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Skyscrapers and slums: India’s urban housing crisis

By Karl Singarvelan Raha

Karl's focus on inequality in India throws 'first world problems' into sharp relief. In this article, he illuminates the shocking disparity between rich and poor in cities like Mumbai, and the living conditions of the 'blue-collar' workforce who do essential work as cleaners, labourers, maids, taxi drivers, and food carriers.

Charles II of England - ruler of Bombay

Mumbai: the financial hub of India and 'city of dreams'

Mumbai is the financial city of India. Tracing its history, we find that control of the city (then known as Bombay) was granted to the Portuguese through the 1534 Treaty of Bassein. This was an agreement between the Portuguese and the Sultanate of Gujarat, led by Sultan Bahadur Shah, which granted the Portuguese control over several territories in western India, including the islands of Bombay - now Mumbai. In 1661, as part of the dowry of Catherine of Braganza, the Portuguese princess who married Charles II of England, the islands of Bombay were ceded to England.

In 1687, the English East India Company relocated from Surat (a city in Gujarat some 290km away) to Bombay (Mumbai), a pivotal move that led to the city's breakthrough in commerce. From the British East India Company era (1688-1857) to the British Raj (1857-1947) and finally to independent India (1947 – until the rise of Hindu Fascism), it flourished as a commercial hub and became a melting pot for various communities, including Marathis, South Indians (primarily Tamilians and North Kannadigas), Afghans, Karachiwalas, Parsees, and Marwadis. Presently, the city is home to some 66 billionaires and 59,400 millionaires, residing in luxurious mansions. In stark contrast, there is a middle class confined to small living spaces of around 225 square feet, while those in poverty have even less, often below 100 square feet.

Further back in history

During the flourishing Indus River valley civilization (approximately 2600 BCE to 1900 BCE), people had individual houses with proper drainage and sanitation systems. Even though the wealthier members of society had larger houses, others still had adequate living spaces and access to necessary facilities. However, with the later introduction of the caste system and royalty, disparities started to emerge, creating a divide between the upper castes and lower castes, as well as the rich and poor.

As time passed, the gap between the upper castes and lower castes, as well as the rich and poor, widened further. The upper castes tended to reside in the city centres, while the lower castes were often relegated to the outskirts of the cities. The wealthy enjoyed luxurious houses, while the poor had to make do with thatched roof huts or inadequate shelter.

Following Indian independence, the socialist governments at both the central and state levels made efforts to address public housing issues. However, despite their endeavours, slums, thatched roofs, tents, and homelessness persist in significant numbers today. These challenges remain visible, indicating the ongoing struggle to provide adequate housing for all segments of the population.

Of skyscrapers and slums

There is a prevailing notion among some aggressive nationalists that development is synonymous with the proliferation of skyscrapers. But for me, an unapologetic Left Libertarian, development means access to fundamental necessities such as proper housing, clothing, nutritious food, quality education, and healthcare. It means providing opportunities for employment based on one's abilities and skills, with fair compensation. Development also encompasses accessible transportation and communication networks, as well as safeguarding the principles of liberty, equality, justice, fraternity, democracy, and the pursuit of one's dreams.

Unfortunately, many fail to recognize the harsh reality that slums exist within our cities. Instead of empathizing with our fellow human beings living in such conditions, some view slums as eyesores. In truth, our cities have expanded so significantly that many people are forced to live in close proximity to gutters, enduring extreme weather conditions, suffering from diseases, and becoming targets of law enforcement and other authorities. They are often unable to secure employment and are left with no choice but to beg on the streets or resort to anti-social activities.

I'd like to share a personal story from Hyderabad (sometimes referred to as the ‘Delaware of India’ on account of its thriving IT industry). During a visit there, I had the opportunity to go to the house of an acquaintance. The area seemed quite affluent, with people residing in luxurious houses. However, when I stepped out onto the balcony to take a phone call, I was confronted with a sight that left me shocked. In the vicinity, there was a family of four living in abysmal conditions. They had settled on a barren piece of land that served as a dumping ground for garbage. With no proper shelter, the entire family slept together, huddled beneath a mosquito net for protection. Witnessing their plight brought tears to my eyes, and the memory stayed with me for a long time.

In response to such situations, many conservative Indians tend to blame overpopulation, poverty as a personal choice, and insufficient government funding. To them, I would pose a question: If millions of dollars can be allocated for the construction of structures like the Statue of Unity (the world’s tallest statue, located in Gujarat) which serve no practical purpose, and billions of dollars are spent on a new parliament building, why can't a similar amount of money be spent for the welfare of people and the eradication of poverty?

My story serves as a reminder of the stark disparities that exist within our society and the urgent need for a shift in priorities, channelling resources towards improving the conditions of the underprivileged rather than pursuing grandiose projects that offer little benefit to those in need. It seems that the government, through its divisive tactics, perpetuates the cycle of poverty while offering false promises in the name of religion, caste, and electoral gifts. In doing so, they ensure that the poor remain poor and disillusioned.

A dabbawalla (food carrier)

Forced clearance of slums

Capitalists and corporations are resorting to forced methods to eradicate slums, as revealed in a recent documentary. Powerful construction companies aim to demolish these impoverished areas and displace their inhabitants, simply because the slums are an eyesore. However, it is essential to acknowledge that the survival of Mumbai hinges upon the hard work and dedication of its blue-collar workforce, including cleaners, labourers, maids, taxi drivers, and food carriers (Dabbawallas).

