The government has plenty of schemes for slum redevelopment, but most of these are on paper. Importantly, sanitation is not on the agenda.

I was all of 17 when I migrated to Mumbai in 1967 from Kolar, Karnataka. I didn’t have a purpose then; my only aim was to find bread. I often wondered why I moved to this city. When I look back, I can visualise how millions have the same problem: you don’t have anything, you look out for a metropolis, you land in Mumbai.

I would never have dreamt what Bombay meant. It was a culture shock at various levels. To begin with, I’d never heard the word ‘slum.’ Moreover, the language was alien, and we had open-air, ‘airconditioned’ toilets.

A week after I landed in the city, I ended up in the thickly-populated Janata Colony, Mankhurd. Conditions were pathetic. If I needed to use the public toilet, I would have to queue for nearly 20 minutes. So I would end up squatting wherever I would find place.

I was in a slum, but I had no home. In fact, I had zero liabilities and assets, no roof over my head, no roots. I would sleep anywhere.

One of the good things about a slum is that no one ever chases you away from their doorstep. In the day, I would mark out a veranda where I could lay my head at night. I would pick up saris hung out to dry and use them as blankets. In the morning, I would go to the public tap, remove my clothes, bathe, dry myself with the same set of clothes and carry on with the rest of my day.

The questions in my head were ceaseless: how did I fall from the frying pan into the fire? For the first time ever, I saw pavement dwellers. Why did we all have to live like animals? I gradually learnt about eviction and demolition. And then about homelessness. Where could one live? I figured there wasn’t much of a choice.

My journey had begun; I needed to do something about all this. From then on, I have been organising people, taking up issues of slum sanitation, eviction and demolition, and trying to find solutions.

It’s important for me — for all of us — to talk about our slums. There is an entire section of society living in deplorable conditions, because of which the city’s health and economy are being dragged down.

The way things are, there is no collective vision; no rules either. Nearly 60 per cent of Mumbai lives in slums, but a good chunk of the municipal corporation’s agenda is devoted to gardens, roads, parking and so on; the slums don’t feature. In our lopsided system of political representation, slum dwellers have been relegated to a vote bank. They are patronised, and encouraged to live in deprivation.

Look at Dharavi, for instance. The government has no policy for Asia’s largest slum. In the past 15 years, there has been no development in terms of roads, drains, toilets, or common areas. The main road has seen encroachments, encouraged by a former politician.

Clean the city, build toilets

Mumbai lets off a big stench. People call it Slumbay. What are the reasons? Poor sanitation and environment, contaminated drinking water and crowded conditions.

Even today, 40 per cent of people in Mumbai don’t have access to a toilet. In Dharavi, 33–35 per cent of people live in 60-sq-ft areas. We’re talking about five-member families living in that space. How can you think of having individual toilets there? The airport slum doesn’t have a single toilet. How long will this continue?

n Mumbai needs sanitation that is not dependent on the sewer system alone. Sewerage systems require a capital cost, which the government cannot afford. And the rehabilitation of people will cost them 100 times more than their investment in sewerage lines. Nearly 65 per cent of Dharavi is not covered by a sewer system. To do so, you need to rehabilitate 80 per cent of the people living here.

Everyone is talking about Swachh Bharat, but how many toilets have been constructed in slums under this project? The government could have claimed it had cleaned Mumbai, so working with smaller cities would be relatively easier. You have to show what you have done in a difficult situation first.

n Our sanitation needs to be customised to our living and weather conditions. Unlike the West, we cannot afford individual toilets or sewer lines. We have to work towards providing collective, shared and community toilets. We can achieve two agendas at one go: if the municipality invests money in a slum (in the form of toilets) it cannot demolish it.

n The main focus should be on how to clean the city. Without getting into the politics of it, we need to ask if a mechanism has been created for the purpose. Even after we have created wards, there is nothing to show on the ground. Where and how is the money being used?

n A city like Mumbai should have had an IAS officer as the head of sanitation. Every area needs a dedicated sanitary inspector, with the additional role of mapping the area and reporting to the higher authority.

Alternative housing

In the 80s, there were around 600 slum pockets in the city. Now it has gone up to 3,000.

No one comes to Mumbai for the pleasure of getting a house in a slum. They are in tough situations, therefore they migrate. We need to address the needs of those already living in slums by giving them better housing. We need to do away with the dehumanised category of ‘shanty’.

Former Municipal Commissioner S.S. Tinaikar used to say, “Mumbai has so much land, you can arrange to have another city like it.” Land needs to be given to the people, but not for free.

