Halting the Demolition Derby

My piece (linked to and pasted as text below) in The Indian Express today, takes stock of AAP’s order to halt evictions and the possibilities it opens up to intervene into Delhi’s housing inequalities. I link it here in order to place it together with one additional frame that is necessary to the argument in the piece.

The counter to eviction is also a second object: a 25 sq m flat that is increasingly the primary choice of our housing policies to replace self-built house. This is seen as progress, an easily legible move from kuccha to pucca, from basti to flat. Complexes of these flats – often built in the thousands with a characteristic green stripe of the National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) at the bottom – have begun to emerge across Indian cities. Many more are on their way.

Who doesn’t want such a housing unit? It turns out, in fact, many people. Occupancy rates of units built in the first decade of JNNURM are as low as 30%. Why do families leave? Well, because life on very low incomes isn’t possible far from work, schools and transit. New housing units need land – far more land than the dense, self-built bastis ­– which means they are most often, especially in the bigger cities, peripheral. Far precisely from work, schools, and transit.

It isn’t just the distance. Housing decisions by the income poor are not made on the basis of the quality of a flat but on the ability to integrate housing with work by using homes as workspaces and living near jobs. This is why bastis are built where and how they are. Even if the new units weren’t peripheral, they remain a form unsuited to these multiple lives of housing: they can’t be incrementally changed and moulded into godowns, warehouses, tailor shops, or restaurants, or grow with families. They are houses, not housing. Moving beyond evictions will also need re-imagining the 25 sq m unit.

Link to the main piece here.  Text after the break.

To understand the magnitude of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)’s order to halt demolitions in Delhi, consider this: from 1990 t0 2010, even if you just take government data, over 260 bastis were demolished in the city. The real numbers are likely much higher. The extent of evictions has been such that the 2011 Census recorded a 25% fall in population in the New Delhi district, attributing it directly to evictions of “slums and JJ Clusters.” Put bluntly: contemporary Delhi is a city scarred by the repeated evictions of the homes of its poorest residents at a scale unseen since the Emergency.

To say then that AAP’s move is welcome beginning towards reversing this cycle of a deeply exclusionary urbanism would be an understatement. The question now is: having bought some breathing time, how should they move forward? Two key directions for a more inclusive city are offered below.

One: Upgrade, upgrade, upgrade. Worldwide, the only cities in similar economic conditions to Delhi that have made a dent in their housing inequality have been those that undertook large scale, in-situ upgrading programmes. From Caracas and Sao Paulo to Bangkok and Manila, these cities intervened to build and provide key public infrastructure (drainage, roads, electricity, water and sanitation) in slums. They did not – and this is crucial – build new houses or flats to give to the poor as much of our current national housing policy is wrongly focusing on. They did not resettle households far from the city where transit and livelihoods are absent, creating new geographies of segregation. They instead innovated to consolidate the gains of already built housing where it stood; where housing, work and transit had already come together.

When infrastructure improves, households invest. Incrementally, they improve their units. A slum becomes a neighborhood. This is not just true internationally. Ahmedabad, with some of India’s best human development and infrastructural quality indicators in slums, got there by a large-scale upgrading programme.

Two: Expand tenure security. In order for upgrading to be successful, however, it needs one additional key element: households have to believe that they will not be evicted so that they can invest in their own homes, their neighborhoods and themselves. They need, in other words, security of tenure. This is where the current order to halt demolitions must lead for it to be more than a band-aid on a much deeper wound.

What does secure tenure look like? Colloquially, we often think of this as giving individual property titles to the poor, following the work of influential theorists like Hernando de Soto. Individual titling is certainly one form of tenure security but it is not the only one. Secure tenure can be just as effectively provided using community titles, different forms of leaseholds, a range of permissions to use (rather than own) land, or even just no-eviction guarantees for long periods of time. Importantly, many of these allow public land to remain publicly owned while protecting poor households. In a city whose land market is as skewed and unequal as Delhi, this is important. Individual titling immediately exposes income poor households to the market. The pressure to sell is intense. This by itself isn’t an issue – after all, don’t poor households have as much a right to sell their assets as elite ones? Yet it becomes a concern for policy makers because once they sell, they cannot re-enter into a legal rental or ownership market. They will then have to squat again and the cycle of slum creation will not break.

Secure tenure that leans, for a period of time, on protecting rights to use rather than rights to sell slows down the risk households face and allows them what we may think of as development time – years of secure tenure in which they can increase income, secure their housing, and improve their lives. Bangkok’s very successful housing programme did just this. It upgraded tenure using community and co-operative titles for 15-30 years after which households were free to sell and exchange their units. This means that immersion into the housing market is gradual, allowing households to protected not just against demolition but also against market-induced displacement.

Is this all not simple populism? It need not be. Upgrading has proved to be sound economic strategy for urban development in many cities, whether measured in economic or human terms. Upgrading, if done at scale, allows urban infrastructure to be more effectively provided by universalising its networks (reports estimate that India loses 6% of its GDP due to inadequate sanitation); adds needed revenue to public utilities (just google the Bangalore water supply board’s earnings from shared water taps in slums); expands the reach of housing finance to lower segments of the market (currently below 1% of formal loans); increases productivity of workers; boosts consumption and savings; lowers health impacts and costs; and makes the universalisation of education more effective by preventing repeated eviction-related dropouts.

It does so much the way poor households build settlements: gradually and incrementally, but also more deeply, equitably, and sustainably. Upgrading is, in other words, a productive investment that emphasizes redistribution as a core growth strategy, one acknowledged recently by actors as diverse as the ILO and the IMF. The AAP government must defend its expansion of tenure as sound urban development policy, not just the expansion of guaranteed constitutional rights to a dignified life or a new “subsidy regime.”

These will not be easy moves even for a government with a large electoral mandate. AAP’s notice went to many arms of the city’s governmental machinery but not to the Delhi Development Authority on whose land most bastis in Delhi still remain and which remains under central rather than city control. Further, as it itself acknowledges, the Government can do little if the courts order evictions as they repeatedly have done in the recent past. Yet even with these constraints, if the government sets a strong tone on expanding tenure security and upgrading settlement infrastructure, it will go a long way in moving the common sense of urban development towards inclusion rather than eviction. Regularisation drives that make unauthorized colonies legal are commonplace, their economic gains to the city uncontested. We now need an upgrading drive that will give dignity to the workers who have built our cities and lay the foundations of more sustainable, equitable and dignified growth.

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