Designing for livelihoods in government slum-rehabilitation projects: Sundernagari, Delhi

Rakhi Mehra, Mumbai Guest ContributorRakhi Mehra, Mumbai Guest Contributor
micro Home Solutions

A key principle of the central government's "Slum Free India" policy is to redevelop slums in situ (upgrading their current situation rather than dislocating slum dwellers) and offering them basic tenure security. Still in its pilot phase, the policy, Rajiv Awas Yojana (RAY), emphasizes a process for community engagement and has laid down detailed guidelines for the interaction process.

Mahila Housing SEWA Trust (MHT), an established national social sector organization, was one of four NGOs tasked by the local municipality in Delhi to work on the pilot to be sponsored by the Ministry of Housing. MHT was to engage the community and propose an alternative design for redevelopment in an eastern Delhi neighborhood of Sundernagari. mHS engaged on data analysis, community facilitations, and architectural and urban design for the site. The proposed scheme was in contrast to the multi-story development planned by the municipality. The results in Sundernagari have the potential to influence redevelopment in the capital city as well as other major urban centers such as Mumbai.

The Sundernagari community and their priorities

The project addressed two slum blocks in Sundernagari with approximately 800 households and a combined population of 4,000 people. The community is extremely poor, with an average reported monthly income of approximately INR4,000 ($72). The condition of the housing stock is poor as well. A significant proportion of the homes are single-story huts built using temporary roofing materials like tarpaulin and plastic. Open, overflowing sewers and dysfunctional public toilets present a general picture of the state of infrastructure.

Yet, despite this state of affairs, residents have a strong sense of community and are gainfully employed in a variety of home-based activities. While the residents of one slum block are predominantly low-caste Hindus engaged in repairing and refurbishing footwear, the other block is a Muslim community engaged in a variety of home-based activities, such as jewelry making, embroidery, stitching, metal work, and dairy.

The interaction process began with a household survey, focused group discussions, and conversation with individual households, including children. The surveys were led by the resident welfare associations (RWA) and corroborated with external surveyors. The majority of the community's residents are involved in traditional occupations, and 60 percent worked within 2 kilometers of their home, including home-based workers engaged in shoemaking, embroidery, tailoring, dairy, and so on where this was their primary source of income. Others residents worked as domestic help in neighboring middle-class homes.

For the residents, housing is not only about access to shelter but also about habitat. The debate was not whether 25 square meters is sufficient for a family of five, but on the quality of life and economic opportunities the new neighborhood would offer. Pursuing a certain lifestyle and maintaining traditional livelihoods emerged as the focal points of this community of cobblers, cattle rearers and artisans.

Designing with the community

Once the design team embodied the life and livelihood interlinkages in this community, arriving at the conceptual design was relatively easy. Four different schemes were presented in large community meetings for feedback.

The main feature of the new design was its modular cluster approach, based on two-level street designs.

  • The two-level street offered the connectivity as well as the neighborhood interaction space that the community considers essential to the way they live and work. Moreover, the community particularly accepted it because they could easily transport material to their homes and carry finished goods out via strategically located staircases and ramps. Residents were aware that low-income high-rise developments have been unsuccessful in maintaining essential amenities such as elevators.
  • The cluster design ensures light and ventilation in every unit.
  • The scale of development was conducive to current social practices and lifestyle.
  • The modular design — done on a 4m-by-4m grid — gave flexibility and options for unit sizes (18, 32, and 48 square meters) based on family size, capacity to pay and livelihood requirements.

The detailed schematic design was guided by frequent community visits that were intense and lively. These repeated interactions were key to building the good will and trust amongst the residents who were anxious about the redevelopment. Visuals created considerable excitement during the community meetings. Special consideration for livelihoods meant:

  • Providing workshops/cattle sheds that offer a separate dedicated space in close proximity to their homes
  • Providing a street-based scheme that allows them to continue home-based work in their front verandahs, while interacting with neighbors and supervising playing children. The street width ensured not access by cars, and limited only to three wheelers
  • Providing ramps and stairs at frequent points that enable residents to carry raw materials and finished goods into and out of their homes easily

Other design factors that were paramount for the community were social interaction spaces. These intangibles link to the way livelihoods and lifestyles are manifested in their lives. Women work in front of an open front door where the light trickles in; therefore, providing a semi-private, well-lit work area enabling interaction with the neighbors is their idea of a comfortable working environment.

Meeting expectations of right to livelihoods

Even though the RAY pilot guidelines have provided scope for innovative design depending on the socio-economic characteristics of different slum settlements, most state governments have not entirely bought into the concept of RAY. This is largely because catering to livelihood and lifestyle choices of the slum dwellers requires innovative thinking and access to marginal land, which state governments are looking to capitalize upon. We have also seen this with the the pottery and fisherman communities in Dharavi, Mumbai, who have protested against the proposed high-rise development mainly to protect their livelihoods.

With the community empowered and engaged as envisaged, the policy makers must not only be willing to hear the community's priorities but also demonstrate the political will to cater to their choices.

Rakhi Mehra is founding partner of micro Home Solutions. She started her career as an intern at the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and worked with Ashoka Fellows in microfinance in India before joining CARE India, where she helped to design the post-tsunami rehabilitation program in Andaman and Nicobar Islands, as a Program Associate. She also spent a year as a consultant with Rabo Bank India in agribusiness and microfinance. Rakhi was born in Delhi, studied at the St. Stephen's College at Delhi University and later read Philosophy, Politics and Economics (P.P.E) at Oxford University on the Rhodes scholarship in 2001. She earned her MBA from Harvard Business School in 2009. She was awarded the HBS Social Enterprise Fellowship in 2011. Rakhi founded mHS with her architect husband, Marco Ferrario. They live in Delhi with their 11-month-old daughter, Nora.

micro Home Solutions is a social housing enterprise with a mission to build inclusive cities based on interdisciplinary principles of community, affordability and design. Founded in 2009, mHS is developing a portfolio of housing solutions that include dormitory shelters, self-construction and incremental housing, rent-to-own models that are viable and scalable.

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