I’d like to begin this book with a story. Once upon a time there was a large family that lived in a large house and had a large income. Family elders ran the family in old-fashioned style. Some members commanded a greater share of the family’s resources, but everyone’s needs were met, no one was denied. The family prospered. Newcomers contributed to earnings and the house was expanded, but life became just a little ‘tighter’. The elders realised their informal style of housekeeping would have to change. They engaged some professionals to suggest ways to ensure long-term well-being of the family. These people came up with a Plan, which spelled out how the house and earnings should be expanded and then allocated equitably so that every present and future member of the household was adequately taken care of.

The elders delegated responsibilities for implementing various Plan tasks to different people. They however did not assign the all-important function of monitoring the Plan to anyone. Those In Charge (TIC) of expanding the house did so, but no one noticed they were not distributing newly acquired space equitably. Those In Charge of expanding earning opportunities did so, but no one noticed that decided shares of earnings were not being pooled into the household kitty. Most importantly, TICs saw their roles not in terms of responsibility but in terms of power. Instead of becoming custodians, TICs became owners of household resources and used them to improve their own lifestyles (and those of their friends). ‘Others’ in the family did not get their due share and were left to fend for themselves in ways not envisaged in the Plan—to live and work in poor conditions, to make do with sub-standard services, to somehow survive.

Obviously, TICs were the culprits and the ‘others’ victims in all this, but since it was the TICs who wielded the brush, the ‘others’ got painted as offenders for not living in the house according to the Plan. It was projected that these ‘others’ were in the house with the deliberate intent of slumming it. As the house became slummier, the TICs turned all pious and said they would be kind to these wretched ‘others’ and resettle them with ‘leftover’ family resources. This in effect meant those who had never been settled were to be resettled with less than what was initially put aside for them in the Plan—and that too as a favour by the very TICs who had usurped what was meant for them. Having thus condoned their own errors, TICs resumed the pursuit of their own betterment. They continued to devour a considerable share of the household resources by shortchanging the ‘others’, and soon there were no ‘leftovers’ for resettlement and ‘others’ formed majority of the household.

Now, the patience of the ‘others’ began to run thin and they began to protest. The cleverest among the TICs then came up with the idea of blaming the Plan. They noisily and piously argued that the Plan was anti-people for not allowing the ‘others’ to live and work wherever they wanted. They demanded the Plan be changed so that even the sub-human conditions the ‘others’ were living and working in be considered as ‘planned’. They argued that old-fashioned planning itself must go to make way for more ‘progressive’ planning that allowed people to remain unsettled. They demanded that such progressive planning be considered the ‘right’ of the ‘others’.

Slowly but surely contemporary progressive planning became a ‘global paradigm’ and the ‘others’ were persuaded not just to accept but expect and even demand shortchanging. Even as they continued to contribute to the household kitty, they lost their right to be settled, and gained instead the dubious ‘right’ to remain unsettled with minimal services till they were resettled. And TICs gained the ‘right’ to do whatever gave them greater choice and greater control over resources.

This then is the saga of the slumming of India’s cities in a nutshell. It is the story of how a large and growing number of ‘others’—urbanites living on pavements or in jhuggis or shanties, running or working in squalid and risky shops, godowns and factories, going to schools that do not teach and hospitals that do not treat—came to be slum-walas. It is the story of how a small but increasing number of TICs—urban development-walas in government and non-government agencies, in the corporate and donor sectors, among professionals and activists and celebrities—are letting our cities slowly die. It is also the story of the lives of all those who are not obviously TICs or ‘others’ but are, nevertheless, caught in it for being city-walas.

Slumming India chronicles this continually unfolding story through a few urban events with a beginning, middle or end in just one year in the lives of slums and their saviours. The choice of the year 2000-2001 is based on two rather mundane reasons of what can be called ‘relatability’. The first reason is that in our perceptual mindscapes years like these, marking as they do ‘the turn of the millenium’ and ‘half a century of contemporary urban planning in India’, are round figure milestones that we relate to as moments to pause, contemplate, introspect and refresh. Two, by pure chance in telescoped time frame or perhaps by inevitable certainty in a longer spanning trend, this was a year in which most of the events chronicled here became ‘news’ on account of well-known personages engaging in them, making them at once easy to chronicle for the writer and easy to relate to for the reader. For less or more mundane reasons any other year could have been chosen, with no difference to the intent of this book—which is not to provide an account of particular events but, rather, to explore through them the larger story of which they are but small parts.

