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Slums have dwindled in India! Pondering on fresh NSSO data

The latest NSSO data (Surveys done between July and December 2012) shows that slums have actually reduced in Indian cities! Liable to be missed in all the hullabaloo of politics, this is a huge achievement for India. If it is true… For one, comparing the Census, which is an actual count of the people who live in the country, with sample survey data seems a bit strange. How do you explain these differences? Nine million households live in slums in 2012 as per the NSSO as compared to 14 million as identified by the Census 2011. The NSSO counts 13,761 slums while the Census found 37,000! I would take these numbers with many pinches of salt!


The good points

Only 41% of the slums are notified by the local authorities. I am glad the data points this out. Not being recognized or notified often means the denial of services and living in perpetual fear of eviction, as is pointed out repeatedly by the work of several organizations across the country. Transparent Chennai in particular has been vocal about this point (Read their excellent editorial in The Hindu on the India’s invisible population). So while the media is seeing the drop in the number of slums as indicative of the political mainstreaming of India’s urban poor, much remains to be done for those who reside in slums and other unserviced areas in our cities.

It is also heartening to see the improvements in services. The report says that 93.5% of slums have power supply and 71% have access to drinking water. There has also been improvement in drainage, sewerage, garbage disposal, primary education and medical facilities ranges between 15% and 45% compared to the data from five years ago. This does indicate the de-linking of the service provisioning from legality and more integration of the slum into the urban fabric. And perhaps the ability of slum populations to access services outside the slum. We know that slum dwellers are not always poor, but sometime middle class people living in slums owing to negligible affordable housing stock in the formal sector.

One strange point

The majority of survey respondents (70.8%) cites better accommodation as the reason to move out from a slum. The initial analysis seems to point to the success of government schemes like JNNURM and RAY. However, the total number of homes added to the housing stock under these would probably not add up to 5 million, methinks though I have to check on this!

One question

Those of us who work in the sector will wonder about what specific improvements in the attitudes and policies of local and State governments towards existing slums could have brought about such a decrease in number. Evidence from the ground seems to show an ever increasing diversity in the types of squatter settlements and only marginal and isolated instances of positive governmental or collaborative interventions.

More analysis needed

Sure, these are off-the-cuff comments and someone (not me though) would need to analyze the results more thoroughly. It is encouraging to see more data being generated about urban informal habitats though. Slowly, it looks like many gaps in our understanding are getting filled. It is up to us, those who live and breathe this stuff, to overlay the data and the anecdotal evidence and come out with a more nuanced understanding of the situation. Not a mean task, but important and fun too!

Favellas/jhuggis deserve support not scorn from professionals #urbanism #housing

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 favella that has stood up to the Mayor in Rio

The favella that has stood up to the Mayor in Rio

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.

Vertical slums in Latin America, born out of relocating favella residents into high rise apartments

Vertical slums in Latin America, born out of relocating favella residents into high rise apartments

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.

The slum in the city, the slum and the city, the slum the city.....We really need to find a more engaged way to 'solve' this 'problem'!

The slum in the city, the slum and the city, the slum is the city…..We really need to find a more engaged way to ‘solve’ this ‘problem’!

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!

Slums can inspire, but what of it? Review of ‘Poor Little Rich Slum’- 9 Aug, 2012

Who can put down a book that showcases a series of tear-jerking, heart-warming success stories? Not me! And in that sense, Rashmi Bansal and Deepak Gandhi are spot on with their book Poor Little Rich Slum on Dharavi in Mumbai.

However, as a writer and an urban planner, I viewed the book through my critical lens and I must confess I’m not too impressed.

Don’t get me wrong. I am completely in agreement with the idea that informal settlements like Dharavi are the energy centers of our cities. Certainly, the innovation and zesty approach to life’s seemingly insurmountable problems that we urban practitioners see among slum dwellers makes most of ashamed of the often-whiny note we strike in our relatively comfortable middle class lives.

As an attempt to place India’s slums in a positive frame of reference among middle class readers, this is a great book. And perhaps the starting point we need. It is no mean effort to say in simple words what many experienced and intelligent people fail to see. And every effort, small or big, is needed to turn conventional thinking about slums on its head!

What NGOs, social entrepreneurs and slum dwellers already know is what the world out there needs to recognize. Not because its general knowledge, but because when the educated middle class accepts and understands their interdependence on slums is when sufficient pressure will be built on the system to take a reality check. As long as we are willing to pay exorbitant sums to buy swanky apartments on land that is carved out of evicting poor slum dwellers, the battle is one lost before it even began. So speaks the socialist in me, at any rate!

