At the bottom of the food chain

Slumming India: A Chronicle of Slums and Their Saviours
by Gita Dewan Verma
Penguin Books India, 2002, New Delhi, paperback, pp xxiv + 183, INR 200;
ISBN 0-14-302875-8

"What are we waiting for? A bloody revolution?" Gita Dewan Verma demands with a mixture of old-fashioned anger, frustration and impatience in the concluding lines of Slumming India: A Chronicle of Slums and Their Saviours. The book is a passionate critique of the haphazard and insensitive urban development initiatives that have converted more than half of modern India's city spaces into slums that no society with even a modicum of sensitivity ought to consign its citizens to. And her suggested method for resolving this appalling chaos is typically simple and old-fashioned too:

I do not have yet another 'original' theory for a new, improved model for urban development arising out of my limited understanding just to pander to my own desire to be original. I only suggest that since the path we have taken in the last few years does not seem to be going anywhere we want to, we should just get into reverse gear and reach a better point to trace a new path…

Accordingly, she reserves her most bitter criticism for what she terms Contemporary Urban Development (CUD). Verma's formulation is simple: over the years, a number of master plans, programmes and policies, including the Draft National Slum Policy of the late 1990s, have been put together at the instance of various arms of government, often with the help of planning professionals and non-governmental organisations (that might or might not know anything about city planning). Many of these plans have provisions built into them that, if implemented, might actually make a difference for the better. Then why is it that nothing is ever done until some kind of crisis situation is reached, and even then, instead of going back to follow the provisions offered by existing policy documents, the first – and often only – thing that Those in Charge (another of Verma's terms) do is to call for a fresh set of studies or policies?

Verma believes this is because such activities sound busy and exciting, they might just make the headlines and perhaps even convince a middle-class public with a short memory that a radical solution to urban slummification (to borrow a term favoured by the author) is in sight, something that would be impossible to convey by simply referring to decades-old policy documents that everyone has been convinced were failures. As Verma explains, the failures have occurred because policies have never been properly implemented, not because they have failed after they have been fully implemented, but who is to point out this fine difference? "Pilot projects, model projects, best practices, policy announcements, new policy announcements, etc… being continually published, discussed, debated, celebrated, replicated and extrapolated… create the illusion of constant activity with little regard to impact". Adding later: "It [does] seem like national policy-making [has] been reduced to just a routine exercise in word-processing, photocopying, spiral-binding, distributing and discussing at 'consultations' – fashionable but illusory fabrication that [makes] tailors look busy but [leaves] the Emperor naked".

Intensely personal
Through her career as a mainstream urban planner and later, as an independent planning researcher, Verma has made it her business to point the above facts out to those concerned at every stage – to be what she calls a 'whistle-blower' – but as she says, no one has ever paid much attention: not the government, not the international agencies that hand awards out to sexiest policy fabrications without checking to see if they are working, and certainly not the media. It must have been this intense moral claustrophobia, this feeling of constantly pounding at doors and windows that will not open to let her ideas in, that propelled her to pour her anger out in the form of a book.

This energy makes the work intensely personal, even self-conscious. The book is dedicated to "the little people", "the big people', "the other people" and "the whistle-blowers". Each chapter begins with a little parable in which the "Lord of CUD" typically rejects the "default Old-fashioned Urban Development Option" offered by his computer in favour of the CUD option – a stylish policy approach that has no bearing on reality. Every chapter ends with an impassioned piece of rhetoric. The point, though, is that by and large, the style works for Verma – perhaps because it is both sincere and backed by some very exhaustive discussions of case studies drawn from different parts of India, though the most detailed examples relate to Delhi and Indore. Also, at every stage, Verma attempts to link the micro-level tales of uprooted or boxed-in slum-dwellers or hawkers with the larger urban development problematic and the comprehensive moral bankruptcy of a state and a society that refuse to tackle the big question with honesty and perspective.

For instance, even as she recounts the tragic stories of specific slum-dwellers who are made to pay by the state for the privilege of being put through compulsory 'resettling' or 'upgrading' procedures that are exercises in treachery that often do not even offer temporary security of tenure, Verma steps back to point out that such exercises are destined to intensify slummification. "That development processes have come to ignore so many so consistently has serious implications for planned development, which is meant to leave equitable room for all. Anything else directly or indirectly only abets slumming".

