New Internationalist

Bare Earth, Fine Hopes

Issue 290

Bare earth, fine hopes
Relocation brings respite, but politicians are suddenly promising the earth...

The hunger-strikers succeeded. Today the people of Sanjay Gandhi Nagar live on a new site more than 20 kilometres from their old homes.

Before the relocation took place in 1987, the police made one more raid against the dwellings which people had built on the pavement and looted their belongings – a gesture of revenge on the part of the Additional Collector, the official in charge of demolitions, a man unused to being defeated by slumdwellers.

Then the Dinshaw Trust, a private charity which owned land in Dindoshi, Malad East, came forward with an offer of ‘temporary’ relocation. Each family was given a piece of land five metres by four metres to build a house. The legal formalities were undertaken, women were issued with bank books. Money was spent on levelling the land at Malad – money for fencing and truckloads of kachera or solid waste to level the terrain.

Great red rocks form a boundary on one side. The other boundaries are a second cavity from which stone was quarried and the back walls of an adjacent slum’s huts. The place is arid and desiccated; shadowless sunshine pours like hot liquid onto the stone; a few spindly acacia trees and succulents huddle in the shelter of a rock.

The piece of ground is H-shaped: in the middle is a 12-metre hollow where stone was excavated for buildings. In the monsoon this becomes a deep and dangerous pond as well as a dumping ground for rubbish which the Municipality does not collect. The place is remote and inhospitable, but when they first came here the relief at not having to live on the pavements, at being free from police harassment, made the people weep for joy.

They have been here for ten years now. The plot of land is owned by the Residents Association, who hope to be able to build on it as part of the Slum Redevelopment Scheme. This Scheme is seen as a vote-winner by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its coalition partner the Shiv Sena; the extreme Hindu communalist parties now running the Government of Maharastra.

The idea for the Scheme was floated by Shiv Sena, leader Bal Thackeray five years ago. When I interviewed him in the mid-1980s soon after the Shiv Sena victory, he told me that he had just visited Chicago. He had climbed to the top of one of the tallest buildings and looked down to see the traffic flowing freely. ‘That’, he said firmly, ‘is how Bombay will be’.

Under the Scheme, all those living in slum communities who came to the city before 1 January 1995 (about four million people) will be given free housing. This will be achieved by selling the land occupied by slums to builders, on condition that they construct concrete apartments for all slumdwellers on the site. On the remaining land they will be allowed to build for the open market. If re-housing the poor requires a greater proportion of the land than expected, the builders will be able to transfer their rights to free-market building in other parts of the suburbs.

Each slum household, properly identified, would under the new plan be entitled to a 70-square-metre apartment in a multi-storeyed building on the same plot. The BJP-Shiv Sena coalition see it as a means of transforming the lives of Mumbai’s four million slum dwellers – and gaining their votes in the process.

Some of the more thoughtful people have protested. When did you ever hear of poor people being given something for nothing? Gurubai Koli says the land was given to the people as a secure place to live, not a speculative commodity to sell. This, however, is not a popular argument with the prospect of great wealth. How can we be sure that we will be allowed to occupy the flats when they are completed? How do we know we will not be cheated? asks Shravan Maishe.

By a strange turn of fate, this scheme was elaborated by Dinesh Afzalpurkar, the former Housing Secretary for whom Gurubai once worked, and who was responsible for the evictions which drove the people of Sanjay Gandhi Nagar here in the first place.

Afzalpurkar, now head of the Mumbai Port Trust, has been a significant figure in the city for many years. His blueprint for free housing for the poor marks a complete reversal of his earlier attitude: where he was once eager to be rid of squatters, he now fulsomely acknowledges their role and place in the city economy, recognizing that ‘the slums and hutment dwellers of unauthorized structures form an integral part of this vibrant metropolis’.

His report goes on: ‘Slumdwellers have not willingly chosen their shanty structures and unhygienic environment, but have been driven to this option due to compelling circumstances as they were thrown out of the formal housing sector, the latter being unaffordable and far beyond their income levels. It is imperative to enhance their standard of living, for which an authorized dwelling unit is a first step in the right direction.’

