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The great terrain robbery

By Rashme Arora

The root cause of urban slumming lies not in urban poverty but in urban greed, says the author of 'Slumming India', Gita Dewan Verma

Gita Dewan Verma quit architecture to concentrate on city planning. Her book Slumming India: A Chronicle of Slums and their Saviours looks at why our cities are deteriorating into one vast urban sprawl. Verma is presently dividing her time between being an independent researcher and writer and planning consultant to citizens' groups

Why is India in the process of becoming one huge slum?

This is happening because of the moral bankruptcy facing our intellectuals, activists and celebrities. They are allowing our cities to die rather than taking steps to the contrary. To cite a few examples, if sprawling farmhouses for a handful are allowed to occupy prime space, then the poor will be forced to huddle in huts, as there is just so much urban land to go around. If fancy malls, used by a few, are allowed to occupy a lot of space, then shops catering to the needs of the majority will come up on the roadside. If only a few industrial houses are given prime sites, then smaller factories needing propinquity to ancillary establishments will come up in residential areas. My book Slumming India (Penguin India, 2002) highlights how the root cause of urban slumming lies not in urban poverty but in urban greed.

Aren't you being too harsh?

When I point a finger at professionals, I'm also pointing a finger at myself. We town planners have abdicated our professional responsibilities and are to be blamed for the larger failure around us. Why, for example, should a politician be commenting on how a city should develop? It is for the Institute of Town Planners to speak out, especially when space allocations are being encroached upon by vested interests. Take how the draft of the National Hawker's Policy was dictated by two women-related NGOs -- SEWA and Manushi -- when statutory plan provisions already existed for the hawkers. Pressure from these organisations saw two separate simultaneous policy interventions from the prime minister's office and the ministry of urban development. The politicians have become red herrings, and anyone with an axe to grind joins in with them.

What has all this got to do with the large number of slums that have come up in all our cities?

Let me cite the example of Delhi, where master plan 1990 had set aside nearly 5,000 hectares for hawkers, slums and industries. Over a decade has passed and this land has still not been developed for these people. I call this the `Great Terrain Robbery'. Not giving the hawkers their due is a scam with ramifications running into Rs 10,000 crore. I have arrived at this figure by computing the worth of the land that has been converted into shops, and the amount of extortion money a hawker has to shell out to the police and the MCD.

The same combination of looting characterises what can be described as our slum policy. It's all nonsense to say that the government does not have money to spend on the poor. Every year, the budgets of both state and central governments lapse. This year, the Delhi government has only spent 45% of its housing budget; most of that money was spent on official housing.

The plan anticipated that there would be 4.25 lakh poor families that would require housing, and the census delimited the slum data figures from the rest of the population. They too arrived at this figure. If they have not been provided housing, this again has created a huge implementation backlog that needs to be addressed immediately.

The urban poor are being offered less and less. Normative plot sizes for low-income-group housing are declining steadily. If earlier, the poor were to be given 25 square metre plots, the size is now down to 12.5 square metres. Poor kids are being forced to go to schools in small rooms within squalid slums, or even in open streets. In place of a proportionate share in public facilities, such as healthcare, to be provided on public land, separate landless options, such as health outreach for the poor, have become the norm.

All the core issues face the same problem. In Delhi, there are 1 lakh industrial units operating in places that are not meant for them. The master plan had anticipated the number of units and made land allocations for these units. But, instead of developing these spaces the government is talking about regularisation of sub-standard development sites such as Bawana, which is in complete violation of the plan. The original allocations are being put to upmarket use, which we neither need nor can sustain.

This story is being repeated in all our cities. In Andhra Pradesh, there is a slum upgradation programme going on in all the cities. Slumming is about the squalor that is a result of overcrowding. Upgrading slums without dealing with the problem of crowding will not do away with the problem.

In an over-populated country, aren't the poor forced to live in slums?

Master plans for almost all our cities have earmarked land for the poor. To cite the example of Indore, resettlement areas for the poor were duly earmarked all over the city. But the city authorities chose to upgrade slums without using the land that was at their disposal. I was the official impact consultant for this scheme. What was the result of the crores of rupees spent on this upgradation effort? Drains in this area remain choked, the sewage is blocked and the water has become contaminated, creating serious health problems for the residents. The project has not benefited the poor. The solution lies in giving these people land, for without proper land allocation, the problem will not go away. Master plans of cities have to be implemented, otherwise why are they being made in the first place?

(InfoChange News & Features, March 2003)