The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The first Monday in the month of October is celebrated as World Habitat Day across the globe. Sadly, millions of poor Indians have no access to a safe and conducive shelter even after 56 years of independence. In 2000, the housing shortage was an estimated 40.8 million units. Soaring property prices have forced the poor to live on pavements, canal sides, beside railway tracks and other unauthorized places, under the constant threat of eviction.

In the cities, land ownership is monopolized either by the state or private agencies. The scenario has also changed much in recent times with the present Central government repealing the ceiling on the holding of vacant lands. Besides, large tracts of vacant residential land in cities have been locked up by the developer-builder nexus, in order to hike land prices. This has led to an artificial inflation in the land market.

Another reason for the deteriorating habitat conditions in India is the flouting of the “master plan” — a regulatory guideline for the physical development of the city, which aims to improve the quality of human settlement and working environment. Master plans of all major cities had sufficient provisions for residential land, keeping in view the present needs and future population growth. But the population has grown more than projections. Besides, land has been diverted for commercial or individual monetary gains.

Limited access

Paradoxically, city slums are not so much the result of adverse socio-economic conditions as they are of inequitable access to land and misuse of residential zones. It is the illegal encroachment on prime land by politicians, bureaucrats and private builders that has deprived the poorer sections.

Matters have become worse with the failure of in situ upgradation projects— a viable method to create healthy living conditions in the urban slums. Take Indore’s Slum Networking Project, which was considered a dream project for making Indore slum free and was implemented with large overseas investment. Immediately after its completion, the urban local bodies attempted to scrap it by introducing new development projects. The project thus failed in its mission, although it received much international acclaim.

The draft national slum policy of 1999, spells out guidelines to stop forced evictions and also makes a strong case for alternative resettlement zones. But more needs to be done.

Land development rules should be strictly followed in the alternative resettlement zones and in situ land reform should be made an integral part of all upgradation projects. Existing laws and policies, which impede adequate housing for the poor, must be scrapped. Measures must be taken to ensure that master plans are not violated. Mechanisms must be set in place to prevent housing rights violations. Reforms in housing rules and regulations should be made mandatory and the latter be made more accessible to the poor.

Housing for all

The urban poor should be integrated within the framework of an overall city development plan. Where relocation is inevitable, poor working families must be settled in nearby places, to minimize the socio-economic impact of dislocation.

New economic policies are working against the interests of the weaker sections of society. Developing nations thus need to make changes in their policies to help the urban poor. Land must be made available at affordable prices. Adequate housing should be a priority when developing policies and implementing them in order to meet international obligations and constitutional commitments.

Initiatives need to be taken to collect empirical data on informal settlements. The community should have access to and control over such information which will help it to establish a dialogue with the policy-makers in order to evolve solutions to housing problems.

One can only hope that these suggested remedies will help the state to provide adequate housing facilities for the urban poor.

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