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The Peculiar History And Fate Of Slums In India’s Big Cities

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By tracing the housing policies of the government, it seems that ‘spatial illegality’ in Mumbai is the result of public institutions’ failure to provide houses to its citizens which has led to the spread of slums across the city. Thus, the demolition of slums by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) should not be seen as a valid action, but as a violation of people s civil rights.

Recently, we saw two major slum-demolitions in two of our mega-cities – Garib Nagar in Mumbai and Kathputli Colony in Delhi. It may have been a shock to many – but was it really as unexpected as it should have been, especially given the age of both the settlements in the city? Over time, big cities in India have become habituated to the trickling of their overtly dense population into informal settlements.

In many cases, the slums are then demolished, as we saw in the above-mentioned cases. The question to be asked is why does such a large percentage of our population find themselves with no other option than to live in these vulnerable, often temporary and officially ‘illegal’ settlements?

A slum in Delhi. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

The first official population-survey conducted by the government of Mumbai states that about 8% its population was living in slums in 1956. The number reached a crazy 41.3% according to the 2011 census report. Another source shows that in 1985, about 1,25,000 people were living on pavements. The number has now increased to a humongous 1 million people.

The living conditions in the slums and on the pavements are always pathetic. To resolve these housing issues, the government of Mumbai introduced a number of schemes and flagship programmes like the Slum Improvement Board (SIB), Slum Resettlement Scheme (SRS), etc. Despite all this, the state seems to have failed repeatedly in its agenda. Resulting from its failure, a large number of slums have sprung up in different corners of the city. These are often then declared ‘illegal settlements’ and eventually demolished by the BMC officials – just like the recent demolition in Garib Nagar.

To improve the quality of life, the BMC was empowered (through an act in 1954) to decide on the issue of slums. But for a long time, no action was taken in this regard. In 1970, the government intervened with the Slum Improvement Programme, through which it launched efforts to provide water supply, toilets, roads, drainage and street lights to the slum dwellers.

However, the amount that was allotted to this scheme was not enough. As the Deputy Municipal Commissioner (Slums) K. G. Pai pointed out in 1990 – even basic slum improvement would require ₹150 crores a year, whereas the scheme had a provision of just ₹151 crores for the entire Sixth Plan period.  Apart from this, the BMC report in 1990 admits that 30 lakh slums in Mumbai alone were not even touched by the SIP scheme.

After its failure, another programme of slum upgradation was launched by the state in collaboration with the World Bank in 1985. The main objective of this programme was to provide a long-term land tenure (or leasehold) with services and housing loan to about 1 lakh households in the slums of Mumbai. But, due to the lack of infrastructure, BMC again failed in its commitment to provide the services that it was supposed to.  Besides, in the span of eight years (1985-1993), this programme was able to cover only 22,000 slum households.

In 1989, after the change of the ruling political party in the city, BMC was instructed to notify all the slum households (that had emerged in Mumbai before 1985) about resettlement. However, by doing this, those people who had started living in the city after 1985 (and were duly included in voter list) were directly excluded. This scheme also did not include the name of slums which were existing on lands owned by central and private institutions. Therefore, a large chunk of slum-dwellers remained untouched – and their status as a ‘slum dweller’ did not change.

By the year 1991, the state decided to hand over the reigns of the resettlement work to private players. This was done through the Slum Redevelopment Programme (SRD). This programme was supposed to resettle slum dwellers into a colony by the real estate developers, who were given the incentives of FSI and were free to earn benefits equal to 25% of the project cost. But somehow, due to various reasons, this programme was not implemented.

Upon its failure, the Slum Resettlement Scheme (SRS) was launched by the Shiv Sena-and-Congress-led government in 1995 to rehabilitate the slum dwellers. Essentially, this was a modified version of SRD. Under this scheme, the states collaborated with the private developers to build about 2,335 slum pockets and 90,2015 huts in five years for the rehabilitation of slum-dwellers.

But the evaluation surveys showed that the scheme was able to cover only about 26,000 households by 2002. Apart from this, in an event held at TISS, it was stated that ever since the establishment of this programme, its success rate has only been 13%. It was also stated that under this project, as many as 1,524 projects were started – out of which 1,100 were still to be developed, and that only 197 projects have been completed so far.

Dharavi slum, Mumbai. (Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

It is evident that despite launching major schemes and flagship programmes to address the issue of housing, the state was not able to meet the requirements of housing for the low-income population. Following the methodologies set by the Kundu Committee in 2009 to estimate the housing shortage, it has been calculated that currently, there’s a pure shortage of about 4,62,720 dwelling units in Mumbai alone.

Also, while discussing the housing mess, we have to remember that the housing market in Mumbai does not allow the low-income population to buy or rent houses. The houses are too expensive for these people. Thus, it can be said that the failure of the state to provide a house to everyone (and the policies to do so) and the unaffordable housing market in Mumbai which has resulted in the spread of slums across the city – the very slums that the BMC has declared ‘illegal’.

Instead of categorizing all the slums illegal and eventually demolishing them like the Garib Nagar slum, the state government should take alternative measures like providing property rights to the slum dwellers. A good example comes from Odisha where, in 2017, the state government passed a bill to provide land rights to the slum dwellers, to ensure the security of their homes. The urban local bodies (ULBs) can also convert these illegal occupations of land into a rental one, because around 40% of the slums in India are on land owned by urban local bodies.  These can also then become a source of revenue which can be used to upgrade other informal settlements.

So, it is very important for the government to first understand why people are taking the route of slums. Only then should they plan the actions which should be taken against these so-called ‘illegal slums’ in the mega cities.


The author is an independent researcher and fellow with the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Bangalore. The views and opinions expressed are personal.


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Featured image source: Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
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