Slums on a Hill: Needs new Law Framework & A Will for Urban Renewal

A slum on the hill is the most common occurrence that we will see and experience in any city in a developing country. In India, like the ubiquitous problem of erratic traffic on roads, a slum on the hill is the second most common feature that we see across all cities in India.

Slum has numerous definitions. For want of a smaller, easier and non-jargon word, the word slum is used to describe any informal housing that is not sanctioned by local authority or housing that has encroached a land that is not zoned for residential use. Additionally, such housing is often of a temporary nature, constructed on an ad hoc basis using a variety of materials. It does not follow codes and rules of a safe and habitable building. In other words, it is an inhabitable built space that lacks proper services necessary for a decent human life.

There have been numerous approaches at improving slum areas in India. The most common and preferred alternative of the government is to remove it, make the land under it free for more development and accommodate the slum households in Rehabilitation buildings, preferably on the same land parcel, but also away from it.

Other slightly differing approaches have been to renew slums on site itself by improving accessibility to services etc. This approach is a more difficult one and particularly not acceptable where the land is required for some other functions of the city. Like, in case where land parcels are of environmental value, like hill slopes and river banks, the issue of rehabilitation becomes complex by the fact that there is a demand that the land under the slum should be freed up for no-development, while also giving alternative housing to the displaced people. 

With due respect to well-intentioned NGOs working in this sector and to the challenges faced by government officers in SRA, slum rehabilitation has not worked in India. Slum rehabilitation schemes have become ghettos, derelict and although sanctioned, the buildings have reverted to being slums – ill maintained and lacking basic hygiene and safety parameters.

Recently, I had an opportunity to visit and see rehabilitation of a slum-on-a-hill project in Barcelona, Spain. While, I have not atudied this project vis-à-vis the overall socio-economic well-being achieved by the project and the people after slum renewal, the overall project approach is worth commending and emulating for slums on hills in cities of India.

The slum has transformed itself into a thriving lower income neighborhood, complete with all services, roads, parking areas, schools and primary health clinics. People have shifted to a formal economy and buildings are regulated for health and safety

The city of Barcelona made its first controversial decision of letting go of the hill slope and its environmental value to allow human habitation that is decent and liveable. There was always a pro and a con attached to either decision. If people were displaced, there was a high expected social impact, while by allowing construction on the hill slopes, the city was going to let go of the potential green open space it may have in the future.

Every city faces this give and take and no single sided approach works for the city. When speaking with the ex-mayor of Barcelona, a very practical and realist attitude was taken by the then government. He said, “The hill was any ways not available, either for its environmental, aesthetic or open space value. We just decided then, that lets at least make it count for providing decent life to thousands of slum dwellers in our city.”

Accordingly, a plan was devised. Each and every household was surveyed, their space was measured and budgets were made. This sounds like a cumbersome task, but recently I found that such detailed surveys have been conducted by agencies like the MahaMetro.

The slum houses were categorized into 3-4 sub sections like – Permanent Constructed, Temporary Structure, Dilapidated etc. Based on these categories, each house was either retained, refurbished or demolished, with an equivalent space allocated to the household.

This was an exercise similar to a Town Planning Scheme (TPS) done in India. As the Planners gauged the extent of demolition and refurbishment, services planning began. Roads were laid out, Parking lots, Open Spaces and Market areas were planned. Small squares between houses, common toilets, vending areas were also proposed. Additionally, for residents to have an easier access to the steep slopes, outdoor escalators and lifts were also proposed.  

A photo gallery below shows the various aspects of this area, as it stands today. We walked in these by-lanes and narrow alleys. Once, this slum used to be dirty, riddled with crime and extremely poor people lived on road sides. There were no adequate services and no formal economy. Today, this area has become a thriving neighborhood. People have opened shops, below their homes and vendors are seen doing brisk business. Schools and primary health clinics are also seen in the area. Parking is well regulated and roads have given access to every household, for emergency services. Bus routes are planned all across this neighborhood, giving ease of access to the people.

The slum had extended till top of the hill. With slum renewal project, the hill top is now an open space for citizens to enjoy. Once riddled with crime and drug, this area now enjoys serenity. The hill, however, is no longer in its pristine state, but has become an urban park.

As we wound our way up, we reached the highest point of this hill. We could see the city of Barcelona extended before us. The top of the hill has been retained as a viewing point. Houses are all approved structures and it has become an area that can be now regulated. As we climbed up, we did see some structures with government notices pasted on them. They were given a timeline to renovate themselves or let the government take over and provide them alternate housing.

The most prominent reason why such a scheme has been successfully completed in Spain, is the strict timelines followed by Courts that are special benches looking into urban land and housing cases. A very clear policy framework and recourse of law has ensured that either people get homes as ordained as per the Plan or they get an opportunity to move out by way of compensation. Rules of fixing compensation is also fixed.

Looking at this slum-on-a-hill redevelopment / refurbishment, I feel there are two things that are absolutely necessary for such projects. One, is a political & administrative will, with a conviction to surpass all opposition. Two, very strict administrative processes, time lines and laws. Local Court benches are established in Barcelona to resolve any land or housing related issue. This has ensured that a city government can take decisions faster and issues do not remain mired in endless legal battles and create a ‘no decision’ zone.

If Indian cities can build capacity in both of these, most urban planning problems and issues will get resolved. It will be worth a try to attempt such an ambitious slum refurbishment project in one of the slums in Pune. If a pilot becomes successful in Pune, it will spread like wildfire in the rest of Indian cities. And thousands of people currently living in inhospitable conditions will get a chance to build their way out of a slum and into a decent urban lifestyle.

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