According to media reports on February 18, 2000, the Supreme Court asked authorities to remove slums in major metros. According to media reports exactly a month ago, in the State Ministers' conference, the Union Urban Development Minister called for planned resettlement of squatters. The central government's Draft National Slum Policy speaks almost entirely of slum improvement as a long-term, permanent solution to the slum problem. With such conflicting solutions being suggested from the highest levels of governance, one can only look forward to total and willful anarchy - more so because slums are a "state subject" and in the hallowed "spirit of the 74th amendment" anything goes! In the midst of this chaos, it might be worthwhile to focus on the simple matter of calling to book past errors of omission and commission before looking ahead in a vacuum - something like catching culprits at large before more pro-active crime prevention. Two matters, in particular, scream for (exemplary) punitive action.

The first is to do with land. The call for resettlement pre-requires land. The ruling for removal also pre-requires land because it is not pragmatic to remove large numbers of people (bordering in some places on the majority) without an alternative. Indeed, ever since slums came to be first viewed as a problem, a lot has been said for land assembly for the poor. Master Plans have earmarked land for low-income housing or resettlement. Laws like Urban Land Ceiling Act and Vacant Lands Act have partly aimed at making surplus or idle land available for the poor. In Delhi in the '60s the development authority was given what many consider draconian powers to create a land bank for planned development. States like Haryana have prescribed reservations for low income housing as a pre-condition for granting licenses for land and housing development by private sector. Madhya Pradesh has had a policy for 15 percent land reservation in all projects to create a land bank for the poor. The Housing and Urban Development Corporation has had a policy for reservation of 5 percent land for the poor in all schemes funded by it throughout the country. But benefits of these measures have, by and large, not been realized. Instead, even as urban India has steadily sprawled, in this expanding space the urban poor have not had a share that is anywhere near fair.

Strangely, the draft slum policy has nothing on pro-active land assembly or past omissions in this regard. Instead it strongly advocates slum improvement through provision of (preferably individual) infrastructure with or without tenure and subsequent support for shelter upgradation. This is a global paradigm that has gained currency over the last decade. At government initiative these experiments have been modest and by way of interim measures pending more permanent solutions. At the initiative of donors, on the other hand, they have been more ostentatious (in terms of both investments and celebration in professional circles) and by way of permanent solutions. It is the latter that seem to have been extrapolated into the draft national slum policy. This brings us to the second matter screaming for attention, for the ground realities of these projects are often very different from what is claimed.

Consider the case of the Indore slum project, carried out with bilateral funding to the tune of Rs.65 crores for the entire slum population of about 80000 households in 183 slums. The project is one of the most celebrated upgrading projects worldwide, having been honored with several international awards. It is also the only project where what is being advocated in the draft national slum policy has, so far, been actually implemented and, in fact, all the agencies involved in the formulation of the draft policy have been involved with implementing and/or honoring the project. One would assume, naturally, that the project has been a spectacular success. But this is very far from the truth.

In reality there is rampant choking of underground drainage provided under the project. Not only is sewage and sullage back flowing onto streets and into homes, it has also contaminated drinking water. Virtually from the beginning of the project epidemics on account of it have been reported in the local press. People in the slums of Indore have been dying and continue to die with unfailing regularity. Yet the project paradigm continues to celebrated and replicated and has now been extrapolated into slum policy - by the very agencies of government and civil society responsible for the tragedy in Indore.

There is no way that any problem can be solved without first acknowledging and correcting past errors.

(The writer is a former urban development consultant)