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For Mumbai, slum-free plan may not work

By Mahesh Vijapurkar
November 19, 2009 15:54 IST
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The Centre's plan to rid cities of slums is of universal interest because even the smallest urban areas have them in one measure or the other. This slum-free plan of the Centre would be of particular interest to Mumbai which has the dubious distinction of being the world's slum capital because more than half the population lives in them.

Now, it has been proposed that each of the slum-dweller would be entitled to a loan of Rs 1 lakh with a subsidy in the interest levied on that so that he or she could own a place. In short, move out of the slum into a place he owns. That, as far as thoughts go, is laudable. But is it practical? My fear is that it would not work, certainly not in Mumbai.

It is so gigantic an issue that it tends to defy solutions simply because the will, especially political will, is lacking. It is so because there is a vested interest in retaining the slums for the benefit of the non-slum residents of Mumbai and for the benefit of the politicians who help foster such colonies because the votes are an attraction. No slum dweller likes to be in the slum, he has not come here because it is his choice; he has come here because livelihood is his intent and takes the hardships of living in shanties in his stride

The slum dweller is without an alternative of whatsoever kind.

This new plan would not work because for that kind of money one could hardly imagine getting a postal stamp-sized patch of land or floor area. That is especially so if the potential beneficiaries choose not to move far from their present place of stay -- the slum which is usually close to their work place, or in a cluster from where they can participate in the informal economy of the city.

Where would the slum-dweller go with that newly acquired liability that would fire his aspirations? To distant Karjat where the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority is building pigeonhole flats to be given on rent? Nowhere else can on hope to get a place that is so ridiculously priced to be affordable and capable of being financed by a loan of Rs 1 lakh.

There is another side to the story that is Mumbai-specific. It is the sheer size of the problem. On the basis of the 2001 Census, the area encompassed by the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, 54.1 per cent of the entire population were staying on some 7-9 per cent of the total land area, making for compact but extremely overcrowded slums.

That accounts for more than 64 lakh people in slums. If you decide the number on a pro-rata basis, taking the population of about 1.3 cr to 1.4 crore now, the slum population is likely to be, if not more than, some 73 lakh persons. If it is reckoned that four people constitute a family, some 18 lakh affordable dwellings would be needed. It is not realistic to expect that any steps towards being a slum-free city would materialise at all for two reasons: the slow speed at which all government projects work and the addition in the meantime to the slum population.

So far, all or any projects that were aimed at eradication of slums have come to a virtual nought because of the sheer size of the population involved and the lack of space to locate affordable housing. Even the slum rehabilitation programme initiated in 1995-96 failed because it was unrealistic in that it sought to cross subsidise the slum apartments by sale of flats in the open market. At every turn, the project got stymied because they were driven by the greed of the builders dubbed developers.

At that time, Manohar Joshi was the Chief Minister, Dinesh Afzalpurkar the Chief Secretary and D T Joseph the Slum Rehabilitation Authority chief , the last named officially informed the government that such programmes were flawed because it depended on market forces. What Joseph wrote to the government then holds good today. One needs to just stand back and look at the twists and turns of the Dharavi redevelopment scheme to marvel at Joseph's insight into the issue. But such wisdom has always been sidestepped.

Mumbai's slum removal schemes have been marked by flaws of one kind or the other.

  • Demolish dwellings, uproot people, and transport them to places outside Mumbai.
  • Talk of slum eradication but surreptitiously connive with slumlords who are now politicians and officials to promote more of them.
  • Plan cooperatives of slum dwellers and allow them to be at the mercy of the developer who is scarce inclined to house the slum dwellers and the gentry who pay market prices to live together because the latter turn their faces away from such projects.
  • Let the developer dictate the terms and end up with no projects at all.
  • It is surprising that the slum dwellers have so far not revolted and asked the government to pack up and go because, from their point of view, the slums are not a problem but a spontaneous solution to the housing problem in Mumbai which has always been behind the demand curve, the supply kept short deliberately so that progressively higher prices can rule.

    The city has had a perennial shortage of dwellings in all categories. The Census statistics from 1961 to 2001 reveal that it has always been behind the demand. If in 1961, there were 803,023 households in Mumbai, there were only 767,730 residential houses of all kinds, slums included. In 2001, the differential was stronger at 1.69 lakh houses short.

    This is a huge backlog and ideas like Rs 1 lakh loans, even with an interest subsidy is not likely to ever solve the crisis, as if the money meant is for someone in distant villages where the land is so cheap that a dwelling can be built or bought with that sum. Yes, in Mumbai's slums, such sums can help transact one business -- key money, known as pagri to occupy an illegal property built on an illegally occupied land and to be paid to a muscleman-cum-politician.

    Time, therefore, to think of another way because what is proposed, despite the lofty intent, is too little, too late therefore, quite pointless.

    Mahesh Vijapurkar is a senior journalist and commentator

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