Slum free India! – The Dream

Published by Human Settlement Management Institute under HUDCO in collaboration with UN-HABITAT, Habitat for Humanity on the occasion of world habitat day 2012. (October 2012 edition) (Page 41)

Ever since the Hon. President has announced the vision for a slums[1]  free India, this has been the lime light of discussion in intelligentsias in the social and urban development field. One of the most shocking revelations was when Parekh Committee stated that 5 years is too less for this dream to come true; but the positive side to this was that 5 years was made as a first phase for realization of the dream. If a structured methodology is followed then this dream is quite achievable.

There are few myths that need to be broken off before we proceed, and there need to be a paradigm shift.


When we say slums, we are talking about a place which more than 93 million[2] people call home. When India is having an upper hand in global economy through a demographic dividend, one in every eight child (0 to 6 years old) lives in a slum; thus the situation is grave. But before we set to solve the problem we need to have a better understanding of the problem itself. No doubt that slum has many negative things, but there are many positives to it which we need to preserve. Preservation of these positives is all the more important because even majority of the planned development in urban India lacks them.

Social Structure

Slums in general have a very intricate social structure. The very organic nature of the slums helps in building strong inter-personal relationships. It should be noted that in current times one even refuse to recognise the next door neighbour in an apartment while an entire gully in a slum lives like a family[3]. The alley (gully) in a slum is the most vibrant and important open space. During the different times of a day the street transforms itself into various functions as per the needs of the occupants, acting like a strong social spine for the community within and the neighbouring locality.

EXAMPLE: Major community interaction happens on the street. The mornings are dominated by women, who share the space for daily activities from washing clothes to cutting vegetables, and the afternoon is mainly dominated by the kids who come back from the school and play in the gully, every member of the community keeps an eye on them. By evening the male members sit outside and discuss work[4].

Street as a living room

One of the most talked about slum redevelopment is Maharashtra’s SRA schemes where the builder gets the right to the land after the completion of houses for the slum dwellers. Taking from SRA schemes in Pune, the flats created for the slum dwellers completely ignores the social structure. One of the main reasons for this to happen is because there is no participatory planning process. The SRA scheme has a very good process in place for informing the slum dwellers on what they are getting, but there is no process in place for the community to get involved at the design stage; thus the resulting design is the outcome of an architect’s vision who has never lived the way the community lives. A stark difference can be seen in the city of Sangli, just couple of hours from Pune; where an NGO ‘Shelter Associates’ have involved the community in the design process through GIS and other architectural tools. The design of new homes for slum dwellers at Sangli, demonstrates how the social structure of the community can be enhanced by the involvement of the community which thereby improves the local environment.

EXAMPLE: In a typical architectural logic, interiors of a house should not be visible from the other house, so generally in apartments, flats are staggered to avoid the entrances facing each other, which is a good design practice in usual scenario. But experience from the slums clearly shows that the first level of interior space of a house in a slum is permeable and needs community access. This particular issue and many other such nuances are unacceptable for a normal architectural mind, thus the community needs to be involved in the design from the beginning.

Rajiv Awas Yojana (RAY) has a very detailed chapter on community participation, also it requires 70% community consensus for project to go ahead. But the biggest road block for this is the lack of capacity in ULBs, also there is only a handful of CBOs working in housing sector which aggravates this problem.

Lack of sanitation in slums – Jawaharlal Nehru Camp Delhi


The organic layout of the slums produces a mix of different sized houses, thus addressing the varied demands of the slum dwellers, including rental options. It should be noted that one size won’t fit all in this sector. A slum is not a homogeneous entity, the heterogeneity of a slum is what is difficult to replicate in a new development. The mix of different types of housing and commercial options is based on the market demand. In a slum there is a differential mix of both commercial and housing. Whereas in housing itself there is a wide range

  1. Different size of houses
  2. Rental houses/rooms
  3. Dormitories
  4. Single room tenements

The proportions of different types in this heterogeneous entity vary from place to place in a city itself. This mixed character needs to be preserved whenever an intervention is done in a slum.

EXAMPLE: JNNURM established the minimum size for a dwelling to be 25 sq m. But what is more important and determines the quality of life in a dwelling unit is the per person area. Many slums have 6-10 people staying in a house, thus providing them with a 25 Sq m house means that one person gets maximum of 4 sq m, which is worse than providing a 15 sq m room for single occupancy. Thus any slum redevelopment project should consider a mix of different housing typologies that need to be incorporated. Based on the location there should be a mix of typologies between dormitories to joint family units.

Sculptors in Gulbai Tekra Ahmedabad


As the general rule goes: almost always there is no one who is unemployed in a slum! One of the main reasons for the focus of “insitu” redevelopment in RAY is to retain the livelihood options of the community which has developed over the years. Keeping the location intact is not an action enough to keep the livelihood of the community. Slums in general have a varied occupational involvement and in that regard every slum is different from each other. While designing for a slum the spatial needs for these occupations and its related activities need to be taken care of individually.