In fact, it is the lack of equity in the distribution of urban land that leads most directly to the emergence of slums, and not in-migration or urban poverty, the author points out. As Verma and others have noted, the very first Master Plan for Delhi (1962) acknowledged that housing that incorporated very small plot sizes was extremely likely to deteriorate into slums. Even so, over time, plot sizes in slum resettlement colonies in Delhi have gone down from 40 sq metres to 12.5 sq metres. An estimated 3-3.5 million slum-dwellers (the estimates have been made by government departments) – who make up one-fourth or more of the city's population – live in five percent or less of the city's land. In other cities, where 'encroachable' land is even scarcer, slum densities are even higher. Such densities and house sizes are simply not conducive to living spaces that look like anything other than slums. No wonder the Municipal Corporation of Delhi and the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) continue to include slum resettlement colonies that they have themselves created in their list of official 'slums'.

Meanwhile, as the space available for the poor in our cities is systematically reduced and erased, other forms of land use are as systematically – and often illegally – privileged. As more and more 'farmhouses', cyber parks, gigantic upper-end shopping malls and office blocks for the 'new economy' are granted sprawling, prime real estate, the poor who populate the lower-end service and industrial sectors of the city, the modest neighbourhood retailers who serve the majority of citizens and the "small factories needing propinquity to ancillary establishments" will necessarily all be accommodated in overcrowded and 'inappropriate' locations. "The end result", Verma points out, "will be and is the slumming of our cities. Seen thus, the root cause of urban slumming seems to lie not in urban poverty but in urban wealth".

As an example of one single large-scale 'slummification' exercise that contravenes all existing master plan and slum policy provisions, not to mention all codes of civic decency, Verma details the massive Narela resettlement project on the outskirts of Delhi. 60,000 slum-dwellers were evicted from various parts of Delhi (even from sites designated for residential use under the master plan) in the middle of the monsoon in mid-2000 and summarily deposited at Narela, a site far away from their erstwhile homes and jobs, a location that had been planned since the 1962 master plan to be "a self-contained sub-city but was yet to be developed as such". The evictees were offered no alternative sites, no consideration on the basis of distance from their current homes or jobs, no public transport or other services, no jobs except those in "non-conforming industries yet to come up in the industrial area yet to be developed" – and of course, no explanation for why they had to move at that particular moment, often from locations where they had lived from well before the first plans were even formulated.

Subsequently, an explanation for this relocation was offered, rather obliquely, in a report prepared by the government for the Istanbul+5 United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (Habitat) Conference 2001, where it was claimed that Delhi slum-dwellers were relocated to Narela "from the most untenable and disaster prone sites" in the city. This claim, as Verma points out, cannot be entirely true, since the area cleared of slums has since been found suitable for government housing, office complexes and parks and green belts.

In an essay published in DELHI Urban Space and Human Destinies (2000) on the settling of Welcome colony, a slum resettlement colony in East Delhi, the anthropologist Emma Tarlo also talks of the many parks, public spaces and pavilions that have come up in the spaces that have been vacated by uprooted slums. By locating on a map several of the over-80 different locations spread all over the city that yielded their populations to Welcome, Tarlo demonstrates how, far from being "peripheral to the development of the city as a whole", the development of Welcome colony is actually "inextricably bound with the morphology of the city as a whole". However, neither Tarlo nor Verma provide a comprehensive map of all the uses to which land emptied of slum-dwellers has been put to. Had they done so, one could have asked a powerful question: in an ideal situation, the presence of a large number of parks and other 'lungs' for the city is obviously desirable, but how valid is the satisfying of the secondary and tertiary needs of a privileged few when the cost involves the destruction of the very basics of existence for everybody else?

This is certainly not a question that troubles local administrators overmuch. In fact, my own study of annual reports and other documents generated by the DDA has shown that discussion is hardly ever directed at the demolition and resettlement of jhuggis (huts) on the one hand, and the use to which the violently cleared land has been put on the other. Apparently by chance, sections that list demolition activities are often followed in these documents by sections that detail the acreage given over to the development of parks, lawns and woods during the year in question. The number of acres set aside each year for these felicitous developments, created to keep in "tune with [the DDA's] vision of developing a healthy city", are uncannily similar to the number of acres listed as having been cleared through demolition, but an overt link is almost never made. In the DDA annual report for 2000-2001, for example, the only instance in which one is actually told of the use to which a particular piece of land is going to be put after it has been 'freed of encroachments' appears, of course without irony, in a section titled 'Rehabilitation of Jhuggi Dwellers of Motia Khan'. Here, we are told that "about 2,246 jhuggi dwellers" are to be uprooted from Motia Khan to make way for a hotel and that "it has been proposed" that these evictees be resettled in Sector 4, Rohini.  The freeing up of land for the starred hotel is clearly an achievement of which the city development agency is particularly proud.