Somewhere towards the very end, after many stories of success, the book makes its main point, according to me. That redevelopment the way governments (pressurized by developers) see it, is not a future that is fair to slum dwellers. Not only does it take away what is meaningful, replacing it with lip service in the name of housing and infrastructure; it also means taking away homes and livelihood from many renters who are part of the vital life force of slums. Somehow improvement in the modern world seems to be synonymous with leaching away character and homogenizing everything into cookie cuter homes and people with horribly predictable lives. Clearly that’s not the way life is and certainly not life in the slums, the vibrancy of which the book brings out admirably.

What don’t I like? The book reads very much like a self-improvement book. It has, hidden in it very subtly, but unmistakably, a preachy tone. The slightly philosophical twist at the end of each tale was a nice touch, but in many instances, the words didn’t quite fit. “That’s what humans beings must do, with the fabric of life” at the end of a case on someone who runs a ladies’ tailoring business is nothing short of cheesy.

Poor Little Rich Slum is an attempt to simplify an incredible complex issue and package it cleverly for readers who have no exposure to the subject. It is intended to be an inspirational book, but fails to give a well-rounded picture. Yes, we need to create awareness, but I don’t agree we should do this by oversimplifying the story, by only talking about the success stories while neglecting to carry even a single not-so-happy experience? As I read the book, with experience of working in other slum areas in other cities in India, I wonder about how Dharavi has come to be the Mother Slum. Glorified in its tattered robes, the ultimate symbol of messy urbanism, the pin-up hero for those of us who want to give the poor a space, a voice.

Despite my minor reservations, what the book is doing is making me want to visit Dharavi. Now! I grew up in Mumbai and have visited and even spent entire days in slums and chawls tagging along with Manda, who was my nanny. I called her Mavshi and we would go to meet many of her relatives who lived in chawls and slums and mill housing. It was fun. I felt completely at home. But Dharavi was not one of these. It has come home to me, through this book and from other people’s narrations that Dharavi is special. Having worked in slums in Delhi, methinks it would be interesting to experience the Mother Slum!

Jaunt into the slums with two first timers-July 4, 2012

Going to the slums or an equivalent informal settlement is always a refreshing experience for me. Today, I had the delightful company of two undergraduates. Trap, a sociology major from Princeton and Isha, a history honours student from Chandigarh. We wove in and out of the narrow, winding streets where families sat and chatted, peeled vegetables and even napped, kids played and squabbled. One home had two bird cages with parrots in one and lovebirds in another, the indulgent resident looked lovingly at the birds and gave us a proud look when I patted the chirpers! We encountered many smiles and polite stares, no hostility. Isha wondered aloud about what we would do if such a visit got a hostile reaction. Frankly, it’s never happened to me!
On the outskirts of the slum, the young men hung out, jeering harmlessly, wondering about us and our intentions. Kids followed us. Isha had a conversation with one of them about school. He claimed he knew all his multiplication tables and then, cheekily, he wanted to know if she knew hers!
The amazing thing about informal settlements is their tremendous energy and the variety of activities. A walkabout can tell a lot about the income sources of the residents. We saw an all woman tiny workshop in which some sort of circuitry used in automobile horns was being assembled! The long line of hand pushcarts in the back lane told us many residents were vendors, most likely selling vegetables and fruits. Kabaadiwaalas were aplenty too and mountains of neatly segregated waste materials stood there awaiting transportation to different destinations where they would be recycled.
I was particularly enamoured by the charpais we saw- colourful and neatly woven, they told the story of a skill nearly lost but still valued here among the poor. Tonight, as cool monsoon winds blow outside and my terrace looks more inviting a place to rest than my still warm bedroom, I long to own one of those charming charpais.





What I learnt from conversations with the youth in urban slums: They crave opportunity and deserve support- April 9, 2012

A few of us friends met up for lunch yesterday. Randomly, someone observed that one can experience kindness from the most obscure sources, describing an incident when an auto driver was sympathetic and understanding, willing to forego his payment when she misplaced her wallet (he needed to wait a while and eventually got paid). Another friend remarked that kindness and understanding often came most spontaneously from those who themselves have so little to lose.

