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Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Halting the demolition derby

AAP’s move is welcome. Now, it must extend secure tenure to slum dwellers to build a more inclusive city.

Updated: February 20, 2015 12:00:13 am
Secure tenure can be just as effectively provided using community titles, different forms of leaseholds, a range of permissions to use (rather than own) land, or even just no-eviction guarantees for long periods of time. Secure tenure can be just as effectively provided using community titles, different forms of leaseholds, a range of permissions to use (rather than own) land, or even just no-eviction guarantees for long periods of time.

By: Gautam Bhan

To understand the magnitude of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)’s order to halt demolitions in Delhi, consider this: from 1990 to 2010, even if you just take government data, over 260 bastis were demolished in the city. The real numbers are likely much higher. The extent of evictions has been such that the 2011 Census recorded a 25 per cent fall in population in the New Delhi district, attributing it directly to evictions of “slums and JJ clusters”. Put bluntly, contemporary Delhi is a city scarred by the repeated evictions of the homes of its poorest residents at a scale unseen since the Emergency.

To say then that the AAP’s move is a welcome beginning towards reversing this cycle of deeply exclusionary urbanism would be an understatement. The question now is, having bought some breathing time, how should it move forward? Two key directions for a more inclusive city are offered below.

One, upgrade, upgrade, upgrade. Worldwide, the only cities in similar economic conditions to Delhi that have made a dent in their housing inequality have been those that undertook largescale, in-situ upgrading programmes. From Caracas and Sao Paulo to Bangkok and Manila, these cities intervened to build and provide key public infrastructure (drainage, roads, electricity, water and sanitation) in slums. They did not — and this is crucial — build new houses or flats to give to the poor, as much of our current national housing policy wrongly focuses on. They did not resettle households far from the city where transit and livelihoods are absent, creating new geographies of segregation. They, instead, innovated to consolidate the gains of already built housing where it stood; where housing, work and transit had already come together.

(Illustration by:  C R Sasikumar) (Illustration by: C R Sasikumar)

When infrastructure improves, households invest. Incrementally, they improve their units. A slum becomes a neighbourhood. This is not just true internationally. Ahmedabad, with some of India’s best human development and infrastructural quality indicators in slums, got there by a largescale upgrading programme.

Two, expand tenure security. In order for upgrading to be successful, however, it needs one additional key element: households have to believe they will not be evicted so that they can invest in their own homes, neighbourhoods and themselves. They need, in other words, security of tenure. This is where the current order to halt demolitions must lead for it to be more than a bandaid on a deeper wound.

What does secure tenure look like? Colloquially, we often think of this as giving individual property titles to the poor, following the work of influential theorists like Hernando de Soto. Individual titling is certainly one form of tenure security, but it is not the only one. Secure tenure can be just as effectively provided using community titles, different forms of leaseholds, a range of permissions to use (rather than own) land, or even just no-eviction guarantees for long periods of time. Importantly, many of these allow public land to remain publicly owned while protecting poor households. In a city whose land market is as skewed and unequal as Delhi, this is important. Individual titling immediately exposes income-poor households to the market. The pressure to sell is intense. This by itself isn’t an issue — after all, don’t poor households have as much a right to sell their assets as elite ones? Yet, it becomes a concern for policymakers because once they sell, they cannot re-enter a legal rental or ownership market. They will then have to squat again and the cycle of slum creation will not break.

Secure tenure that leans, for a period of time, on protecting rights to use rather than rights to sell slows down the risk households face and allows them what we may think of as development time — years of secure tenure in which they can increase income, secure their housing and improve their lives. Bangkok’s successful housing programme did just this. It upgraded tenure using community and cooperative titles for 15-30 years, after which households were free to sell and exchange their units. This means that immersion into the housing market is gradual, allowing households to be protected against not just demolition but also market-induced displacement.

Is this all not simple populism? It need not be. Upgrading has proved to be sound economic strategy for urban development in many cities, whether measured in economic or human terms. Upgrading, if done at scale, allows urban infrastructure to be more effectively provided by universalising its networks (reports estimate that India loses 6 per cent of its GDP due to inadequate sanitation); adds needed revenue to public utilities (just search the Bangalore water supply board’s earnings from shared water taps in slums); expands the reach of housing finance to lower segments of the market (currently below 1 per cent of formal loans); increases productivity of workers; boosts consumption and savings; lowers health impacts and costs; and makes the universalisation of education more effective by preventing repeated eviction-related dropouts.

It does so in much the same way poor households build settlements: gradually and incrementally, but also more deeply, equitably and sustainably. Upgrading is, in other words, a productive investment that emphasises redistribution as a core growth strategy, one acknowledged recently by actors as diverse as the ILO and the IMF. The AAP government must defend its expansion of tenure as sound urban development policy, not just the expansion of guaranteed constitutional rights to a dignified life or a new “subsidy regime”.

These will not be easy moves even for a government with a large electoral mandate. The AAP’s notice went to many arms of the city’s governmental machinery but not to the Delhi Development Authority, on whose land most bastis in Delhi still remain and which remains under Central rather than city control. Further, as it itself acknowledges, the government can do little if the courts order evictions, as they have repeatedly done in the recent past. Yet, even with these constraints, if the government sets a strong tone on expanding tenure security and upgrading settlement infrastructure, it will go a long way in moving the common sense of urban development towards inclusion rather than eviction. Regularisation drives that make unauthorised colonies legal are commonplace, their economic gains to the city uncontested. We now need an upgrading drive that will give dignity to the workers who have built our cities, and lay the foundations of more sustainable, equitable and dignified growth.

The writer is senior consultant, Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Bangalore.

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