How can urban development work for the poor?

Transparent Chennai is organising a workshop to provide feedback on new urban programs in India based on Chennai’s experience of the JNNURM / RAY.

Where: Bhagirathi Hall,
Institute for Financial Management Research (IFMR),
24, Kothari Road, Nungambakkam, Chennai: 60003

When: June 14, 2014, from 11 am to 2 pm.
Lunch will be provided.

Please confirm your participation by calling Aishwarya Balasubramanian at 9790809879 or emailing her

A Legacy of Protest and Progressiveness: A summary of a first-hand account of the struggles of Pennurimai Iyakkam, past and present

Many of us spent last Friday afternoon at Pennurimai Iyakkam’s (P.I.) office in Purasawalkam. P.I. is a movement and organisation that works with and for underprivileged women. Most of us at Transparent Chennai have worked with PI on a number of occasions but this was the first opportunity we had to sit down and hear about their history, the nature of their work and how it has changed over the years in detail.

Leelavathy amma, Kamala amma, Revathi amma and Suguna amma, all veteran members of the organisation began with a brief account of the origins of the group and its early history. Each of them grounded their recollections of the operations of PI in their own experience and provided insight into how joining the movement changed their lives. We learnt that one of the first important challenges to be taken up by the group after its founding in 1979 was that of dowry related deaths. Throughout the 80s and after, PI has worked to help affected women and families, providing support through counselling as well as litigation. This aspect of the group’s work has stayed core to their activities ever since and is supported by a number of women lawyers who lend their time and expertise to fight the cases that are brought on a weekly basis to PI by women and families seeking aid to redress the crimes committed against them.

Leelavathy amma related how in the mid 1970s against the backdrop of the activities of the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board, PI began to take an active interest in issues facing slum dwellers, especially women in the city. It was through this sphere of action that she herself first entered the group after various PI members helped stage a protest against slum evictions in the slum she was living in. In the following years PI established itself as one of the primary voices of slum dwellers in the city. The fact that for much of this time Chennai had no locally elected representatives as it does today meant that groups like PI played a crucial role in helping people get their grievances and demands heard by the government. The record of success and credibility established by PI in these years makes them an important and respected actor in these spaces today, despite the increased presence of other actors such as political parties.

After a compelling and thought provoking account of the history and activities of the group over the years, the floor was thrown open to questions. When asked how the problems faced by women had changed over the years, Kamala amma responded that that in many ways they had stayed the same. Freedom, agency and safety or lack thereof was all still major considerations for all women in the city, across classes. She added that certain newer issues had also become more prominent in recent times such as sexual harassment in the workplace, harassment by male social acquaintances etc. One question requested a clarification of the relationship PI had with the Unorganised Workers’ Federation, a group they work with closely and share many members with. It was explained that in 2001, it was decided that unorganised workers needed a level of representation greater than what existed. While, the various occupational groups had some sort of organisation only the construction workers were properly represented. The fact that women form a large part of the informal workforce made this a key issue for PI. Since then PI has worked with the women in the unorganised sector in conjunction with UWF in an effort to secure them the rights and entitlements they otherwise have little to no access to. It was particularly interesting to note how that it was/is through the vehicle of the women’s’ movement that many sections of the informal workforce, such as domestic workers and waste pickers (albeit slowly) are being brought into the fold with their issues receiving greater attention than before.

When talking about some of the challenges they face in their continuing struggles, the ladies reflected on how the constituency of PI had evolved over the years. The group was founded primarily by a group of like-minded educated women, many of them professors, lawyers, etc. Over time, this has changed considerably to the point where most members come from slums around the city and belong to the underprivileged classes. This development made the group a much stronger entity able to function and effect change at the grassroots level. However, the retreat of the middle and upper classes from the sort of activism and social consciousness that saw such groups as PI formed in the first place has handicapped the movement in some ways. One of the PI members stated how they had very little online presence and access to media outlets. In order to take full advantage of these avenues of operation it is necessary for educated women (and men) to once again make them, their time and effort available to PI and groups like them. PI also plans to hold recruiting drives in women’s colleges across the city to infuse new blood into the movement.

