India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, had an instinctive revulsion towards slums. He once wrote: “I believe in no argument, economic or other, which is based on creation of slums. I have a horror of slums. I don’t mind a person living in the open like a vagabond or a gypsy. I am a bit of vagabond myself. I have often said if you cannot provide buildings for those living in slums, give them open space to live in and give them some social services like water supply, and sanitation. The rest will follow.”
But, sadly, even after over six decades of planning, 35% of our urban population still lives in slums. In Mumbai, about 55% of the total population lives in slums; Dharavi, where about a million people live in just 1.75 square kilometre area, has earned worldwide notoriety for its size. Bangalore, the capital of India’s thriving software industry, has a slum population of about two million spread over 1,000 shanties and as many as 90,000 street-children and ragpickers. In Delhi, if the dilapidated katras of the Walled City are added to the 1,600 unauthorised colonies and about 1,000 jhuggi-jhopri clusters then about 77% of its population would be found living in slums.
Since the introduction of the economic reforms in 1991, slums have increased. A global study — The Challenge of Slums: Global Report on Human Settlements (2003) — has underlined that after the forces of neo-liberalism gained ascendancy, a new social class of informal sector workers whose living conditions are marked by ‘low status, low wages, long hours of work and insecure habitats’ is fast emerging in developing countries.
To solve this problem, we require a new approach to make the process of migration more organised. A few migrant colonies with organised layouts, basic amenities and with facilities to impart skills to enable the new arrivals to secure regular and worthwhile jobs in the urban economy need to be set up every year. Migrants should be allowed to move into these colonies by paying a nominal rent for the space allotted.
An essential pre-requisite of the approach is that the urban as well as urbanisable lands should be acquired in advance for comprehensive development of the cities and, out of those acquired lands, suitable chunks should be earmarked to set up migrant colonies. The objective would be to make the migrant a lawful allottee and also a skilled individual who can make a positive contribution to the orderly development of the city.
All this will require the rigorous intervention of the State. The forces of neo-liberalism may have done a lot of good in the arenas of business, industry and commerce, but they have spelt disaster for the urban poor. The few schemes started under the ‘public-private partnership’ model have either failed or are on the verge of failure. The much-touted project of Tehkhand in Delhi has not moved an inch in seven years. And the Mumbai-Dharavi project has been lingering on for about 15 years. It is slowly becoming a bonanza for private developers. It is time that we act quickly. We should not forget that by 2030, India’s urban population would mount to 590 million — about double the total population of the US — and about 68 cities will have to house more than a million people each.
Jagmohan is a former Union minister
The views expressed by the author are personal