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Life | Slum Futures

Life goes to Mumbai, formerly Bombay, to investigate the city’s extraordinary slum culture. There is poverty and suffering but Mumbai’s slum dwellers are a vibrant and proud community. The city is also an important microcosm of how slums are developing around the world. We meet many characters. Sagira is a veteran of the streets. She’s lived on the city’s pavements for 32 years making do in two tiny rooms where her family of 16 sleep in shifts. They have no electricity, an illegal supply of water and no toilet. Globally one in six people live in slums. At the current rate of growth, that proportion’s going to double by 2030 to one in every three. As well as travelling through Mumbai’s slums, “Slum Futures” also looks at how the authorities will deal with such a massive influx.

mumbaiBombay – now known as Mumbai – is the home of Bollywood movies and India’s city of gold, its financial capital. Like a magnet, it draws in people from all over the country. But behind the glitz, glamour and the hype lurks a different reality – a city landscape dominated by massive, sprawling slums – some of the biggest in the world. According to the city housing authority, eight million out of the twelve million people in Mumbai live in the slums. And Mumbai is not alone. Slums are a global problem. They are home to one billion people – one in six of the world’s population. UN-Habitat predicts that by 2030, one in every three people in the world could be living in a slum.

Sagira is a veteran of the streets. She’s lived on the city’s pavements for 32 years and now makes do in two tiny rooms where her family of 16 sleep in shifts. They have no electricity, an illegal supply of water and no toilet. Things have got worse since she first arrived: ‘People come to Bombay only when they have problems in their village. When I came here, there were no huts on the pavements. Everyone had their beddings spread around and they’d live on the streets.’

People squatted wherever they could: on land owned by the government, Mumbai municipality, the railways and on private land. The authority responsible for Mumbai’s slums is the Maharashtra state housing authority. Their attempts to get rid of the slums have failed and the infrastructure is almost at breaking point. But one of Bollywood’s biggest stars, Shabana Azmi, who’s been involved with the slums for years, says the city simply wouldn’t function without the slum dwellers.

Shabana Azmi, Slum dwellers, she says, are ‘60% of the population that provide all the services in the city; from the boy who brings in your milk, to your newspaper vendor, to the maid who works in your house to the driver who takes you to work, to the people who works in your factories, to the clerk in the bank, to the municipal corporations, schools, colleges, these people live in the slums. They are the working people in Bombay, if they said Halt, Bombay would come to a grinding halt.’

Sheila Patel the Director of SPARC, an NGO which works with pavement dwellers, stresses the importance of giving people tenure. ‘The issue of land tenure is very important because it represents the security of having an address. Unless there is some understanding of secure tenure, municipalities don’t make any investments in terms of providing water, sanitation, drainage and sewage.’

Anna Tibaijuka, Executive Director of UN-Habitat, agrees:

Anna Tibaijuka, Executive Director of UN-Habitat‘Security of tenure is so central because you see, security is the basis for everything else. When people feel insecure, definitely it becomes very difficult to have a very productive or a peaceful person who does not know what tomorrow will bring. It brings uncertainty, irritation and, sometimes, social tension and conflicts.’

Mumbai is expensive, and even the middle classes have difficulty in buying property. P K Das, an architect and town planner, says: ‘I know examples of professionals including architects who live in slums, there are engineers who live in slums, there are police who live in slums, municipal officials who live in slums.’

The authority in charge of rehabilitating Mumbai’s slums – and the Maharashtra State Government – admit that in the past the city’s housing policy has failed to provide for those most in need. But the slum dwellers do have some power. They are the largest block of votes in Mumbai and their biggest success came four years ago. In 2001 the state government passed a law saying slum dwellers who registered before 1995 would not be evicted and would have free housing. The scheme is financed through deals with the builders.

Sanjay Ubale Sanjay Ubale, Secretary, Special Projects, Government of Maharashtra, explains: ‘The slum dwellers are given free houses in the same area and in order to finance that there is a certain element of ‘free sale’ component that means you can sell a part of the tenements that you construct over there to anybody at a market price and thereby cross subsidize the cost of construction for the slum dwellers.’

But poverty is a problem, even when slum dwellers move into proper housing. Safiya moved from the railway tracks to a new block. But she didn’t know she would be living on the seventh floor. The residents can’t afford to keep the lift going and at the moment they have no water supply. Safiya has to carry water up seven flights and to make matters worse, she has just had a stomach operation. ‘I have only one thing to tell the government – either start the lift or at least solve our water problem. I am helpless,’ she says.

Sanjay Ubale says: ‘If you look at the labour markets, where the wages that most people earn are so low that even when they move into formal settlements their wages are not sufficient to maintain their formal settlements so there is a sort of a mismatch over there. In order to transform the city, the incomes of individuals and poverty issues will have to be tackled.’

The most successful rehabilitation schemes are those where the communities themselves have been involved in the design and building. Another important initiative has been the saving schemes, set up by women slum dwellers. Jokin Arputham, President of Slum Dwellers International, stresses the importance of people being empowered to manage money: ‘Saving is very important, this is because the minute people know they should take control of their money then they will know how to take control of political decisions, how to control their social decision-making. So once people know how to manage their money they can manage everything.’

The state government wants to put Mumbai on the international stage and can even see a day – in maybe 10 or 12 years’ time – when slums go completely, and the Mumbai experiment is being watched closely by other international cities. But at least Sagira’s dream is coming true at last. A modern building with a water supply and a toilet will house her and all the people who lived on her stretch of pavement.

RELATED LINKS:

Visit the website of UN-Habitat and read about the Global Campaign for Secure Tenure. Read the biodata of Anna Tibaijuka, the Executive Director of Habitat and about the World Alliance of Cities Against Poverty (WACAP). Habitat also hosts theInternational Forum on Urban Poverty, which has a useful list of weblinks. And see pages on Urban Development on the World Bank’s Development Gateway site.

Read profile of Shabana Azmi, and her filmography. For background on Mumbai, visit Mumbai on the net, or Mumbay Central.

Slum Dwellers International (SDI) (Shack Dwellers International in Africa) is an international network of organisations of the urban poor who share ideas and experiences, and support one another in gaining access to adequate land, infrastructure and housing. SDI brings together poor men and women from urban settlements, through national and international exchange visits, exhibitions and meetings to enable the rapid transfer of knowledge, experiences and skills directly between organisations of the urban poor. It is supported by Homeless International, a UK-based charity that supports community-led housing and infrastructure related development in partnership with local partner organisations in Asia, Africa and Latin America. One of its founding organisations was Sheela Patel’s SPARC organisation, which aims to create new and innovative partnerships with communities of the poor and professionals who wish to work with them on issues of social justice and equity. They have done much work with pavement dwellers in Mumbai and elsewhere. More on SPARC here.

Click here for a paper by Sheela Patel and Joel Bolnick entitled ‘Sharing experiences and changing lives’. This is found on the website of The Inclusive City, an initiative of Homeless International which aims to explore the issues of urban poverty and share the experience of the urban poor.

More about Mumbai slums on the website of the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority. Read about theMahila Milan (women’s co-operative) Credit Scheme.

For more information on the Millennium Development Goals, click here.

Earlier programmes dealing with slums and urban development issues include: My Mother Built This House, City Life,Pavements of Gold, Warming up in Mongolia, and My Hanoi.

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