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March 05, 2006
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March 05, 2006

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Home > 2006 Issues > March 05, 2006

Bookmark - Bookreviews
Slums as the gift of urbanisation

By M.V. Kamath

Slumming India: A Chronicle of Slums and Their Saviours: Gita Dewan Verma; Penguin Books; pp 183; Rs 200.00

Is it necessary for a citizen of India to read, of all things, about slums? A book on slums is not fiction; it is about facts. Grim facts. It is not entertainment, but it is education. It is also, coming to think of it, an early warning of what might be in store for the country if slums proliferate in urban centres. For slums hardly exist in rural areas. People may be poor in the country side; their housing may be abysmal and the supply of water practically non-existant. But they seldom constitute a threat to the environment. Invariably they have vast space around and they manage to survive. This is not the case with urban slums.

In the first place most of them are illegal in the sense they occupy government land. In the second place they are congested. It is stated that while19 per cent of Indian families live in less then 10 sq meters, 44 per cent in urban areas live in just one room. How is one to meet this situation?

But the larger question is: How come urban areas become slum centres? All that Gita Dewan Verma is interested is to run down slum development, so typical of writers who claim to be intellectuals. People flock to the cities because they can?t find a livelihood in rural areas. It is as simple as that. Industries are not set up close to villages, to provide employment to unemployed villagers. Ergo, for them salvation lies in cities be it Kolkata, Delhi, Indore or Mumbai.

All that Gita Dewan Verma is interested is to run down slum development, so typical of writers who claim to be intellectuals.

Then there is the question of population explosion. A village economy can sustain only a limited number of people; when the sustainment level crumbles, people run away to fresh fields and economic pastures. At that point in time they are not concerned with law and order or environmental degradation. All they seek is at least one square meal a day and a roof over their head. They look for a place to live. Once they see certain hutments in a God-forsaken place they know where safety lies. That is how slums grow and proliferate. In Delhi, for instance, jhuggies accommodate 20 to 30 lakh people and occupy 4,000 hectares of land (almost all of it government owned) out of approximately 70,000, hectares meant to be urbanised for a population of 120 lakh.

In other cities, with less public land available for ?encroachment?, slum densities are even higher and the urban land distribution statistics even more inequitable. Slum-dwellers are not interested in which land they occupy. Thousands live on railway land, practically next to railway lines frighteningly close to passing trains. Forget how they live and eat. They don?t even have privacy to ease themselves. These slum-dwellers not only live in constant danger, the fires they build are a danger to passing trains transporting inflammable goods. These and other similar problems are too well-know and Gita Verma recites them with relish. They give her and others of her ilk, a chance to condemn officialdom which, goodness knows, is only too often open to criticism.

The sad part of it all is that the author has no solutions to offer. She writes: ?Perhaps I am too cynical. Perhaps I overact. Perhaps I lack the right attitude towards development. Perhaps I am an idiot. But I can still see even without glasses.? Yes, there is a lot of unpleasantness to see and many see them even without being architects. But seeing is one thing; condemning without offering solutions is another. One presumes that slum-dwellers, like everyone else, have responsibilities. One is to practice birth control. It is the rapid rise in rural population that has set migration to cities in motion. Somewhere down the line word must be passed on to the rural public that the country just cannot financially keep up with large families. Don?t we all know that India?s population which was around 300 million in 1947 has burgeoned into 1.2 billion in just about sixty years? Has our economy risen to a corresponding extent? We can, of course, blame the government; that is the easiest way-out. But have political parties any responsibilities to spread education? Have the media? And what about industry? Why should industries stick to urban centres?

One answer to that, of course, is that urban areas provide all the necessary inputs for development such as energy and water supply. The way to prevent the growth of slums, then, is for state governments to invest in rural electricity and water supply and good roads for easy transport. Gita Verma does not care to discuss these subjects. It is easier to damn those who pretend to provide succour to slum-dwellers in cities.

At one stage Smt Verma does note that ?people do not migrate from lovely hinterlands where urbanites take vacations, to live in urban slums, they come to work?. True, so true. The way to prevent migration, then is to provide work where people live in their homes in rural India. Isn?t that obvious?

The author tries to prove that slum-dwellers are not necessarily criminals, nor are they guilty of stealing electricity. According to her slums account for a measly five to six per cent of power stolen. Her further argument is that the poor if only because of their circumstances are less capable of grave crimes than the rich. But she does not provide statistics. This is not to say that slum-dwellers have necessarily to take to crime. But the number of criminals taking shelter in slums where identifying them is a hopeless task remains a matter of concern. Slums, besides, become breeding grounds for disease, precisely because of poor sanitation.

Society administrations tend to take a dim view of slum growth and only recently several thousand slum-dwellings in sub-urban Mumbai were demolished driving people to desperation. It is a miracle that those made homeless did not take to violence.

Towards the end the author says: ?The boat is leaking...What are we waiting for? A bloody revolution??. Good question. Only the author has no answers. She has only criticism to offer. A lot can be done, as in China, where the poor in villages are prevented from migrating to cities. Is that what Smt Verma wants India to do? Come, come, lady. Think positively. Offer a way out. And help educate our political parties and our citizenry. That way lies the answer to prevention of slum growth. It takes time but, as the Chinese tell us, the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. Just as officials, intellectuals too, have a responsibility towards the betterment of India. And does one have to stress the obvious?

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