The concept of what a city should be varies from person to person, from city planner to a sociologist and even from time to time. Most of the elite class would assume that neon lights, crowded malls, big restaurants, discos, plush theatres, chic lasses least clad and debonair boys with outlandish clothes, skyscrapers, bars, night life all make a city what it should be. Slums? No, it should be demolished, and the ideas go on changing.
Should we have commercial complexes near residential areas? There are umpteen service providers without whom a city will stop in its tracks-the presswala, the cobbler, the hawker, the locksmith, the mason, the carpenter, the plumber, the shaft cleaner, the electrician, the waste collector and several categories of others serve the city residents in one way or the other.
None of the cities-Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Chennai, Bangalore, Kanpur, Ahmadabad and other cities have provided a life of dignity for the millions of these service providers. When pavements and space under flyovers are already teeming with people, the poor build homes elsewhere nearby railway tracks or wherever they can find space- not excluding huge drainpipes.
Don’t they have a right to eke out a living by living in a city, earning honest bread by one kind of service or the other?
The so called ‘illegal’ hutments called slums are called by different names-jhuggi-jhompri in Delhi, Chawl in Mumbai, basti in Kolkata and cheri in Chennai, The mushroom and haphazard growth of slums is a reflection of the skewed planning by our urban planners who failed to realize that cities, by virtues of the ample opportunities they provide, are a haven of not only the affluent few, but of the average citizen from small towns and villages. The Constitution of India does not bar any citizen of India from settling down anywhere he chooses.
Most of the cities have reached a saturation point of growth like Mumbai and Bangalore while Delhi is spreading its wings across neighboring Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. The civic amenities have already been stretched to the breaking point long winding traffic jams, erratic power supply, dry hydrants, poor mass transport, nightmare caused nightmare caused by sudden downpour as happened in Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore in2005, the uncontrolled pollution, potholed roads, sky-rocketing tent all would make the Mughal Emperor Shah Jehan if he were alive today-to scribble the graffiti on a less defaced city wall, “If there is a hell on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this.”
If it was the ordeal of the poor Mumbaikars a couple of years ago to have their habitats razed to the ground in one go in the name of a cleaner city, it was the turn of the slum dwellers in Delhi to face the bulldozers. The poor bulldozer is perfect socialist: it demolished both the Jhuggi- jhompri along the River Yamuna and the sleek, so called unauthorized commercial establishments in Delhi.
How come that these unauthorized commercial establishments were allowed to come up years ago and flourish all through these years, and suddenly asked to wind up as they were found to be illegal. Who gave them the permission ‘to start business? Have the authorities taken steps to nab the corrupt officials who have a dirty hand in the proliferation of unauthorised commercial establishments? What happened to the Delhi Master Plan? Do we plan our cities by fits and starts or do we have a well-thought out plan that takes into account all important factors that need to be considered for urban planning?
The bizarre pictures of workers hammering down well- built commercial structures as repeatedly coming on the TV news channels-speak ill of the transparency in civic administration and integrity in civic services. By playing to the gallery that the corporations and municipalities would not allow the functioning of illegal commercial establishments, the guilty officials cannot hide the ‘original sin’ of taking bribes for allowing the illegal structures to come up. Abetment to crime and collusion in the commission of crime is as reprehensible as the crime itself.
Penalization of the traders, decades after giving them a green signal, amounts to half-truth and miscarriage of justice where those who were a party to the illegal act have gone scot-free.
In his article “Mumbai as Patna” Mr. Shekhar Gupta, Editor, Indian Express, writes, “You know why there has been a spate of kidnappings of doctors here,” asks a senior police officer, then gives the answer, “because doctors are the only people left here who have some wealth. All others have fled. Professionals have nothing to do. All manufacturing industry has fled, no services can function here, and even owners of large automobile shops have shut shop and fled.”
So if the people of Bihar, singly or en masse migrate to Kolkata, Mumbai or Delhi, can you stop them? Taking a broader view, what is the rationale behind millions of Indians migrating to the US, Canada, the UK, Germany and the Gulf countries? For a better life? Is it a crime? But in the case of the poor migrants who constitute more than half the population of Mumbai it is just a struggle for survival. If his village provided him the minimum needs, he would not have opted for the dehumanized living in the slums.
For quite some time the Governments have been focusing on what is called PURA-Provision of Urban Amenities in Rural Areas. It is a pet project of our President. When in the distant future, the village becomes as vibrant as the city; there could be a trek back to the village. Just as the many professionals are now returning from the US to Bangalore where they can look forward to the same comforts in life and more value for their money. Till then do not bulldoze the slums.
Had the civic authorities provided for social housing slums would not have defaced the beautiful visage of any city? The Common Minimum Programme of the UPA Government has made a specific commitment to urban renewal and a massive expansion of social housing that pays particular attention to slum-dwellers. It has also committed itself to ensuring that forced eviction of slum dwellers would be stopped and acknowledged that everyone has a right to livelihood and shelter.
The Union Government has already launched a National Urban Renewal Mission for 60 selected cities to address issues of infrastructure development and management of assets. One should hope that this mission will also take care of the needs of the urban poor, who, for want of alternatives, are forced to live in slums, denied of basic amenities that are available to other citizens.
The mission should prepare a blueprint for social housing along with the provision of access to drinking water, sanitation, Medicare, low-cost education and the like for the urban poor.
Bulldozing a slum without providing for alternative accommodation for the urban poor amounts to denial of basic humans rights to a citizen just because of his poverty. Equity and justice demand that just as the privileged and the less privileged live together in different parts of India, the privileged and the less privileged should have enough space to live together in urban India.