2020: India’s Imperfect Vision

by Daniel Gordon

The thermometer was edging past 100 when Girija Dhaigavi met me at a Hindu temple in Janatavasahat, an Indian slum in Pune. One would not pin Mrs. Dhaigavi, a housewife and mother, as a fighter. In India, though, what you see is rarely what you get.

A politically active woman with a master’s degree, she successfully petitioned the government to bring a hospital and market area to Janatavasahat. But her role in the slum extends beyond her social work. By necessity of her poverty, she also lives there.

According to official goals, India should be slum-free by 2020. To achieve that goal, the central legislature has begun investing 20 billion dollars in the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM). Other government programs abound. Nongovernmental support is not lacking either: in Pune alone, over 400 grassroots organizations exist to help the poor.

By all appearances, active development should be everywhere. Hundreds of thousands of Indians have escaped poverty, true, but millions more remain. In Pune, for example, over one million people, one third of the city’s population, still live in slums. In other cities, the fraction is higher—and rising. According to the World Bank, more than 90 million Indians live in slums out of the country’s 1.2 billion people. In contrast to India’s goals, the Bank estimates that in two decades, long after 2020 has passed, nearly 200 million Indians could be living in slums.

So where will Mrs. Dhaigavi be living in 2020? If development continues at a crawl, perhaps it will still be a slum—and then who is to blame? For all of the external obstacles to slum development, and they are legion, the greatest hurdle might be the slum communities themselves.

Take politicians who represent slum districts.  Ankush Kakade, the current spokesman for the National Congress Party in Pune, explained: “there will be political obstacles in all cases, because all parties want to capture slums for our voting system.” Wooing slum voters with better, if still sub-par, infrastructure easily wins votes. Losing the slum’s votes might mean losing the district, so politicians keep these easily-mobilized voting blocs around.

Answering whether or not India would be slum free by 2020, Ujwal Keskar, a local Pune representative, described how most other politicians would answer the question: “No—because that is my vote bank. I cannot disturb my vote bank.” Since most residents are unaware that politicians have access to slum rehabilitation funds, they only expect token development projects—a paved road, better sewers—from their representatives. So many politicians skate by without significantly improving the slums.

There is also a financial incentive for politicians to maintain the status quo. Some local representatives collude with builders to skim money off the development grants. If word leaks out, as often happens, slum dwellers halt the project. Other politicians collect rent on houses they own in the slums, leasing them on a semi-permanent basis. Rehabilitation would mean the end of their schemes.

Jayashree Nashte, who lives in a one room house with her husband and three children, summed up her neighborhood’s problem: “Those who have a vested interest in the [development] project being unsuccessful are politically powerful.”

Finally, politicians have logistical reasons to keep the slums in poor conditions. Poorer slums, the thinking goes, make cities less attractive to migrants. Whether the claim is true or false is difficult to say, but many politicians believe it. Vikas Mathkari, for instance, the Pune president of the Bharatiya Janata Party, divulged that his mentor cynically instructed him not to transform the slums into three-star hotels, lest they attract more migrants (and more headaches for politicians and city planners).

Politicians aside, slum dwellers themselves often prefer not to incur the financial and social costs of rehabilitation.

Even though slum dwellers want better living conditions, development can seem like an expensive burden. Siddhartha Dhende, a local politician who developed the slum he grew up in, argued, “the mentality of household slum dwellers is that they want everything free.”

Under some programs, slum dwellers must contribute ten percent of the overall building cost of the new house, if they elect to participate. Beneficiaries also have to start paying for utilities. In contrast, slum residents squat on the land for free, evade taxation, and either steal utilities from the grid or accept them from politicians interested in keeping their vote bank happy.

Development can also disrupt the community’s economy, since some projects relocate lives but not livelihoods. In Dharavi, a Mumbai slum of a million people, where living and workspaces overlap, one potter keeps his workshop above his house. His storeroom doubles as a sleeping space and storefront.  A kiln stands outside in a narrow lane. If the Slum Rehabilitation Authority developed Dharavi according to its plans and moved the inhabitants into high-rise tenements, like those on Mumbai’s outskirts, he would lose everything but a place to sleep.

Transferring slum dwellers into apartment towers also unravels the social fabric of a community. Since they might not live next to their former neighbors in the towers, due to the logistical difficulty of the transfer process, social bonds created over decades can vanish overnight.

Other development options do exist. In situ rehabilitation programs replace temporary slum houses with permanent ones, preserving the slum’s physical profile and its social and economic networks. Ujwal Keskar remarked that slum dwellers, “do not want to go into towers”—but most cities do not have enough space for in-situ rehabilitation. In land-crunched metropolises like Mumbai, politicians prefer to build towers. Since the slum dwellers are squatting on government property, they can sell the vacated land to hungry builders.

Other problems hinder slum development besides residents and politicians who favor the status quo. Even NGOs can complicate the rehabilitation process. Sharad Mahajan, the executive director of Pune housing-assistance group MASHAL, observed: “In this ballgame you cannot just blame the politicians.” He admitted that some NGOs pay politicians to receive development projects from them, contributing to the corrupt climate.

The lack of education among slum dwellers about development projects also prevents them from booting out politicians who refuse to improve their districts. Corruption at state and national levels of government, a lack of political will, and competing development priorities—should the government re-pave the roads or allocate money for tenement housing?—further slow efforts.

If India is to become slum-free by 2020, the benefits for stakeholders must outweigh the costs.

The most far-sighted politicians, Ujwal Keskar noted, have already recognized that developing the slums in accord with constituents’ wishes can only help their re-election prospects. It is difficult, however, to distinguish the good politicians from the bad. Thanks to India’s labyrinthine bureaucracy, complex political coalitions, and opaque budgeting practices, representatives can easily blame others for their shortcomings. Corrupt politicians present a thornier problem, but citizens have the power to boot them out.

As for the migration issue, rural workers in dire conditions will move to the city whether or not the slums improve. Cities—with their job opportunities, higher wages, and access to schools and hospitals—promise greater profits than the countryside, especially during droughts.

NGOs can change the attitudes of slum residents by educating them about the longterm benefits of rehabilitation. Slum repair might be more expensive in the short term, but new infrastructure eventually pays for itself through convenience and efficiency.  When the community begins paying taxes, the municipal government will begin to integrate the society into its long-term development plans, resulting in better infrastructure for the slums.

India will not be slum-free by 2020. Politicians know that they can win elections without developing slums. New Delhi will remain apathetic about eliminating corruption. Droughts will continue to ravage rural areas and migration will continue apace. Convincing slum dwellers to plan for the long run will take time; convincing them to pay more taxes, even longer.

To become slum-free, India needs another champion of the poor. Ujwal Keskar reflected optimistically, “If there is a single leader, he can eradicate, he can rehabilitate, all slums in Pune city—all 543.”  The leader Mr. Keskar is looking for might actually be a she. Selja Kumari, the Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation Minister, seems to be a hardworking, sincere, and effective leader. If she wisely directs the resources available to JNNURM and focuses her efforts on engaging problems at the most local levels of government, she could galvanize the work already begun. Mrs. Dhaigavi, ten years on, might just have a house of her own.

DANIEL GORDON ‘14 is a Humanities and South East Asian Studies major in Ezra Stiles College. Contact him at daniel.gordon@yale.edu.