MUMBAI (Reuters) - A slum portrayed in the award-winning film "Slumdog Millionaire" is at the center of a land controversy in Mumbai that has highlighted the challenges facing a booming India as it tries to modernize its cities.
Dharavi, where part of the film was shot, is the focus of an ambitious, but contentious, 150-billion rupee ($3 billion) redevelopment plan to turn shanties near the heart of the Indian financial capital into upscale apartments and office towers.
Dharavi's residents, who would be relocated to tiny apartments under the redevelopment plan, are hoping that the popularity of the film will put the government under pressure to uphold their rights.
"Perhaps they will think more about our welfare, and listen to our opinions on what we want," said Albert Raj, a long-time resident who runs a telephone booth in Dharavi.
Once a marshy stretch of land on the outskirts of Mumbai, Dharavi is today Asia's largest slum.
More than half a million people are crammed into a maze of shops and squat homes. The stench of sewers mixes with the spicy aromas of cooking and a cacophony of noises from workshops blend with the chants of worshippers praying at mosques and temples.
Mumbai has long been a magnet for the poor from northern and eastern states. Its pricey real estate has led to the formation of dozens of slums, often hotbeds of criminal activity, as depicted in "Slumdog Millionaire."
Dharavi is also a thriving industrial area that earns $500 million a year from cottage industries in squalid homes and workshops that produce everything from pickles to shoes.
But it is the land itself, located near the business district, that is coveted by developers in land-starved Mumbai.
There have been many attempts at developing Dharavi by politicians and builders keen on a windfall in a city that has seen property prices soar along with India's economic fortunes.
"The redevelopment of such a large land mass in a central location in a city like Mumbai is very, very rare and hugely important to developers," said Subhankar Mitra, an analyst at real estate consultancy Jones Lang LaSalle Meghraj.
This is particularly the case due to the difficulties of acquiring land in India as ascertaining property ownership is a complex task due to the absence of title deeds and claims by squatters.
Dharavi, where the government has provided basic amenities such as electricity and common water taps and toilets, is particularly challenging because of its size and complexity.
"It is a city within a city," said Mitra.
"There are different populations, several political interests and different concerns. You can't approach it like any other slum, it needs a different approach," he added.
A redevelopment plan, drawn up by a U.S.-based architect and approved by the city in 2004, envisages redeveloping all of Dharavi into five zones, with all residents relocated in 300 square-feet flats (about 28 square-meters).
Residents, however, who launched a "Dharavi Bachao" (Save Dharavi) campaign in response to the plan, want larger flats and open spaces. They say a survey of residents requiring relocation has left out tens of thousands of families, some of whom are squatters or tenants with nowhere else to go.
"People have lived here for many, many years. They should be treated fairly and be a part of any redevelopment process," said G. Shekhar, secretary of the National Slum Dwellers' Federation, which is on a panel to draw up guidelines for bidders.
"This is about their lives, their community," he said.
The Dharavi Development Authority is evaluating bids from around 25 local and global bidders. The credit crunch may force some bidders to drop out and delay the start of the revamp.
Residents' concerns about the fate of their workshops and small businesses have not been addressed, said Rahul Srivastava, an urban planner and activist.
He fears the redevelopment will tear the close-knit social fabric of Dharavi, where people of different regions and faiths live in relative harmony.
"This city has always been about diversity of habitats. We have low-rises and high-rises, villages and slums," Srivastava said. "Why can't we make slums acceptable living spaces?"
Slum demolitions and relocation of residents, often in distant suburbs, have pushed more people to crime as they move away from their places of work, said a recent government report.
The number of India's urban poor, which includes anyone living on less than 20 rupees ($.40) a day, rose to 81 million from 60 million in the 30 years until 2005, the report said.
These numbers are likely to jump with rising urbanization, necessitating a new approach to slums, starting with Dharavi, activists say.
"Why should there be only a homogenized, one-size-fits-all solution? That will destroy Dharavi's rich history and varied composition," said Srivastava.
Editing by Megan Goldin