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Environment / Sustainability

Indian cities are “decanting” slum-dwellers to new housing estates, miles from their jobs

This is the first of a two-part article. You can read the second part next week.

For anyone with a feel for recent British history, it was a heart-breaking scene: a brand new estate of social housing blocks, sat on the edge of city. The residents newly “decanted” miles from their jobs and social networks, with very little public transport. And a school, purpose built for the community, which the parents judged inadequate.

It could have been a scene from half a dozen British cities after the post-war slum clearances. But it was the Indian city of Ahmedabad, in late March; a city that will soon be larger than London, repeating a mistake of post-war Britain.

I was there as part of a UK-India conversation on urban development, which included the visit to the new estate. A big group of men, women and children came over to talk. Outsiders didn’t visit their enclosed community that much, so they were curious. And, anyway, they didn’t have much else to do. They weren’t working, which is not something you can say about most Indians living in poverty: in a city with jobs to be had, they were unemployed.

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They talked of their anger, uprooted four years ago from a slum community some of them had helped to build; and moved more than 10 miles from their work. Many of the men commuted back each day, spending up to half their earnings on the journey. But for the women, the time and expense of the travel was too much. As a result many couples had seen their take-home incomes slashed, just as they moved into regular flats with bills to pay.

There was a sense of helplessness and dependency. Once, they had supported each other to keep their slum streets clean and provide basic amenities. But, then, they had been moved against their will to these modern blocks of flats. The way they saw it, it was now the city’s job to meet their needs. As a result the estate was a far more dirty and depressing place to visit than the sort of slums the families had left.

Even officials and experts involved in designing the scheme admitted mistakes had been made: there had been too much focus on the physical infrastructure and not enough on building the social fabric of the new community, and others like it around the city. One told us that money for community support groups should have been set aside; another said new bus routes could have been included at little cost. More parallels with the British experience.

But for the authorities, rehousing tens of thousands of slum dwellers was a price worth paying for a grand projet: the families had been evicted from riverbank shanties to remould the city’s waterfront, just as London built the Embankment in the 19th century. Where once Ahmedabad turned its back on the Sabarmati, the great river running through it midst, in future the planners dream it will become a Gujarati equivalent to the Thames or the Seine. So the flood-prone slums and river-bed vegetable patches have been replaced by grand two-level esplanades.

Gandhi’s home leads out onto the new pathways, and looking out from his simple bungalow you can’t help wondering what he would have made of it. Perhaps he would have approved. The aim is to create a thriving communal space, to act as the heart and lungs of a polluted city which has few shared public places for everyone to mix together. But today the new walkways are incomplete and near deserted. It won’t be clear for some time whether the experiment succeeds, while the costs for the former slum dwellers are already plain.

Not that Gujarat is China. Before the project went ahead there were years of consultation. And the courts intervened to require the city authorities to provide residents an official flat, in place of the semi-legal slum dwellings they’d once called home. Indeed, each family has been offered the chance to buy their new home at a heavy discount – to own an asset for the first time – though the ones we spoke to could not imagine being able to afford the price.

Indian workers erect barriers near a hoarding of Indian prime minister-elect, Narendra Modi, ahead of his visit to the city last May. Image: Sam Panthaky/Getty.

A more organic path to prosperity

Sometimes master plans are needed and slum clearances are a necessary evil: the development of European cities is proof of that. But Ahmedabad shows that organic change within existing neighbourhoods often offers a more hopeful path to development.

For decades, residents, NGOs and officialdom have worked to transform the city’s slums. There is still poverty and squalor, but communities have changed for the better. In the last 20 years one NGO has been instrumental in seeing water, sewage and electricity supplies offered at household level. The utility providers had not believed that slum dwellers would pay the bills, but the NGO persuaded them to run small pilots and prove it could be done.

There were wider benefits, because in India a utility bill is a vital document, an official proof of address which opens the door to many other services and opportunities. Similarly, we were told that when the authorities undertook not to evict slum families the effect was catalytic; once residents had security of tenure, they gained the confidence to invest in their homes, replacing tin-roofed shacks with simple brick constructions, sometimes of two stories. All this helps explain why the uprooted families were so disgruntled. They asked what was so great about the satellite dishes on the sides of their new blocks, when they’d had electricity and good TVs before.

In the right conditions, India’s slums are dynamic, self-improving communities. Pretty much everyone works, saving is widespread and families (usually women) seek credit responsibly to invest in their futures. The NGOs and community cooperatives talked of a typical voyage, where young men migrate from villages, first to stay with friends, then to rent a dormitory bed. Their families follow and rent a room, followed by a modest home. With luck they “buy” their next home, on the grey market of the slum economy, and start to make improvements. Many parents have even higher aspirations for their children and opt for fee-paying schools and perhaps some sort of formal vocational training.

This is by no means everyone’s story, but we heard how slums can be engines of social mobility. Indeed, these days, a minority are even able to move on from them altogether, and buy a regular home. Until recently the jump had been too great, but with affordable new-build flats and more accommodating lenders, the rungs up the ladder are becoming easier to climb.

So in India’s cities, as in communities throughout the world, development is seldom about big bang solutions. As often as not it is about removing the obstacles and bottlenecks that are preventing families from making the most of their lives: so people can prove their address, gain secure tenure or access finance. The role of the NGOs and cooperatives is facilitation and proof of concept. They build bridges, convince sceptics, pilot ideas and show how they can work as scale.

We heard that attitudes were usually the most intractable barriers: for example, it had taken years of advocacy and piloting to persuade the utilities that connecting up the Ahmedabad slums would be economically viable. And the hardest barriers to overcome are often the attitudes of slum dwellers themselves, especially with respect to gender and caste. But even here there were stories of progress.

We heard that caste discrimination is alive and well, but nothing compared to that which dalits face in many villages. And we met a powerful women’s cooperative that provides dozens of services and, through patience and determination, has won over the men of the community. Many poor families still question the point of educating girls beyond basic literacy. But in a powerful sign of a better future, inside a dusty classroom at the heart of a slum, an NGO introduced us to five 18 year-old girls, training to be electricians.

Andrew Harrop is general secretary of the Fabian Society. He visited Ahmedabad in March as part of the UK-India Dishaa programme.

The second part of “Notes from Urban India” will be published next week.
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