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Mumbai's neglect of slums

July 29, 2009 14:41 IST

Often we hear and read about the plans to clear Mumbai of its slums. Also about the time-consuming decision making on the redevelopment of Dharavi, touted as the largest Asian slum, as if that festering wound on a civic space is a matter of pride.

The slums ought to be cleared and people have housing which are good, affordable and enable them to lead a civilised life. But in Mumbai, I think it is an uphill task, possibly intractable. And there are several reasons why it would most certainly be hopelessly intractable. I think Mumbai would find it extremely difficult to become slum-free.

One is the sheer size of the problem. Not all spaces are large and centrally located for the private builders to step in, use the extra FSI allotted to him to make his money and subsidise the flat for the poor souls forced to live in the teeming slums in conditions which are inhuman. That "inhuman" is an understatement.

Difficulties

Even if Dharavi and a few large slum clusters are redeveloped on the lines proposed for Dharavi, there are a whole lot of others which can be difficult to deal with because they are along roadsides, along the rail tracks, on footpaths and even narrow strips along the pipelines that bring water to the city. It would not attract the builder; there is no money to be made there.

The fact is, even the much acclaimed, critiques and hoped for redevelopment of Dharavi remains a dream as of now. Now that elections to the legislature are round the corner, some movement may be seen soon but not enough, perhaps, to warrant hope that we are beginning to get traction on the problem. Perhaps, that is all and no more for now.

There is this other factor. Over half of the population of the city of gold and hope live in slums which are built on just six, yes, just six per cent of the city's land area. That should explain the difficulty in finding lands for rehabilitation while the hungry, rapacious developers are eyeing other lands, saying there is no land available for even formal, commercially built housing.

Apart from these considerations, the overwhelming numbers that need to be relocated into liveable habitations are too large notwithstanding Pranab Mukherjee's pious intention, voiced in his Budget statement, to make all cities slum-free.

Facts

Here are some facts about the slums of Mumbai that can boggle one's imagination: as per the 2001 census, only 45.94 per cent of the population live in places which are not slums. This means a majority of the people live in slums, so Mumbai should belong to them. But save for pious rant to do good for them, little has ever happened. Whatever has happened is too little and too slow. The slums are a case of deliberate neglect.

Given that the city has had additions to its population since the last headcount in 2001, the number of people who have accrued to the slums of Mumbai would have also gone up proportionately. Now that the Maharashtra government is considering making all slums built till the cut-off year of 2000 -- it is now 1995 -- the number of people who get protection and have to be provided alternative housing goes up substantially.

Pretence

I would like to judge the state -- here the civic body is also to be treated as a proxy to the state -- on two yardsticks. One is the benign approach to the issue of slums and their proliferation, not because it is a humane way of civic governance but because of the mendacious greed of its politicians and officials who become rich because of the slums. The second is the pretence of providing services to the slum populations.

A visit to a slum, any slum, for that matter, would reveal that the so-called slum improvement is a whole lot of hogwash. This, despite the fact that the civic body charges the slum dwellers Rs 20-22 per slum unit as "nominal charges" for basic services like roads. There are slums where one cannot walk on any space except what doubles up as an extension of the dwelling where many things are done including washing and cleaning. It is also the space through which the filth flows from the households.

A non-slum dweller seldom visits a slum, pretending it does not exist save for the services he gets from that population to make his own life better. For the people living in the hovels, it does not come cheap. They have paid the slumlords, the officials till they bled.

Appalling

The appalling sores on the cityscape also speak volumes of the fortitude of the people. It is surprising that they swallow because of the simple realisation of the fact that they have colonised spaces that do not legally, title-wise, belong to them. Take for instance the water supply -- meagre, if at all any. Toilets -- that is another horror story and we talk of 'basic services' at a notional cost to the slum dwellers.

There are statistics to show that in slums of Mumbai, where the civic authorities claim that they have 'provided' toilets, as many as 35 to 160 people share a toilet seat which are not necessarily child-friendly. This is in toilets where water supply is either non-existing, less than meagre and at best, uncertain. Puke, if you can visualise how it would be to use them. MLAs, city corporators are also claim that they have build toilets using the funds provided to them to spend on public good at their discretion.

Huge scale

I am not intending to get into the entire gamut of issues of slums here but was trying to present a picture of negligence of those who matter and the forbearance of those who are supposed to be beneficiaries of the civic managers. They are actually their victims. In this scenario, given the size, the population, issues of the location advantage of the slums to the workplaces of the slum dwellers etc., re-housing them would be enormous. The scale is of proportions that defy imagination.

But it has to be done. All I am saying is that it cannot be done easily. It needs a conscience, a tremendous political will, any amount of tenacity of the officials who would need to change their mindset and cease looking at slum dwellers as a statistical number from which illegitimate wealth can be made. My fear is that this problem would persist, fester and explode.

Mahesh Vijapurkar is a Thane-based commentator and former deputy editor of The Hindu

Mahesh Vijapurkar