'Slums are a solution not a problem'

Why we need to assimilate slums, adopt BRT and change our outlook about urban development.
Saturday, May 12, 2012
Two boys on a concrete wall, overlooking rubbish in Dharavi, Asia's largest slum and home to hundreds of businesses defying the myths about poverty. By- NGO MEDAPT

Why we need to assimilate slums, adopt BRT and change our outlook about urban development. Dunu Roy of Delhi-based Hazard Centre challenges the mainstream myths in this interview with GOI Monitor  

Q It is estimated that by 2050, 54 per cent of Indians will live in cities. But with such a high premium being placed on urban land, how are the cities going to host migrants, especially the poor?

Firstly, that estimate is probably incorrect. Already, as indicated by the 2011 Census, urban growth is slowing down - from 54 per cent in the 1970s to 32  per cent currently even though the Census has classified over 2,500 new Census towns out of the total of almost 8,000 towns (from about 4,400 in 2001). Secondly, this move from rural to urban is being welcomed, even promoted, by policy making bodies such as the Planning Commission because they see in that one of the strong elements contributing to the GDP growth.

The same set of policy makers are also concurrently promoting the rise in urban land values because they expect Urban Local Bodies to pay for all the infrastructural growth by developing and selling land. So there is a contradiction in policy itself and the only way out of this contradiction is that squatting and 'illegal' shelter continue to grow on premium land near locations of employment until inflated land prices collapse.

Q Slums are mostly considered an eyesore besides being breeding ground of diseases and criminals. Still, they are essential to house the urban poor who run the cities. Is there a way we can assimilate slums as part of our urban infrastructure and plan their expanse too?

The perspective of slums as eyesores and dens of criminality is a jaundiced one with the mote lying in the eye of the beholder rather than in the view of itself because there is no evidence that supports such a perspective. Of course, slums are essential to house the urban poor who "run the cities", and those who are so busy running the city in order to make a paltry living are unlikely to find much time for criminal activities.

In fact, slums are a solution rather than a problem, because they provide the cheapest answer to the question of housing. And the way to deal with them intelligently (as was done before the 1990s and the advent of 'globalisation') is to provide them with the simple basic services of water, sanitation, electricity, transport, and health and education - generally at one-fifth of the cost it takes to provide these same services to the planned built-up colonies.

Slums are a solution rather than a problem, because they provide the cheapest answer to the question of housing. It's easy to provide them with the simple basic services generally at one-fifth of the cost it takes to provide these same services to the planned built-up colonies.

Q Driving out squatters or doling out benefits to them are both extreme measures which are not sustainable in the long run. What can be the middle path which is affordable to both the poor and the society?

Driving out squatters seems like an 'extreme' step but it is actually a part of the 'development' process because the urban working under-class which inhabits these slums makes the land liveable over time by filling it up, levelling it, bringing in services like drainage, water, schools, street lighting, etc and providing services to the neighbourhoods - in other words, 'developing' it.

Once the land becomes developed and valuable, the slum dwellers are driven out so that the premium land can then pay for infrastructure in the rest of the city. And 'benefits' being doled out are part of the compensation for this unpaid labour. So there is no "middle path". There can only be an "alternative" path to 'development' itself, and that is by recognising this unpaid labour for its value and providing fair wages and a life of dignity to it.

Q Cities like Mumbai are going for vertical expansion whereas slums mostly have horizontal expanse. Is relocation into low-cost high rises the only option left then?

"Low cost" high rises are actually not low cost at all - they represent the equivalent of 10 years wages of an average slum family. And subsequent maintenance charges are almost as high as the monthly instalments to be paid for the loans that the residents avail to get the flats. So these flats are abandoned by the poor over time, just as it has happened all over the world. They either remain vacant or get taken over by the middle class families who are also in dire need of housing.

There is an estimated shortage of 265 lakh housing units for about 663 lakh urban households (40 per cent), all of them can't be urban poor. One has only to look at the chawls built in 1950s for the working poor at places like Kurla and Parel of Mumbai which are now almost completely inhabited by the middle class. Hence, this "option" is also part of the same development process whereby the labour of the poor doles out subsidies for the growth of the rich. The alternative, as before, is to recognise this contribution of the urban working poor to the city and adequately recompense it.