Before the meeting was closed, all of us from TC enrolled ourselves as members in Pennurimai Iyakkam and made ourselves available to help with both the group’s routine activities and the particular ways in which they need help from the educated classes. The membership fee is Rs. 65 for slum dwellers and Rs. 105 for others. Family counselling sessions usually happen on Fridays, and slum issues are dealt with on Saturdays. In order to enrol as members (and only women can be members) or help out in any way (men and women can help!), do get in touch with Leelavathy amma by calling +91 9840620367.

Written by Harsha Anantharaman, researcher at Transparent Chennai.

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

A preliminary review of policies towards housing for the urban poor in India

The increase in urban population has led to problems of land and housing shortage, congested transit, and severely stressed civic infrastructure. Under the JnNURM (Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission), 65 Indian cities had an opportunity to bridge this infrastructure gap and also to resolve some of the housing problems for the urban poor through the BSUP (Basic Services for the Urban Poor) component of the central government funded Mission.

During the 11th Five Year Plan, the Planning Commission estimated the housing requirement in the Indian cities to be around 26.53 million dwelling units by the end of 2012 of which 88% were required to cater to the economically weaker section (EWS) and another 11% to cater to the lower income group (LIG). To understand why this gap exists, one must look at the history of policies towards housing for the urban poor in the country. An examination of the history reveals that this gap in housing for the poor largely emerges from the failure of state-led programs to build housing, and the lack of private players that have come forward to fill the gap.

India being a socialist state at its founding, the government had taken on the responsibility for building much of the legal housing available for the poor. The government appropriated large pools of excess lands to be used for public purpose under the Urban Land Ceiling and Regulation Act (ULCRA). In the past most state governments relied on the in-situ tenement construction method, but with the advent of the World Bank’s shelter projects, the emphasis moved to the sites and services approach, which involves selling plots of land to beneficiaries in integrated sites with basic facilities at a concessional rate.

Some of the state governments realised that slums were too difficult to manage by the urban local bodies and created parastatal bodies like housing and slum boards to look into issues concerning slums and the urban poor. These parastatal agencies have themselves had a mixed record of providing housing for the poor. The TNSCB (Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board) started by building tenements in-situ, but since the mid 1990s, has been clearing slums and shifting the people to resettlement ghettoes on the outskirts of the city causing a commotion in the lives of these underprivileged people. The SRA (Slum Rehabilitation Authority) in Gujarat and Maharashtra has tried to use private sector partners in improving slum conditions, but these programs have been plagued with corruption. Delhi has an urban shelter improvement board under which there are separate programs for the urban poor. In 1986, Calcutta had a Basti Improvement Programme (BIP), in which tenure security was given to two third of the central city’s slums based on the John Turner model which was quite successful in the South American countries.[1]

In recent years, state governments have been moving away from acting as direct providers of housing for any class of people, including the poor, and have tried to rely more on incentivizing the private sector to provide housing. After the formation of the TNSCB, the Tamil Nadu Housing Board has stopped catering to the EWS and LIG category arguing that their land holdings are in prime locations in the city and could be used for projects that would generate more revenue than slum housing. Rajasthan has tried a mixed approach in their affordable housing policy, pushing both government and private sector builders to create more housing for the poor. They have directed government agencies to reserve at least 50% of all constructed houses for the EWS/LIG category, and, under the directives of development control regulation, have asked private developers to reserve 15% of their development for these categories. The state governments of Rajasthan, Kerala and Punjab have worked on luring the private participation in this sector through increasing FSI for affordable housing builders, fast tracking approvals, providing Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) to builders, allowing 10% of the land for commercial use, and even acquiring land at reasonable rates and then giving it to private players for construction.

Private participation in affordable housing has been most successful where community based organizations have been involved. In Ahmedabad, NGO’s like SEWA (Self employed Women Association) and SAATH have worked with private builders to build housing specifically for the EWS, LIG and lower MIG with houses ranging from Rs 3.5 lakh to Rs10 lakh. This model works only if there is a large volume of housing as the margins are lower and the emphasis is on timely completion of the project.

Despite these institutions and laws in place, the gap in housing for this segment continues to remain unfulfilled because the government failed to meet its own commitments for housing in any of these programs.

