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

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