Rather than build much needed housing for the poor, some companies construct other kinds of buildings, which they claim are in accordance with their Corporate Social Responsibility. Unfortunately, India lacks a dedicated commission, body, or ministry to address this issue. The only legislation in place is the Slum Clearance Act of 1959. It is disheartening to note that in the state of Madhya Pradesh, where one-third of the population lives in poverty, the government has prioritized establishing a Cow Cabinet rather than addressing the plight of the poor. This decision sends a clear message that the lives of impoverished individuals hold no value in comparison to cows.

Similarly, in Tamil Nadu, a southern state of India, the Slum Clearance Board has been established, but it has faced accusations of allocating housing to people who are not in need, including politicians. Furthermore, there is a lack of proper safety measures during the construction process, jeopardising the well-being of those who do occupy this housing.

Dharavi slum - Mumbai

Public housing programmes in some states have been established with the aim of providing housing for low-income individuals. However, these initiatives have fallen short in addressing the issues faced by slum dwellers. The new houses are often unsanitary, and the rooms are often small compared to those of existing slums. One recent example is the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, launched in 2015 with the goal of completing 35 million houses for the poor by 2022. However, only 12 million houses were completed, each measuring a mere 83 square feet. Furthermore, these houses are located far away from cities, making it difficult for residents to commute to their workplaces.

It is important to note that these housing schemes focus on eliminating slums rather than addressing poverty itself. Consequently, families from slums are forced to live in cramped quarters regardless of their size, leading some individuals to eventually return to slum areas. However, it is not realistic to expect lavish villas for everyone, resembling Aladeen's residence from the movie Dictator. Instead, housing schemes should prioritize a more humane approach.

For instance, housing units should be designed to meet present-day needs, with adequate space of around 700 square feet. These units should include essential rooms such as a kitchen, two bedrooms, and two bathrooms, all equipped with proper sanitation, drainage, ventilation, and access to utilities like electricity, clean water, and communication services. Additionally, the location of these houses should be within a reasonable radius of essential facilities such as fire stations, police stations, schools, bus stops, and clinics.

To ensure widespread impact, the government must take a comprehensive approach and implement such housing initiatives across all regions, spanning from north to south and east to west. By doing so, it would be possible to provide dignified living conditions for individuals and families in need, addressing the shortcomings of current public housing programmes.

Men selling goods at a traffic signal in Mumbai

Renting challenges and the problem of land

Renting a place, whether in a slum or chawl (a type of multi-story tenement housing) poses significant challenges for migrants, regardless of their economic status, mainly due to rental issues created by landlords. In urban areas, some landlords exploit the rent control act to charge exorbitant rents, causing migrants to fear securing a rented room of their own. Some landlords impose discriminatory conditions such as restrictions based on caste, non-vegetarianism, LGBTQ status, religion (specifically Muslims), marital status (unmarried couples, bachelors, spinsters), and even employment (no software employees). There have even been instances where landlords demand résumés, LinkedIn profiles, and academic transcripts, leading to rejections based on arbitrary criteria such as a tenant's high school grades.

To address these rental challenges and alleviate housing problems for migrants, there is an urgent need for a robust and uniform Rent Control Act. This act should set clear regulations on rental pricing, preventing landlords from exploiting vulnerable tenants. Additionally, an Anti-Rent Discrimination Act should be enacted to ensure that discrimination based on caste, religion, marital status, employment, or any other arbitrary factor, is strictly prohibited in the rental market. By implementing these measures, governments could create a fair and inclusive rental environment, offering migrants greater security and protection against unjust practices.

Land regulations in India are nominal and fail to have a meaningful impact. Wealthy individuals, particularly those from higher castes, own vast expanses of land exceeding 100 acres, exacerbating the scarcity of land and hindering public housing efforts. To address this issue, the government must enact strict rules on individual land ownership, promoting a fairer distribution of land resources. By imposing limits on land ownership, more land could be made available for public housing initiatives, fostering greater equity and providing housing opportunities for those in need. Effective land reform policies are crucial for tackling the land shortage and promoting a more inclusive society.


India, currently the most populous country in the world, faces significant challenges with approximately 21 percent of the population living in poverty (earning just above $0.5 per day), while the average per capita income is $1,900 per year. Another 30 percent of the population falls within the income range of $2,500 to $4,500 per year. Shockingly, despite contributing significantly to India's economy through direct and indirect taxes, the wealthy, who hold 77 percent of the nation's wealth, contribute only 1 percent in taxes.

It is crucial for the government to abandon its ignorance towards the vulnerable sections of society and cease pandering to corporate interests solely for election funding. Housing has become an urgent necessity, and while those who can afford it should be able to purchase their desired homes, those who are unable to do so must be provided with liveable and healthy housing options. In an era where we are making remarkable progress and contemplating establishing civilizations underwater, on the moon, and on Mars, it is disheartening to witness vast numbers of homeless individuals and substandard living conditions. It is imperative that we join hands as individuals, provinces, and countries, working collectively to ensure that every house becomes a healthy home. By doing so, we can truly advance as a humanity and make significant strides towards progress.

Mumbai skyline at night

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