Even if we overlook the bureaucratese of ‘an authorized dwelling unit’ (which suggests that control is at issue rather than freedom), this is the first time the public authorities have ever conceded that those who provide cheap labour have an entitlement to proper lodging in the city they serve.

‘This,’ says Gurbir Singh of Nivara Hakk, ‘is something which the people’s movements and non-governmental organizations must use to our advantage. We cannot necessarily take it at its face value. If it is something more than an election gimmick, it must be a longer-term strategy to induce people to go back to the villages, to get the poor to leave Mumbai. But that isn’t going to stop others coming. In fact, even if people go home with what seems a small fortune, it will soon be used up on buying a piece of land, building a house, or just surviving. Either they or their children will be forced to migrate to Mumbai all over again, once more with nothing, to squat in new, insecure slums on the far periphery of the city.’

Meanwhile, the deal must be agreed to by 70 per cent of the people of any slum. There was no problem in gaining overwhelming support from the people in Sanjay Gandhi Nagar: the prospect of being given an apartment, for occupation or sale, is very tempting. And hope remains extraordinarily tenacious, even among those who over 20 years have been repeatedly cheated, worsted and swindled by more powerful social and economic forces.

A Scheme or a Scam?
– options for improving the lives of the poor.

In the five years since the Slum Redevelopment Scheme has been in existence, barely 250 projects have so far been cleared. Work has begun in 47 cases. About 1,500 families have so far received their free houses, or are about to receive them. Even if all 250 proposals are implemented, this will cover only 50,000 families, less than five per cent of the target group.

A number of factors have undermined the grandiose vision.

[image, unknown] Builders have been lukewarm in the absence of any government money; and the big developers have shown no interest.

[image, unknown] Developers are required to find temporary accommodation for slumdwellers.

[image, unknown] Property prices have tumbled. Given the high cost of real estate in Mumbai, it was assumed that the high rate of return for the saleable component of the slum plots would easily subsidize the rehabilitation element. Over the past 18 months, though, property prices have declined by between 30 and 50 per cent.

[image, unknown] The Scheme is unacceptable to older slums. A large number contain small and cottage industries and even small engineering works. There would be no space for such activities in the new apartments. Moreover, many residents have built an upper storey, so their available space already far exceeds what they would be allotted under the Scheme.

[image, unknown] Maintenance costs are high. Most slum-dwellers have few costs. High-rise buildings, in contrast, require high repair and maintenance bills – anything up to 1,000 rupees ($40) a month, compared with a current outlay of only 25 to 50 rupees a month.

[image, unknown] The Scheme has caused social conflict. In many slums the required 70-per-cent consent of the people has proved unattainable, and in some slums there have been disputes and feuds over who speaks with the majority voice.

The upshot of all this is that shady and fly-by-night operators have been the only ones showing an interest in the Scheme. Local slumlords and political mafia often hook up with such people, with the result that some slums have been evicted without any rehabilitation scheme at all. Law and order in some slums has seriously deteriorated.

Nivara Hakk suggests a wider range of options:

[image, unknown] Government should resume responsibility for upgrading existing slums.

[image, unknown] Those evicted by essential public works should receive alternative accommodation.

[image, unknown] Co-operative development should be encouraged, whereby the slumdwellers themselves develop their sites.

[image, unknown] Bona fide developers should not have to compete with the mafia and crooked operators.

[image, unknown] Officials should be compelled to do their job properly.

Nivara Hakk also opposes the Shiv Sena’s repeated calls for a permit system controlling entry into the city. This policy, ostensibly designed to keep out Bangladeshis, is actually designed to intimidate minority communities.

The only way the life of the slums can be improved is to give land tenures to slum co-operatives to develop as they choose. ‘Land to the slumdweller’ must be the policy for humane and effective development; the governmental role must be limited to providing infrastructural facilities, cheap finance and a supply of building materials at controlled rates.

Stop Press: Since the Shiv Sena/BJP won a commanding majority in the local elections the media has gone silent on the Scheme.

Gurbir Singh

Goto the contents page. Goto the NI homepage


This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7

Comments on Bare Earth, Fine Hopes

Leave your comment