It is in the pursuit of this intent that this book stays clear of painting a static overview of the slum problem through statistics, assuming (quite safely) that consciously or subconsciously every urbanite realises that the slumming of our cities is a growing reality. It also stays clear of profiling slums and their saviours, since roles are sufficiently stereotyped in literature, media and the movies. The stereotype slum-walas work in the informal sector where they may or may not be treated well. Their children may or may not go to a municipal school that may or may not have a building or a board or even a teacher who teaches. Their homes may or may not have electricity and their colonies any street lighting. The handpumps may or may not work. The public toilets, if they exist, may or may not be usable. They may or may not get drunk at night and fight with their neighbours or rob or kill. The stereotype kothi-walas keep clean homes (with or without help from one or more slum-wala) and may or may not be driven to work in fancy cars by some slum-wala. Their children go to schools with furniture, playgrounds, libraries, computers, extra-curricular activities and teachers who teach. They have municipal services and telephones, numbers which they can call in case of a breakdown or shortage, besides personal back up mechanisms like inverters, generators and bore wells. They go to multiplex cinemas, to exclusive shopping arcades, to ticketed amusement parks and fair grounds and to clubs and restaurants in the city’s prime areas, driving on fly-over studded wide roads made just for them. They also may or may not get drunk at night, have a fight or kill someone. In the stereotype good relation, the kothi-wala pays the slum child’s school fee or the slum-wala looks after the kothi-wala’s child devotedly. In the stereotype bad relation, the kothi-wala rapes his maid from the slums or the slum-wala murders his employer. In other stereotype relations, the kothi-wala is a politician who shows up at the slum-wala’s door before elections and arranges public taps and brick paving, but cannot be reached when the bulldozer comes. Or the kothi-wala is a public servant who gets all the perks of public job and provides facts and figures about slum-walas in departmental reports and fancy seminars and in answer to questions in parliament. Or the kothi-wali is a woman who, in cotton sari, kolhapuri chappal and kajal, does social work among the slum-walas. At times her husband or father or friend heads a department that funds NGOs and she registers or joins one. Or the kothi-wala or wali is a famous personality who picks up a slum baby on Children’s Day or World AIDS day or any other such day and smiles into news cameras.

No, this book does not dwell on these stereotypes and their numbers. It dwells, rather, on the underlying processes through which these stereotypes have come to be, on the reasons for their persistence in our minds and (albeit less starkly) in reality. It explores the fundamental question of how, in the world’s largest democracy, committed not only to equality but also to the notion of a welfare state, a large and growing section of its urban population is less equal and not faring well.

There are many theoretical explanations for why the poor stay poor. But these do not fully explain the slumming of our cities. This is firstly because urban poverty and slums are only largely and not entirely coterminous. (All those who live and work in slums are not always poor in terms of income and some of the latter are fortunate enough not to live in slums.) More importantly, living and working in slum conditions itself contributes to poverty. Resources of time and money that could be spent more productively are spent on gaining access to basic services (such as time spent in fetching water or money spent on illicit protection payments). Expenses on health are higher because of poor environment and expenses on education are often dead investments or at best provide little value for money. And bulldozers and removal vans cause serious economic reversals. From this perspective, slumming causes—or at least exacerbates—urban poverty. The cyclic relation between urban poverty and slumming calls for identifying other independent factors that cause slumming in the first place. In place of the equation between urban slums and urban poverty, therefore, this work explores the equation between urban slums and urban inequity.

It is widely accepted that inequitable land distribution is a major factor in the emergence of slums. If too many sprawling farmhouses are allowed to come up in the city for a few, then too many others will have to huddle in huts on some tiny piece of land because there is only so much urban land to go around. If fancy cyber parks used by a few are developed in the middle of cities on land suitable for local commercial use, then shops needed by many others will come up on roadsides. If a few industrial houses are allowed to occupy large sites in the city (even though they could be located elsewhere), many other small factories needing propinquity to ancillary establishments will come up in residential areas. The end result will be and is the slumming of our cities. Seen thus, the root cause of urban slumming then seems to lie not in urban poverty but in urban wealth.

