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Politics and urban geography: Do the poor have a voice or a place in Indian cities?

Political journalism in India is clearly divided into two camps, at least the way my eye sees it. There is the neo-liberal camp that at present has Modi as its poster boy. And there is the socialist camp that has defeated communists at one extreme and liberals floating around in it without a particular form of organisation. Intertwined within this dichotomy are the strains of religious communalism, identity politics (region, caste, class) and nationalism, that both camps use in their own way to justify their stands.

My specific interest in all of this has been the status of the urban poor, a community I’ve had the opportunity to work with and that I respect for their tenacity and street-smartness (that often contrasts with a certain surprising innocence). That political battles are increasingly being played out in urban geographies in our country is apparent.

This morning, I read a very interesting post by George Ciccariello-Maher, who is an assistant professor of political science at Drexel University in Philadelphia, on the intersection of politics and urban geography in Caracas. In tracing the history of the rich and poor settlements in the city, the author sheds light on some the mutual mistrust between the elite and the urban poor over time. Many of the phenomena the highlights are visible in cities like Delhi and Mumbai, in the past and in the present.

Synthesizing Ciccariello-Maher’s piece: Exclusion, segregation and the enduring nature of class conflict

1- Deliberate forms of exclusion: Gated communities, militarised exclusion and the creation of municipalities within the city to further enhance inequalities and ensure resources for the elite were some ways the rich separated themselves from the poor at a time when the barrios sprang up everywhere. Ciccariello-Maher’s points out, of course, that this was a reaction of fear of the poor (add to that the element of racism) who had risen in rebellion in ’80s (pre-Chavez) and had to be controlled per force!

2- Discomfort with the new-found voice of the poor: Social housing appeared as a key ingredient in Chavez’ socialism, in multiple forms. Not just new housing units built by the State, but also more recently, a strong demand for the granting of title for the poor so that they can live in self-managed housing. Ciccariello-Maher speaks about how the strengthening of housing for the poor is something the elite fear very much, inducing out-migration of the educated young from Caracas. To me, its interesting that his discourse is still focused on segregation and suggests that decades of socialism have not given the poor a leg-up or eased the social segregation in any significant way. If true, it does support my hypothesis that housing security is vital for larger social transformations.

The poor in urban India: Do we fear them? Hell, no!

What does this mean for India where the voices of the poor are still not loud enough, where the elite have an enormous sense of entitlement and security (they don’t foresee a rebellion) and where the government continues to refrain from taking bold decisions on providing housing security to those who do not have any? If one assumes that the rebellion is a long time coming, it only means inclusion still remains a distant dream. As long as professionals and practitioners like us, who belong to the elite but empathize with the poor, continue to remain apolitical, its not likely the status quo will change. Is that case for renewed activism? Or a case for a change in profession for people like me!

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!

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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!

Castles in the air: Delhi govt, don’t put slumdwellers in highrises without consulting them!

A day after I blogged about the opportunity Delhi would miss by not consulting citizens and involving young design to¬† inform the redevelopment of large tracts of government land in the city centre, an article coauthored by my colleague Gregory Randolph and myself has been carried in The Hindu’s op-ed page. The piece, titled ‘Castles in the Air‘ speaks out against the government’s subvertion of due process in a bizarre scheme to relocate thousands of slum-dweller families in 17-story highrises. It underlines that a lack of community consultations and environmental analysis means that the new homes are unsuitable to the lifestyles of the poor who will be forced to sell and return to a slum. In effect, the project is a nightmare and set to fail, a tregedy that can be avoided.

It is, of course, a huge honour for us at mHS to be published in The Hindu and it is fitting that they should have helped us voice our plea for a serious re-think on attitudes towards housing for the urban poor. For those of you from outside India, The Hindu is one of the country’s most respectable daily newspapers and is renowned for calling a spade a spade! As a friend put it, the column we got covered in is usually reserved for opinions on current issues and has carried pieces by eminent people like veteran journbalist P Sainath and Nobel Laureate economist Paul Krugman, no less!

But beyond the thrill of being published, I hope articles like these generate more serious debates on the need for participative planning processes. For there is no argument that these are the cornerstone for inclusive and sustainable urban development. In a rapidly urbanizing world, it is time experts and non-experts alike, indeed all of us living an urban existence, dwell upon these issues that urgently impact our present and our future.

Appalled by government apathy towards providing affordable shelter: The case of Gurgaon

The longer I work in the low-income housing sector, the more appalled I am by government apathy towards providing shelter, one of the most basic human rights upheld by the Constitution of India as well as in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which India is not merely a signatory but a nation that has played an active role in drafting the declaration!

Over the years, governments have distanced themselves from the role of provider of housing, citing the need for private investment. The bald truth is that private developers have no reason to build homes for lower income groups as long as the middle and high income markets continue to offer good returns. Government intervention is therefore essential. Various models to deliver affordable homes are being adopted by States across India. However, much distance lies between promises made and achievements on ground.

Take Haryana for instance. In 2009, the Haryana government declared it would build 100,000 low cost homes across the state- 40,000 in Gurgaon, and 30,000 each in Faridabad and Panchkula. These are urban centers in the state that border the cities of Delhi and in the last case, Chandigarh.

In Gurgaon, the State government intended to build homes on 200 acres of land and these homes were to be prices between Rs 4 and 16 lakhs. Unit sizes were to be 270 and 520 square feet. Clearly, these homes were targeting LIG households in the city.

In a departure from the way governments have traditionally acted in building homes themselves (DDA in Delhi, for example), the Haryana government decided to distribute licenses to private builders to construct these affordable homes. A planning department official has told the media that about five such licenses have been granted, but refused to divulge the locations of these projects or any other details. The land for these projects, however, has not been acquired. The state town planning department’s website apparently shows that only 21 acres out of the total 200 (11.26 acre at Sector 67 and 10.06 acre at Sector 93) are actually available for this scheme. Meanwhile, developers have rapidly acquired land in the sectors demarcated in the Gurgaon Manesar Master Plan 2031 and it seems that the government is playing into the hands of the builder lobby rather than protecting the interests of the citizens.

Citizens groups and the media has alleged that HUDA has not acquired any land to build government housing or sell plots that would be affordable to the middle class either, leave alone provide shelter options to the poor. The last time plots were auctioned at affordable rates was in 2008 in Sector 57.

My fellowship research is attempting to study the possibilities of evolving an inclusive approach to housing in this city. My initial sense is that there has been a definite (and deliberate?) failure of the government to do its duty. Now, with land prices extremely high on the back of anticipated rapid development of the demarcated sectors in the city, there is little hope of the poor being accommodated easily. How is this city going to survive if it continues to deny shelter and even the most basic living conditions to its supply of labor, that essential workforce that is an important pillar that supports the city’s economy? My research attempts to prove that the poor have a stake in this city’s story, that they do have the resources to survive and they will, if only they were given a chance and recognized as stakeholders rather than as nuisances to be swept under the carpet!

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