Politics of water in Mumbai

Rajji Desai, Mumbai Community Manager
Mumbai, 30 October 2016

On affordable housing and privatization of land, the key issue with housing is land, and the battle’s always been over land. Sadly, city governments have never assigned or allocated land for affordable housing; neither have they actively engaged in building affordable housing. The private sector will not build affordable housing for the poor or even the middle class. As in the case of Mumbai, the middle class is very clearly marginalized from the main market supply. In these situations, governments will not only have to designate land exclusively for affordable housing but will also have to engage actively in building these units. It is because of the lack of availability of affordable housing that slums are proliferating. This is true for most cities in India and across the world. There are very few cities in the world where we can say there are no slums or where the state or city government has been successful in providing affordable housing. Singapore is one such rare and unique example wherein the city government has built the entire affordable housing stock.

Historically, before the neoliberal era, many cities provided housing for the working class and the poor. Even New York has a large number of council housing. Britain, not just London but all over, is another example. During the 70’s and 80’s, council housing was a very big movement undertaken by the government. With the advent of neoliberal globalization, cities experienced a privatization thrust and the governments began to give up their own responsibility and expected private agencies to take care of the provisions of social welfare, which included social housing, social amenities, social structure, education, healthcare, etc. Urbanization grew and cities rapidly expanded and, in turn, the problem of housing grew exponentially across the globe. As cities expanded, public spaces began to shrink. This is a matter of growing concern as we have come to a point where the indifferent and insensitive markets as far as social welfare and affordable housing is concerned has come to expose itself completely. And it’s is clear that if a solution has to be found then it has to be outside the market forces. It has to be beyond markets and, thus, there is tremendous pressure on governments to undertake direct responsibility of social welfare measures.

On reason for opposition from the government during the initial phases of the charter for the “Right to City”, India has gone into a tangent talking about smart cities, and having false ideas about city making in which we think cities must be exclusive. These grand imaginations of cleaning the “dirt," i.e. clearing cities of its poor people and making it available only for the rich by implementing high cost and therefore, unaffordable projects for most people. Cities are being used as an opportunity for reproducing capital at the cost of social development. Therefore, construction turnover is seen as a measure of successful urbanization, which is in fact the opposite of social development interest.

In the case of big metro cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, by having increased volumes of construction, we have not been able to deal with the shortfalls in housing. The volumes of construction have only been for the rich and exclusive, as a result there are 4.5 lakhs houses in Mumbai lying vacant, when there is a shortage of 22 lakh houses. This is the contradiction in India.

Cities are already choked and governments no longer have land, as most of the land has been privatized. One way to address this is through the development plan. A development plan doesn’t necessarily work on the lines of land ownership but it cuts across land ownership. Reservations are imposed, irrespective of ownership of land. A city’s critical issues should be addressed in the development plan. Then, via legal measures and other development mechanisms, land has to be obtained to address the problems faced by the city.

As in the context of Mumbai, one way to get land for affordable housing is by demanding that the slum land or slum-occupied land be declared and reserved for affordable housing in the development plan of the city. Redevelopment of slums could help achieve large number of affordable housing stock in cities, besides rehabilitating or reaccomodation the existing slum population. Slums are congested but not necessarily dense. They are congested because houses are jostling with one another with the lack of open spaces, roads and accesses and the ground coverage is almost 75% and, therefore, there is congestion. But, if we were to speak of density in planning terms then, density is the number of tenements per hectare then. Compared to the densities in other parts of the cities where there is formal housing, the slum density in Mumbai is relatively low.

Given the high cost urban land and its utilization or efficient utilization, one could redevelop to those densities, not necessarily through high-rise models but through low-rise, high-density developments and also achieve a greater number of affordable housing units in the city. This can be done in many ways: it is a participatory process, in which governments must engage communities in the preparation of visions about their cities. These are not exclusive domains of few planners or architects. The knowledge about planning and judicious use of land and resources vests with all the people of the city. The people are knowledgeable and capable of making suggestions and contributions in the preparation of people’s plans for cities.

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