Recently, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court of India ordered the removal within three months of around 48,000 slum dwellings spread over 140 km of railway tracks in Delhi. The bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra also said no other court could stay this eviction and demolition. With a stroke of the pen, some 2.5 lakh people were declared illegal occupants and made homeless. But the real surprise is that this judgment was not based on the “illegal occupation of land”, but on the basis of the environment and cleanliness. The Indian Railways had argued that these settlements were generating tonnes of solid and plastic waste around the tracks and have to be removed to check environmental degradation.
This order has been put on hold for four weeks so that alternative arrangements can be made for the evicted. But the problem will persist because of the inadequate and faulty framework through which slums are understood.
In the popular imagination, “poverty” has existed since time immemorial, and is therefore considered an intrinsic part of civilisation. It is seen as a morally repulsive but practically acceptable aspect of city life. Slums are also seen as aesthetically reprehensible, as “eyesores”, but in economic terms they are considered acceptable reservoirs of ultra-cheap labour. Slums, where a majority of urban poor reside, are symbols of the failure of governments to improve the conditions and livelihood of the masses, and that is another reason why they have to be “hidden” from public view.
The word “slum” has a negative connotation, not because it denotes miserable human conditions, but because it is seen as a marker of illegal occupation of land. This delegitimises the settlement and criminalises its inhabitants. Slums are seen primarily as a problem of governance rather than of economic policy. This stems from a ahistorical understanding of the term—divorced from its economics, politics and prevailing model of development—and the form of settlement it refers to.
Slums are a global phenomenon. They occur in different names, sizes and colours, in developed, developing and under-developed countries. More than 900 million (90 crore) people live in slums around the world. India’s share of slum population stands at 65 million out of its 483 million urban population. The number of people living in slums has only increased with increase in global wealth, which might seem like a contradiction, but is really the only possible outcome of the dominant global economic system. Slums are an urban phenomenon and their history, trajectory and even etymology is synchronous with the development of capitalism.
The word and concept originated in early 19th century England during the first industrial revolution. According to British historian William George Hoskins, the etymology of the word “slum” is related to the geology of the land upon which big industries came up in England in the 1820s. When the railroad was still in its infancy, the only means of transportation were canal barges. In order to minimise the cost of transport and ease the way for doing business, industries were set up near canals, often in areas that lacked sufficient drainage. Those marshy lands were locally called “slumps”, meaning wetlands, Hoskins informs. The slumps were just one “p” less away from today’s “slums”.
Migrations to places near these factories in search of work began the genesis of modern-day slums, which are characterised, above all, by drainage problems. Commenting on the conditions in one of Manchester’s slums Friedrich Engels wrote in 1844, “Some four thousand people, mostly Irish, inhabit this slum. The cottages are very small, old and dirty, while the streets are uneven, partly unpaved, not properly drained and full of ruts. Heaps of refuse, offal and sickening filth are everywhere interspersed with pools of stagnant liquid. The atmosphere is polluted... The creatures who inhabit these dwellings and even their dark, wet cellars, and who live confined amidst all this filth and foul air…must surely have sunk to the lowest level of humanity.”
Even today, more than 170 years later, slums are inhabited by migrants seeking livelihood opportunities. Those very processes that led to the creation of slums in England are also responsible for creating India’s first slum in Dharavi, Mumbai, which has the dubious distinction of being Asia’s largest slum settlement.
Present day Mumbai came under full control of the East India Company in 1817-18 after it defeated Bajirao II in the third Anglo-Maratha war, which included the battles for Khadki and Koregaon. The Company brought industries and trade to the urban regions, which encouraged migration from rural areas to Bombay (now Mumbai). The population of Bombay reached almost 5 million by the time of the 1857 revolt. Dharavi’s slums were officially founded in 1884 and housed mostly industrial workers. It became the first destination of arriving migrants from villages and, soon after, a phase of expulsion of factories from peninsular city centres to Dharavi began. The tannery industry, one of the most important and polluting industries of the region began to shift to Dharavi after 1877, and with it grew the miseries of Dharavi’s residents.
This phenomenon of migration and lack of municipal services to migrant centres continued even after 1947, as India continued down the capitalist path, encouraging industrialisation, dispossessing people from their land, and actively encouraging rural to urban migration. As the wealth of the nation grew, so did the number of people living precariously in shanties with no clean water, sanitation, not even clean air.
Whereas slums were an outcome of industrialisation in the early years, today, they are mushrooming for the very opposite reason: neoliberalism and de-industrialisation that have set in since the 1970s. The urban historian Mike Davis, in his brilliant yet disturbing book, Planet of Slums, argues that financialisation of capital, decoupling of growth from production, and withdrawal of the state from economic affairs, has curtailed social welfare schemes and promoted de-industrialisation. This has pushed millions into the informal sector or into “low paying, low-skilled jobs with ‘miserable salaries’ and poor working conditions”.
Davis identified this phenomenon at the global level. He shows how slums are not the reason for urban misery but in fact they are products of the informal nature of work. They are outcomes of the lack of job security and social protective measures. People who do not have formal secured sources of income and other social security are more likely to live in slums. This was true during the initial phases of industrialisation, when a majority of people who lived in slums did not have formal employment or state regulated social security, and it remains true today.
In India’s present context, after 1991, the number of people living in slums has increased because of two factors: One, continued migration from rural to urban areas due to three decades of agrarian distress and two, deindustrialisation and contractualisation of work, which has rendered a huge chunk of industrial workers jobless. Most slum dwellers are domestic workers, street vendors, workers dependent on contractors for jobs, and employees in small shops and workshops.
The problem of slums can also be located in the land use policies of governments. The recent order evicting 48,000 people is not really an environmental issue, even though it was presented as such. The Indian Railways has a dedicated body, the Railway Land Development Authority (RLDA), constituted in 2007, for “development of vacant railway land for commercial use for the purpose of generating revenue by non-tariff measures”. According to the Public Accounts Committee report on the Indian Railways for 2016-17, only 0.20% of the Indian Railways’ vacant land was encroached upon as on 31 March 2015, and even less, 0.19% in 2016, which fell further to 0.18% the following year. However, a majority of this land is in urban centres and has very high commercial value. The RLDA has been leasing its land to private commercial land developers and earning huge profits.
Seen in this light, the recent eviction of slum residents will facilitate the commercialisation of this “encroached” land. All “slum clearance” plans in general are aimed to free up prime land for commercial exploitation.
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought the precarious nature of life in slums to the fore, chiefly in the form of the migrant crisis after the abrupt lockdown. Suddenly out of jobs, migrant workers had no option but to vacate the slums that most of them lived in and return to their homes. Slums are also more susceptible to become epicentres of epidemics/pandemics because of overcrowding and lack of civic attention. Regular local outbreaks of chikungunya and dengue in Delhi are proof of this, and it is no surprise that Dharavi became a coronavirus hotspot too.
Demolition is no way to deal with the precarious conditions that prevail in slums. Nor is relocation, as popularly understood, the answer. The answer is as clear as the problem—secured employment to migrants and residents of slums, and state-regulated social security benefits. Slums cannot be made to disappear with bulldozers, which only deals with the symptom and does not strike at the roots of a problem which runs very deep.
The author is a research scholar at JNU. The views are personal.