Delhi’s plan to relocate slum dwellers in high-rise buildings shows no lessons have been learnt from the failure of such experiments in American and European cities

After decades of creating far-flung resettlement colonies for evicted slum dwellers — which often lacked basic services and access to employment — the Central government finally refined its thinking on slum policy and introduced the Rajiv Awas Yojana. Though not a panacea, the RAY brings in two crucial innovations by requiring, firstly, that slums be redeveloped in-situ (no more than 1 km from their current location), and secondly, that housing projects be designed in consultation with slum dwellers.

Unfortunately, the 2014 election, the 2020 deadline to make India “slum-free”, and the drive to fashion “world-class cities” are combining to escalate the urgency of slum redevelopment such that city and State governments are flouting RAY guidelines and searching for quicker fixes. Fast-track PPP models are so far the favorite: Ejipura in Bangalore, Golibar in Mumbai, the Sabarmati Riverfront in Ahmedabad. In other places, like Jharkhand, high courts are taking slum clearance into their own hands, demanding evictions before any alternative housing can be made available.

The Delhi Development Authority is following suit in ignoring the RAY guidelines, proposing a 17-storey tower to relocate families from Govindpuri’s established Bangladeshi resettlement colonies. If the project foreshadows the future of slum relocation in the nation’s capital — and sources within DDA suggest that it does — then the hope of the RAY’s progressive vision will be all but lost. The irony is that the hurried high-rise project in South Delhi will fail to further the vision of a “slum-free India” precisely because DDA has chosen to disregard RAY. The policy’s requirement of community consultation isn’t only about fair urban governance.

It’s about a slum policy that stops the proliferation of slums. Middle class India sits in its drawing rooms and marvels at how the poor sell off the flats they are given to move back to slums. But it is precisely the lack of community consultation that fuels this cycle.

The argument for community input in the design process is not so much “soft” as it is practical.

Had the DDA engaged in meaningful consultation with the Govindpuri settlements, it may have found that a flat in a high-rise tower is not, in fact, the aspiration of every urban Indian. It may have found that the neighbourhood fish market is one of the most important sources of income for residents. It may have found that the street — easily accessed by everyone in a low-rise settlement — keeps women and children safe by connecting neighbours and facilitating an informal system of monitoring.

Where will the fish market go in a G+16 structure? On which street fronts will neighbours interact and ensure safety? Without a design that takes into account their unique social and economic fabric, Govindpuri’s residents are likely to hand over their flat to the highest bidder. Who could blame them?

Even if we imagine that families from Govindpuri will somehow stay, struggle to find different livelihoods and accept the radical shift in their social world, the proposed structure establishes an unsustainable precedent where environment and energy are concerned.

Costs of living ignored

A forthcoming study by Harvard Business School and Harvard School of Design found that in Delhi, the top floors of a tall building will be uninhabitable for over 150 days of the year without mechanised cooling. Are the health and comfort needs of a low-income family to be evaluated differently? Or does the DDA expect Govindpuri’s dwellers to purchase air conditioners and pay for the exorbitant electricity costs of running them? Even if it did, such energy-intensive designs are indefensible in a city in whose memory the largest blackout in history is still fresh. Beyond the cost of cooling, simply pumping water to the upper floors will consume expensive and unsustainable amounts of energy.

The challenge that pushes the DDA to build skyward is that slum redevelopment projects must achieve the densities that informal settlements have achieved on their own, while ensuring the safety and services necessary for healthy urban living. But architects and designers, together with slum dwellers, have already evolved solutions that achieve density in low-rise settlements. In the east Delhi neighbourhood of Sundernagari, micro Home Solutions and community members developed a four-storey design that smartly integrates green spaces, reduces street widths, and maximises light and ventilation. The density is 600 households per hectare, roughly equivalent to a dense urban slum.

If the DDA cannot accept the common-sense arguments presented here, it need only look elsewhere in the world to discover the failure of low-income high-rise towers. When the poor in North America and Europe were forced into housing projects like Cabrini-Green in Chicago or the tenements of Clichy-sous-Bois near Paris, social alienation, violence, drug use and delinquency resulted. Now undisputed failures, those housing blocks are being torn down to make way for low-rise, mixed-use neighbourhoods that integrate the poor into the life of the city. Must India waste crores of public money to repeat the mistakes of the West?

If India is to ever realise its vision of “slum-free, world-class” cities, municipalities and agencies like the DDA must stop ignoring the voices of low-income communities, the innovations of architects and designers, the international consensus on social housing, and the evolved thinking of the Central government itself.

(Gregory Randolph is an AIF Clinton Fellow at microHome Solutions and Mukta Naik is an Architect and Urban Planner at the same enterprise.)

More In: Comment | Opinion