February 05, 2005

Mumbai's Expendable Poor (Anu Kumar)

The Economic and Political Weekly
February 5, 2005

Mumbai's Expendable Poor

The current demolition drive in Mumbai by the Congress-led coalition government pushes to the wayside the poor of Mumbai who live in 'illegal' shanties. The government action goes against the grain of successful experiments of community involvement in resettlement and appears to reverse the slum development policy of the 1990s. Development cannot proceed without taking into account the needs of the slum dwelling populace who make up substantial numbers of the city. Sustainable growth is possible only if all stakeholders in the process including slum dwellers and the poor are given a say in schemes that affect them.

by Anu Kumar

Slum: ·. a squalid and overcrowded urban area inhabited by very poor people.› a house in such a place.

– (Concise Oxford Dictionary,
Tenth Edition, 2000)

In a demolition drive that began on December 8, 2004 and still continues, the Maharashtra government and the Brihan Mumbai Corporation demolished 70,000 shanties they claimed were illegal, clearing in the process as many as 306 acres of land, dislocating over 3 lakh people and affecting thousands of others. It was a demolition that went against the grain of what the Congress promised in its election manifesto in the recent assembly elections – to protect slums built before 2000 – a promise widely believed to have garnered electoral support among Mumbai’s poor. At the same time, the government through its advertisements continues to make the ironical claim that its actions constitute a chance at freedom for slum dwellers – who comprise half of Mumbai’s population. “The Slum Rehabilitation Authority through its various projects has been constantly working towards the upliftment of these citizens of our metropolis’’, proclaims one advertisement. The spate of demolitions, however, is an apparent reversal of Maharashtra’s longstanding policy towards slums.

Maharashtra Policy

After independence, efforts were initially geared towards rehabilitating the population of slums and improving their conditions of living. Between 1943 and 1956, the government of the erstwhile Bombay state disbursed small grants to various municipal bodies for improvement of slums. In 1956, this changed when the central government approved a Slum Clearance Plan. Bombay was one of the six pilot cities covered under this scheme.

The strategy of demolitions that began with the plan was pursued till the 1970s. However, it did not work because people, after some time, simply re-built their huts at the same location or, if there was too much harassment, at another unoccupied location nearby. Moreover, land-owning agencies were ill equipped to police their lands and lower level officials often connived with middlemen to allow encroachments. Even when the state government did try to resettle the poor, they were unsuccessful. Resettlement proceeded erratically, dependant on the whims and fancies of local municipal officials and the poor were completely excluded from any decision-making.

In the 1970s, the state first recognised the need for some form of resettlement for slum dwellers, after slums were demolished. A Slum Improvement Board (SIB) was set up, slums began to be viewed as housing solutions and the state began to provide water, sanitation, electricity and other amenities to these areas. After a census of huts on public lands was conducted in 1976, photo passes were issued to all those found eligible according as to whether they could establish that they were living in the slum at the time of census. Thus, 1,680 settlements with a population of 28 lakhs were identified. This was the first time slum dwellers were given any form of security. However, none of these programmes ever involved the poor in any stage of planning or implementation. Moreover, slums on central government and privately owned lands – which accounted for the largest chunk of land in the city – were excluded from the exercise. A second enumeration was carried out in 1983. 1,930 settlements with a population of 43 lakhs were counted. In 1985, the Supreme Court ruled that eviction was a disturbance to the right to livelihood and hence infringed on the fundamental right to life. However, the court accepted the state government’s use of the 1976 and 1983 Census exercises to identify those people whose resettlement was guaranteed if eviction was necessary for public purposes.

