Down to Earth

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
Co-foundersof­the UrbzCollec­tivewith associatio­nsinMumbai, Geneva,SaoPauloan­d Bogota,andtheInst­itute ofUrbanolo­gyinMumbai andGoa
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 ??  ?? URBZ Shivaji Nagar resettleme­nt colony in Mumbai. Half of Mumbaikars live in such areas that are officially classified as slums
URBZ Shivaji Nagar resettleme­nt colony in Mumbai. Half of Mumbaikars live in such areas that are officially classified as slums

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