To deal with what is becoming a crisis situation, the government created another scheme called Rajiv Awas Yojana (RAY). Under the RAY guidelines, all the urban local bodies are expected to map and take a census of all the slums in the city and create strategies to improve existing slums and prevent future ones. The RAY was progressive in many ways: it asked cities to map slums, whether or not they were recognized or notified. It is a necessary step towards giving slum dwellers a right to live in the city. If implemented correctly, the RAY could lead to a great deal of positive change in the city, but the program has so far been slow to take off. In the meantime, without access to adequate affordable housing, the poor in slum areas face lack of access to basic services, and are in constant danger of forced evictions.


Written by Roshan Toshniwal

Slum eviction plans in Chennai sparks protests

Close to 150 people gathered near the Tamil Nadu State Guest House, Chepauk on April 9, 2013 to oppose slum eviction in Chennai. People from various slums, including Annai Sathya Nagar, Thiruvanmiyur, Otteri, and Kasimedu, and other community groups assembled around 11 am.

According to residents, the proposed upcoming riverfront development project and other road development projects will likely displace people from these slums where they have lived for several decades. People at the protest told me that though they have been living in their current locations for so many years, they still do not have access to basic facilities like good drinking water, electricity, ration card, and also the land ownership documents. Moreover, residents believed that a few slums in Chintadripet, Pudupettai were burnt by officials so that slums could be removed. In addition, tsunami victims of Besant Nagar who were already deprived of the disaster and calamity relief schemes are also being forced to move far away from their source of livelihood.

All of the displaced people will be moved to resettlement colonies in Thoraipakkam, far from their current residences, places of work, schools, etc However, demand for alternate housing settlements within the city and in close proximity to schools and their work place has gone unheard.

During the protest on 9th April, 2013

The people at the protest told me that every successive election campaign brings politicians to their doorstep begging for votes in return for promises of getting them legal documents of land ownership. But they are still waiting and hoping to get those promises fulfilled.

Written by Aishwarya Balasubramanian, intern, Transparent Chennai

From French relegated suburbs to Indian slums

Our first discovery about slums in India was their locations in the city. Before I arrived in Chennai, slums were associated with outskirts, huge ‘relegated spaces’ – spaces where not only are the poor relegated to, but spaces far outside the economic and political hubs of the city that are ‘relegated’ to the purposes of the poor – surrounding the city where poor rural immigrants agglomerated pending an employment. We rapidly found out how deeply biased our vision of the town was by the French contemporary approach of urbanism. We were thinking a la Donzelot, one of the most – if not the most – influential urban thinkers in France today. He is most famous for his theory of contemporary spatial class segregation of French cities: the three-speed city. According to him, the town no longer “makes society” in France as it did in the 60s. The long process of societal unification through urbanisation during past centuries has recently abruptly stopped. It has shifted towards a more separated system where spatial distances between classes no longer goes hand in hand with pacification and social promotion prospects but is accompanied rather by a spur of feelings among classes to belong to different societies rather than to the same. For Donzelot this is embodied in an urban pattern that can be applied to most French cities, which divides them into three concentric circles of spatial segregation. At the middle of the city stand the gentrified centres monopolised by rich upper-classes through the housing market and skyrocketing land prices; surrounding it is the peri-urban sprawl where the upper-middle classes live; and finally the ‘relegated’ areas in the outer stretches of the town where lower-middle classes and beyond are left to eke out a livelihood. This classical model of gradual segregation through space, from downtown to suburbs, has been shaping the mindset of a whole generation of city planners in France, of the public opinion overall and therefore eventually ours.

What I realised when we arrived in India was that however contested this theory has recently been in France, it definitely cannot be applied to India. Here, relegated areas are like islets of poverty amidst residential or even business ones – even though some neighbourhoods are particularly crippled with misery. It seems impossible to make any kind of rationalisation of urban space with regard to poverty and wealth. The deepest poverty goes seemingly randomly alongside great display of wealth: a real cohabitation of extremes. The location of slums seems to follow this urban paradigm: in a single neighbourhood you can walk in a few meters from beautiful houses displaying apparent signs of wealth to self-constructed bough huts. Coming from France where neighbourhoods are clearly identified as rich or poor ones and would never cohabit that closely without violence and fear, it was really puzzling to see how peaceful and even “normal” this cohabitation actually appears to be in the daily life of the city.

Written by Benoit Linot, volunteer, Transparent Chennai