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Mumbai's slums reach for the sky Add to ...

Soaring high above the skyline, the pair of rocket-shaped skyscrapers overlooking the Arabian Sea is the latest and most exclusive gated development for Mumbai's superrich.

The 60-storey Imperial Twin Towers boasts multiple levels of valet parking, personal concierges, and high-speed elevators that travel one floor per second. Its penthouses - a cascade of sumptuous mansions stacked in the sky - are fitted with motion-sensor lighting, private swimming pools, crystal-studded living rooms and Philippe Starck bathrooms.

This imposing metal-and-glass edifice, eight years in the making and nearly complete, offers panoramic views of the city. But the vertigo-inducing view from the top also offers a glimpse of another India: Clinging to the foot of the towers are clusters of ramshackle huts and tenements.

In Mumbai, India's crowded commercial capital and the nerve centre of its rapidly accelerating economy, such stunning contrasts are increasingly common as luxury towers rise up among sprawling shantytowns that house more than half of the city's 18 million people. The city is the country's most densely populated, with 27,000 people per square mile.

With the world's second-fastest pace of economic expansion, India is quickly minting millionaires and billionaires who are stimulating a ravenous demand for luxury housing. In this prosperous but overburdened city, undeveloped land is rare and expensive. So developers are meeting this demand in an unexpected way: Many are tapping into the Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) program, an ambitious government plan introduced more than a decade ago to rejuvenate Mumbai's slums.

The program's goal is to make Mumbai slum-free by 2015. Shanty towns are being flattened and their residents moved to high-rise buildings that occupy a small portion of the slum site, freeing up the rest of the land for high-end residential properties.

Realty giant S.D. Corp. is developing the 1.2-billion rupee (about $26.2-million) Imperial Towers project, part of which involves moving 2,700 slum-dwelling families from single-room huts to tiny apartments in 11 nearby buildings.

Despite the costs of the move, and although the slum tenants will live rent-free, companies such as S.D. Corp. stand to reap hefty profits because planning codes for the slum rehab projects have been relaxed. For example, developers are allowed to exceed the normal density rules and build extra-tall buildings filled with pricey apartments and condos.

"[A slum area]is not an obvious choice for a luxury housing project," said Suleman Budhwani, vice-president for business development at SD Corp. "But there are hardly any undeveloped land parcels left in the city to pursue such high-end projects."

Since Imperial Towers opened in March, 80 per cent of its 228 units have been sold, he said, although he acknowledged that it was a hard sell for some wealthy buyers. "Some express apprehensions about getting slum neighbours," he said, but "they are lured by the offer of a world-class designer lifestyle."

About half of all Mumbai realty projects in the works are focused on redeveloping 3,480 hectares of land adjacent to slums. Akruti City Ltd., for example, is redeveloping a 44-hectare slum parcel in the heart of the city that will be used for commercial and residential use.

New Delhi-based Unitech Ltd., India's second-biggest developer, is developing 40 hectares of slum land in a suburb in north Mumbai. Unitech's managing director Sanjay Chandra said he expects the company's sales from redeveloping the slums and building luxury apartments to triple in three years.

But many observers are skeptical that the slum rehab program will rid Mumbai of the shantytowns. Fuelled by a tide of migrant workers spilling into the city every day, the pace at which slums proliferate far outpaces the rehab projects.

In 1995, when the SRA was launched, the government was aiming to have 800,000 apartments built within five years, housing four million slum-dwelling Mumbai families So far, only about 100,000 apartments are ready.

"Is it a win-win scheme for all?" asked Sundar Burra, an adviser to the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres, a Mumbai-based housing rights organization. "It may appear so, but the developer is the biggest gainer - laughing his way to the bank."

Developers profit from the relaxed zoning norms, Mr. Burra argued, but don't invest enough thought and resources into designing apartments for the former slum dwellers. At Imperial Towers, their units measure only 225 square feet, less than half the area of private pools for the luxury suites. (The government recently increased the mandatory floor size to 270 square feet, about the size of a single-car garage.)

The 11 buildings for the slum tenants have inadequate water facilities and are separated by garbage-choked alleyways riddled with rat burrows - conditions that are similar to slums. "You cannot conceive such projects sitting in an ivory tower," Mr. Burra says. "It's like moving people from horizontal slums to vertical slums."

Although the slum tenants do not pay rent on their apartments, they must pay for electricity and maintenance of the buildings, which causes many to regret the move. Others welcome the transition from shanty dwelling to a concrete high-rise, no matter that the space is cramped and the paint already peeling.

"Since birth I've lived in a slum," said Vijay Hingawle, a 51-year-old security guard whose 11-member family lives in one of the tiny units, where they take turns eating and sleeping. "But now I own a concrete house. It's a gift Mumbai does not give men like me easily."





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