January 12, 2005

Much as in Tamil Nadu

So really, what is the difference between a tsunami demolishing poor Indians' huts and the Bombay Municipal Corporation demolishing poor Indians' huts? Why does the first demolition result in middle-class India racing to loosen purse-strings, people volunteering to pick up the pieces (or burn them where necessary), guys like me blogging through the area, others putting together plans to "adopt" villages and talking sagely about the "long-term"; but the other demolition gets approval and support from the same middle-class India?

"Illegal" slums, of course; they had to be demolished. But so were the fishermen's colonies on the Chennai shore. Yet when the tsunami struck, we didn't sit back saying "right, they had to be demolished." No, we ran over to help.

What explains this schizophrenia?

Slums exist for good reasons. Cities are engines of jobs and economic growth: the very things most of us agree we want more of. This is why Bombay is awash in new malls and cinema multiplexes and so forth, all of which generate jobs. Jobs that need people to fill them. And sure enough, people stream from all over this country to fill them. This is just as it should be: this kind of economic energy, this constant creation of jobs, is what cities are all about.

Yet as one of Bombay's best known civil engineers, Shirish Patel, wrote recently, But with jobs must come homes. If they don't, then people will live where they can ... in slums. Not least because affordable rental housing in Bombay, as a result of the abominable Rent Control Act, is a real-life urban myth. So the jobs we create, that we in effect invite our fellow Indians to fill, are filled by people who have little choice but to live in slums.

And then we raze those slum homes; we, the very people who invited them to come work for us to begin with. (Consider that many policemen, whom we charge with protecting those we send out to demolish slums, themselves live in slums).

Where will they go once their homes are rubble? Much as in tsunami-hit Tamil Nadu, not very far. Because what they will not give up are their jobs, their livelihoods; and those jobs determine where they will live. Anything else, and we reduce them to poverty. In fact, there are studies that have shown that breaking down slums, even if the residents are haphazardly rehoused, actually increases poverty.

The recent drive on slums in Bombay has accounted for nearly 50,000 fellow Indians' homes. It has left some 200,000 fellow Indians homeless and devastated, weeping much as they wept in recently tsunami-hit Tamil Nadu.

Those numbers are comparable to tsunami-hit Tamil Nadu. What's not comparable, and it baffles me, are our reactions to these two disasters.


amit varma said...

Um, A few thousand people actually died in the tsunami-struck areas. Surely that's a key difference in the two reactions? Besides, the Mumbai slum dwellers were aware that they were doing something illegal, and their bluff was called, while the Tamil Nadu fisherfolk had no idea that the tsunami could come.

You might be against the slum demolitions for a variety of valid reasons, Dilip, and those reasons should be able to stand on their own. The rhetorical device of bringing the tsunami into it is transparently flawed.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Amit my travelling buddy, let's see now:

Um, A few thousand people actually died in the tsunami-struck areas. Surely that's a key difference in the two reactions?OK, let's take it that's the difference. But what if the tsunami had swept through the area and destroyed homes as it did, but not killed people? Would it then be comparable? Are you saying people would not have rushed there with help, perhaps you and I would not have been interested in travelling through there?

And after all, there were regions where the tsunami did just that, or close. On Chinnavaikal, for example, where 15 people did die yes, but 15 out of 150; but every home was flattened. Among the other communities we visited, for another example, who had lost nets and boats but not lives.

And it isn't just the tsunami. In Kutch after the quake in '01, I worked for a week with a team in a village where there had been no deaths. But tremendous destruction: every home reduced to rubble.

And consider this: I've seen pix -- like one here with me of an old couple -- of people sitting on the rubble of their homes and weeping. Could have been the tsunami; but these are of the slum demolitions. The pictures from both here and TN look pretty much the same, but I'm supposed to tell myself, no, there's a difference between them, and these Bombay people had it coming?

And consider this too: many of the homes destroyed by the tsunami (or for that matter in the Kutch village I mentioned) were as "illegal" as you say the Bombay slum dwellers' homes are. Why didn't we simply applaud the work of the tsunami (or the quake) then, as we applaud the Municipality?

the Mumbai slum dwellers were aware that they were doing something illegal, and their bluff was called, while the Tamil Nadu fisherfolk had no idea that the tsunami could come.The slum dwellers' awareness of their illegality is to be compared to the fisherfolk's ignorance of a tsunami?

