Why Mumbai Will Never Be Slum-Free

why-mumbai-will-never-be-slum-freeIn my quest to find decent accommodation when I first moved to Mumbai a year ago, I burned the candle at both ends; made multiple real-estate broker friends, spent evenings traveling across the city, and wrote down future calculations in my daily diary.

After a couple of failed deals, I finally landed a modest one that cost me an arm and a leg. The building, a brand new one, is a construction by Lodha builders. For those who might not know their prowess, Lodhas are the Mercedes of the world of construction. The construction is 20-storey high, with the most modern facilities, a lift-man, and sufficient parking space.

All’s well that ends well, I often hear. And ended well, it did. But what intrigued me, or rather left me feeling unsettled is what the owner of the house asked me when I first met him. In a city like Mumbai where housing is a luxury, he asked me if I wanted a house on the 7th floor, 16th floor, or the 18th floor – all three of which are owned by him.

The owner, a dark-skinned, well-built, Marathi-speaking man, clad in modest attire and a thick gold chain, entered the building on his two-wheeler and accompanied me to the newly installed elevator. “Noopurji, which house would you like to see first?” I exclaimed whimsically, “Aapki life toh set hai. Bombay mein teen, teen ghar!” And he, with typical fake-modesty replied, “Bas, uparwale ki kripa hai.”

From my conversation with him in the elevator, I gathered that he does not come from a background to be able to afford three houses in a posh locality in Mumbai. Being the pesky, inquisitive person I am, I decided to dig deeper into his story.

The area that the building occupies used to be a slum where he had three small rooms that cost him a rent of Rs. 100 every month. Under the government’s redevelopment project, private developers rebuilt the slums into modern buildings, rehabilitated the slum-dwellers and sold the remaining flats. My landlord was one of the slum-dwellers, who in exchange for three rooms in the slum, got three houses in my building worth Rs. 1 crore each.

This whole exercise was conducted to make Mumbai slum-free. But is the government’s policy really making Mumbai slum-free if the owner, after putting his houses on rent, continues to live in the slum?

A colleague at work recalled the situation in Delhi during Sheila Dikshit’s tenure. One extreme winter, the government built sheds in stadiums to accommodate the pavement dwellers to shield them from the cold. As they rushed the homeless into these winter sheds, another set of people occupied the same pavements that the government had managed to clear.  Eventually, these new occupants had to be shifted to winter sheds too.

Similarly, slums in Mumbai is a persistent issue. By rehabilitating slum-dwellers into houses such as mine, the government is indirectly incentivising slums and encroachment.

This is a classic case of unintended beneficiaries. Before hitting the jackpot, my landlord had a room in a slum. Now, he has three houses and another room in another slum. Why would he want to live in the house that was given to him when he can rent it out, live in a room, and get almost a lakh worth of cumulative rent every month?

In theory, the fundamental job of the government is to maintain law and order. When these encroachers were settling in, the government neglected its duty by letting them encroach. And now they have been gratified with a house for breaking the law.

With each passing day the problem gets worse, and the faith in the government to tackle it continues to dwindle. It could be political patronage where these dwellings serve as vote-banks for politicians The electoral politics sometimes brings about incremental improvement of the living conditions of slums, but does not solve the long-term problem of the existence of slums. On the contrary, it incentivises slums. The other reasons for lack of will could be because of an unfeigned lack of capacity to solve this problem.

How can the government protect public land?

It can implement stricter and stronger laws against encroachment instead of incentivising slum dwellers with new land.But if the government says that it’s not in its capacity to take such a stance, it should let private players take care of the problem. A more rational and radical solution of selling off open places in Mumbai to private buyers must be explored.

It is safe to say that you won’t entertain an unwelcome visitor, especially not one who encroaches on your property. This is because property rights are socially-enforced constructs in economics that determine how resources and economic goods are used and owned. Mumbai city needs to take a similar approach and re-inforce this idea. The land that slum and pavement dwellers settle on is public property, which technically is land that belongs to all of us. But these settlements occupy the public land for private use of these dwellers. So fixing this by auctioning off land to private players could discourage the problem of encroachment thereby yielding more productivity from the land.The money reaped out of this auctioning could be then spent on pressing issues of the city like solid waste management, water shortage, etc.

The bitter truth however, is that Mumbai can never be slum-free. Thoughts can only be put towards stopping the birth of more of these. Until then, my landlord will continue living in a slum and making money off of the provision made by the government to make him stop living in one.

What I could do till then is to hope my landlord will at least reduce the rent for this  unsolicited stardom. 


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