.