Slum Biases

Mumbai is no stranger to slums. They are viewed as an ‘eyesore’ in an otherwise ‘modern’ city. According to the 2011 census of India, total number of Slums in Mumbai city numbers 1,135,514 in which a population of 5,206,473 resides. This is around 41.84% of total population of Mumbai city. 

UN-HABITAT defines a slum household as a group of individuals living under the same roof in an urban area who lack one or more of the following:

1. Durable housing of a permanent nature that protects against extreme climate conditions.

2. Sufficient living space which means not more than three people sharing the same room.

3. Easy access to safe water in sufficient amounts at an affordable price.

4. Access to adequate sanitation in the form of a private or public toilet shared by a reasonable number of people.

5. Security of tenure that prevents forced evictions.

In Mumbai, slums have two dimensions : from a legal perspective, laws that govern housing in Maharashtra state, use the term ‘slum’ as a descriptive category. According to the law, not all slums are illegal. But slums like Dharavi in Mumbai are unauthorized and illegal structures (as declared by a competent authority), where inhabitants do not have legal title to the land that they occupy. In terms of living conditions, slums are short of basic amenities and characterized by the prevalence of insanitary, overcrowded conditions, and hence become a source of danger to their inhabitants’ health, safety, or convenience.

There have been several instances of slums being demolished under the current model of slum redevelopment (see here and here). This leaves the residents of slums with very few options; either they are asked to move to areas that are far away from where they work or not provided with any alternate relocation options

The Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) works on a model for slum redevelopment that caters more to the needs of developers in the city. Over the years, the government has raised the floor space index (FSI) to incentivise slum redevelopment for developers. As one journalist mentions “instead of being seen as an issue, Mumbai’s slum problem is seen as a tool to cater to needs of the real estate”. 

There are problems with the way policy makers and administrators view urban slums, to come up with effective solutions we need to revisit our biases about slums and rethink our approach.

Robert Chambers, in his seminal work on rural development, provides rural biases that do not allow policy makers and academicians to fully understand and study the rural areas. Influenced by his work, this article proposes slum biases that hinder our understanding of slums.

Stokes (1962) views slums as spaces that are an exception to planning and are seen as spontaneous thus making them hard to define. The ways in which slums develop are viewed as very different from the planned spatial arrangements of the city. Slums are also viewed as spaces that open up when formal legal rights and laws are suspended (assumptions being that slum-dwellers do not own the land and have no right to be there in the first place, they have not worked hard enough to live in the city and hence should be done away with).

Slum-dwellers are seen as illiterate, poor and unemployed who have no right to belong in the city because they contribute negatively to the aesthetics of the city and hence should be sent back to the rural areas and the land should be better utilized. Especially in a city like Mumbai where real-estate prices are skyrocketing, builders and developers require more land and hence target the helpless and unaware slum-dwellers. Most slums actually have big cottage-industries or unorganized labour working which contributes to the local economy. They should be provided with access to marketplaces and regulated formal economic activity. Infact slums have been suggested as necessary for social mobility; they provide access to urban environments that are otherwise too expensive for the poor to afford.

 Most rehabilitation plans and projects assume that slum-dwellers will be better off in high-rises and that is the solution to all their woes. High rises have increased costs of maintenance that slum-dwellers cannot afford to pay for as these families often find it difficult to fulfill basic needs such as food and education. This is one of the reasons that slum-dwellers eventually sell or rent the houses that are provided to them and return to the slums.

Rural push and urban pull factors are responsible for a large amount of migration to urban areas. To really prevent the growth of slums, rural development must be analyzed. A large number of pavement and slum dwellers in Mumbai migrate from rural interiors of Maharashtra in search for employment because the rural areas do not provide adequate employment opportunities or due to a drought situation. These linkages must be understood for a better understanding of slum development. 

Slums need not be shunned or demolished as the problem still persists and will lead to further unrest and protest. Instead new interventions should be used that serve to enhance the quality of life in slums, retain the social networks that the poor use for their survival and make it a vital neighborhood. If such access to resources and policy approaches are adopted then slums can be transformed and brought into the planning process of urban areas. Slums should not be viewed as a space that is an exception to the rule but as something that has arisen out of a need for housing and employment.

Due to lack of options and no formal training or skills, slums dwellers are involved in activities such as rag-picking and waste segregation that is sold to recycling units. When planners and policy makers develop plans for slums they often overlook this important role that slums play in the urban environment. Slums thus take on the functions that civic bodies are supposed to provide in urban areas. These systems should be incorporated and regulated into mainstream formal economic activity. This is not to say that slum-dwellers should be relegated to such peripheral economic activities, but the adequate avenues to earn a decent living must be provided by policy makers when the need clearly exists.

By denying rights and access to resources and facilities, planners are helping keep slums as impoverished, poor, squalid spaces that are an eyesore that need to be demolished or rehabilitated. Partnering with NGOs and CBOs that have experience in intervening in these areas will help policy makers and planners gain insight into the lives of slum-dwellers.

If we want truly just and equitable urban spaces, then we need to consider all stakeholders in the planning process.

Vedika Inamdar

An earlier version of this article contained an incorrect legal definition of slums for the state of Maharashtra. This has been corrected. The author thanks Kartikeya Bahadur for this suggestion.