Transforming narratives: unravelling India’s transition in slum definitions

The changing conceptualisation of slums influenced government policies and approaches, with varied perspectives from considering slums as an epidemic needing eradication to later viewing them as objects of technocratic solutions

January 03, 2024 08:30 am | Updated 09:56 am IST

Views of slums on the shores of Mumbai, India against the backdrop of skyscrapers under construction

Views of slums on the shores of Mumbai, India against the backdrop of skyscrapers under construction

Narayanan, Nipesh, ‘The Making of Slums: An Analysis of Indian Parliamentary Debates from 1953 to 2014’,  Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 58, Issue No. 42, Oct 21, 2023 

The subject of slums has found a prominent place in the debates and discussions of the Indian Parliament throughout history. Yet, the discursive understanding about slums has always changed making it difficult to define it. There have been different interpretations of the concept during various periods. Such discursive approaches have affected the treatment of the topic by legislatures and policies.

Evolution of discourses

Nipesh Narayanan’s research is an addition to such a discursive research network. He explores the shifting narratives around slums by analysing discussions and debates in the Rajya Sabha between 1953 and 2014. Through an in-depth study of 1,228 debates in the Upper House of Parliament and an array of policy documents, including the Five-Year Plans of India released during this period, the author looks at the evolution of the discourses surrounding slums.

The author emphasises the dynamic nature of slum definitions as a critical aspect in understanding the contextual variations in discourse. He explains that while the government’s approach to slums kept changing according to the changing conceptualisation of slums, the role of urban disparity as a causal factor was largely ignored. The five decades scrutinised in the paper are divided into four eras wherein the consequences of the changing definition of slums is explored.

In the first era between the 1950s and 1960s, the slums were considered to be an aftermath of the formation of the new country- a result of partition and the inflow of a huge population into cramped, dilapidated residential areas. Old Delhi Katras were examples of such areas, wherein old Mughal buildings that were already compact, were further divided to accommodate the new population. This resulted in people living in deteriorating buildings without basic civic amenities. The Parliamentary discussions about slums during this period sidelined socio-economic factors like migration due to caste and religious violence. While they avoided defining the concept, slums were considered an epidemic that needed to be eradicated. It was connected to spatial constraints and health issues rather than looking at the urban disparities that resulted in its formation. However, as most slum regions were private areas, the government could not engage with these regions. This changed with the introduction of the Slum Areas Act of 1956 which marked a pivotal moment that made government intervention plausible after an area was officially notified as a slum.

During this period, the slum became a legal entity and the citizenship rights of slum dwellers were also ignored as slums were only considered worthy of demolition, due to arguments around health and sanitisation, but also due to aesthetic considerations and image consciousness revolving around it.

Between the early 1970s and mid-1980s, the narrative around slums shifted- from being considered a space that needed eradication, it was looked at as a necessary evil that had to be developed. Limitations to funding large pieces of land to shift the residents of the slums pushed the government to think of a different method to deal with slums. Town planning emerged as a governance tool, pushing slums to the peripheries. The narrative evolved to prioritise providing basic amenities to slums instead of destroying them. 

This era highlighted the challenges of transitioning from a singular focus on slum clearance to a more complex approach involving slum improvement. Most questions in the Rajya Sabha revolved around town planning and management strategies of the government. 

In the third era between the mid-1980s and late 1990s, the author explains that there was yet another transformation in the perspective of slums. In 1985, the newly formed National Commission on Urbanisation published its first report, wherein cities were portrayed as the economic engines of the States. This was very different from how it was understood by policies and governance until then. From being considered liabilities, funding to cities and urban spaces including the slums, were now looked at as assets and investments for the economic growth of the State. Economic reasoning was provided for interventions in cities rather than social ones. While town planning took a back seat, housing policies underwent significant changes, adopting a broader approach encompassing issues like land, finance, and infrastructure. 

The first two National Housing Policies were introduced during this period. Further, in 1996 the National Slum Development Programme was launched bringing back targeted funding from the union government towards slum redevelopment. Since the era relied on economic growth, while the focus was on a wide range of social and physical infrastructure, it was all based on data.

Slum formation

The Union government took the role of providing funds to the State governments. The discussions in the Parliament during this period focused on how funds were allocated and used by various governments to improve the conditions of cities.

The need for a comprehensive understanding of slums based on data was finally fulfilled with the launch of the 2001 Census. The author clarifies that between the 2000s and 2014, with the help of the Census the definitions of slums broadened, leading to many targeted schemes. Slums transitioned from being social concerns to technical, economic objects, focusing on implementation efficacy and economic development.

Statistical information demystified the complexity and ambiguity of the causality of slum formation. Lack of proper urban planning, growing population owing to urbanisation, the pressure on land, and the concomitant price rise which made affordable housing difficult were some of the reasons given for the formation of slums. Urban housing deficit was morphed into the motto of housing policies. The issue of slum formation was once again discussed in the context of physical space, while other socio-economic problems related to slums were examined outside the confines of slums. Yet, unlike the 1950s the solution was based on upgradation strategies and legal rights. The concept of upliftment of slum dwellers was associated with giving property rights to them, rather than complete eradication of the areas.

Through an extensive analysis of the Rajya Sabha debates around slums in different areas, the author explains how the definitions of slums continued to transform, from being a socio political subject into a technical object that can be dealt with technocratically. He details the increasing reliance on technological solutions for urban problems, which is reflected in the policies of the current government as well.

The article critically examines the dangers of utilising slums as a driving force for anti-poverty policies and underscores the necessity of challenging state categories to comprehend slum formation beyond numerical data. The historical analysis further delves into the evolution of government perceptions and actions towards slums, making it a significant contribution to the understanding of urban dynamics and socio-economic inequalities. 

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