(This article appeared in Newsweek International on March 27, 2006)
The latest quiet reform undertaken by India's government deals with one of its oldest problems—land reform. Across the country, thousands of acres of land are tied up in disputes over decrepit edifices. But last week, a landmark Supreme Court judgment removed restrictions on the sale of land owned by Mumbai's defunct textile mills, freeing up hundreds of acres in the city center for development. Is this a turning point? On the surface, certainly. Six hundred acres of valuable land in the heart of the city are now slated for massive projects including office buildings, high-rise apartments and shopping malls. However, environmentalists and representatives of Mumbai's millions of slum dwellers argue that unfettered development of the mill lands will do nothing to solve the housing crisis facing the city's poor, as well as exacerbate water and power shortages. An equally pressing question is whether the ruling will speed the conversion of agricultural land on the edge of India's cities into much-needed residential and industrial developments—a transition to modernity that until now has been hopelessly slowed by red tape.