In my work with slum dwellers in the past year or so, I have often noticed the warmth with which we (who go in to research and sometimes help them) are treated, despite the fact that it is hard for them to trust people who come with promises to help, having experienced disappointments before. I am specially touched by my interactions with children and young people. These kids are usually bright, cheerful and enthusiastic, despite the harsh conditions of their life. In the urban slums I am referring to (specifically in Sundernagari in East Delhi and in the slums in Gurgaon), food may not be available to kids in plenty, but they show no signs of serious malnutrition.

Education is another story, however. In the slums of Delhi, kids do attend government school, but the quality of education is nothing to write home about and young people feel complexed and frustrated as they reach their teens, many dropping out in secondary school to seek domestic work and other forms of informal employment. In Gurgaon, slum children do not go to school at all and they sort of resent the fact that their parents make no effort at all!

When asked why they drop out, slum kids express a lack of confidence in being able to find employment. They are convinced that they will find it difficult to succeed in a world that gives opportunity only to those who speak English. It always seems strange they think like this, because I can think of a zillion types of jobs that require intelligence and hard work, not super fabulous communication skills and certainly not in English! I wonder if this is a BPO/KPO driven hype where poor urban youth sees thousands working in such set ups and see that as the modern form of white-collared mass employment? But seriously, it is a challenge for these young people to reconcile their very basic levels of education with available opportunities; and then put these in context of their aspirations, which in a world influenced by media and mobile technology, have changed considerably as well! In this scenario, I was pleased to read some NGOs making an effort to help slum youth find jobs. A lot more such initiatives would be needed, with counseling efforts to help these young people fit into modern working environments, develop a basic understanding of work ethics, rights and responsibilities, avenues for growth, etc.

Positivity in the face of disaster: Our experience at Gurgaon’s burnt down slum- March 31, 2012

A slum of about 80 houses burnt down in Sector 57 in Gurgaon yesterday.  When a group of us visited this morning, the sight was not pretty (see pics below). The fire happened in the daytime when everyone was at work but all the children were in the slum being watched by a few adults. By some miracle, no lives were lost. Everything these poor families possessed- clothes, vessels, savings, documents- was lost to the fire, that consumed the jhuggi in 12 minutes flat!

Staring at empty space where their homes stood just a day ago!

Charred remains of things essential

At site, we found people sitting around in various moods. Despondent, sad, industrious, belligerent, curious, resigned and even indifferent. We gathered within minutes that this is a community of migrants, predominantly Muslim, coming from West Bengal. A few families from Bihar, MP and UP live here as well, but relations are strained between the various linguistic groups.

Nobody is aggressive towards us though and they are more than willing to share information, talk about their lives, what they need, how things work or don’t work in their jhuggi, etc. In fact, some of the conversations are so normal to almost be surreal if you consider these people, who are already living on so little, just lost everything they have! They don’t focus on what they lost, they want to talk about how to rebuild their lives.

The realities of their lives hit me over and over, walking through the charred remains of their homes. Kids don’t go to school. Most residents are cleaners, domestic workers, rickshaw pullers, etc. Cellphones are common. The homes are tiny, most able to accomodate only about three adults sleeping side by side. Yet there were no tears, kids played around cheerfully, I saw little anguish and no greed for what we would possibley give them. Only an expression of genuine need.

Jhuggi dwellers told us that the first response was by the local mosque, which distributed clothes and provided food. The maulvi assured us when we spoke to him later, that the mosque would continue to supply food. Some government departments have reportedly provided some bits of help- a water tanker, some clothes, food. Our team that has had experience with disaster relief before (they ran the super successful Mission Julley in the aftermath of the Ladakh flash flood), felt immediate and sustained and above all, organized efforts are required to really meet the needs of these families.

A positive experience came in the form of a couple of contractors who were building on plots nearby. They had seen the jhuggi burn down yesterday and they were shaken. They promised to get together a group of their friends working in the vicinity to support our work monetarily or in whatever way possible, promptly sharing their contact information and standing with us till the end of the visit.

There’s a lot to be done and fast! We’re chalking out a plan to move ahead and help these families. I will convey the details soon via facebook and twitter.

My blog will continue to follow the story of this jhuggi for the next few days. I have in mind to write about the condition of housing and the system of administration in such communities, the unique systems they develop for survival in a harsh urban environment, the lack of initiative I observed in then to form a community and analysis of why, and of course, how we are able to help and our experiences whole doing so…..Keep reading!

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