Rapid urbanisation led by expanding cities might have done well in terms of economic growth, but it has significantly fallen short in terms of addressing the needs of the poor. It is disquieting to note that informal settlements occupy one-third of the area in large urban centres such as Mumbai, Kolkata, and Chennai and the population living in urban slums is set to climb steeply to reach about 105 million in another five years — a 40 per cent increase over the 2001 level. Against this background, the recent ‘Delhi Declaration,’ a resolution drafted at the end of the international conference on Inclusive Urban Planning, organised by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation in partnership with the World Bank and UNDP, offers hope but also raises doubts. Hope is in the form of the expert group’s affirmation that the urban poor would be recognised as important stakeholders and included in the process of urban planning. This decision gives reason to believe the spatial marginalisation caused by the current form of urban planning, and the suffering it inflicts on vulnerable groups, would end. However, doubts arise because promises made in the past, such as making Indian cities slum free by 2014, have been way off mark.
Slums proliferate because cities are either too slow to respond to the needs of the poor or ignore the inequalities the housing deficit creates. Unfortunately, these informal settlements neither get government recognition nor figure in development schemes. As a result, city Master Plans focus on ‘legitimate areas’, leaving slums to languish as spatial black holes without adequate urban services. Their vulnerability multiplies as their potential property value increases due to location. As a first step, taking a cue from countries like Brazil which have experience in slum upgradation, municipal governments should recognise informal settlements as special zones of social interest. This would provide much-needed legal protection, prevent forced eviction and stop deterioration of living conditions. Development plans can follow and integrate these informal areas with the mainstream planning process. When critical slum upgradation programmes such as the Dharavi redevelopment project, announced more than two decades ago, remain non-starters, they erode the credibility of the government. The inexplicable delays also raise the question of whether slum redevelopment is a means to exploit the real estate value. Only a participatory and transparent process — and the timely completion of such projects — will reassure the poor that the government is committed to developing inclusive cities.