I suspect the Chennai fisherfolk were as conscious (or not) of doing something illegal as the slum dwellers here were. But their ignorance of the tsunami makes their loss of homes worth our concern, but the slum dwellers' loss of their homes does not?

Besides, in a sense the Municipal demolitions are as unexpected as the tsunami was, and deliberately so.

You might be against the slum demolitions for a variety of valid reasons, Dilip, and those reasons should be able to stand on their own. The rhetorical device of bringing the tsunami into it is transparently flawed.Of course they stand on their own. Which is why not just I, but Shirish Patel and many others, have written about slum demolitions for years, long before tsunami became a well-known term two weeks ago. But in the wake of the tsunami, he and I and many others are struck by the images of destruction there and here, so similar as to be interchangeable, but one deserving of sympathy and the other not.

If it's transparently flawed to see that similarity and difference, I'll take it.

amit varma said...

I like it how "Tamil Nadu fisherfolk" in my comment becomes "Chennai fisherfolk" in your reply. I think both of us would agree that this discussion is not about whether or not the slum demolitions should have taken place, but about people's different reactions to houses destroyed by a disaster and houses destroyed by a slum demolition drive. You believe that our reaction to both should be the same -- besides the knotty issue of how you get to that "should", I think most people, like me, react differently.

Let's take this analogy: two guys have road accidents and their cars are shattered. One is driving along serenely well below the speed limit and a speeding juggernaut crashes into him; the other is speeding at 150 in the opposite lane, against oncoming traffic. I suspect only one of the two will be entertained by his insurance company, and my sympathies, certainly, will be with the first guy far more than the second one, who made a risk assessment, chose to take the risk, and paid the price.

So people will react differently, and your argument against slum demolitions will suffer if you insist on making this comparison, because much as you feel we should, most of us simply will not feel equivalent sympathy for the slum dwellers. There are other ways of evoking that sympathy than this tsunami comparison.

Anonymous said...

Hey Amit, if the government had demolished those fishermen's slums in Tamil Nadu, that would have been OK in your opinion? They were also in illegal housing, no?

SKK said...

I donot think we can ignore the death factor. I am not saying that aid would not have poured in, if only the houses had been damaged, but I do believe that the response to the tragedy would have been much more muted than what we saw. It is death due to forces that are not under human control that leads to a profound impact on the human psyche. It is the feeling that one is equally vulnerable to such calamities that makes one shudder. The feeling of being alive, being safe, overwhelms and mixed with the fear of being vulnerable generates compassion for those who were not that lucky after all!

Dilip D'Souza said...

Tanuj, always good to hear from you.

> I don't agree with the assumption of no economic
> growth without slums.

But that wasn't my assumption. I'm saying that with the housing situation the way it is now, with the burden of that Rent Act, job creation is going to willy-nilly mean the proliferation of slums.

Of course it is "time we stopped building into our economic models the abundance of cheap labour" that we have around us. (The real irony is that housing itself would be even more expensive than it is if builders didn't have access to cheap migrant labour). But I don't see that simply demolishing the homes of that cheap labour and uprooting their lives is solving the problem. On the contrary, if you do that, you actually spread poverty.

My whole point about a parallel between what the tsunami did and what the BMC is doing was to stimulate just this discussion: what is illegal? What are we doing about housing? What are the reasons we have slums? How might we best go about getting rid of them?

To that last question, affordable rental housing is key. Demolitions, entirely apart from being unjust, are not even a semi-efficient way of doing it.

Anonymous said...

Our colony at Ghatkopar didnt have 24 hr water supply for like 8 years because someone had tampered with the pipeline and it took so long and 2 administrations to repair it.
We used to get charged higher for electricity for some reason .. I guess so that they could recover the theft .. not sure about that
They have fake ration cards

I would definately like the slum dwellers go.. The government tried the SRD but messed up themselves. The government is to blame. They dont care..Now Should we?

Anonymous said...

thinkin about housin ..
why dont the companies/industries start thinkin about giving housin to the employees?

i live in bangalore and see a lot of s/w engineers travelling 15-20 kms oneway each day. If the s/w companies who advertise so much about employee welfare actualy gave housing to the employees, then so muchof petrol, so much of traffic can be saved.

I wonder if anybody is thinking about such ideas ?

Anonymous said...

The above commnet is totally absurd and interesting!!!
Are we talking abt Tsunami or BMC demolition.
the above is totally irrelevant.Is there a way to
de-post such comments?. If yes , please do it.
Is he talking abt building Posh S/w Slums, which can lead to brain jamming.

