Dharavi slum in Mumbai has one of the world’s highest human population density per acre.
By Sachin Agarwal
Considering the increasing scarcity of available land in our cities, it is becoming increasingly difficult to discuss affordable housing creation without also considering slums and their redevelopment. In latter-day India, almost every city has its slums.
While Mumbai is probably the most talked-about city when it comes to the incidence of slums, Pune is by no means an exemption. Pune and the Pimpri-Chinchwad Municipal Corporation together have almost 200 areas which are either officially classified as slums or meet all the criteria of that define slums. Areas in the latter category can be also be defined as squatter settlements, which are not strictly speaking slums at all.
In either case, one recurring concept about slums and squatter settlements is that they are neighbourhoods in which the city’s poor reside in squalor and ignorance. Before we discuss slum redevelopment in Pune, Mumbai or any other Indian city, we should understand how true this concept really is. After all, we are talking about people and what they are doing for subsistence, and how that equation will or should change.
So, what are slums and squatter settlements, and what makes them so common in a country like India?
What Are Slums?
Slums are popularly defined as areas with extremely poor quality housing, unhygienic drainage, high crime rate and overall lack of convenience and security for residents. As such, they come across as a clear representation of urban poverty. Urban ‘poor housing’ comes in a variety of sizes and shapes, and is called by different names in different regions.
The word ‘slum’ literally means a community neighborhood which was previously in good shape but have since deteriorated and been subdivided to accommodate a disproportionately large portion of low income groups.
On the other hand, the concept of squatter settlement revolves more around areas accommodating housing built on illegally occupied lands. There is also a third kind of settlement in this category, sometimes referred to as ‘irregular subdivisions’ by urban planners. This term refers to the housing premises which have been legally built by the owner, but subdivided into plots and rented or sold to the poor without following the applicable bye laws.
A clearer definition for slums is a quarter for a group of people who lack any or all of the following: sufficient floor space for each member, durable structure, access to clean water and sanitation and secured tenure of living. These are the areas and people that are in greatest need of affordable modern housing to replace the inferior living conditions.
Why Do Slums Exist?
All over India, cities are growing, and it is getting increasingly difficult for the poor to acquire personally owned property. The most common school of thought is that slums are the result of poverty. This is only partially true. in fact, slums are the products of bad governance, failed policies, inappropriate regulations, an unresponsive financial system, a city’s dysfunctional property market, corruption and a complete lack of political will.
Slums and squatter settlements are very prominent around core urban areas because the poor cannot afford even the most minimal housing arrangements provided by the government. Many other are forced into slums as they are not able to decipher and overcome barriers like red tape and the time constraints involved in acquiring property via the existing system.
In highly-developed cities like Karachi, Manila or Mumbai, slums account for over 50% of the populated area. In many regions, land is still acquired through traditional means and indigenous tenure systems, which are basically bad news for the poor.
While development is facilitating the construction of modern buildings, the prices of average housing is constantly rising. Even homes with minimal conveniences and provisions are beyond affordability for the lower income groups. Forced out of the property market, they are constrained upon to find accommodation in low-quality, pathetic housing arrangements – slums.
Interestingly, it is also true that the modern economy is centered around cities. As such, the poor cannot go far beyond the city’s urban areas, and must linger around the periphery in slums, which at least gives them access to the available job opportunities. Due to the space crunch, they are forced to occupy as little land as possible in places that are frequently affected by flooding, poor drainage and a substantial lack of hygiene.
Slum Redevelopment And Rehabilitation – Beyond The Brick And Mortar
Before we can intelligently discuss slum redevelopment and rehabilitation, which is in any case only possible with determined political will, it is important to first understand the needs and priorities of slum dwellers. To the casual eye, slums are a places for diseases, political unrest, crime, ignorance and misbehavior.
Not many are aware that slum dwellers are actually a lot more organized than inhabitants of regulated urban areas. Every occupant participates in the slum’s economy, and together they work out ways to address all the challenges facing them. Contrary to popular opinion, slums are full of dynamism, enthusiasm, creativity, resourcefulness and even entrepreneurial skills.
Many Indian slums even have their own local market, property dealers and cultural grouping. These processes are not overseen by the government, but are run by the residents themselves. Despite the serious limitations in their lives, slum dwellers live in admirable harmony. As such, NGO and government agencies first need to understand the intricate social system of slums before they plan to intervene.
Slum dwellers themselves are naturally averse to any kind of change in the already precariously balanced status quo they exist in, but it is only with the help of these same slum dwellers that the government can come even close to a properly laid-out plan for resettling these families and provide a better means of living.
Sachin Agarwal is CMD Maple Group whose mission is to provide genuinely affordable housing to the common man without compromising on quality and amenities.