by: Khilen Shah
India has a mammoth, and rapidly growing urban migration problem. There is a tremendous strain on the urban infrastructure in mega-cities like Mumbai, where around five million people are estimated to be living in slums. Slums or shantytowns are fully functional communities in urban locations, built on illegally occupied prime government land that house the urban poor. Conditions in slums are grossly unhygienic, with open sewers and garbage dumps encircling the living areas of millions of people. People in the slums cannot afford basic amenities like plumbing and electricity. Often, there is just one water tap and one bathroom for a whole community. The need to improve living conditions in these areas is vital for the growth of a clogged city like Mumbai. Many models had been earlier implemented to rehabilitate the slum dwellers, but none succeeded. However, the land was too valuable, and the living conditions were too lousy to let the situation continue.
Vimal Shah, who runs the AkrutiNirman, says: “we took a different approach, a human approach.” Along with municipal officer VikramPawar, they worked out a plan by which each slum would be redeveloped in three sections. One section would go to well-built apartments for slum dwellers (including supplies of safe water and reliable electricity), another was for public utilities like schools, hospitals and roads, and the third for open sale higher-end apartments.
If the slum land was owned by the city, Akruti would get it free-of-cost, and keep the profits from the sales of the high-end apartments. If it belonged to a private owner, Akruti would buy the land. In return, the slum dwellers would get free apartments, and slum business owners would get shops in the new buildings. Akruti was also to build temples, free daycare, sponsor festivals etc. The community would be minimally disrupted, and land would be freed up for development.
It would be win-win for all. Now all that had to happen was to convince the slum dwellers, or at least 70% of them, by law. The residents were cautious because they had been taken advantage of so many times by NGOs, slumlords and others. It was a tough time. “Other developers,” says Vimal, “thought we would end up as slum dwellers ourselves.” But Akruti’s religious convictions and their faith that the project would be good for all kept them going. Finally, they got the O.K. from the government. And the hard work really started. It takes 3 to 9 years to rehabilitate a slum, and results are just beginning to show. Other developing countries are following this model too, and slum land, something that was so hated, loathed, and untouched is being turned into valuable and lucrative business helping the poor, which is indeed the most important reason why the initiative has been taken.
Many view Mumbai a bad example of the problems posed by vast income inequalities. They are justified. If India is to become a global power, its financial capital has to progress, not only physically by putting better infrastructure in place, but also psychologically, by uplifting the working class’ dignity. Such a slum Rehabilitation Model definitely puts Mumbai in an advantageous position with regards to both. As Suresh Amra, a beauty shop owner in one of the slums puts it “We are finally out of the squalor and filth and can think about the future.”
And so, one more set of slums was extracted from misery. Truly, from an ethical and economic point of view, such practices are ideal. More of them all over the nation would be a utopian dream. For this is the cornerstone of a wealthy, successful India – eradication of poverty.