Posted in Poverty, Published Article, Urban India

Why we are still asking the wrong questions on Slums

Published in Times of India, Pune on 14 November 2018. Lost and found. Posted here for you.

Informal housing – or ‘slum’ as it is derisively called – has become the hallmark of all metros in the developing world, from Rio to Lagos to Nairobi to Mumbai.

The evolution of slums in post-Independence India, however, is the stuff of legend, on which many a career in New Wave Indian Cinema of the 1970s was built….

Several studies during this period revealed that the typical migrant to urban areas was a semi-skilled or skilled male, 18-35 years old, who sent a major share of his earnings back home to support his family.  Housing was a low priority for such a person and he was ready to squat or settle at any location which cost him the least of his hard-earned money. The social vacuum created by a separation from rural roots was compensated by congregating along ethnic, caste, linguistic and regional lines, and such arrangements provided a strong social support system to compensate for the break-up of the rural extended family.

The downside of this has been ghettoization, which not only enhances strife and bigotry, but provides easy mobilization in violent crises – be they communal riots, industrial unrest, or underworld gang wars.

In planning terms, the assumption that slums and urban poverty were co-extensive and coterminous led to numerous ad hoc ‘slum improvement’ schemes at this time, where it was naively assumed that upgrading living conditions in slums in a piecemeal fashion, would eliminate the scourge of poverty from our towns and cities.

However, as the research and information base has grown, it has become clear that the relationship between urban poverty and slums is both tenuous and complex – especially as a second generation of slum dwellers, with few choices and little upward mobility, begin to emerge on the urban scene. They can look forward to a life only in the informal economy of the city, and given our outdated civic laws, even a new-born child in such a household, breaks a dozen laws as he or she draws its first breath…

During the 1980s, urban slums could no longer be seen as extensions of rural poverty and became more or less autonomous. As thriving, self-sustaining social systems in their own right (Dharavi being an example), urban slums were no more synonymous merely with urban poverty. While urban poverty incidence has declined between the early 1970s and the late 1980s, there is no evidence of any decline of the slum population.  As a result, fewer people have access to safe drinking water and nearly 70% are reported to be without basic sanitation. 

Poor housing, infrastructure and urban services are the problem, not poor people.

The consequences of regarding urban poverty and slums as one and the same have been largely negative:

Once a slum is recognized as such, subtle political forces prevent it from ever becoming de-notified and this has stigmatized entire communities of urban poor, doomed to be labeled ‘slum-dwellers’ for generation after generation. As a result, slums become powerful vote banks and can be mobilized for various anti-social activities like crime, extortion, land grabbing, strike breaking and communal violence.

Meanwhile, badly designed slum upgradation schemes have set up an unsustainable regime of subsidies, inculcating the same dependency syndrome among beneficiaries, which was earlier seen only in Indian villages. Providing basic services in slums was made synonymous with poverty alleviation, and the neglect of health and education in urban slums continues to eat away at the human potential of slum populations, pushing them further and deeper into unemployment, under-employment and the informal sector.

On the side of local government, there is a tendency to underestimate the ability of the urban poor to pay for services and they have to learn to ‘do without’ these services. Slum schemes with their emphasis on shelter and basic services, neglect informal enterprise, and compound the problem by making no effort to integrate the informal slum economy within the larger city economy.

Almost all housing schemes continue to neglect the key issues of access, security of tenure, and affordability and it is this – the most visible housing dimension of urban poverty – which continues to scar Indian cities.

Finally, with the entry of private commercial interests into slum rehabilitation projects currently being implemented across India, there is a danger of encroached government and municipal lands passing forever into private hands.

This would be an irrecoverable loss of public assets for generations to come. Instead, Indian cities can perhaps take a leaf out of capitalist Singapore and communist China’s public housing and long-term lease policies to ensure development with equity.

Related:

Housing Dimension of Urban Poverty

Cities without Shelter

Formalizing the Informal – the only economic reform that matters

Read more: Why we are still asking the wrong questions on Slums

Author:

I am a trainer of Government Officials and Elected Representatives, specializing in the urban and municipal sector. I have also written extensively on Urban Governance, Poverty, Development, Social Accountability and Municipal Management in the Indian context, and wish to share these writings with you through this blog.

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