Slums are the First Settlements. Smart Cities Must Improve, Not Clear Them

The people of the slums transform the land, they transform our products, they transform our lives – can we but imagine what they would transform if they were to have a say in democratic governance?

The people of the slums transform the land, they transform our products, they transform our lives – can we but imagine what they would transform if they were to have a say in democratic governance?
Pallam slum, Chennai. Credit: Jean Pierre Candelier/Flickr NCC BY-NC-ND 2.0

 Words conjure meanings; words conjure worlds; a word like ‘slum’ is loaded with the historical weight of the industrial revolution in 17th century England. ‘Revolution’ creates an image of a ‘dramatic change’, while ‘industry’ means ‘hard work’, but together they tell us nothing about the grim conditions that the new workers encountered as they poured into the cities to run the machines that the revolution had created. Once in the city, they settled where they could, in the dark alleys and lanes, near where they found work, with low wages, long hours, and high risks. Thus the word ‘slum’ was born, as slang, denoting a ‘back alley’, ‘a street of poor people’. These filthy alleys also became the venue for a vibrant street life that attracted the dissolute gentry to go ‘slumming’ – in search of food and drink, bars and bordellos, diversion and amusement.

Building over filth

The endemic filth in the city struck in the first half of the 19th century, through a series of cholera epidemics in London. That was when posters appeared denouncing the “low dens” from which “cholera heaves upward” and “seems to roll towards us” in “mansions too where wealth and luxury are powerless protectors”. No less than Cardinal Wiseman railed against what he saw outside his Abbey – the “concealed labyrinths of lanes and potty and alleys and slums, nests of ignorance, vice, depravity, and crime”. In those days, the wealthy defecated in chamber pots and threw the muck out into the street with a loud cry of ‘slops’. Perhaps the Cardinal’s ire was directed at the Muck Men who carried the excreta to dump it into the River Thames, a practice that eventually led to the ‘Great Stink’ of 1858. So terrible was the odour that pale Members of Parliament speedily passed a Bill to build sewers!

Street map of downtown Manhattan with the original location of Collect Pond marked out. Crefit: Wiki images

Street map of downtown Manhattan with the original location of Collect Pond marked out. Crefit: Wiki images

Labourers from the back alleys were now summoned to convert all the streams that flowed through the city into brick sewers. These sewers reinforced the exclusion within the city, as houses on sewered roads were acquired by the well-to-do with their flush toilets, while the poor retreated further into the back alleys. The cartographer Charles Booth collapsed their description as ‘labourers, street sellers’ with ‘loafers, criminals, and semi-criminals’. Every city in the world displays a similar imagery. New York threw its trash into Collect Pond, and when the lake eventually filled up, Five Points (with five streets) slum was built over it to become home to slaves and migrants. The Bidonville in Paris was built of old drums (bidons) by migrant Muslim Algerians fleeing from their collapsing native agriculture. The favelas (named after a skin-irritating tree) of Rio de Janeiro were built by discharged army soldiers, former slaves, and rural landless who had nowhere to live.

An army of unpaid land developers


The zopadpattis (cluster of cottages) are the fore-runners to the chaalis (anklet, gallery) of Mumbai that housed the workforce that came from the Konkan and the Ghats to man the booming textile industry. As Burnett-Hurst, Secretary of the 1925 Indian Economic Enquiry Committee, described a chawl, “The sole window overlooked a gully reeking of filth into which a basket of human excreta was emptied by a sweeper woman”.

Not only is the trail that workers follow the same in city after city, the trajectory of the ‘slums’ they build is also the same. From a rough individual shack they graduate into a cluster of huts where they can collectively seek some services from the city; then into more durable homes, which are ‘notified’ slums. But once the land appreciates in value, the rich start demanding that the poor must make way for the forward march of ‘development’.

Then homes are rudely demolished and the poor ‘resettled’ in inhospitable lands far from livelihoods and services, where the struggle to rebuild homes continues in much the same fashion: from finding transport to get them to work, levelling the land to erect liveable houses, getting in minimum services, to establishing work and trade linkages. The urban poor become an army of unpaid land developers for the city. This incremental ‘development’ is well documented for the Savda Ghevra ‘transit camp’ of Delhi by CURE (Center for Urban and Regional Excellence). They describe how it takes a family over five years to create a home beginning with a Rs 1,500 shack and finally investing over Rs 2 lakhs in a pucca house. The Lok Shakti Manch in the Bhalaswa ‘resettlement colony’ has gone a step further to assess the investment by a household at Rs 12 lakhs over the 20 years that span the move from slum to resettlement.

Between improvement and clearance

Slum work. Credit: streetwrk.com/Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0

Slum work. Credit: streetwrk.com/Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0

This impulse for ‘development’ and ‘redevelopment’ comes from the Slum Areas (Improvement and Clearance) Act, enacted in 1956, with a binary vision of a ‘slum’.

On one hand are the physical criteria for defining it as a habitable space needing improvement; on the other are the moral values that dictate whether it should be cleared or not. The parameters of improvement are what services can be provided by the urban local body at reasonable cost to itself. Clearance, though, is dictated by how many dwellers can meet the costs of eligibility and translocation, while the urban local body or land owner assesses how much return the vacated land will give. Thus, the choice is based on an economic assessment of a ‘slum’, not the rights of the slum-dweller.

Supposing, however, we apply the same criteria for other habitats. If in any habitation water were to flood the streets and enter homes; garbage pile up outside; there be frequent power cuts; vehicles jostle for every bit of free space; and behind closed doors, domestic violence and rape play out in their routine patriarchal way: would these be adequate to classify the settlement as a ‘slum’ on grounds of being unfit for human habitation? Would these homes accept the advance of bulldozers and police quietly or demand better amenities from the state? And would the state be justified in not investing in the welfare of residents merely because of the value of the land?

Shifting national priorities

In the first three Five Year Plans, the welfare state provided low-cost housing with a clear emphasis on improvement of slums. In the next three Plans the goalposts slowly shifted and moved towards large scale clearance. The transformation was even more rapid from Plan VII onwards, when the housing market was opened to the private sector and public expenditure reduced. The last three Plans (2002-2017) have truly changed our imagination of the ‘world class’ city, as an ‘engine’ of economic growth, and a centre for foreign investment. Shelter, services, and jobs have all been subsumed by market forces that drive the ‘engine’ towards ever greater profits. The new Smart City design of “achhe din” has shifted the focus of power from democratic structures such as the legislature to corporate headquarters and special purpose vehicles.

It is not as if other imaginations are not possible. They are. If the 40 lakh crore invested in renewing 65 JNNURM cities and 100 Smart Cities were used instead to promote employment, that could have created 40 crore livelihoods – more than three times the working population in all 5,480 towns. But when ‘growth’ has to be investor-friendly, when the working poor have to wait for 65 years for the benefits of growth to ‘trickle down’, then the fact that they contribute at least half the GDP is also rendered invisible. Nevertheless, the engine of work survives in the slum. For those of the middle class who still care to go ‘slumming’, a whole range of livelihoods will be on display. Bangles, kites, clothes, brooms, plastics, vegetables, fruits, milk, cables, cars, leather, mobiles: what we wear, what we use, what we eat, what we drink, what we throw away – it all passes through the dexterous hands of people struggling to make ends meet.

The people of the slums transform the land, they transform our products, they transform our lives – can we but imagine what they would transform if they were to have a say in democratic governance? If we discard the values we take for granted and see the slum for what it really is, the choice of whether to improve or clear is not really for us to make.

Dunu Roy is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Public Affairs and Critical Theory, Shiv Nadar University