The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world


How do we reconcile the planner's perceptions with the slum dwellers' reality? India's Rajiv Awas Yojana

The Government of India has launched the Rajiv Awas Yojana, a grand housing scheme for a 'slum-free India'. But can grand schemes work when planners and policymakers neither understand the reality of the urban poor nor connect to their aspirations?

Mukta Naik

Cities: Delhi

Topics: Housing, National governance, Participatory governance, Community organisation, Informal settlements

Unlivable spaces, uncertain futures: a child next to an open drain in Sundernagari, East Delhi. Photo: Mukta Naik
Residents discuss housing plans using architectural foam models. Despite intense interaction, it was tough for our team to bridge the divide between our perception and the slum dwellers' reality. Photo: Mukta Naik
Most houses double up as workspaces. Often, over 5 adults, raw material and finished goods share huts as small as 15 square metres! Photo: Mukta Naik
Life spills onto the street, which serves as the chief space for interaction and activity. Photo: Mukta Naik
Inadequate basic services; most homes have brick walls, but temporary roofing. Photo: Mukta Naik
Innovations informed by residents--micro Home Solutions designed pedestrianised streets that could continue to play the role of the principal interaction space and extension of their homes. The streets ran at the ground (G) and second floor (G+2) levels, so most units had access to a street. Left: a typical street with 3.5 metres between encroachments. Right: Proposed street with 4.7 metres between buildings. Courtesy: micro Home Solutions
Bird's eye view of the cluster scheme. Courtesy: micro Home Solutions
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The urban housing shortage in India, officially pegged at 24.7 million in 2007 and unofficially at about 40 million, largely exists in the low-income segment. Indian policymakers stubbornly refused to acknowledge urbanisation as a reality for decades; as a result all aspects of city development, including housing, have been neglected for far too long, and poor people have had no option but to 'squat' on interstitial land tracts. Around 110 million Indians live in slums in tiny makeshift homes, with variable access to basic services like water, sanitation and sewage, uncertain tenure and even more uncertain futures.

The Government of India has conceived a Rajiv Awas Yojana (RAY, a national housing scheme named after former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi) that envisions a slum-free India. RAY is based on the concept of bringing slums into the formal system by granting tenure to slum dwellers. Urban local bodies are to spearhead projects for upgrading slums and building affordable homes and would need to develop workable models, possibly in partnership with the private or non-profit sectors, to do so.

Our biggest learning during the project, though, was that our perceptions-that of the architect, urban designer, planner, policymaker-are so totally different from the reality of the slum dwellers, that they are almost irreconcilable.

In 2010, micro Home Solutions (mHS), where I work as a consulting planner, had the opportunity to work on a RAY pilot project to redevelop two slum clusters in Sundernagari, East Delhi alongside community-based NGO Mahila Housing SEWA Trust (MHT). While the residents of one slum block are predominantly low caste leather workers and the other block is a Muslim community, both blocks are desperately poor (average reported monthly income approximately 4000 Rupees, or 51 British Pounds), homes in both slums double up as workspace, and a significant proportion of the homes are single story huts built using temporary roofing materials like tarpaulin and plastic. Despite open, overflowing sewers and dysfunctional public toilets (most homes do not have toilets), Sundernagari's residents maintain spotlessly clean homes, have more sense of community than any middle class neighborhood and would gladly stand in front of a bulldozer if it were trying to destroy their slum.

Following RAY's guidelines, our design scheme was developed through a series of community interactions. We eventually proposed, with the community's lukewarm consent, a cluster-type four-storey housing with an elevated mid-level street so that the community could retain its existing way of life, in which relationships as well as goods were transacted via the street that ran right before their home.

Our biggest learning during the project, though, was that our perceptions-that of the architect, urban designer, planner, policymaker-are so totally different from the reality of the slum dwellers, that they are almost irreconcilable.

We learnt early on that the community detests the concept of high-rise living, has no faith in elevator technology and since they work from home, their livelihoods are directly impacted by apartment living. If they are unable to pursue home-based work they get further pushed into the poverty spiral. Sundernagari residents held a plot of land, however small, as their ideal form of housing. Our carefully created multistorey apartment design, which tried to accommodate their every expressed need, meant nothing at all to the community.

RAY intends to allocate a single unit comprising a 25m² carpeted area per family, ignoring the very fundamental social phenomenon of multi-generational families that exists in India across classes, but especially among the poor. Sundernagari residents questioned the assumption that the same amount of space would be sufficient for everyone and we could see their point as we observed the terribly cramped conditions in several homes. What of our sons and their families? Do we turn them out into the streets?

Given that, many local governments are unable (or unwilling) to allocate funds to subsidise such developments and are exploring more market-based approaches, not everyone will be able to afford 25 square metres anyway! Based on a socioeconomic survey and discussions with residents, we proposed a flexible approach with varying home sizes for varying family sizes, incomes and tenure situations — 18m² units that would be rented out and managed by the residents association, 32m² houses (including 25 m² carpeted area) that would be ownership units and 48m² units for the large families, where the extra space would be sold at a much higher rate to attract only those with real need.

For professionals to be sensitive to slum dwellers' needs, we learnt, we need to spend time in their homes, participate in their community activities, listen to their grouses and appreciate their abilities.

And finally, all our good intentions as a design team were eventually dependent on the government having the will to implement change for this community. While we naively worked our way through the project, community leaders were shaking their heads wisely and smiling indulgent smiles. It won't happen. Leave us be the way we are; we will manage, somehow.

Today, as our project remains on paper for an indefinite period of time, as the central and local governments resolve their differences on key issues like funding and eligibility dates, the community continues to live happily in their 'unlivable' slum.

Bridging the gap through collaboration

So how do we improve urban slums so that poor communities can live dignified, healthy lives? For starters, we need to bridge the disconnect between 'us' and 'them' by listening more, observing more, understanding more and by rooting solutions in reality.

Our assessment is that other slum improvement schemes in Delhi have failed because they tried to relocate slums and took people away from their livelihoods. In Sundernagari, mHS ensured that all work areas of slum dwellers were accommodated on site, making special design provisions for cattle rearing, leather work, etc. Conventional planning considers many of these uses incompatible with residential living; but for slum dwellers, having workspaces within sight of their homes is necessary so that women can work and look after their homes and children at the same time, so that they do not spend on transport, etc. Master plans and schemes like RAY will have to be flexible to accommodate unique needs of low-income communities, just as planners and designers will have to develop fresh approaches to designing for the poor.

The mHS team was able to evolve many interesting features, like common roof gardens, because our multidisciplinary team that comprised architects, planners, urban designers, civil engineers and financiers, worked side by side with MHT's community workers, women's cooperative members and residents of different age groups. For professionals to be sensitive to slum dwellers' needs, we learnt, we need to spend time in their homes, participate in their community activities, listen to their grouses and appreciate their abilities. 

Yet, in the end, many of the demands of slum dwellers are not implementable. Used to subsidies and dole-outs, they expect free housing and demand plots of land. To be agents of change, professionals in this sector need to also be able to be outspoken in advocating more sustainable, market-based approaches to the poor, but also to local governments.


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