Two years after Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee promised in his budget speech that India would become slum-free in five years, the United Progressive Alliance government has come up with legislation that might enable progress towards this goal. The model Property Rights to Slum Dwellers Act circulated recently by the Union Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation aims to improve the conditions of an estimated 93 million slum dwellers. The legislation would entitle every “eligible” slum dweller living in a slum to receive a dwelling place of 25 square metres of carpet area or its equivalent land area at “affordable” cost. It would confer property rights in the name of the female head of the household or in the joint name of the male head and his wife. This is a progressive course correction meant to check the prevalent male bias in determining housing rights. The proposed Act lays down a seven-year lock-in period to prevent the sale or lease of the allotted property but sensibly makes provision for mortgaging the dwelling units to raise loans for improving them.
There are some serious shortcomings in the model Act. The proposal to fix a cut-off date to identify “eligible” slum dwellers and provide the “ineligible” ones only with an “all weather” space for rent and not a proper dwelling needs to be rethought. Arbitrary cut-off dates and a rigid quota system are impractical to implement. Lessons should be learnt from the failed government schemes to regulate urban street vendors. If the social objective is to create slum-free cities, an inclusive definition that maximises the number of beneficiaries is an imperative. It is ironical that this model legislation, which is meant to stop forced evictions, has provisions to imprison and fine people who have constructed “illegal” structures on government land. Securing government property is a separate issue. Housing is a State subject and the success of the recommended legislation will depend on how well it is implemented by the various State governments. In 2007, the Union Ministry through its national housing policy recommended that 20-25 per cent of the built-up area should be reserved for low-income groups in all housing projects, including those built by private developers. This is yet to be implemented in many cities. What is critical is adequate supply of housing for the poor. If the vision of slum-free cities is to be realised, the stock of social housing must be vastly increased.