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Slums And The Price Of Insecurity

25/12/2015 8:27 AM IST | Updated 29/08/2016 9:00 PM IST
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Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
MUMBAI, INDIA - DECEMBER 7: An Indian woman cries as she tries to collect her belongings from the charred remains following a fire at a slum in the east of Kandivali, an area in the north of Mumbai on December 7, 2015. A massive fire sparked by a series of gas cylinder explosions swept through a packed slum in India's Mumbai, killing one person and destroying around 1,000 homes, officials said. (Photo by Imtiyaz Shaikh /Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Damu Nagar is a densely populated and crowded settlement, packed with tin-roofed shanties covering an area of 12 acres in the western suburbs of Kandivali in Mumbai. On 7 December, 2015, an estimated 2,000 shanties were gutted in a fire that raged on for over five hours; 16 fire engines and over a dozen water tankers failed to control the inferno. By sunset, all that was left of this bustling habitat were piles of ash and the acrid smell of burnt plastic. In the same week, approximately 500 shanties in Delhi's Shakur Basti were demolished by the railway authorities, leaving thousands of people homeless in a chilly northern winter.

As Radha Misal, a 35-year-old homemaker and resident of Damu slums sifts through the ashes trying to find any document that can help her stake claim on her home that is now nothing more than a mound of dust, she is filled with dread and utter despair. These people have lost their homes, their belongings, their documents. Overnight, their lives have changed. Even if they receive government shelter, it will require them to relocate, which more often than not will impact their ability to travel to work or to school. Some people will lose their jobs, and many children will miss a crucial term or may be forced to drop out of school.

Studies show that insecure rights to housing have far-reaching implications on the decisions people make regarding other important socio-economic indicators like education and healthcare.

These two incidents underscore a bleak reality for nearly 65 million slum dwellers in India - that they live with insecurity, exposed to the risk of becoming homeless overnight. To add to this, the 2011 Census showed that a staggering 35% of these slum dwellers do not appear on official state government slum records. They are nameless citizens, not eligible to claim any compensation or access government services.

It is to the credit of these millions of people that they are able to go about their daily lives living under this cloud of insecurity. But studies show that insecure rights to housing have far-reaching implications on the decisions people make regarding other important socio-economic indicators like education and healthcare.

Researchers in Buenos Aires, Argentina, studied an interesting natural experiment in a squatter settlement. The Argentinian government had passed a law allowing the transfer of land from the original owners to the squatters in exchange for monetary compensation. Not all the owners agreed to this mechanism, thus creating a group of squatters who received formal rights to their housing while a neighboring group in the same settlement continued to remain "informal". The study showed that the group with formal rights to their houses invested significantly more in improving the quality of their house, had lower household sizes and their children had improved school attendance and educational outcomes.

So should all slum dwellers be given formal titles to their shanties even if they have encroached? The answer is not simple. A demand for titles or pattas stalls any discussion with politicians and bureaucrats, and perhaps with good reason. The UPA government's flagship scheme, JNNURM, started with the utopian goal of giving title rights to all slum dwellers, but quickly realised this was a political minefield. The current government's flagship schemes, "Housing for All" and "Smart Cities", are silent about titles and secure tenure.

Alternate policies to offer secure tenure can span a wide range of options beyond individual titles... The rationale for this is not based on pure altruism or principles of a welfare state.

However, rather than brushing the issue under the carpet, policy makers need to acknowledge the possibility of alternate solutions beyond just property titles, and be willing to work with civil society organisations to create solutions that can work for all stakeholders. Organisations like SPARC have worked with slum communities in Mumbai to enumerate the households (since often the government records aren't up to date) and create a smooth resettlement and rehabilitation plan when implementing large scale World Bank-funded infrastructure projects. The Ahmedabad Slum Networking Program offered a 10 year "no-eviction guarantee" to slum communities, which incentivised the households to invest in improving their community infrastructure by building toilets and drains.

Alternate policies to offer secure tenure can span a wide range of options beyond individual titles, such as different forms of leaseholds, use rights to land (rather than ownership), or simple no-eviction guarantees for 20 or 30 years. The rationale for this is not based on pure altruism or principles of a welfare state.

A study by the Indian Institute For Human Settlements estimated that over 40% of slum households are located on land owned by urban local bodies. There is an opportunity for local municipal governments to boost their tax revenues when they offer secure tenure to these households. Municipal governments, when extending these policies for secure tenure, should consider charging households in the form of property taxes, lease rentals etc. A study by the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy in 2009 showed the average annual per capita property tax revenue across 36 municipalities was Rs 486 (less than $8) in 2006-07 (which in itself is quite low, since India ranks nearly at the bottom among G20 countries in share of property taxes as percentage of GDP). A simplistic calculation implies there is potential for at least Rs 3,000 crore of tax revenues for municipal governments if the tenure rights of the slum households can be formally recognised. The use of GIS for creating property records, combined with Aadhaar, can help municipal authorities make their cities more inclusive and also increase their tax revenues.

The price of insecure tenure is proving to be much too high and is being borne not only by the slum inhabitants, but also the broader society and economy. It is time to stop viewing slum households as the problem, and start recognising the untapped potential.

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