In pursuit of a humane habitat
Slums are not impediments to development, but places that should be embraced and improved. This can be done by tapping skills in these settlements
MOST AFFLUENT and middle-class neighbourhoods in Mumbai, Delhi and other Indian cities, large or small, have poor quality civic infrastructure—be it reliable water supply or garbage management. Poor neighbourhoods of these cities lack even the most basic infrastructure—house.
A majority of Mumbaikars live in areas that are officially classified as “slum areas”, and suffer from a regime that suspends their occupancy rights.
The regulatory framework imposed on “slum areas” makes any improvement, repair or reconstruction illegal. Even building a toilet in the house is not permitted. However, the poverty of a neigbourhood does not always represent the status of its residents. A majority of people living in “slum areas” may have been occupying their houses for at least two to three generations. In settlements that are more than a decade old, several families have invested in rebuilding their homes. Houses made of bricks, concrete and steel now replace hutments with corrugated tin roofs. Some have even installed toilets in their houses.
These improvements, which are usually done efficiently by local masons, are subjected to an informal "tax" by the authorities, who extract a bribe for any intervention. The corrupt officials that benefit from this system have no interest in changing the regulatory framework. Party representatives, who get votes on the promise of protecting the residents from eviction, have little incentive to push for the change either. The general wisdom is that the only way out of this status quo is to clear slums, and “redevelop” them into mass housing. This would be like rebuilding your entire house only because the toilet was leaking.
It may be beneficial to architects and builders, but it comes at a huge cost for the people. At the urban scale, it translates into policies that tend to encourage mass-production of housing as a prime solution, or blanket moves that end up privatising land in the name of providing homes for the poor.
Mass construction of housing as a social project is usually co-opted by private interests in many parts of the world. This is especially true in India post-economic liberalisation where real estate development and public-private partnerships have become the de facto forms of planning and urbanisation. Ambitious projects of dealing with affordable housing and housing for the poor have become enmeshed in private companies taking over land meant for the poor, with the blessings of authorities. The bigger the ambitions, the greater the need for big capital and higher the reliance on private players. India has seen so many affordable housing projects become affordable real estate investment projects for the middle-class.
In our experience, micro-level improvement by the residents works best. This is how so many neighbourhoods have been transformed over time. This is happening in cities as well as in villages. Small local builders, most of whom used to be labourers, carpenters, masons or artisans, have the proven capacity to build decent quality and affordable homes. Even their knowledge of constructing and maintaining simple local civic infrastructure needs is pretty high.
The biggest obstacle to this form of improvement, for which India is so ready, is the lack of reasonable security of tenure in terms of collective occupancy rights. What is in place right now only allows bureaucracies and power brokers to harass residents at every initiative shown, or facilitates the entry of private players who quickly take advantage of the situation in the name of slum improvement and push the erstwhile residents out of the “improved” neighbourhoods.
Clear collective occupancy rights should come along with a new regulatory framework that encourages and supports local improvement. If this happens, we would witness a fast and dramatic change in the appearance of neighbourhoods, such as Dharavi in Mumbai. Moreover, a lot of capital could be raised, if the bribes currently taken by
officials for house improvements, are transformed into an official infrastructure improvement tax. This would potentially put in place the kind of system that allows everyone to have toilets at home, at the very least. Infrastructural improvement is not rocket science. It has been done the world over.
There are several reasons to push for this kind of approach, which focuses on local improvement rather than wholesale redevelopment. The most obvious one is these neighbourhoods are not just residential; they are spaces of tremendous economic activity. Besides, it does not make sense to destroy neighbourhoods that residents have paid so much to develop over the years. They have built houses, schools, businesses, temples and social networks. The rehabilitation should not be done by simply handing over government-owned land to people who currently occupy it. This would not only be incredibly difficult to implement operationally (who is the rightful owner—the person who was there first or the person who pays rent?), it would also lead to speculation and a huge inflation of occupancy costs.
The land they currently occupy could be seen as a commons. Meaning, it either remains in the government’s hands but with clear rights and duties for the people who live on it; or it could be redistri- buted to groups of occupants who form cooperative housing societies. Cooperatives have been a successful way of maintaining affordability in Indian and other cities around the world. They would be a very good way of regularising Indian slums.
A good starting point for a progressive housing agenda would be to qualify the abstraction of the category “poor”. Abstractions tend to produce solutions that remain abstract as well, and this is truer for urban housing than anything else. To impose abstractions on the entire neighbourhood by calling it “poor” only makes it easy for planners and authorities to justify wholesale privatised interventions. And this facilitates a temporary make over. That neighbourhood looks “improved”, but a “slum” sprouts elsewhere.
By recognising collectively-occupied landholdings through cooperatives or governmental rentals, those most in need for help and intervention will gain a toehold they need to better their lives. Most settlements and communities have a wealth of resources in the form of skill, labour, micro-capital, ideas, and most importantly, a ferocious desire to escape poverty and marginalisation. An architecture which harnesses this realisation is truly one that matters the most. A policy that facilitates this can genuinely be the most effective one.
Co-foundersofthe UrbzCollectivewith associationsinMumbai, Geneva,SaoPauloand Bogota,andtheInstitute ofUrbanologyinMumbai andGoa
URBZ Shivaji Nagar resettlement colony in Mumbai. Half of Mumbaikars live in such areas that are officially classified as slums