The Coronavirus outbreak has cast a spotlight on the often overlooked underbelly of Mumbai- the slums and other informal settlements where about 49 percent of its population resides. These neighbourhoods in Mumbai are characterised by unusually high population densities of up to 350 families per hectare, poor drinking water, and below-standard sanitisation facilities, which gives rise to unhealthy living conditions. So, what is the future of slums in a post-COVID-19 world? 

Cities are envisaged as the hub of economic, social, and technological advancements, and lure people from all corners. However, widening gaps between the growing population and the physical and social infrastructure in cities has led to a lopsided pattern of urban development and increasing urban poverty. With a premium attached to the available land space, property prices in cities like Mumbai have skyrocketed. This pushes incoming migrants, who make up most of the city’s population, to seek housing within low-cost, poorly designed shanties and tenements in informal settlements with deplorable living conditions. 

The birth of vertical slums

To alleviate the plight of people living in slums, private sector players have introduced the model of subsidised rental housing. However, lured by the assurance of Floor Space Index (FSI) and Transferable Development Rights (TDR) incentives, the needs of slum dwellers were shelved to prioritise profits for builders and developers by the introduction of ‘Slum Rehabilitation Scheme’ (SRS) in 1995. SRS facilitates the redevelopment of slums through the concept of land-sharing, where the open sale of housing units in the market allows the cross-subsidising of free units for the slum dwellers. However, the full authority and discretion on decisions concerning the quality of construction lies in the hands of private developers, which has turned this scheme into a crooked and ineffective mission.

Drawbacks of builder-led redevelopment schemes

● Driven by profit margins, developers use up to 75 percent of the available land to build units that they can sell, forcing the existing slum dwellers into the remaining 25 percent. This has led to the transformation of horizontal slums into vertical ones in the name of high-rise development.

● Within these matchboxes in the sky, occupant discomfort and health issues are rife. Living spaces are cramped and dark; they feel too hot or too cold and are inadequately ventilated, leading to poor indoor air quality.

● These buildings also neglect how ‘life on the street’ is inherently tied to the socio-economic fabric of informal settlements. The lack of recreational and community spaces restricts occupants from engaging in community or livelihood activities that were an integral part of their life in the slums.

● This incompatibility between low income and the high cost of living in the city and the dissatisfaction with the new rehabilitation buildings forces distressed residents to move back to slums or look for new squatter settlements.

Power to the people

So are there better alternatives? How can slums be redeveloped to ensure affordability, improved quality of life, and socio-economic well-being of the community? 

Self-Development of Slum Communities (SDSC) is a process where slum occupants take on the mantle of redevelopment themselves. 

The case of self-redevelopment

● SDSC is aimed at accelerating the entire process of redevelopment with the self-intent of the community.

● SDSC can be easily incorporated within city development plans by transferring the development rights of land parcels marked as slums to the association of the current inhabitants. 

●The government needs to reduce permissible FSI to restrict the development of vertical slums. Instead, it should discontinue levying the charges that it does to reduce project costs. This would allow residents to fund the construction through personal loans along with liquid capital raised by the sale of new units from the development. The loans could be repaid with monthly EMI instalments with appropriate subsidies, which would be far lower than the unusually high rents that occupants pay for remarkably low square footage.

Envisioning a slum-free city

It is important to understand that the vision of a slum-free city needs to be viewed through the lens of inclusive development. Elimination and clearance of slums have to be substituted for upgradation of living conditions, provision of access to basic services, and participation of the current slum dwellers in policy conception. We can only achieve self-contained sustainable communities with a multi-faceted approach to redevelopment that incorporates economic, environmental and cultural sustainability.