In the 1980s, the World Bank’s Rs 53 crore Bombay Urban Development Project (BUDP) came into being with two programmes – the Slum Upgradation Programme (SUP) and the Low Income Group Shelter Programme (LISP). SUP consisted of giving a 30-year renewable lease of land to cooperative societies of slum dwellers (where the lands were not needed for public purposes), providing civic amenities on a cost-recovery basis and giving loans to upgrade people’s houses. Under the LISP, the state provided subsidised land to Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) and Low Income Groups (LIG) to build their own homes in accordance with a type design. Although 85,000 families benefited, conditions on the ground did not change significantly. With SUP, existing inequalities in size of holdings were left untouched. Under LISP, there was a shift in the role of the state from provider to facilitator but the scheme did not reach the really poor. Both programmes also suffered from an absence of genuine community participation. And again, the SUP could not be implemented on central government or private land. This has been a noticeable precedent in Mumbai – for in spite of the Slum Areas Act that enables local authorities to provide services in settlements already ‘declared’ slums, many government agencies still do not permit the BMC to carry out ‘improvement’ of slums on their land. Thus, central agencies do not give permissions for basic amenities, upgradation or resettlement and slum dwellers continue to live on these lands.

Community Participation

In recent years, the development agenda has moved away from merely making ever-increasing demands on the state, to sustained advocacy by organisations of the poor for the formulation of pro-poor strategies in which the poor and the state are identified as potential partners. Since the 1980s, organisations, such as Society for Promotion of Area Resource Centres (SPARC) have been working towards ensuring some security of tenure and the importance of recognising the urban poor as partners in tenure and making shelter improvements at global, regional, national and local levels.

This initiative saw some success in 1997-98, when organised groups of slum dwellers were able with SPARC to reach an agreement with the Railroad Transport Authority, and municipal authorities to relocate and resettle several thousand households living in slum settlements located along side railway tracks in Mumbai (as part of the Mumbai Urban Transport Project). SPARC and the National Slum Dwellers Federation helped slum dwellers to organise and form cooperative housing societies. 12,000 families were rehabilitated in the suburb of Mankhurd. Except for an incident in February 2000, when railway authorities demolished 2,350 slum houses, the community-managed resettlement programme was orderly. The sudden eviction of settlers without compensation actually galvanised the government into action and it made available 2,000 apartments in Mankhurd and other land for transit settlements, where settlers were accommodated till the tenement blocks they were promised were completed. This solution was possible because the railway settlers were organised and able to stop the evictions.

Both the MUTP and Mumbai Urban Infrastructure Project (MUIP) together accounted for the resettlement of 50,000 to 60,000 slum families. A small figure, yet standards of resettlement in these projects will serve as precedents for future resettlement. The key lesson that emerged was the importance for low-income households and their communities of being organised and of the necessity of their being able to engage in every step of the resettlement process from formulating relocation plans and determining the actual logistics of the move. The railway resettlement programme set several benchmarks – community organisations were ceded some of the powers traditionally enjoyed by government agencies in resettlement schemes, including the power to determine the eligibility of families and second, allocation of housing units in the resettlement area. It also stressed the importance of women-centred (‘Mahila Milan’ or women together) community participation, not merely on grounds of gender equity but also on the demonstration of their skills as household and community managers. Thus around the same time, 30,000 pavement families in Mumbai also formed Mahila Milan groups that succeeded in stopping repeated demolition of their shelters. The community was also mobilised to construct 5,000 toilet seats in the slums, in addition to the development of micro savings schemes for income generating activities.

The railway resettlement project established also the importance of a two-phase resettlement strategy. In the first phase where transit accommodation is provided, project authorities get quick access to the land that they need cleared, thereby avoiding delays and cost over-runs. The second advantage is that when people move to the new settlement, albeit temporarily but with the assurance of obtaining houses with secure tenure, they identify with the resettlement process and willingly become full participants in the next phase of resettlement, when permanent buildings are constructed.

