Is Public Outreach Enough to Overhaul India's Slums?

Mukta Naik, a consulting planner with Indian housing firm micro Home Solutions, discovers that grand plans for a 'slum-free India' missed the mark on one key point: the lives of slum dwellers.

The government of India has launched an ambitious housing policy plan, dubbed "Rajiv Awas Yojana" (after former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi), centered around a vision to eradicate the nation's slums. With roughly 110 million people living in makeshift homes "with variable access to basic services like water, sanitation and sewage," the government has set before itself a herculean task that, according to Naik, is completely out of touch with the lives it was meant to improve.

Two years ago, charged with the task of implementing RAY locally, social housing initiative micro Home Solutions (mHS) worked closely with a community in Sundernagari, East Delhi, alongside a community-based NGO to design a new, equitable, accessible housing development. But over the course of the project, Naik came to a number of challenging realizations.

"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... 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."

The firm found that the constraints set forth in RAY were often incompatible with the lifestyles of slum dwellers. For example, the government plan specified 25m² units for each family, the adequacy of which both mHS and residents questioned for multi-generational living arrangements – the status quo in India, especially in poor families. While mHS was able to devise a number of features to meet community needs, the plan remains on paper indefinitely.

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

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



The multi-storey conundrum

Naik raises an important yet challenging question. It is understandable the slum dwellers are not keen to reside in multi-storey apartment blocks for the protection of their own livelihoods (which many have spent decades building). But then it is also important to remember the fact that global urban sprawl is reaching a crisis point and the majority of developing world cities are already over-populated; there is simply not enough space for a single storey housing strategy to prevail. My initial thought as a potential solution here is to explore the creation of separated commerical / industrial regions, so small business interests can be maintained - easier said than done given the already cramped conditions but it's worth considering that multi-storey units obviously take up less space. I'd be interested to hear other thoughts on this as its an issue that is going to intensify in the coming years across the world...

Ruban Selvanayagam
Twitter: @feztapronto

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