The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world

Bangalore Informal: alternatives for housing design, planning and implementation?

James Whitcomb Riley underlines the planning failures that led to the breakdown of the slum redevelopment program in Bangalore, and highlights a model of housing redevelopment based on self-management and design by slum residents.

James Whitcomb Riley

James Whitcomb Riley

Cities: Bangalore

Topics: Housing, Development authority, Participatory governance, Poverty and inequality, Informal settlements

Bangalore, India's fifth largest urban agglomeration, is an economic powerhouse in IT, telecommunications, biotechnology, garments and heavy manufacturing, as well as a major destination for foreign direct investment. As high-end real estate development has exploded, the costs of acquiring land have skyrocketed, making it nearly impossible for the poor to formally access housing, proliferating informal settlements.

In the face of rapid urbanisation, the national government initiated the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) to finance massive urban infrastructure development. Its 'sub-mission', Basic Services to the Urban Poor (BSUP) led by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation, emphasises addressing challenges associated with the living conditions of slum residents. Bangalore's municipal authority, Bruhat Bengaluru Maharanga Palike (BBMP), interpreted this as a call for the 'redevelopment' of informal settlements through the demolition of existing homes and the construction of new multi-storey housing blocks in situ. However, this proved elusive.

In the city proper, an estimated 2.2 million people inhabit more than 600 informal settlements, yet occupy only five percent of the entire urban area. In light of astronomically high densities, the BBMP identified five pilots out of thirteen targeted settlements to serve as models. Of course, slum residents were prone to idiosyncratic reactions, which played a major role in whether construction of new housing actually materialised. In the end, a solitary housing block was constructed in a settlement of fourteen households.

Jurisdictional ambiguity

As Bangalore continues to sprawl, the BBMP's jurisdiction now spans over 198 wards, but the Bangalore Development Authority (BDA) drives urban development, while the Karnataka State Slum Clearance Board (KSSCB) focuses on 'environmental improvement', clearance, and 'redevelopment' of the slums. A lack of institutional capacity, of multi-agency coordination, and of accurate data on the location of settlements led to jurisdictional ambiguity, causing false starts and conflicts.

The central and state governments, the BBMP, and the BDA all owned swathes of land across the city, and each had sole development rights over their properties. Land disputes between these governing bodies were a large source of conflict, banishing settlements into a netherworld. A single settlement could cut across jurisdictions, resulting in the settlements being ineligible for targeted interventions. This ingrained distrust and resistance by slum residents and community leaders toward municipal authorities, further undermining the initiative.

Internal politics of the informal

Of course, informal settlements have their own internal issues surrounding land ownership. The larger, more consolidated settlements were dotted with multi-storey houses with rental units attached. Conflicts arose between slum landlords and tenants who both claimed rightful ownership. The identification of intended beneficiaries, the size of the settlements' populations, and the tracking of labour migration patterns were divisive issues — "new arrivals" were viewed as undeserving by long-time slum residents.

In larger slums, there could be three or four different 'community leaders' which for different reasons would refuse to participate in meetings, either unconvinced by the scheme or to hold out for preferential housing units for themselves. Their self-interested dealing was self-defeating since it prevented settlements from collectively demanding improved services and infrastructure from which they would also have benefited. Also, long-standing patron-client relationships between these leaders and local politicians, where votes were exchanged for services and infrastructure, lead to immobilized captured constituencies. This highlights the false assumption that informal settlements are homogenous enclaves with explicitly shared collective interests (based on shared poverty), and in many ways dispels romantic notions of what 'slum community' means.

Planning poverty

From the outset, the Detailed Project Report — the planning document required to secure funding — did not accurately account for the costs to slum residents due to redevelopment, nor did it establish institutional mechanisms for the transfer of tenure documents known as Hakka Patra. Issues over land ownership, relocation sites that maintained social networks, and transitional shelters in proximity to slum residents' jobs were an afterthought. A disproportionate amount of risk faced the most vulnerable poor.

Without a comprehensive strategy to integrate informal settlements into the urban fabric housing policies are bound to be rejected by slum residents because they see clearly that they are being excluded. Ultimately the top-down nature of the DPR meant there was no true adaptability for inclusive planning — community participation amounted to mere consultation.

Use of space as design alternatives

The diversity of income and housing types in informal settlements reflect historical trajectories that have resulted in socio-spatial stratification — which to municipal authorities may lend to imagery of chaotic shantytowns. The penchant for razing informal settlements for the construction of new housing blocks is based more on an aesthetic of the modern than an appreciation of slum residents' housing strategies.

For example, slum residents' use of space is determined in large part by their livelihoods. Many slum residents use their living space as a workspace, and own carts or heavy equipment that cannot be kept near their living quarters in multi-storey housing blocks.

A more effective strategy would be to improve the overall living conditions in informal settlements and to view the practices of slum residents as potentially viable norms. Another possibility is to create modifiable modular housing types that acknowledge the balance between structures that serve both residential and livelihood purposes.

By engaging slum residents more as invested stakeholders, and not simply as passive beneficiaries, participation could be a dynamic and iterative process that identifies more appropriate housing alternatives, and lead to feasible in situ construction. For example, while retaining the original footprint, an incremental clustering of homes would keep social networks intact, create open space, widen footpaths, and reduce individual expenditures and liabilities. All of which could improve access to water and electricity, and offer greater potential income and savings for home-based enterprises.

However, none of this is possible within the existing framework based on the traditional construction tendering process. It would require flexibility in the regulatory environment but also in funding and finance mechanisms. In order to fund projects stage-by-stage on a settlement level, state and municipal authorities will need to develop the institutional capacity and governance structures to implement such projects in partnership with NGOs and CBOs that can help communities develop the requisite financial and managerial experience.

Furthermore, various hard and soft costs that reflect the specifications and revisions of design would need to be addressed. Thus identifying opportunities to scale — possibly through standardisation or prefabrication — would be paramount to successful implementation.

Towards self-managed redevelopment

Some of the issues that led slum residents to reject the BSUP project in Bangalore would have been addressed had there been a more thorough attempt to engage informal settlements in a constructive and productive manner from the beginning. The lack of data available during the design and planning stages resulted in an absolute misreading of slum residents' receptivity. The existing livelihood strategies of residents, and the new demands and costs the project imposed on them were not fully taken into account, and a general mistrust brewed that was never assuaged. Of course, internal politics were a factor. Ultimately, these multitudinous challenges appeared close to insurmountable, as no one-size-fits-all approach could have addressed each issue as it arose.

Of course, there is no panacea, but in terms of equitable infrastructure and service delivery on the scale required, allowing slum residents to participate and manage their own 'redevelopment' is a starting point. This requires supporting the self-administered collection and redevelopment of a database on informal settlements, their location, their ownership and their socioeconomic profiles, thereby empowering residents with knowledge of their collective resources. It carries the positive knock-on effect of informing state governments and the municipal authorities about the existing capabilities and collective managerial capacities of slum residents. This will also provide a more holistic view of the community's needs in terms of unit design, potential relocation sites, appropriate types of transitional shelter, and mobility modes.

The use of GIS mapping and self-administered socioeconomic surveys could help reveal diversity of incomes and housing types. This calls for developing an alternative governance model for planning in situ housing, infrastructure and service delivery — championed by CBOs — as local conditions determine the evolution of design and technical aspects of the program.

James Whitcomb Riley is a contributing editor to The Global Urbanist.