January 22, 2005

Housing: Demolition Drive (Editorial, EPW)

Economic and Political Weekly
January 22, 2005

Housing: Demolition Drive

It took Maharashtra's Democratic Front government barely a few weeks after an unexpected election victory to renege on a vital poll promise. In its campaign run-up, the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party alliance had promised to regularise slums that dated up to 2000, as against the earlier earmarked date of 1995. However, a spate of slum demolitions began from December 8 onwards as the government set itself to reclaiming nearly 306 acres of land, clearing over 70,000 shanties in the process and rendering over three lakh homeless.

In its efforts to initiate Mumbai's metamorphosis into a new Shanghai, not only have several acres of land been cleared, proposals to implement extensive infrastructure projects and upgrade the city's severely stretched transport network are being speedily pushed through. While the World Bank has expressed its willingness to finance Mumbai-specific projects through a $1 billion loan assistance, the state is expected to raise over Rs 6,000 crore from the market to finance its development projects. Strangely, the business plan will be overseen by a group of five bank officials, business leaders and bureaucrats from Maharashtra. There is no representation from the people, who, constituting almost 62 per cent of the city's population, will form vast sections of the displaced once this makeover plan gets underway.

As with the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance that preceded it, the DF government's attitude towards the builder lobby has been marked by a similar laxity. Recent months have seen substantial revisions made to the mill development plans, as land allotted for recreational purposes and affordable public housing have been progressively reduced. Civic groups such as Bombay First have also proposed a scrapping of the Urban Land Ceiling and Regulation Act (ULCRA) to free land for slum redevelopment needs. As precedents go, it is the builders who will reap full advantage of such relaxation of rules. Slums take up just 12.85 per cent of Mumbai's land, but this fraction of the city's land is real estate said to be worth Rs 80,000 crore.

Any solution that links beautification and redevelopment with the bulldozing away of slums appears simplistic. Migrants have been responsible for much of the city's dynamism; most migrant slum dwellers also provide much of the cheap informal labour that sustains the city. The government admits that it does not really have plans of rehabilitating the evicted. The Indian Tribunal on Human Right and Environment has suggested that slum dwellers, to ease to some extent the disruption in their lives, be allowed to remain until alternate sites are provided, and the constitution of a broadly representative (that is, no builders) committee, to ascertain the 'true' reasons behind the demolitions. It appears that the move to also target illegal construction of high-rises in the more expensive locations of the city is an attempt to appease the NCP. The NCP, with an eye on 2007's civic elections, has been wooing the slum votebank to wrest control of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation from the Shiv Sena. Civic groups have also warned that ad hoc demolitions could threaten the social fabric of the city, as political heat can be stirred up, always and easily, by vested interests. Proposals that do exist on constructing affordable housing for the urban poor, complete with adequate recreational space, have gathered dust over the years. On the other hand, groups such as the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres (SPARC) have succeeded in involving women's groups in slum areas to bring about a qualitative improvement in civic amenities.

As with Delhi a few years back when slum dwellers were evicted to beautify the city, the state government appears to have forgotten its responsibilities towards most of its citizens. The Supreme Court in its Shantistar Builders (1990) and Chameli Singh (1996) judgments had ruled that housing constituted a fundamental right under Article 21 of the Constitution ? the right to life. The court had held that the right to housing includes adequate living spaces, decent structures and clean surroundings. In a later judgment in 1997, the apex court specified that it was the state's duty to construct houses at reasonable rates and make them easily accessible to the poor. 'The state has the constitutional duty to provide shelter to make the right to life meaningful'. But governments all over have neglected to provide for this right, at least not to the poor.