EXAMPLE: Every slum is involved in different economic activities.

The slum of Sunder Nagari in Delhi is majorly a shoe making community. Each house is a mini factory and loads of different sized shoes are produced in each house, thus there is a need for different spatial design of these houses in case of redevelopment.

Similarly Gulbai Tekra in Ahmadabad is mainly consisting of sculptors. Now this is a different case from Sunder Nagari because in Gulbai Tekra the houses are normal, but the community spaces (or the clustering of the houses) are articulated in a manner to create workshops for these artefacts. Also there are special spatial requirements like protecting the sculptures from sun and rain.

These examples are presented to emphasise that there is more to livelihood than location.

Considerable Increase in self investment for housing after SNP in Sharif Khan ni Challi in Ahmadabad


When one talks about getting rid of the slums, then it is a huge number; the magnitude of it itself is enough to understand that simply eradicating slums and rebuilding from scratch will never solve the issue. As of now India has very limited resources and limited time to achieve the goal, thus we need to concentrate on improving the conditions of the existing stock and build new stock. For the initial first phase there need to be a strategic approach towards the slums; it is utopian and unachievable to look forward towards completely rebuilding each and every slum in India. A participatory approach with the community private players and experts in this field should be applied.

Conservative surgery[5]

Majorly a slum’s pressing three issues are

  1. Sanitation
  2. Basic services like water and electricity
  3. Structural safety and quality of the dwelling unit

Thus it makes complete sense first tackle these issues.

Health related issues are predominant in slums, so a sanitation plan needs to be made with community participation. A multi disciplinary team[6] with the help of a community based organization shall be involved in this process. Community knowledge can be used regarding the flooding pattern and local bottlenecks for devising an efficient servicing system without demolishing existing houses.

With a sanitation network in place, it becomes easy for laying water and electricity lines taking safety in consideration.

Structural safety and quality of dwelling units is a tricky issue. Most of the slums are self constructed, thus the best way to influence the quality of these structures is through mason training. Masons have a trust factor in these communities and imparting basic knowledge of quality construction practices and rules in the mason will have a big impact.

EXAMPLE: Indore and Ahmadabad have implemented successful slum networking program (SNP), which is a partial example of a conservative surgery approach. Sharif Khan Pathan ni Chaali in Ahmadabad was one of the first few slums to be tested with SNP. Basic services and sanitation was laid with community involvement through the NGO SEWA-MHT and the work completed in 2000. After the SNP program there has been a considerable increase in investment on improvement of the quality of the houses by slum dwellers themselves. Also the quality of life has tremendously increased after the initiative.


Exposed walls show the bleak structural safety of houses in Sunder Nagari Delhi

Additional housing stock

India has a housing deficit of 25 million and 98% of this deficit is in EWS category; and with 2.07 % urban growth rate this deficit is bound to increase. Thus there is no option but to add to the housing stock.

Subsidised houses or free houses create perverse incentives and the repercussions are known to everyone. Instead there should be a diverse option for all the income levels and family types. Everyone need not own a house, if a person is economically week then there should be an affordable rental option available, rather than subsidising a house for ownership, the subsidy should go into the process of establishing affordable rental option. The new development should allow community management through creation of cooperatives. In terms of owning a house, those who can access finance (or self finance) can own a house directly and those who are not can also be given a choice on rent to ownership model.

In order to achieve the dream of a slum free India, we need to be innovative and practical in our approach. Terms like cut-off-date need to be removed and an approach based on self selection should be developed for the slum dwellers. Initiatives should be devised which could become a catalyst for quality improvement and any initiative should be judged through a social equity lens.

Hope we soon have better and adequate housing for all.

[1] The term ‘slum’ used throughout the article refers to urban slums as defined by Pronab Sen committee report [2010]

[2] Census [2011]

[3] This and further observations in this article on communities in slums is based on authors experience in studying slums in different parts of India.

[4] Based on study of street activity in the slums of ‘Sunder Nagari’ in Delhi and ‘Baba Lui Jhoparpatti’ in Ahmadabad by the author.

[5] Conservative surgery is an urban design methodology developed by Sir Patrick Geddes

[6] A multi disciplinary team should consists at least of (but not restricted to) architects, urban designers and planners, sociologists, Lawyers, economists and community members


9 thoughts on “Slum free India! – The Dream

  1. A very sound argument, but the obvious issue is land ownership. Even the government is unable to deal with the politics of land! Aside from that, if government is willing to give up on loand it owns, we might be looking at a solution indeed! Love the piece and the pics and the analysis as well.

  2. Pingback: “Slum free India! – The Dream” by Nipesh Narayanan « Impressions

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