Redevelopment Scheme of 1990s

Public projects such as MUTP or MUIP provided for free tenements of 225 sq ft for each family. The same norm was picked up by the Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) set up in the 1990s. The Slum Redevelopment Scheme of the SRA aimed to provide enough incentives – such as increasing the Floor Space Index (FSI) allowed in slum areas and the ability to transfer development rights to other areas of the city – for private developers and builders to redevelop slums. The theory was that by selling the extra space in the open market, tenements for slum dwellers would be cross-subsidised and made affordable to them. The state government also introduced legislation that protected slum dwellers who could establish that they were living at a particular place as of January 1, 1995. The homes of ‘eligible’ slum dwellers thus could not be demolished without their first being resettled [Burra 2001, 2003].

Redevelopment was a unique strategy taken up by the state government, radically different from the slum upgradation approach followed elsewhere. It was a scheme very unlike the 1987 play, ‘Redevelopment or Slum Clearance’, replete with political allegory by the Czech playwright and former president, Vaclav Havel. The play, set in a medieval castle in a historic town in eastern Europe, includes a state functionary, an emotionally chaotic project director, and a group of architects who struggle to come up with a high-rise building scheme that will destroy the ancient town’s character and incidentally clear away its slums.

For all its progressive features, the slum redevelopment scheme still did not contain proactive provisions to resettle families nor did it specify the nature of resettlement and the kinds of entitlements eligible slum dwellers would receive. The SRA promised to construct eight lakh tenements in five-six years. However, only a little over 19,000 tenements were completed in the mid-1990s. When a new government came to power in Maharashtra in 1995, one of its main election promises was to provide eight lakh free houses for 40 lakh slum dwellers in Mumbai. In August 1998, the Shiv Sena-BJP government set up the Shivshahi Punarvasan Prakalp Ltd (SPPL). The scheme was a rehash of the earlier slum redevelopment scheme. Slum land was to be handed over to builders for the construction of commercial complexes, with the builders in turn using part of their profits to build new houses for the residents of the slum. A Rs 600 crore loan to fund the SPPL was extracted from an extremely reluctant Maharashtra Housing Area Development Authority (MHADA) and the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority (MMRDA) [Bavadam 1998].

Unlike the earlier redevelopment scheme (where the SRA was only a facilitating agency), the SPPL actively took on the role of a builder. Private builders themselves were given the role of contractors to get them to participate in the scheme. Under the earlier scheme, the builders were expected to make the capital investment without any input from the government, and there were no profit margins. Under the SPPL scheme, the builders as contractors could provide for profit margins. The state government also soon scaled down the size of the project from eight lakh units of 225 sq ft each to two lakh units of the same size. One of the main failings of the SPPL scheme was that it depended on public land as a resource, most of which was already occupied by squatters. By the time the Shiv Sena-BJP government was voted out of office in October 1999, not even a fraction of the number of flats it had promised to build had come up.

One of the criticisms of the SRA scheme was that it promoted high-rise, high density redevelopment as it relaxed FSI norms substantially – 2.5 against the normal FSI of 1.33 for the city and 1 for the suburbs and extended suburbs. High-rise buildings were more expensive to construct and also expensive to maintain. Moreover, they are not suitable for the life-styles of the urban poor engaged in the informal sector of the economy. And again, slum residents were not consulted about their housing needs before building plans were prepared. Experience reveals that inappropriate design often forces slum residents to sell their holdings and set up new tenements elsewhere.

However, the SRA scheme is the only way for the urban poor to get access to land and a subsidy from the market. For one thing, the price of land is not affordable to the poor, the SRA has made it affordable. Again, the SRA scheme has thrown open the doors for cooperative societies of slum dwellers to participate in their own redevelopment and provided a financial mechanism to do so. The challenge remains to create conditions where communities of the poor can determine the process themselves rather than being objects of private developers’ designs.

