Article in the Statesman, 06.02.2000

The Government of India's draft national slum policy suggests an inclusive definition of slums, listing of slums and registration of and issuing identity cards to slums-dwellers to make them eligible for in-situ slum improvement for "tenable" sites and resettlement in case of "untenable" sites. "Untenability" has been defined in terms of the twin criteria of "hazard to user" or "wider public interest" and strict guidelines have been laid down for resettlement. It seems reasonable to presume that most slums will be subjected to in-situ interventions. In this, besides a range of social services, the Policy emphasises provision of physical individual infrastructure and facilitating shelter upgradation following improvement. It does have provisions for granting of tenure, predicated upon streamlining acquisition processes in case of private land and conflict resolution in case of public land. Perhaps, acknowledging the difficulties in these areas, the Policy allows for in-situ improvement works to be carried out even before granting tenure. A substantial part of the Policy dwells on implementation issues in the spirit of the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act. All in all, what the Policy seems to be primarily leading to is large scale slum upgrading, with individual infrastructure, with or without tenure. It has very little on resettlement and virtually nothing on pro-active interventions or land supply.

ADVOCACY. Cutting through the hype and jargon, the following are clear: firstly, (in light of the foregoing) this "national slum policy" could be more accurately described as "slum improvement advocacy". Secondly, it is not even a convincing advocacy for it does not bother to justify slum upgrading either conceptually or empirically. Granted, it makes a large number of suggestions on what should or could be done. But there is no clarity on whether these have been or can be done - and done well, efficiently and cost-effectively. Thirdly, and very unlikely just by sheer coincidence, it seems to extrapolate to the national level a single (and, one might add, not very effective) model of slum improvement, used in India by the British Government's Department for International Development (DfID). Fourthly, since DfID is not going to pay for slum "improvement" throughout the country, there is a lot of very creative writing on convergence of resources from resource-starved sources or vested interests and charging local bodies and communities with innumerable functions - all in the name of "convergence", "capacity building" and "participation" in the spirit of the 74th Amendment.

It is certain that this Policy, seeking as it does to implement a flawed paradigm through an impractical strategy, will not make any impact in terms of solving the slum problem. However, it will do much damage by way of unintended (or so one hopes) impacts, irrespective of whether it is implemented or not. The first of these is going to be "slum development". If the Policy just ratified, all state and city governments will have official sanction to stop doing the small amount of resettlement and low-income housing they are doing and there will be faster proliferation of slums. If it is implemented, there will be total slummification. One, through the "inclusive" definition of slums, most of urban India will become listed slum. Two, provision of individual infrastructure (especially toilets) in in-situ upgrading is prone to failures and known to lead to rampant choking of underground drainage, water contamination, leading to recurrent epidemics. Three, the provisions for wholeheartedly facilitating (rather than sensibly regulating) shelter upgrading and high-density mixed landuse will convert present kutcha slums to pucca slums, which, after all the "participatory" development, will be impossible to ever re-plan or re-locate.

INTEGRATION. The second is going to be on what is called "integration", but would more honestly be described as creating a separate constituency - of slum dwellers. This Policy wants every slum household to be registered and given a special Identity Card. If the policy is just ratified, one can imagine all manners of benefits being denied to slum-dwellers pending Identity Cards. If it is implemented then the slum population, which is in many places the majority in the urban population, will have an ID other than the voter's card - an ID with a the promise of benefit and the reality of all manners of other things too disgusting to imagine. This, of course, will be in addition to the glaring ID of living in settlements that look and work differently from those of the non-slum constituency in urban areas of the largest democracy in the world. The saddest impact of all will be on the mother of the slum problem - inequity in urban land distribution. Somewhere quite early the Policy says that the problem is that slums are viewed as "problem areas". That is correct. Slums are not the problem, but the manifestation of a deeper malaise that afflicts our urban development process that has inequitable land supply built into it. But having said that slums should not be viewed as problem areas, the Policy goes on to do exactly the same, only it calls them "under-serviced areas". This Policy endorses the obnoxiously inequitable notion that a third to two thirds of the urban population must live in one twentieth to one tenth of the urban land. It further suggests mixed-landuse in these areas so that slum dwellers' work places are also confined to this meagre land. It even suggests that primary schools for slum children could run in community halls within slums! In a single stroke, this Policy condones all past errors of omission and commission in respect of failures to ensure equitable land supply after having promised to do so (and at times even pretended to have done so). And all future hassle in this regard has also been done away with. With the urban Land Ceiling Act on its way out and this Policy on its way in, we are well on our way to a globalised urban land market in which the urban poor shall have a small and diminishing share. Cheers!

PARTICIPATION. Finally, there is the matter of an increasing number of draft policies based on the spirit of the 74th amendment. Decentralisation, we were told, is about bottom-up planning, about transparent and accountable governance, about power to the people. But these policies impose top-down "global" paradigms agreed by "experts" (in workshops, seminars, conventions and conferences), rather than by real people. They then piously plead for "participation" by communities and local bodies in the implementation of these pre-determined paradigms. "Empowered" with this long list of responsibilities, local bodies and people are generously offered the "expertise" and "support" of the wider "civil society", which - irrespective of whether it is driven by charity or enlightened self interest or donor funding - is, basically, not accountable to people or local bodies! Now that we have such draft policies (drawn up with the whole-hearted support of bilateral and multilateral agencies) in nearly all social sectors, will our government, in a supreme act of transparency, at least tell us exactly when we ceased to a be welfare state?