Jawaharlal Nehru had an instinctive revulsion against the existence of slums. He wrote:  “I believe in no argument, economic or other, which is based on creation of slums. I have a horror of slums.  I do not mind a person living in the open like a vagabond or a gypsy. I am a bit of vagabond myself.  I have often said if you cannot provide buildings for those living in slums, give them open space to live in and give them some social services like water supply, and sanitation. The rest will follow.”

During his visit to Delhi Turkman Gate in 1954, Nehru was so anguished by the filth and congestion of slums that he involuntarily cried out: “Burn them”.  His reaction to the miserable conditions of the people, living on the bank of river Jehlum in the down-town area of Srinagar, was no different. He said: “I wish that some great architect would take charge of the planning and rebuilding of Srinagar, that slums and poor men houses should be removed and airy dwellings and avenues take their place”.

Nehru wanted high priority be given to housing. He underlined:  “If human welfare is the objective, it is bound up with the house”.  He advised the housing departments of the State and Central governments to provide two-room house even to ‘the lowest of the low income families’. It was because of Nehru’s views on slums that India’s First Five-Year Plan said, “The slums are a disgrace to the country and it is a matter of regret that Governments, both Central and State, have so far paid little attention to this acute problem. Slums are a national problem.  From the national point of view, it is better to pay for the cost of clearing slums than to continue to pay the mounting cost of slums and suffer destructive effects upon human lives and property indefinitely”.

But what is the position after over six decades of planning, extending over eleven Five-Year Plans? Today, in almost all our cities, we see huge slums which are far worse than those confronted by Nehru.  About 35 per cent of our urban population lives in slums the hallmarks of which are ‘dirt, decay, disease, danger and despair’.

The conditions are particularly distressing in our metropolitan towns.  In Mumbai now, about 55 per cent of the population is living in slums and chawls.  Dharavi slum, in which about one million are jampacked in about 1.75 sq. km. area, has earned worldwide notoriety for its massiveness.  In a large part of it, there is only one latrine for every 1500 inhabitants and ten persons share a room on an average. The impact which slums of this nature cause on sensitive minds can be gauged from the observations recently made by UNICEF Chief in India, “When I first came to India, the slums of Mumbai left a lasting impression on my mind.  Racing away from me as I drove out of my hotel, the slums moved me beyond words”. 

Bangalore, which has recently emerged as the thriving capital of India’s software and computer service industries and which can take legitimate pride in its glittering malls, shopping centres and housing-estates, has also a slum population of about two million spread over 1,000 slums and as many as 90,000 street children and rag-pickers.

In the capital, if the dilapidated Katras of the Walled City are added to its about 1600 unauthorised colonies and about 1000 jhuggi-jhompri clusters, about 77 per cent of its population would be found to be living in slums.

Few in the country have noted that since the introduction of the economic reforms in 1991, the pace of growth of slums in our cities has increased manifold. A Global Report on Human Settlements – The Challenge of Slums (2003) – has underlined that, after the forces of neo-liberalism have gained ascendancy, a new social class of informal sector workers whose living conditions are marked by ‘low status, low wages, long hours of work and insecure habitats’ is fast emerging in the developing countries.  In India, most of the big cities are now groaning under ‘spatial tyranny’.  Here, the average space occupied by an individual is about 1/40th of the corresponding space available elsewhere in the country, and no site is considered too slushy and too filthy to be constructed upon with bamboos, tins or cardboards.

Much is sometimes made of the United Nations sponsored projects, such as Millennium Development Goal which aims at significantly improving the lives of 100 million slum dwellers all over the Globe.  But it is forgotten that even if the targets set in this Goal with regard to India are met, not more than 1/10th of the existing population of the slums would be benefited, let alone new slums that are daily coming up in our cities.

In the context of the harsh realities obtaining at the ground-level, neither the poetic concern, as expressed by Nehru, nor the schemes evolved at his initiative under the Five-Year Plans, nor the projects of public-private partnership floated under the new dispensation, would be of any avail.  What is required is a totally new approach under which the process of migration is made a planned-one.  A few migrant colonies, with organised layouts, basic amenities, and with facilities for imparting simple skills to enable the new arrivals to secure regular and worthwhile jobs on durable basis in the urban economy, need to be set up every year and migrants allowed to move into these colonies by paying a nominal rent for the space allotted.  In other words, the cities should be prepared to receive a given number of migrants every year at specified sites.  For example, Delhi could receive about 20,000 migrants per year. For them, ten colonies, with 2,000 plots each and with basic services and training centers could be developed in advance at suitable locations in city’s expansion and redevelopment programme. 

An essential pre-requisite of the approach I am advocating requires that the urban as well as urbanisable lands should be acquired in advance for comprehensive development of the cities and out of the acquired land suitable chunks should be earmarked for setting up migrant colonies. The objective would be to make the migrant a lawful allottee and also a skilled individual who can make positive contribution to the orderly development of the city.

All this would require rigorous intervention of the State.  The forces of neo-liberalism may have done a lot of good in the arenas of business, industry, commerce etc; but they have spelt disaster for the urban poor, particularly for its lower layers, who are now living virtually in the ‘hell-holes of misery’.  The few schemes started, under the ‘public-private partnership’ model have either failed or are on the verge of failure.  The much touted project of Tehkhand in Delhi has not moved an inch for the last seven years.  And the Mumbai-Dharavi project has been lingering on far about fifteen years and is now showing sign of providing a huge bonanza of land to the private developers and a few blocks of vertical slums to the original occupiers.

It is time that we act on new lines, and act quickly.  We should not forget that by 2030, India’s urban population would mount to  590 million, that is, about double the total population of the United States and 68 of its cities would have to house more than a million people each.

(The writer is a former Governor of J&K and a former Union Minister)