McKinsey Recommendations

In September 2003, in yet another effort at resolving the metropolis’ insurmountable problems, Bombay First, an organisation with representatives from the corporate world, asked the consulting firm McKinsey to prepare a comprehensive plan that would turn Mumbai into a ‘world-class’ city by 2013. Estimated to cost Rs 2,00,000 crore, the plan focused on six key areas: economic growth, transportation, housing, other infrastructure, financing and governance. The McKinsey report – ‘Vision Mumbai’ of 2003 – identifies housing and land availability as Mumbai’s most controversial problems. The plan envisages eight lakh low-income group houses to rehabilitate slum dwellers. The report has been severely criticised by several urban planners, environmentalists and civic activists as it comes across “as a report by the builders’ lobby; the recommendations scream: privatisation, corporatisation and build, build, build” [cited in Katakam 2003].

The report recommends increasing the availability of land by 50 to 70 per cent. This is possible by relaxing the Floor Space Index (FSI) further, opening up mill and port lands, relaxing Coastal Regulation Zones (CRZ) II and III for Mumbai, and building the trans-harbour link. Furthermore, the report suggests redesigning the Slum Rehabilitation Authority project; construction costs of low-income housing could be recovered by charging slum dwellers a rent of between Rs 750 and Rs 1,500 a month. The creation of special housing zones, on the lines of the Special Economic Zones, would also avoid rental problems and therefore, create more housing. “Rescind the Urban Land Ceiling Regulation Act (ULCRA) and the Rent Control Act, as well as reduce the time taken for building approvals”, and the bulk of the issues relating to housing will be solved, it suggests [Katakam 2003].

Many states have repealed land-ceiling legislation already because of difficulties of implementation and an apparent failure of the law to achieve its objectives. But the government of Maharashtra has not yet scrapped the ceiling law because, it is widely suspected, of pressure from a builders’ lobby that wishes to impede the flow of land into the market, thus artificially inflating its cost. Keeping the law on the statute books is an opportunity for venal politicians and bureaucrats to make money in exchange for granting permissions and exemptions while, at the same time, exercising their patronage to distribute the few flats ostensibly built for the poor to relatives, friends and political supporters.

The current demolitions will do little to solve the problem – slums still exist, many remain because they are ‘saved’ by a government specified cut off date, yet housing remains an issue that has not been clearly addressed by successive governments. As authorities of demolition drive over two decades ago admit, several times squads would demolish illegal structures but still the plot would not stay vacant (interview with G K Khairnar, Indian Express, January 18, 2005). In 1992, an army of officials spread across every civic ward were together making Rs 300 crore annually from illegal constructions. In demolition sites across Mumbai, slum dwellers ousted from their tin and tarpaulin homes in the demolition drive seen in recent weeks, still sit guarding the concrete squares they paid Rs 30,000 or Rs 40,000 for. In 1984, it cost the BMC Rs 1,000 to demolish a single hut. If even a small percentage of the current demolition ‘target’ of 44,000 shanties reappears, it’s simple arithmetic to calculate the losses. But in the rush to development as (defined by the current group of urban planners), the ‘human angle’ has become a peripheral concern.

Judicial Pronouncements

As judicial decrees go, however, maintaining the ‘human angle’ is something even the judiciary has forgotten to do in recent years [Ramanathan 2002]. In the early 1980s, the judiciary recognised the right of every person to constitutional relevance. 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 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.”

In the 1990s, however, where conflicting interests were perceived, a certain reordering of priorities followed – that affected marginal sections such as the slum dweller, the working classes and the dam-displaced. In some later judgments, slums were directed to be demolished. In February 2000, the court observed, “Rewarding an encroacher on public land with a free alternative site is like giving a reward to a pickpocket”. This characterisation of the poor as drawn by the court, the likening of a slum dweller to a pickpocket was a definitive departure from the acknowledgment of the fact that the poor too strive to survive, and that their struggles deserve respect and support.

Demolitions and the government’s consequent announcement of delisting these illegal settlers from electoral rolls is a way of effacing without recognition an entire category of citizens, some of whom are reluctant migrants from elsewhere who provide essential services to the city. According to state government data, around 60 per cent of Mumbai’s population live in slums; 73 per cent of its households live in one-room tenements, and 18 per cent in two-room structures. One must work at redeveloping Mumbai with these percentages in mind and with some perspective.

