The Dharavi slum sits tucked under multistory buildings in Mumbai.

Donald Trump Gets Real Estate Wrong in 'Slumbai'

Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is based in New Delhi. His novel "Arzee the Dwarf" is published by New York Review Books. Follow him on Twitter at @Hashestweets.
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Whenever evidence of Mumbai's extreme dysfunction is brought up, the crux of the argument is always the city's slums.

The middle-class citizens of Mumbai, including recent white-collar immigrants, bemoan the widespread perception of their city as "Slumbai," although their responses to slum dwellers range from the sympathetic ("they have no other option, and their labor undergirds our own more stable lives") to the hostile ("Mumbai will never be a world-class city until the slums are cleared away"). The city's rich never tire of telling each other how alarmed their friends from faraway places are when they see the city's gigantic asbestos-and-tarpaulin sprawl from above, creeping to the edge of the airport runway.

More than half the city's inhabitants -- as many as 6 million people -- live in makeshift housing without property rights, and they endure on a daily basis a range of perils from poor health and sanitation to the threat of eviction.

But if not slums, then what? And how? In the last three decades, citizens' movements, the municipal corporation of Mumbai, successive governments of the state of Maharashtra, urban planners, NGOs, and even the market have all taken stabs at solutions to the slum question. It's not clear that any of them have come up with a convincing answer.

Recently, though, a welcome new strand of thinking on this complex question has emerged: Could the main problem with slums be middle-class disgust and sympathy, revealed by the very fact that the word "slum" is ours and not theirs? And, even more damaging for the self-image of those who want make Mumbai slum-free, does the work of resettlement and rehabilitation of slum dwellers serve their own interests more than that of the slum dwellers?

All discussion of the civic dysfunction and urban planning in Mumbai must factor in the city's bizarre but permanent real estate disequilibrium, one that for a variety of reasons -- the constraints of topography, the peculiarities of municipal policy, the politician-builder nexus, the continuous pressure of new migrants -- means that there are always new stocks of luxury housing on the market (Donald Trump is the latest entrant) but very little for the middle class. When real estate prices are held up against the average annual income of its citizens, Mumbai is the world's least affordable housing market, although Trump thinks it “unbelievably cheap.”

So isn't it a good thing that the poor somehow manage to take care of themselves through an informal system? Might it help to think of slums as settlements that, despite their terrible problems, have a stability, a sense of community and derring-do that are broken up by interventions from above, and rarely for the better? What if we thought of slums as "user-generated cities" and tried not to raze them, but gave them the kind of support -- water, electricity, schools, medical care -- that states usually provide?

There's never been a better time to think afresh on this question, thanks to the now-apparent failure of a two-decades-old vast redevelopment scheme to rehabilitate the slums. In 1995, a new government in the state of Maharashtra (of which Mumbai is the capital) embarked on an ambitious new scheme that promised to provide free housing to hundreds of thousands of people in the shantytowns through interventions set up by the state but funded by the market.

The slums would be demolished, but if inhabitants could provide proof of residence there, they would become eligible for a free house (measuring about 225 square feet) in a newly built apartment block in the same neighborhood or elsewhere. Private builders would raise these new habitations, and as compensation they would be given part of the land to build apartment blocks for sale on the open market -- an appealing prospect to builders in a city with almost no new stocks of land. The work would be administered by a new body with extraordinary powers called the Slum Rehabilitation Authority.

Many years on, as a recent report in the Mumbai Mirror pointed out, the SRA can’t be viewed as anything but a terrible failure. Less than 13 percent of the redevelopment projects on which work had begun have been completed. Many slum dwellers regret giving up their settled life, with all its privations and perils, for a social experiment that has generated a disruptive new world. Thousands have struggled with the move from a ground-level existence -- often the site of their livelihoods as well -- into shoddily made apartment blocks that require large inputs by way of maintenance and degrade swiftly. Sometimes their solution has been to sell their apartments to middle-class buyers desperate for a permanent residence and return to … a new slum.

In fact, “slum rehabilitation” has proved to be one of the most ingenious moneymaking schemes ever deployed in India’s city of gold, a dream of both impeccable virtue (the SRA’s website even declares that slum dwellers have to be treated preferentially by the state, because “if inequality has to be removed, there have to be unequal laws”) and fat profits. Perhaps the only Mumbaikars happy with the scheme are the builders, particularly those with close links to politicians and bureaucrats, who have been able to corner the redevelopment rights to prime land and make expensive new apartments for the rich without having to pay market prices for land -- usually the most expensive element in urban construction.

To cope in this cynical world, new architectural and civic energies in the city are now trying to fashion not just new, low-cost strategies for slums, but also a new vocabulary not corrupted by the concepts, negative associations, class biases, bad faith and special interests that have made such a farce of “slum-free thinking” in the past. They suggest that Mumbai’s slums are just too many, too much a part of the fabric of the city, too successful as informal economies, to pass unscathed through sweeping structural changes imposed from above.

Slum dwellers, too, are using new approaches and technologies, such as social media, to question middle-class narratives of redevelopment and the flaws of state policy. The state, meanwhile, wants to take the SRA model, despite ample evidence of its failures, into neighboring areas.

Flying into Mumbai a couple of weeks ago, I saw once again from my airplane the familiar blotches of blue tarpaulin that serve as leakproof roofs for so many and seem an eyesore to so many others. For the first time, it occurred to me that this recycled tarpaulin world might be more stable, both architecturally and economically, than many proposed concrete ones.

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To contact the author on this story:
Chandrahas Choudhury at chandrahas.choudhury@gmail.com

To contact the editor on this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net