Mumbai’s Slums: The Positives and Negatives

Mumbai’s Slums: The Positives and Negatives

Mumbai, the capital of India’s state of Maharashtra, is a global city that is growing every day. It resides on the western coast of India and is comprised of several islands. It is a city full of rich history, including the infamous colonization by the British in 1924. Today it attracts many tourists, who enjoy seeing the beautiful architecture of sites such as Gateway of India and the Elephanta Caves. Though Mumbai is ever-growing, it has dire issues pertaining to its divide between the rich and the poor living in slum communities. Residents of these slum communities, which are often referenced as “slum dwellers,” make up 52% of Mumbai’s population. Mumbai’s slums represent India’s issues pertaining to overpopulation, access to drinking water, pollution, land space, poverty, unemployment, health, and waste disposal. According to Sunil Kumar Karn, Shigeo Shikura, and Hideki Harada’s Living Environment and Health of Urban Poor, India’s definition of slums is “areas where buildings are unfit for human habitation; or are by reason of dilapidation, overcrowding, design of buildings, narrowness of streets, lack of ventilation, light or sanitary facilities or any combination of these factors, are detrimental to safety, health, or morals.” The poor infrastructure of slum communities in Mumbai affect other alarming issues, particularly the access to water, overcrowding, and spread of illness amongst residents. These three factors play a role together in creating a negative effect on the growth of these areas. Though these issues are significant and must be resolved immediately, we also need to acknowledge that Mumbai’s slums are often painted in a negative light. Slum communities in Mumbai and across India obtain a sense of independence and community of their own and can sustain themselves. Though the government has not yet implemented effective solutions for the infrastructure of Mumbai’s slums, there can be a brighter future if government deregulation, overseeing, and funding of redevelopment projects are put in place.

The infrastructure of Mumbai slums affects water access for its residents. In Mumbai, slum communities are categorized as either notified or non-notified. According to Ramnath Subbaraman and Sharmila L Murthy’s The Right to Water in the Slums of Mumbai, India, notified slums are recognized by the government and “are entitled to receive security of land tenure, which means that the people who live in them cannot be arbitrarily evicted.” Residents living in notified slums have access to city services and its water supply. Non-notified slums, however, have more difficulty accessing piped water, electricity, public transportation, and other government services. This is because the residents of non-notified slums do not have property rights over their homes, therefore they cannot access municipal water supplies. Almost half of Mumbai’s slums are non-notified, so this clearly impacts a large portion of the population. To become notified, residents must show that they have lived in a slum that settled on state or city owned land before 2000. Mumbai slums owned by the central government do not apply to the notified category despite being settled for decades. For example, the Mumbai slum Kaula Bandar that resides on central government land was considered a non-notified slum despite its existence there for over 50 years.

In Mumbai, there is a chlorinated central water supply that is administered by the government. Residents in non-notified slums have not been able to legally connect to this central water supply system, so they must illegally tap into the city’s water pipes, which creates a risk of cross-contamination. Each year, 30-60% of households get affected by water-related diseases each year, and two-thirds of those households are children. And, because residents don’t boil the water before consuming it, illnesses continue to spread. During the summer, water is often contaminated with Escherichia Coli, which means that the water had been mixed with feces. People residing in non-notified slums were forced to buy water from street vendors, which cost forty times more than government provided water that residents in notified slums paid for. Each person accessed to less than 20 liters of water per day, which is under the minimum consumption level needed for basic hygiene. Unclean water causes diarrheal diseases in children and increases their mortality rate. In addition, the infant mortality rate in non-notified slums such as Kaula Bandar was more than twice than notified slums and 30% more than the rest of Mumbai. Therefore, the inability to access safe drinking water because of property rights and government policy had a major effect on the health of residents.

In 2014, an organization called Pani Haq Samiti successfully pressured the city government give access to Mumbai’s water supply to non-notified slums. They achieved this by looking at the Constitution of India, which states that every human must have the right to water. The Bombay High Court also referenced international human law, which states that it is a human right to have access to safe drinking water and sanitation. The Bombay High Court additionally stated that having property rights of a slum should not determine whether you have the right to water or not. Though this new policy is now implemented, there are still issues surrounding it. For example, the policy states that it is not necessary for the non-notified slums to pay the same price as the other slum communities, and it is not necessary for individual homes in slums to have their own tap connections. In addition, the government wants to completely remove non-notified slums, which would not only take numerous years, but also would incur forced displacement. The Bombay High Court does not have a say in central government land, which is where many of the non-notified slums reside in. The poor infrastructure of the sewage does not help either. According to Sunil Kumar Karn, Shigeo Shikura, and Hideki Harada’s Living Environment and Health of Urban Poor, “In the slums, typically a small narrow gutter (mostly open or partially covered) is found between the rows of dwellings that serves for all types of drainage including the sewage water. Since such drains are also not technically designed and laid out, they often get clogged and water spills over.” Therefore, the infrastructure and the new policy doesn’t particularly solve the problem of access to drinking water or the spread of water-related diseases in slum communities.

