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Notes from a Workshop

What is the precise meaning and the implications of term “informal”? – this is one of the questions that kept cropping up during a workshop called Paradigm shifts in housing: informality and incremental housing in Delhi, organised by micro Home Solutions and the Centre for Policy Research. Turns out, there are too many answers. The debate on this issue was intense, sometimes circuitous, and almost always came back to the issue of how citizenship, access to services and finance were linked to land ownership, title and super-secure tenure. One of the few things that remained constant through the debate was the fact that although the informal sector contributes massively to the economy of cities, they live between the interstices of the law, with poorly defined rights and hopelessly inadequate access to services.

On the one hand, Rahul Srivastav and Matias Echanove from URBZ confronted this debate by throwing it out altogether. They rejected the dichotomy between the formal and the informal, argued cities were incredibly complex and that settlements were impossible to define. On the other hand, others argued that skirting around the issue was not a constructive way to approach the question of informality, and that informal settlements had to be brought under some formal governance system. Moreover, what is considered to be formal – adhering to rules and regulations – is often not purely formal. Rules are pliant, blind eyes are turned and dubious transactions occur almost routinely in the corridors of power. Summarising the debate into three neat positions – accept, ignore or support, which served as a convenient analytical framework but did not ultimately address the question at hand.

The sessions at the conference were on themes ranging from access to municipal services, inclusive development and decentralised solutions to innovation, microfinance and disaster preparedness in slums and informal settlements. These sessions illustrated that answers to this debate are not in definitions themselves, but in their implications. For instance, the session on microfinance made clear that even though there were a slew of schemes targeting the urban poor, all of them require primary collateral: the ownership of land or property. Access to basic services like water and sewerage also seemed to be contingent on this. Transparent Chennai’s workshop on subsidised water and sewerage connections for the economically weaker sections revealed that households had to have some rights over the land and property to be eligible for the scheme.

The title of the conference suggested that the alternative to large scale resettlement colonies may be in incremental housing and self construction. While this may be one strategy to “address” the “informal”, I think that this shift must also include a commitment to divorce or delink municipal services from land and property rights.

Written by Vinaya Padmanabhan, researcher, Transparent Chennai