(Some of these thoughts are in previous writings I’ve done, but perhaps there’s reason to put it all down again here).
When news of the wave that overwhelmed Marina beach and the hutments there last December 26 spread across Chennai, friends of mine in Chennai Rotary clubs got together immediately and took relief material out. They didn't know till much later that day about the huge extent of the damage (i.e. beyond Chennai). For several hours that day, as far as they could see, all that the tsunami had done was to destroy some hutments, and take a few lives, in Chennai.
Why, I wonder, did they not stop to think, "hey, these hutments were illegal, it’s good they are gone"? Yet when a Municipality destroys hutments in Bombay – till the time of writing, over twice as many as the tsunami managed all across Tamil Nadu – nobody rushes out with relief material. No, people actually applaud the action. The Municipality is doing a good thing, they say, because they are demolishing these illegal hutments.
Why is there no national outrage about these demolitions, no national outpouring of emotion and help like the tsunami generated?
My explanation: it's the poor who are being affected by them, and we have decided that they are the hindrance to our "development." They are ugly, they breed too much, they are dirty, they pay no taxes – pretty much all of that is expressed in comments I’ve had on this blog and in response to my writing over the years. Pretty much all of that is also untrue, but that's for another day.
So because they are poor, it's OK to pull down their homes. Why is it that not one middle-class block of flats has been brought down that I know of, even though so many of those are built flouting FSI and other building regulations, are built paying bribes, are paid for using illegal money, and often have illegal extensions? Would there be national outrage if such blocks of flats were demolished like Ambujwadi was? What do you think?
People who live in our slums are an integral part of our economy. This city generates jobs all the time, a process we all see as desirable. People migrate to the city to fill those jobs, because the jobs are there and because there is no comparable generation of jobs in their rural homes. But to go with those jobs, there is no comparable generation of affordable rental housing in Bombay. So where are these people to stay? After all, all of us want our hair-cutters and eyebrow-tweezers, our cobblers, our bus conductors, our maids, our security guards, our dishwashers, our couriers, our sweepers, our tuition masters, even our policemen. (Yes, the true irony is that many of the cops who accompanied Municipal demolition squads themselves live in slums).
Where do many of these people live? What would our economy turn into if we got rid of them as we are doing? What do you think they will do now that their homes are gone? That’s right: they’ll build homes again where they can. Because they want their jobs, because we want them in their jobs, and because they cannot afford any other housing in this city.
There are only two ways to have slums vanish from the city, it seems to me. One, demolish the hutments, but immediately provide the displaced people reasonable alternative housing so they can continue to be the integral part of our economy they are. Two, generate jobs in rural areas that will keep people there instead of sending them to the cities. (Though it should be said that immigration forms a small fraction of the full growth of the city).
I see neither of those two things happening. Therefore I know: we will continue with the one surefire way to both spread poverty and have slums keep on mushrooming.We will continue to demolish them and do nothing else. Applause please.