Aside from the fact that the lack of infrastructure and policy affects the access to water and health of the residents, housing conditions also contributes to the prevention of growth of these communities. Historically, housing has been an issue in India for over 150 years. It was furthered by Britain’s colonial administration, which did not care about the living conditions of Indians. There has been an analysis of India’s Five-Year Plans from 1951 to 2017. According to Cheryl Young’s Accommodating Housing in India: Lessons from Development Capital, Policy Frames, and Slums, India’s five-year plans prior to 1985 hadn’t mentioned slums and housing together with economic development and social equity. The 1985-1990 five-year plan was the first plan that had “strong human rights/rights-based discourse in the case for housing.” (57) The most recent five-year plan (2012-2017) mentioned that the affordable housing problem is initiated by a “demand-supply gap.” The government created a plan where they would increase affordability by lowering land prices through land readjustment and floor space index. However, there was no specific reference to slums. Throughout the years, projects by NGO’s, private developers, land-owners, and the Mumbai government have endeavoured to redevelop slums. Most of these projects required the demolishing of these communities and building medium-rise apartments over them. However, many of these initiatives were never completed. Efforts ever since 1980 by state appointed committees, such as the Moghe and Awale committee, have promoted policies to improve housing slum housing conditions. In 1991 and 1995, the Slum Redevelopment Scheme and the Slum Rehabilitation Scheme were suggested as well. However, according to Vinit Mukhija’s Squatters as Developers?: Slum Redevelopment in Mumbai, “Previous attempts at increasing the allowed intensity of development in the city were criticized and not implemented because such changes were believed to lead to an increase in the population and, therefore, more pressure on its infrastructure and environmental resources.” Despite the enormous barrier and gaping fear that overpopulation creates for the idea of redeveloping slums, all parties seem to accept the idea of redeveloping, including landowners, private developers, the state government, and slum dwellers themselves. Redeveloping projects would be a positive action that would increase profits for landowners and private developers while making Mumbai look more attractive as a city. To the government, it would mean a higher property tax collection as well.

However, there would also be many risks involved to redevelopment. The property values would have to be high enough to benefit the residents and compensate the landowners and private developers. If property values were to decrease during the construction process, it would negatively affect all parties, especially the slum dwellers because that is where they live. In addition, slum dwellers wouldn’t have a voice in these projects because they are not the ones investing in them. Those who would have a say would be the private/public sectors and non-profits organizations. In an attempt to make projects work, the government prohibited itself from profiting off redevelopment. However, private developers were still asking for financial support from the local and state government because of the high costs and, as Vinit Mukhija says, the “lack of formal institutional support for development (construction) finance.” This would initiate a variety of arguments between the multiple parties, which would further increase the risk of redeveloping projects because of their uncertainty. It is additionally difficult because of the ‘irregular’ structure of the slums themselves. According to Vinit Mukhija’s Squatters as Developers?: Slum Redevelopment in Mumbai, it would be hard to provide basic infrastructure because of the strange layout of the present slums:

The physical structure of their properties can make it difficult for the slum-dwellers to capitalize on the potentially high land values, without some form of change in the physical structure of their properties through land assembly or land readjustment. Moreover, the city’s slum-dwellers are likely to have already built-up their properties with floor areas equal to, or more than, what the legal development rights allow.

In addition, there is a lack of financing for construction and that slums are considered to be ‘risky collateral’ by investors. Lastly, pre-sales, where the buyers would finance the construction in advance, would be tough because of the fear of uncertainty and the lack of institutional funding for construction.  Because of all of these aspects together, there is a lack of attempt by the government and developers to try to improve living conditions of slum dwellers by reforming their homes.

