Slum-free cities: Freeing slums or freeing lands?

Prof. Yatin Pandya writes an interesting editorial on the issue of slum lands in urban contexts.

Original article here.

Slums have been in perpetual state of persistence in political parlance and policy promises. From slum removal in seventies to slum-networking in 2000, there has been a paradigm shift in addressing slums in urban Indian context. By 2000, it was a realisation that formal systems – government or private, has failed in addressing affordable housing to nearly half of urban population. On the other end, individual initiatives by slum-dwellers have managed to find them basic shelters if not decent housing without any external help. What they have not been able to provide are collective infrastructure and what they do not have is legal tenure of land. The first deficiency makes them defined as slum with squalid conditions while the latter condition describe them as squatments through illegal ownership of land.

The UN defines slums as a building, a group of buildings or area characterised by overcrowding, deterioration, unhygienic conditions or any one of them endangering health, safety, or morals of its inhabitants or the community. This refers to squalid conditions of living and not the legality of land ownership. By this definition even sizeable part of old cities in India, like Shahjahanabad in Delhi or pols in Ahmedabad will get included in it, which are well-known holistic living environments.

What then is the hue and cry about slums in current times? How much of the debate today revolves around improving quality of housing versus freeing up of priceless land on which they locate? Slums of India, unlike those in Latin American cities, do not concentrate in suburbs. They often occupy pristine lands of the cities. Real estate appreciation due to city’s growth becomes their enemy. Gulbai Tekra, which started of as camp for construction workers, and domestic help living by the riverfront are such examples in our city. These settlements applied themselves on unwanted, innocent and perhaps inhabitable lands of the city. But as city developed, they became a part of urban agglomeration and caught attention of real estate hawks.

Housing shortages amounting to 24.7 million corresponds with about 40% of urban households. Almost 42.6 million or 15% of urban population live in slums. Ahmedabad has little below quarter (23%) of its population as slum-dwellers. In Mumbai, over 55% population live in slums. The irony is that this populace occupies only 8% of Mumbai’s total land. If half of the Mumbaikars manages to live in such a small area of land and solve their housing troubles themselves, do we still need to eye these lands for further economic equations? How about we grant these spaces to these dwellers? Security of tenure alone is good enough for people to invest their own resources and improve quality of housing. Studies indicate that even simply notifying slums receives defacto authorisation and that itself has encouraged very noticeable improvements. For example, compared to non-notified slums having two-third houses without toilets, notified ones are less than a third. Underground drainage, road and electricity are nearly double in notified slums, thereby improved quality of life and so on.

Authorising illegal constructions through penalty clause, condoning land grabs for parking spaces, building schools on open grounds or even putting up buildings on reclaimed natural resources are not a form of legalising and granting of city lands? Uprooting slums from their locale and rehabilitating them in far off, isolated places is unsuccessful as loss of social network, deprival of employment and economic base, mismatch between lifestyles and vertical building typologies, as well as severed transport links. Yet we continue to approach the same models over and over again. It is obvious that interest deep within is in freeing urban land for open market development rather than upgrading the slums. If we improve conditions of the slum in situ with infrastructure and amenities, these settlements would seize to be the squalid neighbourhoods as slums. They would emerge as affordable housing stock for millions through private sharing. They will not be a burden but rather a resource. Not a problem but a solution.

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