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Where the two cities meet

The informal organisation of India’s slums can inspire new planning norms.

Written by Gautam Bhatia |
October 23, 2013 4:25:14 am

The informal organisation of India’s slums can inspire new planning norms.

I live in a small colony in Delhi. Like all south Delhi colonies,it is considered a reasonably elite address. And like other colonies in the area,it is now renowned for its shortcomings: uncollected garbage spilling out of municipal bins,private cars clogging public streets,sand and brick piled on roads for private construction,four storey flats on plots meant for single families,high colony gates against daylight robberies,the occasional murder of an elderly couple. An important address,but only on paper.

Down the road lies one of the cities largest slums. Part drain,part storage,part residence,part social club,even part workplace,the settlement buzzes with activity — domestic,mercantile and social. A year earlier,electric poles appeared in the alleys,as did communal taps. But,without drains,the area still floods during the monsoon. Such conditions are,however,easily tolerated. The important thing is to be in the city.

Between the middle-class colony and the slum there are differences that are being constantly eroded. While the slum is regularly upgraded,the colony is in perennial decline. In a few years,the two places will be indistinguishable. The posh colony will be a slum; the slum,an improved neighbourhood. It is happening in Delhi,Mumbai,Lucknow,Bangalore,Ahmedabad,and in virtually any Indian city with a growing migratory population of the dispossessed. Among the many desperate urges that mark the Indian city,none is more perverse than the wish to make it slum-free. Slums have been,and will continue to be,the social hubs of India’s future urban plans.

According to a recent census report,three out of five people in Indian cities live in slums; the increasing migration will make that four out of five within the decade. Covering over 4,000 towns,the report reveals a figure of 65 million living in unauthorised squalor. Even as ideas of planning stagger under the weight of these new statistics,the government continues to rely on its old schemes,such as the Rajiv Awas Yojana,to free the city of slums. But the slum,sadly for government planners,is here to stay.

The symbiotic relationship between the slum and the planned city can never be threatened as long as one feeds off the other. Slum residents provide cheap labour. Their pay may be pitiful by middle-class standards,but at least it makes survival possible. “Unrecognised” slums have no access to safe drinking water,electricity and sanitation. Despite the appalling conditions,many produce goods and services for the larger benefit of the city. Dharavi is a self-renewing organism that is constantly changing its own peculiar structure of accommodation,work and social norms. Sadly,Dharavi has an unfortunate relationship with a city that is obsessed with real estate and builder lobbies.

Decades ago,unable to control the daily migration,Mumbai put in place rules so stringent that the teeming hordes would be denied living space. In keeping with the colonial tradition of low-rise buildings,the city fixed a floor-area ratio of 1:3 in the early 1960s. Since then,the figure has been moved up with the hesitant caution of a bureaucracy schooled in the old values of suburban planning. Such a strategy helps save the older sections of Georgian Bombay but does little to provide living space for the multitudes thronging the city. At almost 40,000 people per square kilometre,and less than one fifth its height,Mumbai is twice as dense as New York.

Today,most sociologists believe that the divide between the rich and poor is the outcome of the privatisation of the city. The divided city,part planned and part undocumented slum,persists as a cultural,economic and class entity. Compare,for instance,the lifestyle of the rich and the poor on two adjacent city plots. A Delhi farmhouse with four bedrooms,a pool and extensive garden acreage has an average density of two families per hectare; the neighbouring slum has 400 within the same area. The farmhouse consumes 800 times the water,electricity and energy requirements of the slum family.

For too long,the unequal city has proliferated on the foundations of private ownership. The city has forsaken its public responsibility of equitability. The government’s attempt at an interest subsidy scheme to help low-income families procure urban housing is flawed in intent and practice. If building within the city is not enabled,mere financing creates minuscule opportunities. City land remains with the rich,private and out of bounds. Any hope of bridging the growing divide hinges on reversing this commercialisation of land to create pockets of rental and short-lease housing within town centres.

The constructive nature of any dense habitation,in the West,at least,has always worked on the premise that people collaborate and live better lives when placed together. New York and London grew as squalid ghettoes in the 19th century,but created out of their slum conditions a successful,working urban model. The Indian slum and its informal organisation should be viewed as a possible source of new planning norms. Where the two cities meet can form the guiding principles for urban design. The slum — in a revised form — as a possible middle-class home may be the only viable urban housing model for the future.

The writer is a Delhi-based architect.

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