The slum problem in urban India has been growing into immense proportions. This is the reason and no one takes it seriously any longer. What, perhaps, many of us do not realise is that the problem has grown enough to become the problem of the majority. In many cities over half the population lives in slums. In effect, half of the urban population does not even feature in the picture of our urban development (howsoever shabby) except as labor force that has made it possible!

By virtue of sheer numbers alone scream for a serious introspection by urban professionals, administrators and parliamentarians on what went wrong and why, what needs to be done now and how. The large numbers involved also call for some very lateral paradigm shifts on fundamental issues. For instance, we need to redefine the "greater common good" for which urban planning has been and continues to be carried out. What, after all, can be "greater" than the majority population? Likewise there is need to redefine "integration" into the mainstream. At the rate things are going, won't the conventional "mainstream" soon become a paltry trickle?

In the midst of this larger context the Government of India has come out with a Draft National Slum Policy. But in what appears to be a classic case of playing ostrich, the Policy does not even take note of the scale of the problem and the changing numbers and equations that characterise it. Not only does it continue to mouth the cliched, irrelevant (even irreverent) platitudes in the name of "wider public interest" and "integration", it even suggests specific measures designed to further isolate the urban poor.

To begin with, the Policy suggests listing of all slums (defined as "under-serviced" areas and, therefore, inclusive of hutments, unauthorised colonies, urban villages and inner city settlements) and registering of all slum dwellers, complete with issuing of identity cards. Since the policy largely does not recommend any "benefits" for this population beyond "slum improvement" with the participation of and cost recovery from the "beneficiaries", it is not clear why they should have identity cards. There is by now sufficient empirical evidence to show that, by and large, slum upgrading does not provide a long-term solution to the slum problem. Problems with operation and maintenance of infrastructure, consequences of the resultant unregulated shelter consolidation by residents, and difficulties with tenure matters are typical constraints to the durability and sustainability of "benefits" that are intended through this approach. Past experiences with issuing ration cards and other forms of "identities" to slum dwellers have also shown us how little these deliver by way of tangible benefits. Consider, for instance, the case of a riverfront slum in Vijaywada, which has been "improved" as part of a citywide slum improvement project with British funding. The slum dwellers have also been issued "door numbers". They still live in huts in the midst of squalid conditions, although in some parts streets have been paved, some hand pumps do work and a handful of households have received some benefits from health and pre-school education inputs. The "door numbers" are written on wooden stools. This is because the settlement gets flooded every year and the houses, with the doors, are washed away.

In this context, all that the Slum Policy's proposed identity cards will achieve is that the majority of the urban population in the world's largest democracy will now have an "identity" other than that provided by the Voter's ID. This, of course, shall be in addition to the glaring ID of living, working and even studying in settlements that look and work differently from those of the other half of the urban population - a process that the National Slum Policy seems committed to ensure. For instance, it is inexplicably silent on the issue of land inequity and, in fact, endorses the idea that, unlike the rest of the urban population, the urban slum population must live in high-density settlements on a very small portion of the urban land. It also suggests that, unlike the rest of the urban population, the urban slum population must live in mixed-landuse settlements where homes and establishments co-exist with each other and with problems attendant to such co-existence. It even suggests that, unlike other urban children, urban slum children could go to primary schools in multi-purpose community centres built within the slums on land provided by slum communities.

In the process of creating this distinctive identity for slum dwellers the National Slum Policy also envisages their whole-hearted participation in every stage of "improvements". It also envisages community contributions in implementation, user charges and even a consolidated service tax. In fact all that the communities are not expected to do is to refuse these priced "benefits" or to opt to pay the same price for, say, sensible resettlement in reasonable sized plots in some decent location.

In the hallowed "spirit of the 74th constitutional amendment" the Policy assigns the task of issuing Identity Cards to slum dwellers to Urban Local Bodies (ULBs). This is in addition to all other tasks that are expected of and seldom delivered by ULBs and in spite of the fact that, notwithstanding the frenzied "capacity building" that has been going on for long, we have yet to see capable ULBs become a norm rather than rare exception. The Policy leaves the task of determining whether or not a slum needs to be relocated on account of being "untenable" on account of either "undue risk" or "wider public interest" to the District Magistrate. This is even as these criteria have repeatedly been abused through similar discretionary processes in the past. In the implementation of improvement works, the Policy envisages the active participation of the Civil Society (with tax concessions and other incentives). This is even as such "charity" is not called for (especially with tax concessions, etc) in the delivery of what should be seen as the right of the people.

The processes that the Draft National Slum Policy suggests leave wide berth for many among the bureaucracy and the civil society to do what they please in the name of the poor, but in the service of other interests. Interests driven variously - by charity, by enlightened self-interest, by vested market interests, by donor funding - but sharing the commonality of complete lack of accountability to the people. To be reduced to a vote bank of politicians is one thing, for politicians are accountable to people if only to the extent of choice and opportunity for rejection on a later date. To be reduced to a separate constituency of do-gooders who are driven differently and only when and for as long it pleases them is quite another. It is tragic that this should happen to a majority section of the urban population through no less than a national policy meant for them!