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Covid-19: Formalize urban slums for long-term resilience – analysis


Urban areas throughout the developing world are characterized by a slum underbelly, slums and other forms of informal settlements. With the availability of affordable housing that cannot keep up with rapid urbanization and population growth, this weak point continues to grow in most major cities, making its residents increasingly vulnerable. Once every few years, this vulnerability is brutally exposed, especially during disasters, such as the current coronavirus disease pandemic (Covid-19).

Poor housing conditions within informal settlements make them a critical point for the spread of the pandemic for many reasons. Physical distancing and frequent hand washing are almost impossible in narrow houses with shared bathrooms. A recent Brookings India study showed that 30% of the Covid-19 containment zones in Mumbai were within slums. In addition, 70% of these were red zones, indicating the rapid spread of the virus in those congested areas.

So … how did we get here? The 2011 census recorded 65 million slum dwellers, of whom a third resided in slums that did not exist in any government registry. Similarly, a study by Duke University used satellite imagery to track the growth of slums in Bangalore and found nearly 2,000 slum settlements in the city, while official records showed nearly 600 settlements. If informal settlements, and consequently their residents, do not exist in government records, they are unlikely to receive access to basic sanitation, let alone quality housing or relief measures during a disaster.

This informality also causes an imminent fear of eviction that, according to the FSG consultancy, discourages residents from making an incremental investment in the construction of better facilities. Similarly, municipal authorities view these settlements as “illegal” and de-prioritize the provision of basic services. However, experts agree that ensuring the tenure of slum households not only increases the inclusion of slum dwellers in public welfare records, but also leads to better economic and physical health, results. education, gender equality and better conservation of land and resources. If people feel confident that their investment will not be demolished, they are more likely to invest their hard-earned money to improve their homes.

A good example is Ahmedabad’s Slum Networking Project (SNP). Launched in 1995, it introduced a guarantee of non-eviction to residents of the city’s slums for a period of ten years. This encouraged residents to co-invest with the government in establishing last-mile sanitation infrastructure, significantly leveraging public finances. This created a ripple effect that led to better economic and physical health, and educational outcomes, and was recognized globally as a best practice housing policy.

As policymakers work to resolve the current challenges of the pandemic, it will be important to reflect on the long-term measures necessary to prevent similar crises. Experience and evidence suggest three measures.

One, recognize the informal. India is marked by a large informal economy, which is made up of informal workers, businesses and houses. Moving towards a way to officially recognize and register them is the first step. A crisis like the coronavirus pandemic has been taken to highlight the facts that we do not know who these informal workers are, what their sources of income are or where they live.

Two, provide security of tenure. Slums have become an integral part of our society. They affect our daily lives and cannot be desired. Ahmedabad’s SNP program offered a short-term non-eviction guarantee, which transformed housing conditions in slums. Policymakers should innovate and offer solutions to improve the quality of housing and basic services in these settlements, such as a guarantee of non-eviction, community property titles or individual home titles, as offered by the Jaaga Mission from Odisha.

Three, partner with the community. For a country of our scale, top-down solutions can only go so far. Bottom-up solutions, involving community members and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), will enable last-mile service delivery and minimize conflict. For example, the Jaaga Mission in Odisha, partnering with NGOs and slum dwellers associations, successfully mapped nearly 200,000 slum households in a matter of months to provide property titles and housing benefits. Even during this pandemic, state governments have recognized the role of NGOs in the provision of relief measures. This last-mile partnership, when enhanced with technology and increased transparency, can truly transform governance delivery from the ground up.

Ongoing pandemic prevention and relief programs are reactive and band-aid solutions. We need to recognize that this will not be the last public health emergency that we will face as a society, and we must have a long-term vision of the efforts necessary to improve our collective resilience and build a more inclusive society. Fortunately, there are successful models. We just need the political will to implement them at scale.

Shreya Deb is Director (Investments), Omidyar Network India

The opinions expressed are personal.

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