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Beyond the walls

Americans romanticise Mumbai’s slums because, unlike the ghettos, the slums here are economically versatile and not crime-ridden, writes Michael McQuarrie.

india Updated: Apr 23, 2012 01:37 IST

One of Mumbai’s biggest challenges is to develop and grow while dealing with its slum dwellers in a humane fashion. Mumbai prides itself on its enterprise and its openness to the world. Healthy urban life requires inclusion and the navigation of difference.

Rather than forcibly remove slum dwellers to create a city sanitised of the poor, the Slum Rehabilitation Act (SRA) of 1995 gives slum dwellers, and even pavement dwellers, a series of rights in the process of redevelopment, assuming that they can show proof of residence prior to 1995 (now prior to 2000 in Dharavi). This law, and the rights conferred, is good policy, better than any equivalent in the US, at least from the perspective of the other side of the world. It also has problems, which are perhaps more evident to the American or European eye.

To understand why Americans see the SRA as a good policy, reflect on the nature of American slums, or ghettos. Our ghettos are not full, they are empty. Most people of any means have moved out of them. They are cut off from economic activity and good schools.

As a result, opportunity is limited and criminal activities like drug dealing are more attractive. Efforts to engage in economic self-help are undermined by limited policing and access to resources like insurance. As a consequence, economic migrants and immigrants tend to avoid established ghettos, depriving many cities of entrepreneurial oxygen.

Housing is often viewed as a problem, not because there is not enough, but because of its design and availability. In terms of design, from the 1950s through the 1970s, various levels of government in the US built large towers to shelter the poor and working class from the vagaries of real estate markets and to provide them with safe, modern housing. The flats in these towers were palatial by Mumbai’s standards — some are over 1,000 square feet. Despite initial successes, these projects are now understood to concentrate the poor, cutting them off from resources outside of their neighbourhoods. They also incubate social pathologies that diminish the quality of life of the city as a whole. Over the last two decades, dozens of these towers have been replaced with lower-density housing, often designed and priced to house a far more affluent population. The poor, it is now thought, would do better being distributed among more affluent neighbourhoods and communities, though their housing options are increasingly limited despite small-scale efforts to develop housing for them.

From the American perspective, then, Mumbai’s slums look extremely promising. Most importantly, they are not crime-ridden and function as communities in which norms of hard work and cooperation produce cities that work well despite limited resources, services and infrastructure. Migrants move to or build slums in order to improve their economic well-being. They are close to work and there is considerable economic activity in the slums themselves.

Even as some American cities seek to exclude new immigrants, many in declining cities have suddenly remembered that migrants and immigrants are the entrepreneurial engines of urban economies. By excluding them, the future of the city is foreclosed. Mumbai’s slums are the sites where economic migrants become transformed into citizens of the city.

In the US, NGOs, philanthropies and governments work tirelessly to create the sort of communities that are produced in Mumbai’s slums without much intervention at all. With a few exceptions, they haven’t succeeded. As a consequence, the poor in American cities and slums are often heavily dependent on the government for survival, have few skills with which to build communities, and have few economically marketable skills, assuming they could get to distant jobs at all. It is easy for an American to romanticise Mumbai’s slums.

Despite all of their positive aspects, Mumbai’s slums do not have some things that the urban poor of America often take for granted, things like running water, indoor toilets, and electricity. These conditions produce a consensus that building large towers to house relocated slum dwellers makes sense. Developers want to build these towers because by stacking the poor on top of one another they end up with more room to build more profitable buildings. Slum dwellers want the same thing because they associate flat living with respectability.

As it stands, many of the Mumbai slum rehabilitation projects appear troubled. Some have increasing crime and declining social trust. Some have little water or are disconnected from employment. The design of some is poor and their maintenance is shoddy. These problems are partially created by the limited enforcement of the provisions of the SRA, which situates the government as an ally of slum dwellers in their negotiation with developers. But that is not how it plays out on the ground.

At the same time, the SRA, perhaps unwittingly, mitigates some of these problems. In requiring slum dwellers to form housing societies to act collectively in their negotiations with developers, it helps to constitute communities of interest that carry over to slum redevelopments, ensuring that some of the communal life of the slums is integrated into the new buildings. This goal is also furthered by the law’s expectation that the redevelopments will be built in situ and that the housing societies will have an ongoing role in the management of the buildings. The slum redevelopments, then, are as much marvels to the American eye as the slums themselves are. They deal with a difficult problem in a manner that includes the voices of multiple stakeholders. On the other hand, the view from America is also tinted by our experience with public housing. Many slum rehabilitation projects appear to concentrate the poor in settings that are cut off from economic activity and prospects for broader social integration.

Their design seems likely to produce hostility rather than care among their inhabitants, particularly once a generation that is not grateful for a flat with running water is succeeded by a generation that never knew anything else. Finally, their design has some, but limited, flexibility. It is harder to house many family members in the same place, or create economic activity on site. Creating warehouses for the most impoverished and desperate may seem like good policy now, but Mumbai’s vision is towards the future, not the past. For the city to realise its potential, it must ensure that the city works for the poor as well as the affluent. If it doesn’t, the view from America suggests that all of the citizens of the city will suffer the consequences.

Michael McQuarrie is assistant professor of sociology, University of California, Davis
The views expressed by the author are personal