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In that city the slums are not hidden

Sheela Patel, an "expert on slums", about growth and justice in Mumbai
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bpb: In the city of Mumbai, around six million people live in slums. More than 300,000 people live in Dharavi, one of the biggest slums in town. What do slum dwellers need above all?

Patel: Dharavi has approximately a population of between 450,000 to 600,000 people. The exact number is not known as the government has not yet done a baseline survey of this locality, which is a township. Slum dwellers whether in Dharavi or elsewhere need security of tenure, access to basic amenities and some access to public transport.

bpb: Mostly, slums are seen as a disaster. You do call for a different judgement: Should slums be seen as a solution?

Patel: It is easy to treat slums like disasters if you are not living in a slum. To the poor, it is a self-help strategy to give themselves shelter in the absence of the state taking on this responsibility. All slums are initially seen as a transitory solution with people hoping to get a better alternative, however when this does not happen, they develop a sense of permanence. It is when slums get treated as a permanent solution to the housing problem that they become a disaster because they deepen the civic inequality between residents of cities, and no amount of self-help can change the lack of access to water and sanitation.

bpb: Still, people from the country-side are flocking into the Indian mega cities – into Mumbai, Kolkata and Delhi. What are people still hoping for?

Patel: It is useful for people in Europe and the developed world to remember that migration to the US, Australia and various colonies was the way that rural migrants escaped urban squalor in Europe. Migration is inevitable when globalization and efficiency in agriculture transform working and livelihood patterns. People aspire for change and improvement in their lives, they see cities giving that opportunity to them more than rural areas.

bpb: In 2015, more than 21 million people will live in Mumbai, more than 18 million in Delhi. Is there a limit to growth?

Patel: I don't think any of us can discuss about limits of growth. History has shown that when cities can´t accommodate populations, they start shrinking. Many cities in the North have done that and it is also seen as the beginning of its collapse. So we live in a strange paradoxical world where we are obsessed with growth but don't want the poor to participate in it. It is also clear that with an inadequate infrastructure all over the country, cities like the ones you mention have joint with neighboring small towns and became metropolitan regions.

bpb: The social contrasts in India´s mega cities are enormous. Your organization SPARC fights for equality and social justice. At the same time, the Indian economy is one of the fastest growing economies today. Will the urban future get more equal or will the social divide even grow?

Patel: The new global economic order has clearly produced the exacerbating inequality, and conspicuous consumption. Many say that Civil Society Organizations [like SPARC] seeking protection of equity are attempts at tilting windmills. WE feel that in this first phase of India´s economic growth there are still many champions for equity in the state and civil society; as long as that is present we can demand from the state the creation of policy frameworks that will produce some conditions of basic equity and a human rights framework in the face of market aggression at the forefront of development. If we fail, there will be violence as an urban population now seeing this conspicuous consumption will make demands and we have enough evidence of this in northern and southern cities.

bpb: Ms. Patel, you live in one of India´s mega cities – in Mumbai. What do you like most about your city?

Patel: There is still a cosmopolitan fabric that keeps the city sane despite attempts by political parties to vitiate it. It is also a city where the slums are not hidden. They are in your face and those who live there and in upper class houses rub shoulders in the city. It is a city which is by and large safe for women. Like me, I can drive at night by taxi and public transport generally although there have been a few incidents recently that shocked all of us. And most of all, while we saw images of hurricane Katrina in New Orleans where the disaster affected only the poor, you had floods in Bombay where rich and poor caught in the floods all assisted and helped each other. This city has a great deal of activism and a great working tradition of which everyone is very proud.

Interview by Sonja Ernst

Sheela Patel

Sheela Patel Zur Person

Sheela Patel

Sheela Patel was born 1952 in Bombay (today´s Mumbai). In 1984 she founded SPARC, the Society for the Promotion of Area Resources Centers. Today, SPARC is one of the largest Indian NGOs. It works on housing and infrastructure issues for the urban poor, for equality and social justice. SPARC works in partnership with two community-based organizations, with the National Slum Dwellers Federation and Mahila Milan. Together, they work in about 70 cities in India and have networks in about 20 countries internationally.

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