Rise of the neo-slums

Rise of the neo-slums

Makeshift, temporary slums have emerged on vacant plots across Bengaluru, threatening to morph into a mammoth problem. Housing migrant workers brought cheap from outside, they fall way outside the established notions of a “notified” slum.

The towering apartment blocks loomed large, spreading their gigantic shadows over the makeshift huts. Their eyes glued to those mammoth structures, hungry children eagerly awaited the return of their parents. As dusk fell and darkness enveloped those pathetic living dens, the men and women employed in those flats began their tired walk back home.

Hundreds of temporary settlements such as these off Sarjapur Road have mushroomed across Bengaluru, completely overturning established, officially declared notions of what constitutes a “slum.” Undeclared, illegal and lacking even the most basic of human necessities, these neo-slums are the city’s repertoire of cheap labour.

Officially, Bengaluru has a total of 597 slums, each covering areas in the range of one acre to 20 acres. Statistics furnished by the Karnataka Slum Development Board (KSDB) show that 386 of these slums are notified, and thus eligible for schemes funded by the State and Union governments.

But in the last five to 10 years, this number has clearly gone over 1,000, asserts Narasimha Murthy, State Convenor of Slum Janandolana, Karnataka. Having worked closely with slum-dwellers for decades, Murthy is convinced that the official figures discount the hundreds of neo-slums, packed with thousands of job-seekers living in subhuman conditions.

Abodes of cheap labour

KSDB insists that the number of slums that are not notified does not exceed 211. But the spectre of large swathes of vacant lands occupied by ramshackle tents built from waste materials paint a different picture. They are tell-tale images of apathy, misfortune and a nexus between builders, labour contractors and suppliers of cheap labour from North Karnataka to Bangladesh.

The Slum Board echoes the government’s resolve to make Bengaluru a slum-free city. But that would require the city’s urban planning to be reworked to integrate low-cost housing, and the recognition that slum-dwellers are an integral part of the city’s functioning.

Most working men and women in these slums are employed as domestic maids, drivers, house-keeping staff in apartments and hotels, security guards and more. They cannot be banished to the city’s periphery. The service industry requires these men and women to be at its beck and call. And this implies, they cannot be resettled in housing units built hours away from the city centre.

KSDB estimates that Bengaluru has 13.86 lakh slum-dwellers. Murthy contests this as a gross underestimation. But whatever be the actual numbers, the issue is also about land ownership rights. According to Murthy, this is not more than eight per cent. “Land ownership rests with the government. Whenever the State wants, it can denotify a slum and evict the dwellers.”

No registration certificates

The Karnataka Slum Areas (Improvement and Clearance) Act, Section 4 (2) mandates that every building owner in a slum area should be issued a registration certificate after due process. Murthy points out that even in declared slums, these certificates are not being issued.

Under the Rajiv Awas Yojana (RAY) launched in June 2011, BBMP and the State government have proposed to build 12,436 housing units in the City over the next two years. According to KSDB chairman, P R Ramesh, this will cover 55 slum areas.

The Central assistance under RAY had conditions attached, one of which was linked to property rights. The implementing states were to assign property rights to slum dwellers and provide reservation of land for Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) / Low Income Groups (LIG). Besides, 25 per cent of municipal budget was to be earmarked for basic services to the urban poor/slum-dwellers.

Also, the government was required to bring in legislative amendments and policy changes to redress land and affordable housing shortages for the urban poor. The Karnataka government, reminds Murthy, had inked a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), agreeing to adhere to all these conditions before receiving the central funding. But, neither the BBMP nor the State government has kept its word.

The National Urban Livelihoods Mission launched by the Union Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation requires urban local bodies such as BBMP to provide temporary shelters. And this should include the migrant construction workers brought to the City from afar as “cheap” labour.

The City’s explosive real estate development, the mushrooming of skyscrapers, all point to a corresponding growth in neo-slums. State intervention to provide at least the very basic services might take years or never materialise. The least the dwellers here could hope for are initiatives by a few committed Non Government Organisations (NGOs).

Worker facilitation centres

The Stree Jagruti Samiti is one such organisation, helping domestic workers in slums get information and access to various government schemes. The objective of the Samiti’s Worker Facilitation Centres is also to maintain a database of the workers and make them aware of their rights from their employers.

After years of strenuous work, the Samiti has created a substantial database of workers in over 60 slums. It has also managed to get the State labour department actively collaborate in the registration process.

Replicating this process in the neo-slums could take years. Firstly, the State should acknowledge the existence of such slums. Murthy and his team have urged the State Urban Development Department to conduct a detailed survey to get a more realistic number of slums in the City. The next step would be to bring even the undeclared slums under the RAY project as mandated by last year’s Central guidelines.

To get the government into action mode, employers need to first recognise the workers’ problems of low-cost housing and critical issues of basic existence, notes Geeta Menon, a Stree Jagruthi Samiti office-bearer and seasoned campaigner for labour rights among domestic workers.

She explains, “Building contractors are not bothered where the workers stay and their safety issues. Slums are ‘living spaces’ only for the dwellers. For the government, they are important only as votebanks. Low-cost housing has worked only in pockets. It does not find a space in the City’s planning.”

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