"Low cost" high rises are actually not low cost at all - they represent the equivalent of 10 years wages of an average slum family. And subsequent maintenance charges are almost as high as the monthly instalments to be paid for the loans that the residents avail to get the flats. So these flats are abandoned by the poor over time.

Q Most of the government schemes for urban poor, whether it's mobile toilets for slum areas or potable water, have failed to deliver the promised results. What do you think is lacking in our planning?

It is not true that government schemes have always failed. Up to the 1980s provision of water, sanitation, electricity, and health in the slums were managed almost entirely by the municipal bodies and in a fairly reasonable manner. It was the advent of, firstly, the development authorities which replaced the municipal bodies as key urban planners (beginning with Delhi in the 1960s) and, secondly, the subsequent wave of liberalisation post-1990s (after urban growth rates had started declining), that the failures have begun emerging in a big way.

There are two major reasons for this. One is the non-accountability of the development authorities, which are nominated and not elected bodies, to meet the targets of their normative plans. The other is the gradual retreat of the governments from provision of services and outsourcing them to contractors, private firms, and even NGOs, as part of the structural adjustment programme, in the belief that "growth" would eventually "trickle down" to the poor. And both are linked to the growing conviction that services must be paid for by the poor - although, as outlined above, there was no recognition of the unpaid services of the poor given to the rich.

Q Second rung towns are now increasingly being preferred by migrants because of lower living costs. Can this be a long term solution to the infrastructure crisis being faced by metro cities?

"Lower costs" are not the reason that second rung towns are being "preferred" by migrants although that reason may be a valid one for entrepreneurs. It is the availability of work that determines the destination. Smaller cities and towns are growing faster than the metros for the simple reason that land, labour, and other resources are more easily available in these places for investors, and that is why employment is also available there. This is not a "solution" for the metros - they will continue to face infrastructure crisis - but it certainly is going to be a "problem" for the smaller towns because they have even less access to finances than the metros.

Q You have been supporting the bus rapid transport (BRT) corridor in Delhi despite the flak it has received from the elite commuters and mainstream media. Do you think models like BRT can help promote use of public transport in our cities? Won't the rich prefer spending more money to maintain their lifestyles than jostling in crowded buses?

The BRT will work only if the network expands which it has not done either in Delhi or Ahmedabad or Indore. One or two routes don't make a BRT functional. And the corollary is that it must also be part of the original Supreme Court decision based on the report of the Bhure Lal-led Environment Protection and Conservation Authority (EPCA) - that private transport MUST be restricted. If the rich continue to have the 'options' which the poor don't have, of course they won't want to spend time in 'overcrowded buses'.

But the moment they are not allowed to use their cars (by enhancing petrol prices, taxes, parking charges, and pedestrianisation i.e restrictions on car use) and they come into the buses, the quality of public transport will itself begin to change. The buses will become more frequent, there will be air-conditioning in many of them, they will become low-floor and GPS enabled, and the level of comfort will rise.

The moment car usage is disallowed, rich will come into buses and the quality of public transport will itself begin to change. The buses will become more frequent, there will be air-conditioning in many of them, they will become low-floor and GPS enabled, and the level of comfort will rise.

Q You said once that climate change will impact the rich and the middle class much more than the poor. But isn't the privileged section more likely to be alloted the reduced natural resources be it water, food or clean air due to climate change and hence has better chances of survival?

The privileged are already being allotted a huge share of all the natural resources so, of course, the trend is going to continue even as the resources reduce; that is nothing new. The point is that even with the present large allotment, the rich and middle classes are finding it difficult to cope with water, electricity, and waste management shortages. In addition, they cannot live in isolation from the rest of the urban society - even in their gated colonies. Environmental degradation, born out of their own consumption lifestyles, will hit them no matter where they live and work. And the more they try and isolate themselves, the more they will need energy, money, and resources to maintain that isolation.

Neither will they be able to live in isolation from the increased level of conflict in society as they grab more and more resources. There may be water, for instance, for their needs but what happens if the workers who man and supply their water decide to go on strike as they did recently in Mysore partly because those workers are not getting enough of the water they supply themselves?

Even their air-conditioned cars are produced in factories where the workers don't even have money to buy cycles to commute to work as witnessed by the recent strikes in Maruti and Honda. So their 'survival', in fact, is dependent on what the poor produce by expending their labour on the natural resources that then become available as services. And that will remain even more true as climate change begins to affect the availability of resources.

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