About 65 million people live in India’s slums (2011 census), with numbers expected to reach 600 million by 2030 as cities continue to grow.
The number is quickly rising as tens of thousands leave their villages to seek better employment prospects in urban areas.
Many relocate in overcrowded slums, and lack basic facilities, without claim to the land or property. Civil society organizations estimate at least six homes are destroyed and 30 people forcibly evicted hourly in India as authorities modernize cities and build highways. Land values in Delhi have skyrocketed, and developers are on the lookout for space to erect shopping centres or apartment blocks, presenting ever greater obstacles to secure tenure for slum-dwellers. Slum-dwellers have long opposed efforts to relocate them to distant suburbs where their access to jobs and amenities are limited. Instead, they want redevelopment with improved facilities and secure tenancy.
India passed a bill in 2019 to formalize Delhi slum colonies, allowing over 4 million residents in 1,700 slums the right to own the shacks and dwellings they call home and to develop, sell their property, and take out loans. The government built roads and drains in some settlements, but according to housing rights activists, many slums still lack basic facilities and residents face the constant threat of eviction.
Asha’s Land Rights Programme
In the first several years of operations, Asha gained government support in two slums for on-site slum improvement and land titles. Asha worked with residents of Ekta Vihar and Shanti Vihar to secure land rights on site. It was the first time an onsite development had been considered, since previously slums were only relocated to other distant sites. At Ekta Vihar, Dr Martin, Asha Director, gained the trust of the communities and the authorities to design the community with cluster style houses with an open courtyard between them so residents could socialize.
The slum dwellers were also given the freedom to decide their neighbours. These two slum communities received land titles and small loans for building construction, with labour supplied by residents.
All titles were given to women as part of this arrangement, providing them with a measure of control they had not before experienced. Slum dwellers built their homes according to their financial standings, taking between one and seven years. With houses in place, the government constructed toilets, laid water pipelines, erected streetlights, and made concrete pathways.
This onsite pilot project became so successful that the slum department invited many teams and municipalities of other cities to visit the site to replicate it. For this, Asha was awarded the UN-Habitat award Best Practice Category in 2002. Today, these two slums can be described as approaching the middle class in appearance and prosperity. One of the female residents described the revolution in the communities’ lives: ‘The living conditions are neat and clean, children can go to school and there is a smaller family size. Stress has decreased because houses are concrete and won’t be washed away. We have our own identity and because we have proof of residence, we can get regular jobs. Earlier, when we worked outside as domestic help, our children didn’t go to school because our houses lacked doors or locks, so children had to stay there to keep watch.’
This approach to slum renewal was unique at that time, and its success has had a far-reaching impact. The government of Delhi has now sanctioned on-site renovation for zones where land is not required in the short- or medium-term for other purposes.
Asha’s Land Rights Programme at Savda Ghevra
Asha’s second type of involvement in land rights was precipitated in April 2006 by the Delhi government’s decision to raze slums for the construction of facilities for the 2010 Commonwealth Games. In some cases, just 24 hours’ notice was given to communities. Asha initially appealed for a reversal of this decision for Thokar No 8, which had been home for up to 20 years for a population with well-established Asha programs. When these attempts failed and the slum was demolished, Asha and the community-repeatedly approached the government for allocation of land elsewhere. Asha advocated the case with the Urban Development Minister and with the Delhi Government Chief Minister. Undeterred by their cold response, Dr Kiran Martin advocated for the slum dwellers with former Prime Minister Mr VP Singh and other Parliamentarians.
Eventually, the government provided plots for a proportion of residents in an isolated area, Savda Ghevra, 30 kms distant, depriving residents of schools, clinics, and often livelihoods. Not willing to abandon this community, Asha had to start over because the area lacked basic requirements.
The nearest medical facility was 15kms. distant. No transport was available in the city, thus keeping people from reaching their jobs. A few mobile toilet blocks were the only provision for sanitation, and an open drain formed a mosquito breeding ground. A water tanker visited sporadically, causing conflicts between people struggling to get their share of water. Over the years since 2006, Asha established a new Mahila Mandal (womens’ group) to lead in advocacy, through which the community achieved a new bus service into the city, toilet blocks, dustbins, new schools, and even a local market where they could sell and buy provisions.
This work provides another promising example of slum renovation. The challenge for Asha, though, is the extraordinary amount of time and effort needed to bring about land rights programs. At the same time, regulations on land ownership and development in Delhi have increased in complexity. At present, Asha directs most of its attention to areas that may offer the best value in the short- and medium-term in relation to its investments of human and financial resources.
A ground-breaking housing scheme
Many people now own their own homes thanks to a housing scheme developed by Asha. In partnership with the government, Asha formed a housing co-operative that granted slum residents rights to a plot of land.
They then re-built their homes on the allocated plots using materials from their original shelters and additional materials bought with the help of bank loans.
Reasonable maintenance charges make it possible for communities to have street lights, safe water supplies, paved roads and community centres. The scheme made a huge difference: some areas have developed to such an extent that nobody would consider them slums anymore.