The first part of this book has, in black and white, long shots of two dominant trends in the overall plot of the slumming of our cities as seen from this vantage. The first of these is how the notion ‘less is more’ has been made the norm by the rich for the poor—TICs in the story benevolently shortchanging the ‘others’. It is about the growing penchant for pilot projects, model projects, best practices, policy announcements, new policy announcements, etc, being continually published, discussed, debated, celebrated, replicated and extrapolated to create the illusion of constant activity with little regard to impact. In this book I have called this ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ and illustrated it by the story of a city-wide slum improvement project in Indore—one of the most celebrated projects in the world but also one of the most terrible tragedies on the ground. From faking success and globally celebrating the misery of the people in Indore, the tale moves to Delhi, where most of those associated with implementing and celebrating the ‘success’ in Indore extrapolated it into national policy. Done with the making, a set of these actors immediately moved on to unmaking the policy. The next act of this drama was played out in Indore again when lead actors returned to press the reset button and start a new game of urban improvement from scratch in a city they had declared slum free and adequately improved as a result of their earlier ‘successful’ effort.

The second dominant trend is about the growing power the TICs have given themselves—to make madness out of sense, to paint their implementation failures as planning failures and their victims as culprits, to corner an ever-increasing share of urban resources. This I have called ‘The Great Terrain Robbery’ and have illustrated it by the fracas surrounding polluting industries in Delhi. In 1962 the Master Plan for Delhi set aside land in various places for different types of industries. Most of that land was not developed or allotted to industries. A lot of it was also lost to other ‘priorities’ such as regularising unauthorised colonies out of humaneness. And industrial units crucial to the city’s economy were forced to come up in non-industrial areas. As all this was happening, TICs did nothing – in the garb of humaneness. Forty years later, the apex court, hearing a simplistic public interest litigation, castigated them for non-action and the TICs, having used up the land meant for industries, could only grab the Plan and start clamouring for its amendment—in the name, yet again, of humaneness.

The stories used to illustrate these trends are by no means unique. No astute observer of urban development can have missed the fact that, for the urban poor, less and less is being offered, accepted and celebrated more and more. Normative plot sizes for low-income housing are declining steadily. Poor children going to schools not in buildings but in tents or in small rooms within squalid slums or even in open streets is becoming progressively acceptable. In place of a proportionate share in public facilities (such as healthcare) on public land, separate landless options (such as health outreach) for the poor are becoming not just the accepted but the expected norm. Nearly every honour, acclaim and award bestowed in the name of the poor in recent years is really a celebration of the creativity of the rich—the tailors in the classic Emperor’s New Clothes—in getting away with giving the poor very little space so as to have more for themselves. And nearly every urban development-wala has his or her own favourite awful story of more blatant urban land grabbing and every city-wala is well aware of the ‘land mafia’ (ubiquitously featuring in the vintage ‘Great Terrain Robbery). Indeed, these twin trends make up the black-and-white leitmotif of inequitable urban land distribution.

But while urban land inequity, quite separately from urban poverty, does explain the emergence of slums, what explains their persistence? Why is it that slums—despite their sheer numbers and the numbers of slum saviours and the fairly clear understanding of what causes them—continue to be? Why doesn’t the majority in the democratic city stake its claim to its legitimate share of the city’s land? Some of the answers must, obviously, lie in what makes inequity continue to be, even though it has no place in a democratic society. It is posited in this book that just as fundamental rights enshrined in the constitution are meant to ensure equity, a shadow charter of rights has emerged in urban development practice to ensure inequity. The second part of this book offers, in shades of grey, close-ups of this shadow charter of rights.

The close-ups begin with the ‘Rights of the Little People’ (the ‘others’ in the story), generously bestowed on them by the development-walas. The first is the Right to Stay: the holiest of holy wars that slum saviours are constantly fighting is for slum-walas not to be evicted from their slums. The second is the Right to Resettlementin handkerchief-sized plots in tight layouts in faraway locations and in lieu of settlement if, and only if, the vacation of the land occupied by the slums is needed for some other greater common good directed by the courts or the land markets. The third (and the only one when not faced with eviction, which is most of the time) is the Right to Minimum Services—theoperative word being ‘minimum’ and not ‘services’. Obviously, these dubious ‘rights’ are no privilege for slum walas. It is a sobering thought that they are, however, all that is on offer to them. It is an even more sobering thought that the Little People themselves have come to expect no more.

