Understanding slum dwellers: Part 1 – “Slum dweller”

By: Surili Sheth, Analyst

I use the term “slum dweller” as a descriptive phrase – and I choose to use it because it is how people living in slums refer to themselves, it describes the place they live (which is the subject of this post), and it acknowledges the existence of the type of informal settlement that a billion people in the world live in today – slums.

Slum policy

In developing an understanding of slum development policy, institutions have often failed to take services, environment, and community, and how these are linked to the physical structures and productivity of the people living in the slum, into consideration.

There are three major, interconnected aspects to slums that policymakers are generally concerned about:

1)     The unused or underutilized economic worth – market/productive capacity – of the people living in the slum.

2)     What part the slum (both the physical infrastructure and the people within it) plays in the larger context of the city, state, or country.

3)     The deprivations and poverty the people living in a slum face.

 Often, the connections between these three aspects go unrecognized and they are treated as separate issues in policies that attempt to address the informal settlements. I argue that a true inclusive development policymaker must possess an adequate understanding of all three, using India as an example.

Slums and Affordable Housing Policies in India

Public sector approaches. Early efforts by the Government of India to provide affordable housing to low-income populations were through public sector housing programs for purposes of rehabilitation of the refugee population, redevelopment of slums, housing for economically disadvantaged sectors and low-income groups, and making serviced land available to the poor. In the initial phases, the government’s efforts relied heavily on providing finished social housing to the populace. Various financial instruments and shelter delivery mechanisms were instituted and housing boards and authorities at different levels of government were set up for this provision. These newly created agencies were funded through financial institutions that supported large-scale programs.

Unfortunately, the poor benefitted the least from these public housing policies. According to one estimate, approximately 85% of the expenditures on construction of dwellings by housing boards went to high-income groups and middle-income groups, while low-income groups and economically weaker sections received only 8% and 7%, respectively (The Inclusive City). Additionally, the houses constructed for the poor by public agencies eventually were instead bought by upper-income groups, because they were priced beyond a low-income family’s capacity to pay, despite subsidies by the government. In other instances, higher-income groups obtained public housing units directly by using means such as concealing their true income or using surrogate people as applicants.

The total number of houses constructed by public agencies under these initial programs was too small to have any perceptible impact on the housing problem, and there was a significant lack of maintenance of the structures and public facilities, and thus a significant lack of sustainability of the entire approach.

Simultaneously pursued policies of slum clearance and rehabilitation of housing, with resettlement programs structured under inadequate public housing programs, resulted in the poor being displaced without resources. Slum demolition continues to be a reality in many Indian slums – approximately 200,000 households in four metro cities, Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Ahmedabad were evicted in the two years between 2004-2006, and slum demolitions still continue. In Ahmedabad, in the three year period from 2006-2008, 30,000 households were displaced (Mahadevia).

Partnerships. The private sector has played an important role in the provision of housing in India, but its efforts have mainly focused on housing for middle and higher income households. The Government of India’s National Housing and Habitat Policy (2007) attempted to bring in the private sector to play a role in affordable housing, and to decentralize housing policy. The policy stressed the need for adequate infrastructure (including social infrastructure), strong Public-Private Partnerships, and the role of the cooperative and corporate sectors. It delegated the task of providing housing to state government and other state agencies, with the central government playing the role of facilitator. It also recommended instituting a social mandate on the private sector, advising actors within it to reserve a specific percentage of housing for the poor in their projects. To solve the problem of inefficient housing for the poor, this approach recommended building cost-effective houses for them while simultaneously increasing their purchasing power by linking economic growth to employment.

In Gujarat, Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement at the 2013 Vibrant Gujarat forum to create 5 million affordable homes through Public-Private Partnership is an example of a state government initiative for affordable housing utilizing partnerships. However, the private actors that are competing for the contracts are mainly large-scale developers with potentially little experience or knowledge about the needs of the populations that the created affordable housing is supposed to target.

Though public-private partnership for affordable housing development is an improvement upon the public sector housing and demolition model, it still remains a model that is based on producing new homes for the urban poor (the majority of whom live in slums and have their own communities already), and uses the private sector as more of an entity to contract production of housing units out to rather than a holistic methodology to address the large percentage of the population living in the slums in a participatory manner. These affordable housing policies are missing a key aspect of slums: understanding the people living in the slum and informal systems they have created and live within.

Some states have recognized a few helpful aspects of these informal system – for example, Madhya Pradesh has enacted laws giving no-eviction guarantees to squatters (patta laws). Most recently, the flagship Rajiv Awaas Yojana (RAY) program, instituted by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation of the Government of India, envisages that each state create a “slum-free plan of action” to both upgrade existing slums and prevent the creation of new ones, and its guidelines aim to bring private sector and community based organizations into the fold. Again, understanding slum populations is key to making such a plan evolve from a set of normative guidelines to a practically implementable and effective program.

4 thoughts on “Understanding slum dwellers: Part 1 – “Slum dweller”

  1. Pingback: Surili Sheth – Understanding Slum Dwellers: Part 1 – “Slum Dweller”

  2. Pingback: Inclusive Development and Slum Housing

  3. Pingback: IntelleCash » Blog Archive » Inclusive Development and Slum Housing

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