Also as many studies have already established, blame for the deteriorating quality of life in the city lies elsewhere and not in the mushrooming of slums, that in any case takes up only 12.85 per cent of land (this, however, is real estate worth over Rs 80,000 crore). The proliferation of slums has meant that civic services have been stretched; even as large stretches of land lie vacant in the city. In 1970, the state government had acquired 50,000 acres of land from farmers and small holders and handed it over to the City and Industrial Development Corporation (CIDCO) for the development of Navi Mumbai (interview with Mrinal Gore in The Asian Age, January 29, 2005). 4,850 acres of land still lie vacant and can be used for rehabilitation; under the ULCRA, the state government can acquire these lands, but thus far, the latter has been hand-in-glove with the builders.

It is the slowdown in economic growth that has been largely responsible for the deterioration of Mumbai. Since the 1970s, when the city’s manufacturing sector began a steady decline, the bulk of Mumbai’s population has lost the ability to earn a steady income. Economic growth has to be generated for employment creation, and that can be done through development projects. This could be done in high- and low-end service sectors and by converting the hinterland into a manufacturing and logistics hub. It is time therefore to brush away the dust from old master plans for the city that already exist, which talked of development of the hinterland and in ‘peri-urban’ areas such as Navi Mumbai, or the Thane-Belapur section. Moreover, no plan will work unless it involves the city’s people.

Need for Inclusive Growth

In the 21st century, the challenge is how to make cities more inclusive; to give those who are usually excluded, the poor and marginalised, a say in how things are run. The poorest are forced to occupy land illegally and to live in appalling conditions that put their health and safety at risk.

An important step is to recognise the role which civil society, local community organisations, citizens groups and other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) can play. Community organisations can create a bridge between poor people and city authorities in planning urban developments that benefit the poor. In Naga city in the Philippines, for example, a people’s council works closely with the city council. As a result, new initiatives have been launched to clean up the Naga river, manage waste and revitalise the city hospital. In Porto Alegre in Brazil, groups of citizens scrutinise government spending, as well as deciding on priorities for the coming year in a participatory budgeting process. Urban planning and management can be made much more effective by devolving authority to the poor in their own areas. But the poor also need to gain access to finance and land. Banks and other lenders are waking up to the vast market for housing loans at the low-income end of the market and they are finding that the default rates on these loans are very low. In Thailand, the Urban Community Development Office, funded by the government, is providing loans directly to low-income community organisations and small informal sector enterprises [Patel et al 2002].

If squatters are given a sense of security of their tenure, their neighbourhoods become as good as any other neighbourhood. It may be a lot cheaper to live in a slum, but there is a different level of community interaction, a way of life, that is threatened whenever a resettlement project is discussed. Redevelopment in future, while providing for every facility of urban life, must ensure also a way of retaining networks of support that already exist among slum dwellers.


Bavadam, Lyla (1998): ‘A Controversial Scheme’, Frontline, Volume 15, Number 18, August 29-September 11.
Burra, Sundar (2001): ‘Resettlement and Rehabilitation of the Urban Poor: the Mumbai Urban Transport Project, A Case Study’, September, www.sparcindia.org.
– (2003): ‘Changing the Rules: Guidelines for the Revision of Regulations for Urban Upgrading’, www.sparcindia.org
Katakam, Anupama (2003): ‘A Blueprint for Mumbai’, Frontline, Volume 20, Number 24, November 22-December 05.
Patel, Sheela, Celine d’Cruz and Sundar Burra (2002): ‘Beyond Evictions in a Global City: People-Managed Resettlement in Mumbai’, Environment and Urbanisation, Volume 14, Number 1, April.
Ramanathan, Usha (2002): ‘Of Judicial Power’, Frontline, Volume 19, Number 06, March 16-29.