Streets of shame

Community Participation and Slum Housing:
May 12, 1995

Bombay attracts people precisely because it is successful. That is why businessmen invest there. So far, so obvious, as Vandana Desai is well aware.

But why do these same successful men and women then deny the poor from villages in Maharashtra, or god-forsaken Bihar, the same right to migrate and try to make their fortunes in the self-proclaimed City of Gold? Why does it always seem such a shock to them that a successful city should also attract those who have nothing but hope? Bombay's elites - who are setting up new factories in the suburbs and new software consultancies at Nariman Point, where land prices are now four times those of Manhattan - continually deplore the fact that almost half the population live in slums, that almost half a million able-bodied men and women live and sleep in huts on the broad pavements of once-genteel colonial residential districts.

But software people also need services - for their flats, their cars and to ease the rough edges off daily life; and these services the slum and pavement dwellers provide. How many residents of Malabar Hill or Cuffe Parade - the city's Knightsbridge or Seizi me Arrondissement - truly grasp the link between the pavement dwellers and the cook or driver they rely upon? For they are one and the same.

The Bombay Municipal Corporation has consistently failed to invest in public infrastructure to plan for the city's future as it exists rather than as it appears in some airy-fairy blueprint full of green parks and low-density housing. Even if all the old mills were removed from Bombay "island" to the mainland and their vacant acres turned over to low-income housing, the slum problem is unlikely to be eased, let alone solved. For market forces are remorseless. Property speculators would most likely move in the minute the new homeowners set up their cooking pots and offer them several times their purchase price. Who would refuse? The slum dweller's profit would permit a quite comfortable existence in a new slum, a bit further north, outside the city; maybe even enough to set up in business.

For pointing out all this, which somehow eludes most development experts, Desai deserves much credit. Her book, based on long study of slum-dwelling in Bombay (for Sussex University's Institute of Development Studies), has all the above exactly right and is invaluable in setting the record straight and de-demonising Bombay.

But I am less sure about the central premise of her argument, that poor people as a community can and should be intimately and permanently involved in shaping and making the decisions that affect them. The whole idea may be an illusion, a middle-class, largely western conceit. For many years I have watched one highly successful pavement-dwellers' organisation grow to the point that it can now probably exist independent of its non-governmental organisation (NGO). But I have my doubts whether it is itself capable of generating new initiatives. At best it will probably maintain itself - no mean feat, but scarcely what development experts have in mind when they talk about Community Participation. In every community, however democratic and participatory, a charismatic leader still emerges and still, somehow, takes charge.

Julian Crandall Hollick is the producer of a radio series about pavement dwellers in Bombay, to be broadcast on US National Public Radio and in Bombay in 1995.

Community Participation and Slum Housing:: A Study of Bombay

Author - Vandana Desai
ISBN - 0 8039 9228 9
Publisher - Sage
Price - £35.00
Pages - 347pp

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