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Why Indian slums are allowed to grow, and then demolished

Recently, a months-old war between the central government and the state government of Delhi, a prosperous city-state, escalated over the demolition of a large slum in Shakur Basti in west Delhi and the eviction of those who lived there—just as winter approached. Photo: PTIPremium
Recently, a months-old war between the central government and the state government of Delhi, a prosperous city-state, escalated over the demolition of a large slum in Shakur Basti in west Delhi and the eviction of those who lived there—just as winter approached. Photo: PTI

The persistence of Delhi's so-called slum problem is a matter of concern in a nation whose rapid economic growth is powered by the engine of cities

In the months to the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi, an Indian minister visiting London said there was no such thing as slums any longer in India. They are now urban clusters, the minister said in reply to a question on the demolition of slums. Authorities in Beijing had done much the same before the Olympic Games in 2008 and journalists were just curious to know what Delhi had learnt from the Chinese. Not much, was the general consensus after the minister’s press conference.

The Games weren’t an exception. Shanty towns have been shunted out to the outer perimeters of this massive city. But the urban poor in India are never very far away from the news.

Recently, a months-old war between the central government and the state government of Delhi, a prosperous city-state, escalated over the demolition of a large slum in Shakur Basti in west Delhi and the eviction of those who lived there—just as winter approached. Around 1,200 homes were razed, leaving thousands, including women and children, with nowhere to go.

The land on which the slum stood is owned by the Indian Railways, which is run by the central government. But looking after slum-dwellers is the responsibility of the Delhi government, and its chief minister Arvind Kejriwal took it personally. The death of an infant either in the minutes before the demolition or during it—it remains unclear which—brought out the human aspect of the move.

“A child has died here," said Kejriwal, a feisty man. “It is a very sad thing and I think that a murder case should be registered against the officers. Compensation will be taken from them. It should be deducted from the salaries of the officers who have conducted these raids." The Railways denied any link between the death and the demolition and said the land needed to be cleared because people had moved too close to the tracks, posing “a serious problem for train operations".

The persistence of Delhi’s so-called slum problem—described as eye sores and a nuisance by middle-class residents and blamed for petty crime—is a matter of concern in a nation whose rapid economic growth is powered by the engine of cities.

India is home to more than 65 million so-called slum dwellers, living in 108,000 slums across the country, according to Census 2011. The largest number, more than 21,000 slums, was reported in the state of Maharashtra. These figures appear mindboggling; but as the death of the infant illustrates, there is also a human story to be told.

According to American academic D. Asher Ghertner, who heads the South Asia studies programme at Rutgers University, more than a million slum dwellers were displaced in Delhi alone between 1998 and 2008 as demolitions gathered pace. The number of slums razed by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi and the Delhi Development Authority rose tenfold from 1995-99 to 2000-04.

Ghertner puts down much of this increase to “the judiciary’s expanded role in demanding slum clearance"—often the result of writ petitions filed by resident welfare associations calling for the removal of a neighbouring slum. And the legal provision cited increasingly by Delhi’s middle-class is the nuisance law. Nuisance is defined in Indian law as “any act, omission, injury, damage, annoyance or offence to the sense of sight, smell, hearing or which is or may be dangerous to life or injurious to health or property".

Arun Jain, a US-based urban strategist and currently guest professor at the Institute for Urban and Regional Planning (known as ISR) at the Technical University of Berlin, said Shakur Basti appeared to point to a gap in housing and the need for fair compensation.

“Generally speaking, it’s better to legitimize slums, rather than aim to push their residents out. Part of the legitimization process should include fair compensation for the legal landowner, but the bulk of the response should be a location specific set of interventions (such as better basic infrastructure) and related investments that result in a net improvement in the lives of residents.

“If the goal is to help people and improve their lives, then all related actions need to be driven by what makes the process most comfortable for those who need it. Happy people make better citizens," he said.

Other experts highlight deeper issues that have to do with the process of development. An important underlying reason for such demolition drives is land, according to Dunu Roy, an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay and an ex-engineer who runs a Delhi-based non-profit called the Hazard Centre, which helps marginalized communities cope with changing circumstances. “It’s the logic of development. Land is sold at a high price, but how did it acquire this value? It’s because of the unpaid labour of slum dwellers. Keeping people in a state of perpetual insecurity—both at work (most slum dwellers are in the unorganized sector) and in housing—is good for economic growth," Roy said.

Once evicted, slum dwellers will reorganize their lives in another location, building another slum and helping develop that piece of land, thus helping raise its value until—after, say, three or four years—their homes are demolished again, mostly to make for commercial units or homes for the middle class.

I asked Roy if there wasn’t a moral issue over driving out citizens from their homes. “Yes," he said with a hint of irony. “Morality is embedded in the law itself."

How so? The Slum Area Improvement and Clearance Act of 1956 defines slums as “those residential areas where dwellings are in any respect unfit for human habitation by reasons of dilapidation, overcrowding, faulty arrangements and designs of such buildings, narrowness or faulty arrangement of streets, lack of ventilation, light, sanitation facilities or any combination of these factors which are detrimental to safety, health and morals."

There are, of course, strict laws governing the process of eviction in Delhi; they include serving several notices, conducting surveys of households, and rehousing schemes under which a slum dweller can buy land or a flat for a fixed sum and on lease from the government. But these rules are often broken to deny them their rights, while the fixed price for land or flat is revised upwards and the lease period shortened constantly.

It’s worth noting that India’s Census 2011 makes an indirect comment on the nation’s economic growth trajectory while explaining the growth of slums. “Higher productivity in the secondary/tertiary (i.e., manufacturing and services) sector against primary sector (farming) makes cities and towns centres of economic growth and jobs," it says.

Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1

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