Concrete Future

by James Tayler

By Ahona Ghosh 

Originally published by Outlook Business magazine (India).

Every day, 65-year-old Sudhir Jagtap, a retired government peon, takes a walk down the narrow alleys of Mother Teresa Nagar slum in Pune to see how far the construction of his new house has progressed. Unlike the crumbling, squalid tin-roofed shack that he has called home for the past 25 years, Jagtap’s new concrete house will have bigger rooms and its own toilet and kitchen. But, more than the stability of concrete and cleanliness, what matters most to him is the fact that the new house will be legal—that his family will own the title, at least for the next 99 years. Looking at the under-construction house, the short, wiry man mumbles: “I don’t know when it will be completed, but they’re doing good work.”

Mother Teresa Nagar is one of seven Pune slums selected for a pilot project under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission’s (JNNURM) plan to improve the living conditions of the urban poor. The programme, rather insipidly titled Basic Services for Urban Poor (BSUP), was launched about 15 months ago. Under it, the national, state and city authorities tie up with NGOs to develop resettlement and rehabilitation solutions for slum-dwellers.

About 17% of the world’s slum population lives in India. Authorities have tried everything from eviction and demolition to resettlement and selling slum areas in the open market to resolve the problem. But their success has been partial at best. The slum rehabilitation effort in Pune, however, is very different.

Team Work

The project follows an in situ rehabilitation model. Essentially, that means reconstructing and upgrading slums where they are, without moving the residents. Under the BSUP project, about 1,200 families in seven slum areas of Pune—Mother Teresa Nagar, Yashwant Nagar, Bhat Wasti, Netaji Nagar, Sheela Salve Nagar, Wadar Wasti and Chandrama Nagar—will be rehabilitated in upgraded, rebuilt houses. Rs 3 lakh has been allotted for the construction of each house, of which 90% (Rs 2,70,000) will be funded by central, state and civic bodies with the slum-dwellers paying the remaining 10%. They pay Rs 10,000 initially and the remaining Rs 20,000 in four instalments.

According to the grant regulations, all houses are to have an area of 270 sq ft. At about Rs 850 a square foot, the new houses have an estimated value of Rs 2.29 lakh. The rest of the Rs 3 lakh grant goes into conducting surveys and workshops to engage the slum-dwellers. Once the houses are rebuilt, the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) will grant a 99-year tenancy lease in the name of the head of each household and establish these slums as legal colonies.

Giving slum-dwellers legitimacy and a chance to restore their dignity is in itself a big achievement, but what is far more significant is the extent of community participation in the programme. That has come about thanks to the partnership with NGOs.

At the start of the project, the PMC invited tenders from NGOs for reconstruction of the houses. The Mumbai-based Society for Promotion of Area Resource Centres (SPARC) bagged the contract to upgrade 750 homes out of a total of 1,200. It works closely with two other sister organisations—the National Slum Dwellers Federation (NSDF) which comprises pavement and slum-dwellers, and Mahila Milan (MM), a network of women’s collectives organised around savings and credit. Avinash Salve, a PMC Corporator from the Yerwada area, is all praise for their efforts. “Without the help of NGOs like SPARC, the process would have been very tedious for us,” he says.


The presence of the NGOs helps in addressing many of the concerns of the slum-dwellers. One big impact is that the potential beneficiaries become active participants in their rehabilitation. Says SPARC founder Sheela Patel: “Our goal is to demonstrate, through such projects, what communities can achieve when drawn in as participants.”

First, there is free flow of communication and information. The NGOs invest a lot of time in convincing the slum residents about the benefits of joining the scheme. There are quite a few fence-sitters, the majority of whom hold back because of financial insecurity; others simply do not trust the authorities. “We take ropes and mark out 270 sq ft to make them understand the increase in space,” says Jon Rainbow, SPARC’s Project Co-ordinator. They also present the slum-dwellers with scale models of the houses—made of cloth and timber—to help them appreciate the benefits of moving into new, bigger houses.

The consultations ensure that the slum-dwellers have a say in the design and planning of the houses. “Interactions like these help them better understand issues and communicate their needs to architects and government officials,” says Patel. On their part, the NGOs have hired a civil engineer, who works closely with PMC officials.

The discussions go on until the new home-owners move in. Of course, sometimes, the exchange of ideas results in disagreements. For instance, the PMC has enforced a 10-metre height restriction on these buildings, which the NGOs oppose. Says Dhannanjay Tukaram Sadalapure, Mahila Milan’s civil engineer: “It makes sense to build vertically as the ground space is often limited in these slums.” His proposal for construction of four-storeyed houses is still pending with the corporation.

Says Kedar Vaze, junior engineer from the corporation, and one of the supervisors of the project: “We are in talks and should soon approve it.”

Another problem cropped up when, halfway through the project, the PMC asked for proof of occupancy dating prior to 1995 from the slum-dwellers. “That was an absurd demand and impossible to fulfil,” points out Rainbow. In the end, the PMC abandoned the condition, but by then work had been delayed by a month.

The loss of time comes at a critical juncture. The corporation is already facing the heat from the state and central governments to finish the first phase of the project and complete 300 houses within 15 months. Nine of those months have already gone by but work has started on just around 20 houses.

Still, neither the PMC nor the NGOs appear to be discouraged by the slow progress. “About 100 houses are being processed and we will try our best to finish 300 by September this year,” says PMC’s Salve. SPARC’s Patel agrees. “We will take time to build the first 50 houses. After that, it will move faster as issues begin to get ironed out.”

Money Talks

The NGOs also have plans to help the slum-dwellers get loans and jobs. Most of them earn between Rs 1,500 and Rs 3,000 a month, and struggle to pay even the token 10% charged by the government towards construction. Pramila Malik Pawar is candid about her need for monetary support. Pawar’s husband, a factory worker, recently had an accident and lost his leg. Her son, the only earning member, works as a driver and earns Rs 2,000 a month. “I have already paid the initial Rs 10,000. Now, I am struggling to pay the instalments. I need help,” says the housewife from Mother Teresa Nagar.

One way out is through microfinance loans. “No slum-dweller can pay the 10% contribution at one go,” points out Jockin Arputham, President of NSDF. He says he is in talks with a few microfinance institutions (MFIs) to help slum residents secure loans to pay the initial loan amount as well as the instalments.

Mahila Milan has a more innovative solution. The organisation is offering construction jobs on the site to people who cannot afford their initial loan amounts.

“Currently, we have employed about 12 people. Once the pace of construction picks up, we expect this number to increase six-fold,” says Savita Sonawane, leader of Mahila Milan, Pune. Mahila Milan’s members also collect socio-economic details and conduct biometric surveys of each household’s members. They submit these details to the municipal corporation, which maintains a record.

Transit Problems

A major challenge, however, is transit housing. There is no budgetary provision for transit camps under the JNNURM scheme. Most people are forced to stay with relatives or in rented rooms when their shacks are demolished to make way for the new houses. Says Arputham: “These people cannot pay for transit camps and also pay up 10% of the loan.” Ideally, the project should include budgetary provisions for such transitory housing. Corporator Salve says he is helpless: “Transit camps are not the business of the PMC.”

Still, some effort is being made. The PMC has released government land to build transit homes for the residents of Chandrama Nagar slum. The NGOs are trying to raise funds to build these camps, which will cost Rs 20,000-25,000 per household. “We have approached the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. They have shown interest in helping,” says Arputham.

It’s just a small beginning, but it’s a good beginning. And it will enable many like Jagtap to have a concrete future.