The Development Plan outlines a clear policy of homes for the dishoused. There is also a pavement policy, which former Secretary, Special Projects, Sanjay Ubale and I hammered into shape. The subsequent Government Resolution said all pavement dwellers are eligible for a house, just like slum dwellers. I was able to secure 4,710 sq.m. land for rehabilitation in Mankhurd.

There are policies, but the government is sleeping on them, while the people don’t have anyone to organise them into agitating for their due.

The government often says it can’t give land because it is reserved. So I tell people, let every slum- or pavement-dweller identify 10-15 pieces of land. If they say it is reserved for a university, ask for a third, a fourth, and so on. After 220 land reservations, can they still say no? There is land, only the will is missing.

Over a decade ago, I was working with the MMRDA on the Mumbai Urban Transport Project-II. I told the Sukhtankar Committee that the government could float a tender asking for free housing on the land in the project. The first housing scheme was initiated by us. All 20,000-30,000 families have been rehabilitated on it. That means the MMRDA has the land and houses.

The Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) has failed because of corruption and mismanagement; it has become a money-making mission for the government.

The first question a councillor asks these days is, “Isme mera kya hai? [What’s in it for me?]” You have 365 cooperative housing societies built under the SRA, but most of the residents have had to dedicate 20 per cent extra, or out-of-pocket expenses, like paying someone to approve a document, an extension, or adding a name to a registration. That’s why these societies have taken in only 150 families.

In an SRA house, you are charged more than five times what you pay in a slum for water. Do you expect a rehabilitated person can pay that much? An SRA home, then, is not affordable. Nobody is going into why the SRA scheme hasn’t picked up in Mumbai, and why there are so many slums. They have set 269 sq.ft. as the base under the SRA, and 300 sq.ft. in Dharavi. But a political party wants 400 sq.ft. Once this is done, airport slum dwellers will demand the same. This doesn’t just involve finding land; it’s also a question of rehabilitation.

The government is doing nothing for affordable housing, which in any case costs Rs. 5 lakh and above. Besides, most ‘affordable’ homes are outside the city, or in far-flung areas; this requires the creation of a transportation network.

Our politicians and bureaucrats have learnt nothing from the mistakes of the SRA or rehabilitation over the past 35 years. Therefore, we live with myths like ‘there is no land’. To begin with, slums are on the ground level. In urban India, you cannot afford to live in a ground-floor structure, simply because the land cost is so high. You compensate for that by getting into an SRA house. But if you want to live here, you have to change your living pattern. You live without a toilet for years; you don’t talk about it.

I’m not asking everyone to go to an SRA accommodation. Regularise or recognise a slum and maintain a standard; instead of a corrupt SRA society, slums could be more organised. We also need a housing guideline.

Other fixes

Women must be at the centre

Local residents, particularly women, need more representation in decision-making. For every issue, be it toilets, housing or water, women are worst affected. A man can meet his needs outside the home: he can use the toilet in his factory, or a public toilet. In most cases, women are tied to the home; their representation is token.

Use NGOs better

Today, you have more than 6,000 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) registered with the Charity Commissioner. Every ward could be allotted 10 to 15 NGOs for specific issues of their choice; this will fix responsibility. The government could create that kind of flexibility, by inviting a ward’s prominent NGOs to a meeting and assigning them duties. A coordinating body could be responsible for their functioning.

In other words, identify the issue, then create a system and then monitor it, all within a budget.

NGOs, on their part, need to raise the issue of sanitation in their wards. For now, they are just “talking revolutionaries” who often don’t get down to hard work.

Generate debate

The government should take these issues to the people, create forums where debate can happen without fear of reprisal being targeted. Right now, there is a disconnect between the grassroots and the policy-makers.

What you see today is the result of the administration not looking after the city. Mumbai is actually well organised, with every inch of land governed by the administration. They ought to be more in control of encroachment though.

There is a Hindi saying: ‘Billi ki nazar chichde mein rehti hai [The cat always looks for the cream]’. Similarly, the politician always looks at how many votes he can garner in an area. He never looks at problems like housing or a poor living environment.

About the author

Jockin Arputham has worked for more than 40 years in India’s slums, building representative organisations to partner with governments and international agencies for the betterment of urban living. He is president of National Slum Dwellers Federation, which he founded in the 1970s, and of Slum Dwellers International, which networks slum dwellers from over 20 countries. Arputham received the RamonMagsaysay Award for Peace and International Understanding in 2000.