Slums have become endemic to urban development as the 20th century has witnessed the twin-phenomena of industrial development and globalisation at a runaway pace. At the end of this century, we find that the urban population of the planet is in a majority. Whereas in industrially developed nations the growth of technology has been translated directly into benefits for the urban population, in India, as in other lesser-industrially-developed nations, the benefits of technology have not resulted in improved living conditions for the majority of the population. More than two-thirds of India’s population still lives in rural settlements, which are systemically excluded from the significant benefits of technological development. This has resulted in an ever-increasing migration of the rural population to the larger urban centres, in search of economic betterment and to improve living conditions.
Indian cities have evolved over several centuries without the necessary impetus of industrial growth. After India achieved political independence, there has been a distinct policy imperative to encourage the development of industrial infrastructure, but this has not resulted until now in the transformation of urban systems. As cities have grown in size, there has been a direct correlation between increasing population and degradation of environmental conditions. The brunt of this environmental decay has to be borne by the poor rural migrants, whose ambitions of economic betterment in the city are denied by the realities of sub-human living conditions and lack of access to urban infrastructure.
The trends outlined above have resulted in a situation where 30 to 50 percent of our current urban population lives in slums and unauthorized settlements. The resultant load on city services makes for unmanageable living conditions for almost the entire urban population. In response to this situation, there has been an increasing effort by government to eradicate slums and generally upgrade urban infrastructure. This has led to programmes for removal, resettlement, and rehabilitation of slum dwellers, mainly in the last two decades. The lessons learnt from these experiences have neither been systematically documented nor collated through scientific means. Isolated packages of data and policy prescriptions regarding the urban poor and their habitat have been accumulating and gathering dust on the shelves in offices of national and international development agencies, as well as the growing number of voluntary agencies currently working with the urban poor.
It is therefore proposed that a nodal agency to be formed for holistic scientific study of the habitat of the urban poor, with a clear mandate of providing sustainable solutions to improve the policy and processes of urban development in the country. Such an agency would necessarily employ the tools of information technology to configure a comprehensive picture of the problem, and document the results of the significant attempts to finding solutions. Including a collaboration with the man agencies on sectoral issues such as health and education, technological inputs relating to physical infrastructure of traffic and transportation, as well as construction materials and practices could also be implemented. The preservation of the indigenous and sustainable cultural patterns of our ancient society will also be part of the agency's task. It would be necessary for the information processing activities to be supplemented by prototypical exercise on-the-ground which would test and demonstrate workable ideas in practice.
An initiative has currently been taken by the New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC) to undertake one such demonstration project in New Delhi.