India proposes state-level support for slum dwellers

New plan will see the Indian government give financial support to states that provide land rights, basic services and affordable housing to millions who live in city slums.

DELHI, INDIA - SEPTEMBER 11: (ITALY OUT) A young local boy wonders in the street of Kathputli Colony on September 11, 2010 in Delhi, India. Local people are used to make many activities in the street, just as washing, cooking, gathering or playing. Kathputli Colony is a slum in Central Delhi on September 11, 2010 in Delhi, India. Kathputli Colony is a slum in Central Delhi. For the past six decades, puppeteers, jugglers, magicians, animal tamers, musicians and dancers have arrived here from all over India. Despite its ramshackle houses and open sewers, it has a magical atmosphere. Walking through its colorful alleys you can hear the sound of a tabla that accompanies the performance of young pupils. You can also meet someone ready to set up a little show for you, to earn some rupees. But Kathputli Colony is going to be destroyed. Recently, the Delhi Development Authority came to an agreement with Raheja Developers, a big real estate company, to demolish the slum and build residential buildings, offices and shopping malls. If this finally happens, the curtain of this outdoor theatre will fall forever. (Photo by Giagnori Eidon/LatinContent/Getty Images)
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NEW DELHI // In a move to free the country of slums, the Indian government approved Thursday the first stage of a scheme to develop housing, along with basic amenities such as toilets, drinking water and electricity, to millions of people.

A total of 250 cities are part of the first stage and may benefit up to 32 million people.

Called the Rajiv Awas Yojana (Ray), after the former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, the plan will see the federal government provide financial support to states willing to allocate property and land rights to slum dwellers, as well as develop basic services and affordable housing. A mortgage fund worth US$222m (Dh855m) will help facilitate lending to the urban poor.

"The first idea is to develop the present slums. The second is to prevent proliferation of slums by encouraging low-cost housing…on land that the state has to provide or that the city has to provide," Palaniappan Chidambaram, the Indian home minister said at a news conference on Thursday.

The federal assistance is conditional to reforms undertaken by the states, including providing the government with statistics and data on how the urban poor live. The first surveys will start in June, with the report of the findings to be released in January. There are an estimated 93 million people living in slums, according to a report by the Indian Planning Commission.

The plan's five-year timeline is ambitious, said critics, some of whom doubt the government will reach its target of relocating millions of people into affordable housing. There is also concern that politicians in states with metropolitan cities such as Mumbai, Delhi, and Bangalore - home to some of the largest slums - will oppose the relocation of slum dwellers for fear of losing their political support.

Pratima Joshi, is the director of a non-governmental organisation called Shelter Associates, in Pune, that develops community housing for the urban poor. She said the mortgage fund may help those who live in bigger city slums, but small-town slum dwellers may not be able to afford to take on a loan.

However, the survey that will be carried out on city levels is unprecedented, she said. It will help best determine how best to create well planned housing.

"India must map its poor," said Ms Joshi. "You cannot suddenly transfer them to highrise buildings and create more unsustainable housing for the poor because, 10 years from now, you don't want an entire gamut of vertical slums."

At least two similar housing schemes have failed.

The first one in 2002, called the Valmiki Ambedkar Awas Yojana, subsidized slum dwellers to turn "kaccha" homes to "pukka", essentially allowing tin roofs to become brick homes.

"It happened haphazardly," said Ms Joshi. "The gutters overflowed because of the construction, some built their homes, some didn't."

The construction restricted access to emergency vehicles and the flow of light and ventilation. Homes needed more electricity than ever to keep their fans running.

The second scheme, in 2005, the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission, simply increased the amount of available subsidies.

"The government has frittered away its opportunity to create proper housing," said Ms Joshi. "For it to filter and reach the poor, to become entrenched, you need to take everyone on board and especially focus on the takes time to break down their resistance to relocate."

Gautam Bhan, a consultant with the New Delhi-based Indian Institute for Human Settlements, helped draft the new program's guidelines. He said the new scheme may work as it encompasses all slums, legally recognized or not.

"First, it's a recognition that good slum-free cities do not mean cities free of the poor. Slums may be undesirable, but they are productive spaces because of the people living in them. (This program) recognizes the entitlement of poor to be in cities as equal citizens," said Mr Bhan. "Second, it is an opportunity for city planners to put low-income housing back into their city development plans."