India’s rapid urbanisation has been proceeding apace for decades, but policy solutions have been shots in the dark. For the thousands who come to the cities every day, cheap housing in slums is often the springboard to better lives. However, studies show that these migrants often get stuck in a vicious cycle of debt and socio-economic stagnation. First, India must get its numbers right as there are no concrete figures on these temporary and semi-permanent settlements. Slums have a fluid definition and legal pedanticism leads to exclusion of people. The 2011 Census estimated 65 million people in slums, a marked shortfall from the UN-HABITAT’s 2014 estimation of 104 million. Current slum policies primarily focus on housing, relocation or in-situ development of multi-storey complexes, which free up swathes of prime real estate. But in doing so, they miss out on the brewing socio-economic distress in slums. This was revealed in two projects conducted in Bengaluru and which could apply to other Indian cities too.
A case can be made for a nuanced slum policy, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach. In many established slums, political patronage has produced concrete houses, title deeds, piped water and regularised electricity. Here, economic opportunities and employment are key. On the other end, slums resembling tented refugee camps need housing and basic amenities. Until these nuances are considered, ambitious but slow-to-implement housing schemes will do little for the welfare of slum dwellers.