And what will I do if my kids are declared illegal? What if the Bombay Municipality announces one day that all those born in Bombay after a given date -- oh, let's randomly pick January 1, 1995 -- are illegal residents of the city and their homes will be destroyed? Both my kids would qualify.

A crazy idea, you think, who's ever going to make such a foolish rule? But it isn't as off-the-wall as all that, you know. After all, the authorities in my city have actually made another, similar, rule. Those who cannot prove that they lived in their slum homes before January 1 1995 are proclaimed to be illegal residents of the city. Over the last month, some 80,000 such "illegal" homes have indeed been destroyed. How is this any different from saying that those who cannot prove that they existed here before January 1 1995 -- neither of my kids can, for the simple reason that they were not born then -- are illegal residents of the city?

And this peculiar notion of a cut-off date -- for that's what it is called - applies only to slums. Middle-class blocks of flats can flout building codes and FSI rules and be built on the back of serious bribery, but they never have cut-off dates applied to them. They never have demolition applied to them.

With apparently no more logic or reasoning than tossing a coin, the Government picks this cut-off date, and sets it in stone. Or some kind of stone: currently, it reads January 1 1995, but it has sported other dates before. Legal status, in the foggy world of government policy towards slums, is this trivially determined. Believe it.

And so I must wonder: suppose the government said, anyone born in Bombay after an arbitrary cut-off date lives here illegally. Who would stand for that?

But of course, the years go by, and the date on the stone recedes too far into the past to make sense (if it ever did), and besides the government never did really apply the date with any seriousness -- and so at some point, the Government moves the cut-off date up a few years. That's how trivially that, too, is determined. In fact, the current government in Maharashtra came to office on an explicit election promise to move the date to January 1 2000. (I breathed more easily. At least my son, if not my daughter, would then be a legal Bombayite).

But having reached office, they changed their governmental minds. The cut-off date has slid back to 1995, and that's been the basis for the current spate of slum demolitions in Bombay.

The hollowness of making policy like this, the cavalier nature of such an approach to slums and the real lives in them, the arbitrariness of a date, and the way all this almost deliberately ignores the real reasons for slums - these seem of no concern to us who live outside slums. No, we are satisfied that legality can be determined by an arbitrary date, and we are not concerned by the implications.

But in Ambujwadi, in the north Bombay suburb of Malad, this idea of legality is a serious concern. Of course, that's partly because Ambujwadi used to be home to a large slum area that the municipality has utterly flattened. But it's more than just that. In Ambujwadi, arbitrary illegality carries a curious resonance. Thing is, many of the people who live here are Pardhis. This is one of the 150-plus tribes that the British -- with their 1871 Criminal Tribes Act -- actually defined as criminal. And even if independent India repealed that Act in 1952, Pardhis are still widely seen as criminal. In effect, if you are born a Pardhi, you are considered a criminal. In British times as now.

So to a Pardhi, the notion of a cut-off date must seem entirely in the scheme of things: I'm born, I'm criminal. I live here, I'm illegal. What will they do with me when I die?

Given all this, and given that cut-off date that hangs invisibly over this entire area, the natural question to ask in Ambujwadi is this: when did you come here? Because that, and being a Pardhi, determine the relationship these people have with the law, such as it is.

I ask the question again and again in Ambujwadi, and as I've known Pardhis elsewhere to do, they run off and bring pieces of paper to thrust into my hands. Ration cards, letters, election ID cards, xeroxes of appeals, various municipal forms ... and when I examine them, I am appalled by the injustice and tragedy of what happened here.

Not just one, but the majority of the people I meet have ration cards that list them as residents of this very spot (mentioning "Ambujwadi" in their address), and are dated before January 1 1995. That is, by the government's own cut-off date criterion -- even if it is arbitrary -- by that criterion itself, these people were legal residents here.

Yet their homes were razed. What sense is there in this?


Slums exist for very good reasons. This doesn't mean they are desirable, but only that there are good reasons for them. Cities like Bombay are vast engines of jobs and economic growth: the very things most of us agree we want more of. This is why Bombay is awash in new malls and hotels and multiplexes and so forth, all of which generate jobs. Jobs that need people to fill them: security guards, drivers, ushers, ticket-collectors, waiters, all kinds of positions. And sure enough, people stream from all over this country to fill them. This is just as it should be: this kind of economic energy, this constant creation of jobs, is what cities are all about.

But jobs don't stand by themselves. As one of Bombay's best known civil engineers and city planners, Shirish Patel, wrote recently, "With jobs must come homes. If they don't, then people will live where they can ... in slums." (External link : click here for Shirish Patel's article.)

Which, of course, is what they do. Not least because affordable rental housing in Bombay, as a result of the abominable Rent Control Act, is a real-life honest-to-goodness urban myth. So the jobs we create, that we in effect invite our fellow Indians to fill because we want all those good things of a booming economy, are filled by people who have little choice but to live in slums.

And then we raze those slum homes; we, the very people who invited them to come work for us to begin with.

Consider here the discomfiting fact that many policemen, whom we charge with protecting those we send out to demolish slums, themselves live in slums. Consider that many of the municipal workers who demolish slums also themselves live in slums. Consider that the bright cornerstone of our burgeoning IT economy, call centres, employs many people who themselves live in slums. And then consider that our cooks, our peons, our cobblers, our cleaning maids, our bus conductors -- many of these people live in slums.

Where will people like these go when their homes are turned to rubble? Not very far. Because even if they have lost their homes, what they will not give up easily are jobs, livelihoods; and those jobs determine where they will live. Anything else, and we reduce them to poverty, or worse poverty than they suffer already. In fact, there are studies that show that breaking down slums, even if the residents are haphazardly rehoused, actually increases poverty.

The recent drive on slums in Bombay has accounted for some 80,000 fellow Indians' homes. It has left close to 400,000 fellow Indians homeless and devastated. Those numbers are comparable to what a tsunami did -- in fact, with less brutal efficiency -- to Tamilnadu. What's not comparable, and it baffles me, are our reactions to these two disasters.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I have a sudden urge to go check on my kids.