Letter to the Editor, Times of India, 07.03.2000
Following the recent Supreme Court judgement there has been a veritable media blitz equating slums and litter. This is a dangerous distortion of the unexceptionable intentions of the Supreme Court to deal with two of the most obvious problems of urban India. Slum dwellers can be viewed as victims of exclusionary processes of urban development. A slum dweller contributes as much to the city as the non-slum dweller, but is forced to live in conditions that are nowhere near equal.
It is imperative that the Supreme Court judgement be seen in the right perspective. Media reports that tend to equate slums with litter, thereby, suggesting "removal" of both, are particularly dangerous because it comes at a time when a draft national slum policy is being finalised. This policy (which, incidentally, has been drawn up with the involvement of HUDCO and DfID) advocates primarily - almost exclusively - slum upgrading. As an alternative to "removal", slum upgrading is likely to find immense political support. However, there is no empirical or conceptual basis to justify slum upgrading as a long-term, durable solution to the slum problem as there are no paradigms endorsing the notion that a large percentage of the urban population must live in a small and marginal proportion of the urban landscape - simply because this option has been considered to be misplaced in a just society.
The draft slum policy further suggests "high-density, mixed landuse" for slum areas - meaning that, unlike the non-slum areas, the meagre land occupied by the poor must also house much of their (and others') environmentally degenerating work activities. It even suggests that primary schools for slum children, unlike those of non-slum children, could also run in community halls within this meagre land. Just like "removal" of urban slums, the model of "upgrading" in such an inequitable land distribution and land use perspective being advocated by the slum policy is tantamount to punishing the victims of flawed and unjust urban development processes.
The spirit of the judgement and its honorable intentions and concerns will be served only if the errors leading to inequitable urban land distribution are rectified.
Gita Dewan Verma