Shoring up the city

Studies confirm slums are hubs of productivity. The challenge is to improve services for them

Many in the urban middle classes view slums as a problem to be managed. They are perceived as marring the city's facade, encroaching on valuable land, being concentrations of poverty and squalor even as their inhabitants provide most of the informal services that sustain a metropolis. An empirical study suggests that slums are remarkably productive, contributing roughly 7.5 per cent to the GDP. They are investment multipliers. A small increase in income leads to a larger participation in the economy. A joint study by Indicus Analytics and the Society for Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA) has fleshed out the nature of this economic contribution, revealing that the majority of them are self-employed, rather than casual or wage labourers.

There is a gap between employment opportunities and housing availability in big cities. In 2005, it was found that 4,413 police constables and 81 police inspectors lived in Mumbai slums, forced to both speak for the law and subvert it. Living in a slum involves tradeoffs between cost of housing, tenure security, safety and access to work. And a policy approach towards slums should consider not what they are, but what they do and what they lack. They are kept on the legal margins and managed by a political harness, they lack regular access to water, sanitation and electricity, banking services etc. Improving these that is, taking the slum out of the slum is a more sensible and humane approach than arbitrarily relocating slum-dwellers at the city's edges.

There have been many proposals on how to improve services and make better use of slum land, often combining commercial redevelopment of the land and providing accommodation for the residents in high-rise flats. The Rajiv Awas Yojana was an innovative plan to give in situ property rights, marketable and enforceable, to slum dwellers (as opposed to land rights), letting developers use the eased-up portion of the land. These property titles could be leveraged as collateral, potentially releasing a wave of micro-innovation. These are fine plans, but given that slums are mixed-use environments of residential, manufacturing and commercial space, vertical building must accommodate livelihood issues as well.

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