Next in focus are the ‘Rights of the Big People’. Slum saviors have bestowed these upon themselves so that the dubious rights they have bestowed upon the ‘others’ continue to look righteous. Here, the first is the Right to Define and Redefine. The big people decide who is poor and how poor they are and if, when and what they need. They decide which slums can stay and which need to be resettled and when. They decide what constitutes minimum services. And on all these and more they reserve the right to change their minds any time. They claim this right on grounds of inherent ‘qualities’—power in the case of politicians, money in the case of donors, government status in the case of government and non-government status in the case of NGOs. These ‘qualities’ do not necessarily come with a vision (either of the larger problem or for appropriate solutions). As a substitute, saviours build ‘consensus’ through the Right to Align and Realign. The development sector seems to be experimenting with a mind boggling range of odd and changing alliances among government, non-government, corporates, donors, celebrities, etc. The ‘development dialogue’ has become quite a cacophony, with room for the voices of real people getting rather crowded, especially as slum saviours have also assumed a most elegant Right to be Ostrich with Pet Red Herring. Reservations, criticism or protests are handled with stunningly simple silence. It is as though there is a ‘do not disturb’ sign outside the door behind which developmental decisions are taken. If the dissent gets large or persistent, the do not disturb sign is replaced with a diversion sign and a red herring let loose. Development, after all, is so complex it is always possible to find some other ‘real issue’ to talk about.

The events of just one year described in this book show how these utterly unequal, undemocratic and unconstitutional ‘rights’ actually characterise contemporary urban development. The real problem about the slumming of our cities is not the manifest pervasive urban squalor that offends us or moves us, oppresses us or confounds us, enrages us or engages us. That can be dealt with. The real problem is about the moral and intellectual bankruptcy that is driving contemporary urban development in the direction of sustaining the problem rather than towards finding and implementing sustainable solutions, towards chaos and anarchy rather than towards orderliness and sanity.

This book does notprovide yet another ‘original solution’ to the manifest problem of urban slumming, because the whole point is that to throw another ‘original’ hat into the ring only fuels the chaos in the circus (and it is the chaos that needs fixing!). The quest for the right answers to the wrong question is a self-defeating exercise. This book only posits that what needs to be done is to abandon the shadow charter of rights, rewind a little to the past to see that logically derived solutions are already implicit in our policies and plans, end the freestyle free-for-all jamboree that lets anyone assume the license to sustain the problem out of vested interest or self-seeking indulgence, and develop a clear definition of development roles so that everyone gets down to getting the job done.

I do not offer any answers as to how this can be made to happen. The book ends with a collage of the writing on the wall, of glimpses of twists yet to come in the tale of our cities that confirms, however, that this needs to be done and done urgently.

This book has no answers… because I have not been able to find any. In 1997 I opted out of The System, which seemed to me to be hurtling at breakneck speed on the path towards sustaining rather than solving the problems of cities in general and slums in particular. The idea was to introspect and seek wider introspection, to pursue and seek wider pursuit of some limited but durable alternatives which would impact across all levels of intervention—from policy to grassroots. My work since then has covered professional research and writing and directly informing people, so that they ask for rights instead of favours. It has also covered not-so-professional ‘protests’—through writing against governmental and non-governmental actions, lending support to petitions in courts and protests on streets. But all these, in retrospect, seem home remedies that cannot possibly cure the terminal ailment afflicting The System—the incurable urge to conform to itself. Perhaps all that people like me can do in these maddening times then is to chronicle them. This book is just a chronicle.

No chronicle is entirely objective, and this one reflects my biases as a cynical, conservative development thinker. It also carries the bias of my belief that urban slumming is not about poverty to be fought with virtuous charity and kindness, but about injustice to be fought with vicious intolerance. Many who know me will, in all probability, also read it (if they read it) with their own varying biases about my professional arrogance or honesty, my personal badtamizi or forthrightness, my disregard for authority or quest for systemic sanity, my negativity or lateral vision. Many of those featured in this book will, in all probability, read it with their own biases about themselves and what they are doing (besides their biases about me if they know me). Some of them, I am sure, will say I have not understood their actions or their motives and should have left space for their views. Indeed, I could have, except that my intention was not to describe each little piece in detail but, rather, to broad stroke the larger picture into which all of us (myself included since I, being a planner by profession, am positioned alongside TICs) willy nilly fit. I have no hesitation in offering unconditional apologies in advance to all those who might be offended by this book, because this book is not meant to offend or belittle anyone. Our individual motives and actions are of little consequence in comparison with the larger reality to which they contribute. With the same logic, I request the reader to ignore my motives and biases and disregard the tone (at times intemperate) as well as inadvertent errors in describing particular events. Instead, pay heed to the big picture that we are all sketching but not quite seeing, like the blind men around the elephant. This book is written with a fervent hope that it will be read by those who are able and willing to change the contours of that, to reverse the slumming of our cities, and to stop the maddening chaos in urban development.