Hunger over housing
Perhaps there is, after all, a certain cold-blooded method to the madness of apparently arbitrary and repeated eviction, followed by low-grade resettlement (often with no meaningful assurance of tenure) and later, eviction again. Apart from ensuring that space occupied by the poor is always available at practically a moment's notice when some 'public' need is felt, this process of keeping the city's poor forever unsettled also helps to build an enduring picture of them as shiftless, unproductive, shadowy beings who are forever living off the largesse of the city administrators who need to spend precious public money to evict them. The journalist Kalpana Sharma, writing in Rediscovering Dharavi: Stories from Asia's Largest Slum (2000), discusses the manner in which this fundamental uncertainty and assumed illegality of residence that slum-dwellers in Indian cities have to live with, even in old and apparently well-settled slums like Dharavi in Bombay, cloaks their entire beings – their very existence – with a mask of illegality as far as the city's better-off residents are concerned.

In fact, the Supreme Court of India has repeatedly responded to public-interest litigation that demands the removal of slums, hawkers, garbage and so on by reinforcing this negative image of urban slum-dwellers. In a landmark judgement on garbage management in Indian cities quoted by Verma, for instance, the court observed that "rewarding an encroacher on public land with [a] free alternate site is like giving a reward to a pickpocket". This image of slum-dwellers makes it easy to evict them summarily, and even the most meagre provision of resettlement can then be projected as public and administrative largesse.

Predictably, Verma reserves some of her fiercest ire for justices who have repeatedly functioned as de facto urban development experts, especially in Delhi, where localised urban-use squabbles repeatedly fetch up at the country's premier court of law. She is also critical of well-meaning NGOs that often plunge into the business of making policy suggestions on this and other subjects without the necessary background training or knowledge, and of government agencies that solicit such efforts. "NGOs must be involved", she concedes,

but cannot be allowed to call all the shots. Their strength is their grassroots ethos, which makes them great for monitoring and implementation (including project formulation). To let them take over policy and planning levels – to the exclusion of professionals – is justifiable only after stopping expenditure on professional education. At the rate we are going, we will welcome even open-heart surgeries by NGOs simply because they care!

As an example, she discusses the drafting of national schemes for the homeless in early 2001 by a group of NGOs that based their list of priorities on the findings of research conducted in Delhi. Housing was apparently not included as the subject of a scheme because the homeless people surveyed did not list it as a priority. This sounds an alarm bell for Verma, who concludes that a false result must have been arrived at because of flaws in the research design. This might well be so – the complete research questionnaire is not available to this reviewer at this point, so a more informed comment cannot, in all fairness, be made. However, it was important for Verma to add at this point that such a result is not unusual in surveys of those at the very bottom of the urban human food chain, as it were.

Pushing the line of questioning would have probably yielded the answer that employment, and with that, the sating of hunger, are prioritised over housing of any kind. Anthropologist Joop W De Wit's research (and Verma's own) has shown that slum-dwellers faced with resettlement protest the move most bitterly because they will be far removed from their existing jobs – too far removed to commute back on expensive or non-existent public-transport routes – and because they see no prospects for new jobs in the wildernesses to which they are typically banished. This is why many of them are prepared to sell off their new homes and return to live near their old neighbourhoods in housing quality that is worse than before – perhaps even on the pavements.

But the point is not about whether slum-dwellers prioritise housing or jobs. The fact that they prioritise jobs cannot be taken by the state (or by NGOs) as a reason to sideline the housing issue. To return once again to the much-maligned master plans that Verma never tires reminding the reader of: most such existing plans actually do envisage the concomitant, all-round development of decent housing stock, employment centres and infrastructural facilities in all the areas that all the residents of a city are expected to live in, whether they be in 'original' or 'resettled' areas. All that needs to be done, as Verma might say, is for the bloody plans to be implemented faithfully.

In conclusion, one must stress that a book such as this one is not easily found in the Indian context. Given that the growth of slums and their interface with urban India is one of the most pressing urban issues of the day, this is strange, to say the least. But further, a combination of background experience, meticulous research and passion, such as can be found in Slumming India, is even more rare and, therefore, even more special.

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Himal Southasian