In the scramble to fulfil old election promises, the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party government in Maharashtra on Wednesday decided to extend the cut-off date for regularising slums in Mumbai to 2000. Until now, only shanties built until 1995 are considered legal.

The new date, part of the Congresses campaign manifesto for the 2009 assembly election, means that approximately 14 lakh slum households will be safe from demolition and eligible for state schemes, up from 10.5 lakh.

The 2011 census of India showed that 52.5 per cent of Mumbai's population lives in areas notified as slums. But these slums cover only 8.75 per cent of the total inhabited land in the city.

However, residents of Mumbai’s slums are not impressed by the decision to extend the cut-off date.

“These dates do not matter to us. If the builders want us to leave, we will have to go,” said Sundar Gajbe, a resident of South Mumbai’s Ambedkar Nagar slum, on being asked whether he welcomed the decision. “Whether or not we want to go, we will be made to sign their papers.”

Gajbe has it right. While this announcement might be viewed as just an election gimmick, it gives real-estate developers even more plots to exploit under the already-lucrative terms of the Slum Redevelopment Scheme.

The scheme, a version of which was envisioned in 1994 by the Shiv Sena, again just before an election, aimed to replace slums with multi-storey buildings. Real-estate firms were invited to construct free housing for those slum inhabitants who were resident on a plot before a specified cut-off date. Slum dwellers would be housed in tenements on a small portion of the plot. In return, builders were given rights to the whole plot and allowed to construct luxury housing that was not restricted by the height regulations that operated in other parts of the city.

Activists and slum residents have repeatedly critiqued the Slum Redevelopment Scheme for the disproportionate profits it gives real-estate firms and for failing to check their shoddy construction practices. They say that buildings for former slum dwellers are merely "vertical slums".

Builders require the approval of 70 per cent of a slum’s inhabitants before they can redevelop an area. However, as Gajbe noted, it is a common practice for builders and their associates to intimidate residents to sign forms of approval. A September 2013 order by the Bombay High Court instructed the government to examine whether this approval is necessary at all.

Ambedkar Nagar, where Gajbe lives, is a few hundred metres away from the controversial Adarsh Housing Society. The incomplete high rise, in which many politicians and bureaucrats have illegally purchased flats, is visible from all parts of the slum, even where the buildings are tightly packed.

While slum homes built in Ambedkar Nagar before 1995 have access to sewage systems but not to other utilities, those after the cut-off date are built on marshland. The newest structures, many of which were gutted in a massive blaze two months ago, extend through mangroves almost until the shoreline. All of these are officially considered illegal.

Another resident of Ambedkar Nagar, Rashida, who wished to be identified only by her first name, has been working informally with area’s local committee for a few years. “Every election, they [representatives of political parties] keep saying these things, but nothing ever changes,” she said.

Housing experts are just as unimpressed by the decision. “When in 2014 you talk about a cut-off line of 2000, one has not considered all the distortions that would occur as a result,” said Amita Bhide, of the School for Habitat Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. “How many people will be excluded from this move? Those are things that really need to be considered. The government needs to proactively conduct its own surveys so it knows what structures it is talking about.”

Activist Medha Patkar agreed. “The concept of a cut-off date itself is flawed,” said Patkar, who is now a Lok Sabha candidate for the Aam Aadmi Party from the slum-dominated Mumbai (North-East) constituency. “The government justifies it as a method to give free housing for rehabilitation, something which all slum dwellers do not want.”

The date the government has set is also a step back, Patkar said. The year “2009 was declared as the cut-off for the Rajiv Awas Yojana", she noted. "The state is going back to 2000.”

The Rajiv Awas Yojana is a central government project that aims to make India entirely slum free within five years by rebuilding houses and providing basic infrastructural amenities to slum inhabitants. While the scheme was announced in 2009, the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai launched the first part of the project only towards the end of December 2013. The estimated year of completion for this project is 2022.

“Just regularisation will not solve the problem,” said Simpreet Singh, an activist with the Ghar Bachao, Ghar Banao Andolan. “One needs to provide security against eviction, without which there can be no change in the quality of life.”