Reduce slumming to tackle pandemic like COVID-19

Apathy towards people without shelter is proving costly. Urban planning needs to include the itinerants, migrants, settlers and the denizens.

M. A. Siraj

For decades we in India have been taught that slums are the babies of urban development. Even as it is taken to be a fait accompli, the statement has often been interpreted as a positive sign of an economy on the upswing. Darker side of the story has been glossed over. The fact that urbanization has come to mean wealth-generation through over-exploitation of opportunities and pursuit of greed by a few, has been laid bare by the pandemic currently raging in these megalopolises.  With the slums being the hotspots, the labourers who created these fortunes have gone (or going) back to their hometowns. It is now time to revisit the urbanization story without the attendant triumphalism.  

Prime targets

In 1960, only 18% of India’s people lived in cities. Today 34% inhabit these spaces. Around 70 million of the urban population lives in urban slums. These slums are tell-tale reflection of the apathy of fathers of our civic bodies. By 2031, six of India’s megalopolises will have more than 10 million people living in each of them. Then there are already 63 cities that have people exceeding one million. It is the slum dwellers who are prime targets of the pandemic. It is unfortunate that the realization of the damage that huddled living could cause, has awaited eruption of a horrendous pandemic with all its ferocious vengeance. It is time to wake up.

Reorienting outlook

How to make high-density living humane… is the major question to be addressed. This would need a reorientation of the outlook that has hitherto guided the slum clearance and designers of their resettlement colonies. Slums should not be viewed as merely spaces, but as people, the only difference being more of them are packed in a constricted space. They are not merely outcome of congestion, but more as a consequence of bad governance. Labour may be one of the key inputs of industrial growth. But labourer cannot be seen as merely an input. He comes with a baggage of issues. He needs to be integrated with the city economically, socially and politically. If the cities are to be seen as engines of equitable social and economic development, perhaps design of the urban growth too would have to empathize with the needs of the people.   

Skewed pattern

Return of the migrant labourers does not mean the end of the urbanization. It is a brake, serious though, that has jolted the nation out of the stupor. It is for all of us to see the skewed pattern of development. Urbanisation cannot be wished away. It is the cities that show growth and where innovation and creativity blossom and find their reward. It is where prejudices of caste and community melt and those of excellence and productivity receive a shot in the arm. It is where India gets homogenized and cosmopolitanised as a nation. “It will depend on how the State chips into easing the journey of an individual from an itinerant to migrant to settler to a domiciled citizen,” observes Dr. Hariharan, Chairman, Zed Home, a company pursuing environment-friendly housing.  

Inclusive growth

The current pace of urbanization demands that the nation would need to construct 20 million dwelling units in the next five years. Inclusive growth would imply that the migrant labourers should return to their places of work with promise of better living spaces, water, sanitation, power, education for their kids and health facilities for the children and women.

Report of the Committee on Slum Statistics of Census of India, had noted that 80% of the meagre income of urban Indians goes for food and energy, leaving very little for meeting the cost of living in a highly monetized society. Therefore, the majority of them lives in slums and squatter settlements under inhuman conditions that deprive them of dignity, shelter, security and the right to basic civic amenities or social services, in an environment festering with crimes,  ill-health and disease being commonplace.

Slumming process of Bengaluru

Bengaluru’s unwieldy growth is one case for instance. The City’s municipal area increased almost threefold to 741 sq. km. in 2007 subsuming into the new municipal limits seven city municipal councils and 110 villages and twice that many village settlements. A study by the World Resources Institute (WRI) reveals that 28% of those 220 settlements have lost the unique characteristics of villages and are now part of slums. Increase in migrant population has contributed to the slumming process. Previous landowners sold off their lands to the realtors and have moved to core areas of the city. Village Kalkere, now part of Ramamurthynagar ward of the City, reports migrant population outnumbering the original villagers, deterioration of living conditions, 14% defecating in the open and public transport maintaining only a 30-minute frequency. The 700 plots in 40 acres have now G+3, G+4 buildings. Safe, reliable water supply is a major issue for the settlement, although rigours involved in fetching water do have come down.  The civic body is almost non-existent. “Earlier the Panchayat was accessible. Today they are lost,” said Jaya Dhindaw, Strategy Head of the WRI based in Bengaluru told a webinar on “Making Slums Webinar” convened by the Bearys Group in Bengaluru. 

Slum development must take note of these realities. If a home is small, it is natural that the indoor space will be crowded. Moreover, it is a considered view with architects that no two people use the space the same way. Going box over boxes therefore does not remedy the situation.  Slum clearances need to come with a more humane way of dealing with the problem. A small home needs a compensatory open space which should be accessible to a community without being encroached.  Accessibility to at least a third of the rooftop space for each household is considered ideal which would necessarily call for low-rise structures. Replacement of slums with high-rise structures has proved unpopular. The failure in settling fishermen in high-rise structures after clearing the slums in Chennai is a classic example. Five years after they were allocated these tenements, not a single fisher was found living there. They had either sold or mortgaged them to go back to huts. Reason: The colony lacked space for them to untangle their fishing nets. Nor could their women twine the ropes over two distantly pegged knobs in the ground.

Syed Beary, Chairman of the Beary’s Group, a company engaged in green buildings, says the solutions emerge during tragic circumstances and one should hope the pandemic may help in this direction.

M.A. Siraj is a senior journalist based in Bengaluru

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