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The Challenge of Slums

Written by Tahera Sajid  •  Features  •  May 2011 PDF Print E-mail
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The slums of India are not a recently discovered phenomenon but came into focus when Danny Boyle’s 2008 blockbuster, Slumdog Millionaire, appeared at the box-office to enthrall audiences across the globe. The tough lives of the slum-dwellers were highlighted through the plight of child stars, who then traveled all the way to the red carpet in Hollywood to receive their Oscars and back to the reality of their disease-infested slums, to join 60 million other slum-dwellers of India in a life they would probably never be able to escape.

These slums – battling diarrhea, TB, maternal mortality and domestic abuse – and child labor living in what the UN terms ‘unacceptable living conditions’, characterized by lack of water and sanitation, overcrowding, non-durable structures and insecure tenure, feature in the UN-HABITAT report, The Challenge of Slums: Global report on Human Settlements 2003, as one of the biggest challenges of urban living. According to the report, their 2% annual growth rate is expected to double so that one in every three people in the world will end up in a slum within 30 years unless urban growth is checked through rigorous planning. This study of global urban conditions also finds that the 30 richest countries host only 2% of the world’s slum population while in the 30 least developed countries, this percentage is almost 80%. In India, though not exclusive to Mumbai, slums have been a major challenge and an overwhelming 55% of the population of Mumbai lives in slums, which cover only 6% of the city’s land. 

The generally understood and accepted reason for formation of slums is massive migration of workers to cities and production centers in search of job opportunities. Naturally, the new workers from poverty ridden areas, who are already struggling to survive, cannot afford renting new housing and making temporary shelters which get transformed rapidly into semi-permanent housing colonies. Since these are unplanned and basic amenities are missing, there is not only an increased strain on the existing resources of the region, but leads to further deterioration of services outside the slums as well. Moreover, slums also serve as breeding grounds for all sorts of criminal activities.

Many slum-dwellers of India diligently shun any re-housing or development plans because they believe the corrupt politicians and developers will go back on their promises and leave them hung out to dry.  Years of encroachment on the vast stretches of public land owned by official agencies but neglected in development planning, these slums also represent billions of dollars worth of dead capital. Unfortunately, the slum residents get the raw end of the deal either way. They suffer humiliation and battle constant health risks while forced to house twice as many people in spaces barely enough for half the number of residents. On top of that, the slumlords that control all services provided in slums, including rent and electricity, are harsh and sometimes worse than criminals, extracting their full share while boasting of providing a service that the State has not been able to deliver.

To start with, the slum mafia starts out with one small hut at a time, slowly gaining strength using bribes and coercion to grow into a whole colony. Funded or coerced by this mafia, politicians make a pretense of working to provide basic services for slum dwellers including water supply, drainage, electricity and roads. Within a few years of official red-tape, the colony is regularized and slums become permanent growing, developing entities. A stark example in this regard is that of Mumbai’s 1900 acres of land for an airport complex, widely reported in the media for losing almost 150 acres of land to encroachment. Ultimately, when relevant government agencies took notice and the process for re-location of slums started with planned surveys, many of the surveyors were attacked by the slumlords, who also simultaneously started evicting residents if they met any resistance to their designs. Gangsters earned profit by forcing slum-dwellers to partition their already cramped and small units into multiple ones, and surveyors were either bribed or forced to record the divisions as new units so that the government would have to provide four free flats to four different families when in actuality there was only one. The slumlords would then give only one new flat to the family, increase rents, and sell the remaining three flats at a market price and pocket the profit too.

Despite the horrors of the slum dwellers’ existence, the level of entrepreneurship displayed by slumlords and the hope, however small or distorted, it offers to millions for a better life merits recognition. Where governments failed to deliver to their citizens adequate provision of basic civic facilities and infrastructure, these slumlords stepped forward to fill the vacuum and proved to be William Drayton’s ‘Social Entrepreneurs’, described as, “where others see barriers, [Social Entrepreneurs] delight in finding solutions and in turning them into society’s new and concrete patterns.”  

However, as asserted in the UN report, what is truly needed is not just finding opportunity in adversity through manipulation or extortion, but by getting to the root of the problem that gives rise to slums in the first place: absence of adequate employment opportunities to improve the economic condition of slum dwellers. Some helpful steps in this regard would certainly have to include development of industrial areas close to smaller towns so people don’t have to migrate to large cities in search of better work opportunities, developing and promoting transportation facilities to encourage free movement to and from urban work areas to living centers in rural communities, and considering upgrading existing living spaces as a more cost-effective solution in the long run to re-location options. Unfortunately, lack of political will and the opportunistic approach of corrupt government officials might need to be addressed before any positive change can be seen in the countries around the world hosting huge populations of slums.  


Tahera Sajid is a freelance journalist and lives in Massachusetts, USA.  She is a community builder and an active advocate for interfaith relations. 

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