Anonymous said...

The above commnet is totally absurd and interesting!!!
Are we talking abt Tsunami or BMC demolition.
the above is totally irrelevant.Is there a way to
de-post such comments?. If yes , please do it.
Is he talking abt building Posh S/w Slums, which can lead to brain jamming.

Anonymous said...

The point about Housing related to S/w engg is really intresting. But then companies like Wipro, Infosys has to relly invest a lot,I see here the threat to Indian Econony and GDP, Pak can attack such colonies and destroy the so called Talent pool which India has , which is very well scattered,no matter how they travel, how much Km distance they travel,How much petrol they waste,My friend faces really big problem on Hosur road(Bangalore).
Really rent here in Bangalore are very High,We should think of going to other planet and develop the SW industry there , which will give other planets to show there invetment potential, (why think small - why Bangalore,Calcutta , Vibrant Gujarat...), which will boost avitation industry,(Simply Fly),PDA(like BDA)planet Development Aut, will be also have lot of work .....

Anonymous said...

It need not be posh s/w slums .. it can be related to factories also .. earlier we had factories building housing .. now a days not a single factory seems to do that .. i feel govt should make it mandatory that those who are bringing so many people from the villages to the cities, should provide adequate housing also. Otherwise the cities will explode with the population. and look at bangalore .. the s/w industry is supposedly out of the city in ITPL and electronics city and there is no decent facilities/housing near them. All the new entrants to these company live inside the city and contribute to the traffic jam and pollution of the city.

If there were good planned satellite townships outside the city near the factories/companies, then the cities will prosper much more.

Anonymous said...

i think, new tunnels must be made which is dedicated only to s/w employees. these tunnels must start from various places inside bangalore and end towards the outscurts of bangalore. all s/w companies inside city must be demolished and moved out. my office is already outside city in a village. now i need a tunnel to travel on my karizma!!! HEY, moving companies underground is also good idea! just take a elivator underground from home!!!!

Anonymous said...

The difference in between Chennai and Mumbai case is the first slum was there a long time before from ancient time as it is obvious that fishermen are staying near to sea or river not on the top of a Himalaya or desert.They are not approaching towards city rather city is approaching towards them.As I noticed every where as I am from the coastal area that initially the slum was there in a lonely calm place then if you will go that place after 5-10 years after then you will notice concrete jungle will be approaching towards it.But in case of mumbai the slum there made up of men is a illegal approach towards city and the increasing population there doing this illegal work with knowledge of the real fact.Ok we can say they are bound to stay their due to low rent ...etc.Then one day if a man will come to your house and force you to stay in your house because he is bound to stay their as he does not have the money to pay the rent and food to eat then would you allow him? Then a murderer will tell he was bound to murder then in the world every body will exploit the rule in the name of these things.One person must be knowing and should responsible for what he is going to do.If a person do not have capability to do something then he does not have any rights to do that thing in a illegal manner.Can you give me a example where people from India are migrating to Chennai to become fisherman.Its sounds very funny in deed.So first you should realise the situation then you should compare.Its very much true the people living slums of Chennai are also doing serious offence but if we see they are not fishermen they are staying near to railway tracks.These people we can compare with the slums of Mumbai.Where a city has its own plan these people can't make it spoil with this cause that they are bound to stay there.One question I would likely to ask here how man survived such a long period on earth with out a single city.Well as we know in our country unemployment problem is there but I should make clear that the pleople rushing towards city without any planning are there to earn more with a little effort.So what is going on in Chennai is valid and what is going on in Mumbai is also valid according to their situations.

Anonymous said...


The demolishing of slums is absolutely the wrong thing to do. The logic goes as follows - the slums are built illegally and therefore must be torn down.

But that doesn't solve the problem. People who live in those slums move somewhere else and cause new slums to be born!

The correct solution (thank you Hernando de Soto) is to legalise those slums! Give people title to that land. Slums are an eyesore - there's no doubt about it. But assuming that slums are dirty because of the people who live there is assuming that poor people don't want nice surroundings. Which is ludicrous.

Slums are dirty because the people living there have absolutely no incentive to keep them in good shape. They know that at any moment some grandstanding politician/bureaucrat will come and knock their house down. But if they own their spot of earth, I will bet you that you'll see a complete change.