The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world


Another round of elections, another round of unabashed populism in Mumbai

There is no better time to witness the unabashed populism and shortsightedness of all levels of government than around elections. Municipal elections are just around the corner in Mumbai and sure enough, the last few months have seen a flurry of populist reforms being passed in record times. Most noteworthy are the new promises being made to certain slum dwellers...

Cities: Mumbai

Topics: Housing, City politics, Informal settlements

A view over Dharavi, Mumbai, where the ruling coalition has just extended eligibility for free housing to another generation of residents. Photo: Shilpa Rao
Apartment blocks sprouting between old housing in Dharavi. Photo: Shilpa Rao
A new apartment block towering over old housing in Dharavi. Photo: Shilpa Rao
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Mumbai, India's financial capital and the richest municipal corporation in the country, is gearing up for elections on the 16th of February. Elections in Mumbai have become a dangerously petty, multipolar and factional contest. Two major national parties are contesting the municipal corporation elections along with a number of powerful regional and caste parties, each with its own populist plank: locals versus migrants; deprived migrants versus powerful migrants; religious, linguistic and caste minorities; etc.

The primary motive of parties during elections has become to secure their respective votebanks and entice new members into them. Most lasting promises of policy changes are aimed only at slums residents which, while not all are poor, nevertheless form a majority of the city's population. It is important to understand that slums form the majority not by accident, but often by design. This year we are witnessing yet another attempt at this design.

The history of 'free housing' for slum dwellers

The net result after 17 years? Mumbai now has four slums bigger in area than Dharavi and a whopping 62 per cent of the city's denizens now live in slums.

It all began in 1995 when the Bharatiya Janata Party-Shiv Sena (BJP-Shiv Sena) alliance in power announced a historic slum redevelopment scheme to provide 'in-situ free housing' in any slum where 70 per cent of the residents consented to be redeveloped. The housing was to be financed by the private developers themselves by building free-sale commercial buildings alongside to cross-subsidise their costs.

All families 'owning' their residence within a registered slum before the 1st of January 1995 were eligible for a free home, effectively regularising all slum settlements that existed till then. This cut-off date was meant to disincentivise slum formation in the future and was also deliberately created to signal an anti-migration and pro-localite stance. The visioniaries of the scheme envisioned it to make Mumbai slum-free in less than 20 years.

What has happened since then is quite the contrary and really no surprise at all. The scheme has encouraged people on a large scale to squat public land as a forward looking strategy. Migration has not ceaised either; more young and aspiring labourers have moved from rural towns within and outside the state of Maharashtra seeking a better life, and rightly so. Eligibility criteria have been overcome by fudging identity documents to prove their pre-1995 domicile status.

The scheme has also resulted in unimaginable levels of criminalisation, corruption and collusion at the slum level. Slum lords and developer cronies continue to benefit immensely in exchange for promising 'consent' from slum dwellers. On the other hand, the poorest of the poor sell the tiny 'free home' they recive in the extra-legal market (since the scheme forbids them from selling in the formal market for up to ten years) and move on to other shanties.

The net result after 17 years? Mumbai now has four slums bigger in area than Dharavi and a whopping 62 per cent of the city's denizens now live in slums.

More eligible slum dwellers, more votes?

In the run-up to this year's elections, the first step towards enticing this growing 'slum-bank' came in October 2011, when the Chief Minister of Mahrashtra state, from the ruling Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (Congress-NCP) alliance hinted that owners of pre-1995 structures were likely to become fully eligible for a home even if the owner had purchased the structure after 1995. The reason cited was that even though pre-1995 slums had been regularised, the fact that many original inhabitants had since transferred their shanty to somebody else who was ineligible was delaying redevelopment in many slums.

In December 2011, the results of a pertinent survey were released, with profound implications for pre-election goodies. Conducted in Dharavi Sector 5, one of the most valuable zones within the slum, this survey by local NGO Committee for Rights of Housing showed that only 17 per cent of those surveyed had lived in Dharavi all their lives while the rest were migrants. It concluded that under the current rules of eligibility, 80 per cent of tenants would not have the right to avail of a home in any makeover. A vast proportion of voters that one could win over with a quick change in the rules.

Sure enough, on the 2nd of January 2012, referring to the results of this survey, the Chief Minister announced that in Dharavi, all those who owned a home on or before 2000 would be eligible for a free home. This exception was applied also to the slums situated on land abutting the airport, since both areas were all of a sudden deemed to be 'vital public projects' for the city.

What we need today is a political champion who is willing to challenge the whole notion of free housing.

Housing experts and activists are extremely worried that this policy will now create a queue for people to buy shanties in these slums. There might even be bidding wars among prospective buyers scrambling to be 'eligible' for a free home.

Not all slum dwellers are alike

It is shocking that successive governments of all major political parties continue to encourage the anti-poor and unimplementable promise of 'free housing'. While 3 in 5 Mumbaikars may live in slums, only 1 in 5 are poor, with only the latter possibly incapable of paying for their own home. Why so much charity for residents who are not poor? How can we expect a policy which perceives every single slum-dweller in the same light to be successful in the long term?

And what is the meaning of an eligibility date in a city which continues to receive millions of migrants year on year? The date of 1995 was clearly always fungible, amenable to future extensions, rendering it a handy tool during election time. If 1995 didn't work, what makes us believe that 2000 will? Policy 'exceptions' like those made for the Dharavi and airport slums make a mockery of the serious issue of the lack of affordable housing.

Unfortunately policy makers and politicians often deal with the symptoms and not the disease — which is a real-estate market that has failed miserably to respond to the vast demand for affordable housing. What we need today is a political champion who is willing to challenge the whole notion of free housing. We need a champion for more rental housing, for self-rehabilitation and group tenure mechanisms, for viewing migrants in a positive light, for better targeting of government handouts, for better land use planning, for appropriate housing finance, and who has the guts to bring these issues to the fore during election times.


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