June 24, 2011 10:03 pm
The Dharavi slum in Mumbai
Everyone in Mumbai can point out billionaire Mukesh Ambani’s 27-story residential skyscraper in the heart of the city, and even the poor look upon it with something like pride. With its helipads, palatial reception rooms and private car-servicing facility neatly stacked into the sky, it reflects the key dynamic driving property development in Mumbai today: in the world’s most crowded city, with an average population density of 20,038 per sq km, verticality is seen as both a necessity and a virtue.
While the rich love high-rises for their glamour and views, the more than 8m people who live in Mumbai’s slums are being forced into vertical living, as powerful property developers seek profits amid the city’s desperate shortage of land. Although in principle the redevelopment of slums offers residents better living conditions, it has become intensely controversial as many are left homeless and corruption runs rampant.
Mumbai’s slums have existed for decades. Most dwellings are built with cement blocks and have electricity and running water. What residents lack is title to the land beneath their homes – and proper sewers. As the city has mushroomed in recent decades, the slums have spread and become denser, and many occupy potentially prime locations. In April, a newspaper estimated the value of the land covered by Mumbai’s slums at nearly $24bn, which begs the question – why can’t market forces make the slums disappear?
More than half of Mumbai’s population of 12.4m are slum-dwellers. They are working poor and lower-middle class, by no means destitute, but unable to afford Mumbai’s sky-high rents. Although they are poor relative to buyers of luxury high-rises, they have something else that counts: the slums are known locally as “vote banks”, since whoever wins the slums has a hefty block of the electorate in the bank.
The tremendous density of slums is the result of a bargain: residents accept intense crowding in exchange for affordability and the all-important factor of being close to their jobs. In slums, every inch of space is used. No space is devoted to roads or parking, only footpaths, and some workshops double as bunkhouses at night.
“There is no way to rebuild the slums and attain the same density, because in a planned development you have to build roads,” says Matias Echanove of the Institute for Urbanology, an NGO in Mumbai’s biggest slum. Many slum residents walk to work, and indeed work in the slums themselves. “If slum-dwellers were rehoused elsewhere and they had to commute, public transport would collapse,” Echanove says. “Slums are pedestrian zones and place very little load on public infrastructure.”
India saw a wave of slum demolitions in the 1970s during the Emergency period, and the political backlash was strong enough to prevent them for nearly 20 years. Then, vote-bank logic combined with pressure on city land, moved the government of Maharashtra state in 1995 to establish the principle that, if a slum were “rehabilitated” – ie razed and replaced with high-rises – every person who could prove residence would get a 269 sq ft flat with its own bathroom in a new building on the site.
Things have not turned out as planned. “Slum-dwellers want to move into flats, but the redevelopment needs to be done with community involvement,” says Chandrashekhar Prabhu, an architect who has been involved with several slum rehabilitation schemes. Since 1996, the Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) has approved more than 1,000 projects. Yet the number of court cases challenging slum rehabilitation nearly equals the number of projects.
“Every week there is a new judgment handed down, and they all go against slum-dwellers,” says Mihir Desai, a senior advocate before the Mumbai High Court who has taken many housing rights cases. Earlier this year Mumbai newspapers carried stories of residents of the Golibar slum, home to more than 100,000 people, facing down bulldozers that had come to demolish their houses. Hordes of police with riot gear protected the bulldozers. A growing social protest movement, the National Alliance of Peoples’ Movements, argues that slum rehabilitation is equivalent to forced displacement by dams and Special Economic Zones.
The problem is that the interests of the parties don’t coincide as neatly as assumed. Most slums are on public land. The SRA scheme permits private developers as well as slum residents to benefit from its privatisation. More apartments than are needed to resettle slum-dwellers are built, which are then sold on the open market. Typically, these are on the same plot as the “rehab” flats but have no windows on the side of their less affluent neighbours.
Potential profits are high enough to attract international investors, along with a predictable mix of unscrupulous builders, corrupt politicians and local mafias. To win SRA approval for projects, developers have to get the consent of 70 per cent of those eligible for rehousing. This has led to a blizzard of court cases in which residents of the slums accuse developers of bribery, forgery and extortion in getting their consent. The developer of the Golibar slum, for example, is facing charges of forgery.
Another hitch is that not all residents are eligible for new flats, only those who can prove continuous residence since 1995. Eligibility divides the slum-dwellers into two groups: those who stand to gain from redevelopment, and those who lose. The eligible are a minority that grows smaller every year. Ineligible residents may resist redevelopment by any means possible to save the homes they have. If they lose this struggle, they are banished to other slums or distant, jobless suburbs.
In the policy discussions about slum redevelopment, historical experience is overlooked. Many of Britain’s post-second world war high-rises quickly became ghettos. There, the problem was architects and politicians who overlooked social context, creating neighbourhoods cut off from the rest of the city and devoid of jobs, shops or appealing public spaces. A similar dynamic of architectural idealism failing to take account of economic needs occurred in Paris: Le Corbusier’s modernist vision of replacing the chaos and squalor of working-class neighbourhoods with giant blocks of flats found expression in the banlieues – but, isolated from the rest of Paris and devoid of employment, many banlieues intended as middle-class housing are now warehouses for immigrants and incubators of riots. In Robert Moses’s New York, liberal use of the term “slum” and muscular eminent domain laws led to the destruction of thousands of low-rise residential buildings to make way for expressways and multi-storey public housing, both of which depress the property values in their vicinity.
In today’s Mumbai, the new multi-storey housing is on the same sites as the old and is supposed to accommodate businesses. But maintenance costs – for example, fees to cover the operation of lifts – can mean those resettled can’t afford to live in their “free” flats. There are no specifications for quality, aside from the size of each flat.
Finding a solution is not easy. The new chief minister of Maharashtra met with housing activists in April and promised to do away with “eligibility” for rehabilitation and to inaugurate a policy of constructing a residence for every dwelling destroyed.
At least one part of the government bureaucracy did not get the message. In May, bulldozers returned to the Golibar slum, demolishing 20 houses and prompting Gandhian activist Medha Patkar to go on hunger strike. After eight days, the government once again promised implementation of a “house for a house” scheme. It now appears to have gone back on that promise.
Such confusion reflects how the Maharashtra government is caught between the massive votes of the slum-dwellers and the massive capital of the developers. Prabhu’s architecture office is located in a slum redevelopment project that was completed without social unrest or litigation. “It works if you put the community in charge, not a developer,” he says. “But developers bribe community decision-makers, who then oppose community-led redevelopment.” The power of capital, like the slums themselves, cannot be ignored.
JDH Reddy is an anti-discrimination lawyer specialising in international law