Despite these dire issues, slums should not be seen as all negative. Slum communities, such as the famous Dharavi, create a sense of an independent community. As of 2017, it has been recorded that 700,000 people reside within the 0.8 square miles of Dharavi. According to Sunil Kumar Karn, Shigeo Shikura, and Hideki Harada’s Living Environment and Health of Urban Poor, “… Dharavi have more affection for their present social life and the type of employment, which they fear would be lost otherwise. Environmental problems appear tolerable to them when compared with the degree of social security, their present habitation offered." In other words, despite the problems that this slum community faces, residents still appreciate the unique social networks they create within the area. However, Feargus O’Sullivan’s in In Mumbai, a Push to Recognize the Successes of ‘Informal’ Development states that a Dubai-based firm is trying to demolish this slum and rebuild over it. The source states that “similar redevelopment schemes in other Indian cities have often smashed the heart out of neighborhoods, destroying social and cultural support networks without meaningfully improving conditions for displaced residents or building something sustainable and vibrant.” Dharavi additionally contains about 67 slum communities and holds a variety of identities. Its first settlers were tanners and potters who were part of different communities of numerous religions and caste affiliations. This community was made up of migrants from the center of the city as well as from rural areas of India. According to Jan Nijman’s India’s Urban Future: Views From the Slum, 70% of the population are Hindus (of a variety of sub castes, or jatis), 20% are Muslims, and 10% are Christian. Many residents come from states such as Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka, and Uttar Pradesh. Despite its diversity and prominent community, Dharavi is ‘untouched’ by the government. It is also difficult for outsiders to determine whether something is a public of private space. The lack of space and over-crowding creates a communal identity because no one has real privacy, which promotes social interaction and networking. Therefore, residents’ identities are ‘place-based’ and communal. In addition, 70% of residents say that the most valued aspect of this area is “community.” Jan Nijman’s India’s Urban Future: Views From the Slum states that “venturing outside their community and its territorial confines is often accompanied by apprehension, stress, and feelings of insecurity." Slum dwellers feel as if they are ‘outsiders’ despite being within a city, which strengthens their own community identity and communal feeling of insecurity. After conducting a study, 93% of residents in Dharavi say they aren’t going to move, and, interestingly, 12% even put their neighborhoods in the slum category. 62% of residents said that their lives improved within the past couple of years. Despite numerous problems pertaining to slums such as Dharavi, residents are satisfied with their lifestyles because they have the social networks to support them.

Though poor infrastructure and negative representation creates a significant barrier for them, slum dwellers can create community identities because they all simultaneously work to survive. According to Laura B. Nolan’s Slum Definitions in Urban India: Implications for the Measurement of Health Inequalities, “A slum is often not recognized and addressed by the public authorities as an integral or equal part of the city." Many sources have stated that the Indian government and media paint slums in a negative picture, not even considering them a part of the city. And, to a certain degree, a slum cannot be involved with the city because it simply can’t afford it. Laura B. Nolan continues to state that “…poor living conditions like those found in slums likely have substantial adverse consequences for productivity and human capital development. Slum residents, for example, spend significant time and resources obtaining water and waiting to use public toilets." In other words, because residents in slums are caught up with trying to survive and sustain themselves, they participate less in the city’s society and its labor force. In that sense, Mumbai’s slums have communities of their own because they are all going through the same struggle. According to Jan Nijman’s India’s Urban Future: Views From the Slum, “Cities are shaped not only by large-scale structural forces but also from the ground up, on a daily basis, by city dwellers along with their mindsets and aspirations in addition to the institutions that organize their lives." However, they are viewed negatively and are seen as more of a “burden on the city” because they are the result of overpopulation, poverty, and extreme migration from rural areas of India. In other words, people see slums as a real living example of what is going wrong in their city. The fact that many of the slums’ residents are from rural parts of India promotes the sense of community within their urban neighborhoods. In fact, many of slum dwellers migrate to the city to work but continue to keep their connections and homes in their rural villages. Migrants bring social and cultural affiliations, traditions, cultural identities, and family ties to that of their rural villages. This creates a strong connection between the urban and rural parts of India because slum dwellers continue their rural lifestyles among urban settlers.

India’s lack of job opportunities surprisingly strengthens the sense of community and economy of slums. According to Jan Nijman’s India’s Urban Future: Views From the Slum, India does not invest enough in manufacturing. Indian Manufacturing firms are quite small, where 84% of them employ less than 50 workers, unlike China, which is only 25%. In addition, India invests more in other countries such as the India-based TATA Group, which is the largest single employer in the United Kingdom. This company does not benefit India directly or increase job growth in their own country. Indian cities such as Mumbai don’t invest enough in manufacturing because the service sector is more prominent. However, jobs in services tend to give higher pay to highly educated workers or poor pay to poorly educated workers. This creates the large gap between the rich and poor in Mumbai, where the middle class is non-existent. There is no creation of jobs in the manufacturing sector, which would help Mumbai slum dwellers. Mumbai’s slums are a representation of unemployed former agricultural and industrial workers and the lack of opportunity they had back home in their rural villages. And, again, there is the lack of institutional support. There is a lack of formality of planning on how to fix problems in slums. Because there is a lack of investment towards slums as well as an absence of employment and production, slums look to themselves and create their own economies. Slums create a form of “resilience,” and Jan Nijman states “The idea is that certain slums evolve (arguably out of necessity) into a form of economic and social self-organization that goes well beyond the slum as a mere labor reservoir of residential space." Slum communities are sustaining themselves by creating jobs out of the need to survive.

