Sep 2019 , by , in Interviews

Sheela Patel, Founder Director, Society for Promotion of Area Resource Centres (SPARC) talks to Leandra Monteiro discussing the conditions of people living in slums and their right to the city.

In the past two decades Sheela and Slum Dwellers International team through a process called “Enumeration” have collected at city level data about slums, having developed a mechanism to create a city-wide network of urban informal settlements. In Mumbai, Sheela Patel and team conduct the survey at ward level to help the government better understand the informal settlements across the city and find a solution.

What has led to the formation of large clusters of informal settlements?

Historically, every city in the world has had formal inhabitants along with those that came to service the city. In Mumbai, informal housing first began in areas around ports and mills as a result of high job availability. However, there has always been a very disproportionate ratio between the people living formally and informally.

Each wave of development brings more and more people into the city and the tradition has always been that when the city needed more land, the informal settlers were pushed around. To give these people a sense of housing security the government constructed areas like the BDI chawl. After a while the government stopped building these chawls, but the people kept coming to the city. This has led to the increase in clusters of informal housing across Mumbai.

Does the government acknowledge the property rights of informal settlers?

When one talks about land rights you have to see what the land entitlements are according to the law. Currently we have “de facto” and “de jure,” De facto means a state of affairs that is true in fact, but that is not officially sanctioned. In contrast, de jure means a state of affairs that is in accordance with law.

Way back in 1970, the then Municipal Commissioner of Mumbai did a survey of informal settlements in the city. Whoever resided in areas that were politically beneficial were given a slip permitting them to stay. Over time those that had settled on municipality land were given water, electricity and sanitation but at a cost.

In 1995, the Slum Rehabilitation Act was created by the then state ruling party that entitled anyone with a voters ID made before or in 1995 to claim ownership of their slum dwelling and not be evicted. It also entitled the slum dweller for a slum rehabilitation.

The state Government has a list of slums and informal settlements. So, if an individual has state authorised documentation such as a birth certificate, ration card, Aadhar card that can help identify their address they can stake claim to their property. Today there are a lot of documentation that people can get easily as compared to 30 years ago.

Where does the Solution to eviction lie?

Driving these squatters away from one area is not making them disappear. The city has lots of nooks and corners to encroach upon. The reality today is that our city planning does not accommodate informal settlement inhabitants.

Navi Mumbai was initially created with the idea of emptying the overpopulated city. Konkan Bhavan in Vashi was supposed to be the new Mantralaya. But none of the ministers wanted to move there so the plan didn’t materialise.

Is rehabilitation the solution? Or are we just creating vertical slums?

The real estate industry is indifferent to the needs of the poor and SRA buildings are built like cattle traps. The very design of the rehabilitation properties is dysfunctional. The internal and external architecture needs to be desperately reimagined. Most of the houses don’t have direct sunlight or proper ventilation.

Everybody wants to find an immediate solution, but they fail to understand that no city can deal with slums in one year it has to be a consistent 10-year plan. Today there is no developer that can proudly say that he has built a top of the line slum project that he is personally proud of. The solution lies in developing holistic design and due process for rehabilitation projects.

“We are in a flux and this situation is only going to get worse. If we haven’t been able to deal with our present informal housing issues imagine what the country is going to do in the future, when urbanisation will grow ten folds.”

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