Slums have dwindled in India! Pondering on fresh NSSO data

The latest NSSO data (Surveys done between July and December 2012) shows that slums have actually reduced in Indian cities! Liable to be missed in all the hullabaloo of politics, this is a huge achievement for India. If it is true… For one, comparing the Census, which is an actual count of the people who live in the country, with sample survey data seems a bit strange. How do you explain these differences? Nine million households live in slums in 2012 as per the NSSO as compared to 14 million as identified by the Census 2011. The NSSO counts 13,761 slums while the Census found 37,000! I would take these numbers with many pinches of salt!

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The good points

Only 41% of the slums are notified by the local authorities. I am glad the data points this out. Not being recognized or notified often means the denial of services and living in perpetual fear of eviction, as is pointed out repeatedly by the work of several organizations across the country. Transparent Chennai in particular has been vocal about this point (Read their excellent editorial in The Hindu on the India’s invisible population). So while the media is seeing the drop in the number of slums as indicative of the political mainstreaming of India’s urban poor, much remains to be done for those who reside in slums and other unserviced areas in our cities.

It is also heartening to see the improvements in services. The report says that 93.5% of slums have power supply and 71% have access to drinking water. There has also been improvement in drainage, sewerage, garbage disposal, primary education and medical facilities ranges between 15% and 45% compared to the data from five years ago. This does indicate the de-linking of the service provisioning from legality and more integration of the slum into the urban fabric. And perhaps the ability of slum populations to access services outside the slum. We know that slum dwellers are not always poor, but sometime middle class people living in slums owing to negligible affordable housing stock in the formal sector.

One strange point

The majority of survey respondents (70.8%) cites better accommodation as the reason to move out from a slum. The initial analysis seems to point to the success of government schemes like JNNURM and RAY. However, the total number of homes added to the housing stock under these would probably not add up to 5 million, methinks though I have to check on this!

One question

Those of us who work in the sector will wonder about what specific improvements in the attitudes and policies of local and State governments towards existing slums could have brought about such a decrease in number. Evidence from the ground seems to show an ever increasing diversity in the types of squatter settlements and only marginal and isolated instances of positive governmental or collaborative interventions.

More analysis needed

Sure, these are off-the-cuff comments and someone (not me though) would need to analyze the results more thoroughly. It is encouraging to see more data being generated about urban informal habitats though. Slowly, it looks like many gaps in our understanding are getting filled. It is up to us, those who live and breathe this stuff, to overlay the data and the anecdotal evidence and come out with a more nuanced understanding of the situation. Not a mean task, but important and fun too!

Need to support private informal rental market urgently

Policy makers are making noises about a rental housing policy for India, which currently does not have one in place save for some anti-eviction and rent-protection laws in certain States. The renewed interest in rentals has been triggered by a report that finds 11 million out of the 18 million units built between 2007-2012 lie vacant, ostensibly because owners are hesitant to lease them out to renters who they fear will be hard to evict when they need to. A 19-member panel set up by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation (HUPA) headed by Jaithirth Rao, Chairman, Value and Budget Housing Corporation Private Limited is now looking at ways to encourage developers to construct rental housing units.

Historically, housing policy worldwide and in India as well has had an inordinate emphasis on home ownership. In India’s growing urban centres, rental housing is highly in demand owing to mobility patterns and also as a result of high land prices and high cost of home ownership. Highly distorted land markets mean housing affordability will continue to be an issue; it is not merely a demand-supply game for sure. A policy that will put more rental housing on the market, protect the landlord but more importantly protect tenants too against arbitrary rent increases is welcome.

However, policy makers seem to have missed entirely the huge amount of rental housing already being provided by small landlords in the informal areas of our cities. Walk through slums, unauthorized colonies and urban villages in any city and you will see homeowners adding floors to accommodate tenants (sometimes they call them relatives, but this is also a form of tenancy after all). In Gurgaon, my research as part of the Future Institute Fellowship Program shows large-scale construction of rental units by small and mid-size landlords in urban villages located close to employment centres. These erstwhile farmers have been meeting the housing needs of low- to middle-income for years successfully even as the government continues to mull over affordable housing as a problem.

This sort of rental construction is right under the noses of the authorities, yet they seem to feign ignorance about it. Local councillors tell me that villagers do not allow census enumerators to enter their homes and do not divulge the presence of tenants as far as possible, fearing interference with their business of rental housing. Landlords remain unclear about the legality of rentals, fear they may have to pay service tax. To refrain from showing rental units, they do not construct kitchens in the housing they provide, and also give minimum amenities like toilets and bathrooms. Yet, no one will be fooled that these tenement homes are for any other purpose but rentals!Image

We find ourselves in a strange conundrum with this sort of rental market. Like we refuse to see slums and accept them as part of our reality, we do not wish to really know where maids, cleaners, security guards, drivers, cooks, retail assistants and even BPO workers live. Within the same city, people are interdependent yet ignorant of each others’ lives.

From a policy perspective, it is a huge challenge indeed. We do need to legalize the informal rental market so that we can regulate the safety of the buildings that house migrant workers and so that landlords are encouraged to offer decent amenities- water, sanitation, etc. Yet, we want to ensure that these rental rooms remain affordable to the poor, which probably means offering some sort of incentives. From what I know, these landlords do not really make money off the rentals. They rent partly to keep their property from remaining vacant and being grabbed by political goons, and to keep busy after having lost their land in the process of urbanization. It is a delicate balancing act, but it needs to be addressed.

It is my appeal to Mr Rao and the HUPA to include the informal rental market in your considerations while formulating a rental policy. If needed, HUPA can set up a parallel panel of experts to look into this. Supporting and engaging with the informal rentals market will being down the pressure on the government to provide affordable home ownership options, especially in cities that are experiencing high rates of rural-urban migration. It would protect the poor, who often have to face arbitrary rent increases and are powerless before their landlords who are ‘locals’. It would also offer better business models to landlords, who will find ways to improve their offerings and expand their business without fear of the law.