Dharavi is, again, a prominent example of the ‘slum economy.’ Though it has its overcrowding issue, which would cause high unemployment, it manages to hold down its own economy. According to Jan Nijman’s India’s Urban Future: Views From the Slum, Dharavi holds approximately 1,200 manufacturing units and 8,000 shops. Trucks go in and out delivering goods to outside sources. Almost 80% of heads of the households are employed, and 83% of those unemployed are either retired or not looking for work. 29% of the heads of the households are self-employed, and most of them operate their manufacturing or retailing businesses within Dharavi. Owners of businesses also live inside Dharavi, as well as 95% of their workers. Not only is the employment high, but the job stability is as well. People keep their jobs for an average of 18 years. There is a wide variety of businesses that run in this slum economy, including in garments, food, leather products, recycling/chemicals/plastics, pottery, machinery, building materials, jewelry, and printing. These businesses create a sense of community because certain economic activities are associated with specific communities within Dharavi. All the professions cluster together in order to share the same spaces, and this creates communal identity as well. For example, Hindu men are typically leather workers, potters, or jewelers. Most companies have operated in Dharavi for an average of 15 years. The second most valued aspect by residents in Dharavi is its location and the access to jobs, schools, and hospitals. Therefore, slums are not actually areas that are solely filled with unemployed people; instead, they are extremely active and significantly contribute income in Mumbai.

Effective government policy is necessary to create opportunity to improve living situations in Mumbai's slums. Firstly, the city needs more government intervention and overseeing. Secondly, slum dwellers need to have a voice and the ability to make decisions on these projects. There would be an incentive for slum dwellers to continue to demand for redevelopment if there is a possibility “of creating property assets that have a larger area, are more marketable and have higher property values.” In terms of the local government, there should be more deregulation. They should promote more flexibility in project conceptualization and building plans, as well as remove certain building code requirements and land use plans. This would spark more ‘community entrepreneurialism,’ which would not only build the community, but support the idea that slum dwellers themselves can rebuild their communities rather than having outsiders coming in making decisions on their neighborhoods. There should also be agreements put in place by the government between the developers and the slum dwellers, so the developers don’t take advantage of them, being the dwellers are most at risk when these projects are constructed. In terms of the lack of support for construction, the government must be able to fund private developers, since it is too costly for them to do it alone. In the end, redeveloping is in the best interest of slum dwellers because it doesn’t cause displacement, but rather improves their housing conditions and makes their properties more valuable. It also solves the problem of slums being depicted as outsiders. Slums dwellers would feel less vulnerable by the rest of Mumbai if it isn’t constantly seen as a negative, filthy, poverty-stricken place. To try to solve the overpopulation and overcrowding issue of slums, medium rise living could be an option. Instead of building out, developers can build up. This would also increase the value of the houses themselves. To keep from wiping out the sense of community in these slums, construction businesses and builders must incorporate cultural traditions of these areas. For example, they can incorporate the idea of the chawl, which is a single room tenement that serves as both a living and a work space. This is a tradition that has been historically established in slums and implementing something that has been integrated in their daily life for so long will maintain and continue the culture. The biggest and most fascinating characteristic of Mumbai’s slums is the ability to use a space for multiple functions. Though it may not seem like enough, the residents make it work.

In conclusion, Mumbai slums should not be seen as wastelands or places of despair. Of course, there are many problems that must be resolved such as access to safe water, sanitation, health, and environmental sustainability. We see how these problems stem from the poor infrastructure and policy-making of these communities. If the government makes a greater effort to implement policies that could help improve housing conditions in Mumbai slums, other problems such as water access and the general health of residents could improve as well. Though there are issues that need to be resolved, we also see that slums are communities that value social interaction and work together to sustain themselves and create a unique world of their own. It has been proven that they are able to maintain their communities out of the need for survival. Therefore, Mumbai slums are not as bad as India, as well as the rest of the world, think they are.

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