Thinking global, living local: Voices in a globalized world

A Planet Of Slums?

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Migration isn’t the problem: How India could boost the capacity of cities and infrastructure through good governance and planning to cope with urban sprawl and decay.

By 2030, India’s urban areas will boost around 590 million inhabitants and 70 percent of all jobs, according to a recent study by McKinsey & Company. In order to provide sufficient housing and commercial space to accommodate these masses, the country would have to build the equivalent of the city of Chicago every year. However, as Searchlight South Asia – a monthly newsletter that tracks trends in pro-poor development for the Rockefeller Foundation ( – points out in its December 2010 issue, for many cities in India there don’t seem to exist any plans to prepare for this potential housing catastrophe and the dire side effects of extreme urbanisation.

One of the consequences is the expansion of slums and shanty towns. Today, 93 million people are living in slums in India, according to recent government figures. The high cost of housing, education, living and transport in cities are main contributors to the increase in the slum population.

Yet, contrary to what some people might think, migration itself is not the main cause of the increase in slum populations and the spike in land prices in India. Rather, misguided governmental policies and catastrophic urban planning are to blame. Searchlight South Asia examines the situation in two Indian cities, Mumbai and Ahmedabad in Gujarat, but its findings are in large parts applicable to other metropolitan areas in the country and abroad.

The newsletter highlights a number of inefficiencies of current public policy and suggests actions to improve matters. The first problem are India’s strict rules that govern vertical urban growth. In any city, there exists a limit to the land that is located closely to jobs, housing and other amenities – hence, the building of skyscrapers and other high-rising facilities. Encouraging and fostering the vertical growth of cities is, thus, one solution. However, Indian cities like Mumbai have a very low Floor Area ratio, i.e. the maximum floor space that can be build on a section of land is compared to other Asian metropolises very small. Just think of Hong Kong. The effects of this policy are soaring land prices and urban sprawl.

Improving the Floor Area ratio is one option. Alternatively, the government could advocate a policy that simplifies the legal process of reclassification of agricultural to urban land in the city periphery. Due to the supply-oriented land policy of Ahmedabad, for example, the city has grown rapidly without exploding slums. Housing shortages in Mumbai, on the other hand, did not hinder incoming migration but forced the majority of the population to opt for dangerous and dismal housing.

A second source of inefficiency in India’s urban policies are current housing regulations. It today proposes formal 270ft² housing for all slum dwellers. With an average cost of INR 44.000 (about US$ 978) there are around 25 million households in India which cannot afford it. Mandating private builders to provide low-cost housing will have little effect and the government will eventually be left with the financial burden that is unsustainable. Given the status quo, it would take 23 years to just house the present slum population in Mumbai – disregarding all new slum dwellers!

Cities such as Hong Kong, Bangkok and Seoul, however, show that it is indeed possible to improve the living conditions of the urban poor. Allowing for basic housing is certainly one option to start with. Ensuring tenure rights to slum dwellers is another. It would encourage investment and thereby improve slum housing conditions.

Investment in infrastructure could further improve urban land supply and increase affordability. As Searchlight South Asia examines in another article in the December issue, advancements in national and regional transport policies in India are key to this development.

The latest initiative is the launch of the Sustainable Urban Transport Project (SUTP) in India ( In partnership with international organisation such as the German Technical Cooperation (GTZ), the UN and the World Bank, the establishment of “green” public transport aims to lower the rate at which people use personal transportation for urban travel.

SUTP has already been launched in other developing countries that face similar problems of urban sprawl and decay. In the run-up to the FIFA 2010 World Cup in South Africa, for example, a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system was established in Johannesburg to integrate the disadvantaged areas of Alexandra and Soweto.

Such BRT systems are now planned in ten cities in India including Ahmedabad. The US$ 310 million SUTP will start in five cities: Indore, Pimpri-Chinchwad, Pune, Maharashtra, Naya Raipur, and Mysore ( The programme will include the training of urban transportation professionals as well as advice on road asset management and maintenance or railway sector services, to name just a few.

India’s launch of SUTP in June 2010 comes four years after the country first adopted the National Urban Transport Policy (NUTP). This nation-wide policy aimed at similar goals as SUTP: better, safer and cheaper transport for an expanding and increasingly urban population. However, Searchlight South Asia emphasizes that the government in New Delhi also wanted to send a signal to the federal states to take serious actions against the dire side effects and consequences of urbanisation. Projects such as SUTP, which is basically a private-public partnership, can support individual cities in mastering this task.

And some actions are taken: In August 2010, for example, the Maharashtra government in Mumbai ratified a “green” tax that penalizes commercial vehicles older than 8 years and private vehicles older than 15 years. It is estimated that the tax will fall on 2.1 million vehicles, generating about US$ 27 million in revenue.

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