Those of us who do not believe in the idea of eradicating slums as a solution for post-modern cities are often seen as crazies who are getting away with romanticizing the slum without having any ‘solutions’ on offer. However, globally the tide is turning away from evictions and relocations as strategies to capture occupied lands and satisfy the land requirements for upscale real estate. Housing is increasingly being seen as a right and forced eviction of residents as a clear violation of human rights. This, along with rising costs, formed the pillars of the widespread protests in Brazil against the preparations for the upcoming football World Cup and Olympics.
But because governments can no longer bring on the bulldozer without undue bad press (unfortunately in India, I think the English press is hopelessly bourgeoise, with little empathy for the poor), they often resort of subtle forms of bullying. For instance, in Vila Autodrome, a favella in Rio de Janeiro that has recently won a major battle to prevent eviction, residents were being put under undue pressure from government employees to waive their current leases and vacate their homes. The story of this favella’s pursuit of their right to culturally adequate housing involves considerable community organization through the tool of resident assemblies, alongside legal battles and advocacy. More importantly, the struggle included the creation of a Plano Popular by the community that listed the city’s violations of their rights, but also addressed what support they needed to upgrade and retrofit their community to make it safer and more liveable.
The plan was supported and informed by architects and planners in the city’s universities and this really struck me. I teach in SPA, one of the premier educational institutes in the city of Delhi and perhaps in all of India, and I have not heard of any such initiative to reach out to and partner with the city’s low-income communities to help them achieve a better standard of life. I do not intend to criticize my alma mater in particular, it’s just that we in India seem to not have a professional culture of reaching out and delving into the problem. Rather, we tend to theorize and shun the real issues and echo the most politically correct sentiments of the time- slum free India, sanitize the city, relocation and the like.
A DDA official recently told me that the government is now aiming to redevelop slums, often relocating them within 500 metres of their current location. Though he did not say so, we know that slum dwellers are to be offered high rise apartment living in place of their current low-rise high-density existence (my Hindu piece on this, read here). It’s not rocket science to know that this is only a form of gentrification and high-rises will rapidly become middle class homes, while the poor go back to the slum (squatting on untenable flood-prone land or renting in an existing slum, fueling more unsafe vertical additions). Clearly, this is not a solution.
The need is therefore, to find a way to retrofit/reshape irregular housing to make it safer. So we might need to widen a street to put in a sewer line, or find off-the-grid technological solutions for water supply and sewerage, or train masons in communities to build better, etc. Furthermore, we need more engagement of a diverse set of actors to crack this problem of housing the urban poor. And an open mind.
We need community enablers, we need policymakers and planners, and we need bridge groups who can take ideas and solutions to the community and bring feedback to the planning table. There is plenty of energy out there to make this happen, if governments would be more open to the idea, if educational institutions wouldn’t shy away from engagement and if we were all not so hopelessly taken in by the idea of a perfectly ‘planned’, sanitized, slum free city.
In a related rant, I often wonder, after having been through the Commonwealth Games debacle would the middle and elite classes in Delhi be enthused if India were to bid to host the Olympics in or around the city? Or would we also take to the streets to ensure that grand development and infrastructure must not come in at the cost of the poor? I live in hope!
I’d like to acknowledge the contribution of MIT-based researcher Caleb Harper to this post, whose sharp insights helped me put a lot of what I knew in perspective. Thanks Caleb!