Building a better future for India’s slums

In the Indian city of Pune, architects and NGOs have adopted a revolutionary approach to the country’s slum problem. Instead of demolishing houses and re-settling slum dwellers, they are working with residents to improve what is already there – one home at a time.

Photographs by Pär Olsson

Anjana Kamble stands in the doorway of her single-room, tin home in one of Pune’s slums. Inside, the brightly painted turquoise home is bursting with life. On one wall lies a single bed where the family gathers to watch Bollywood movies and cricket. While opposite, cooking pots and photographs crowd wooden shelves.

With just 68 square feet to live in, the Kambles have learnt to be creative with space. In the morning a small slate slab near the door doubles as a cleaning and bathing area. At night the family eat daal and rice on the floor. A few hours later this dining table is converted into a bedroom.

Anjana’s husband Ashok has spent his entire life within these tin walls. He grew up here, married Anjana and had three children. Their daughter has left home, but their two sons – who are now in their early twenties – still live with them. Now more than ever, Anjana says, the house feels crowded.

“We have arguments about the types of things they want to do in the house – one persons wants to do one thing, while another wants to sleep,” Anjana explains. “There is a lack of privacy and it’s hard sharing a space together.”

Redeveloping India’s slums

In India, poverty and mass migration has driven more than 170 million people into slums, the UK charity, Homeless International estimates. These slums range from solid brick structures to haphazard dwellings made of recycled tin, tarp and other materials.

Many families like the Kambles live in confined spaces, without running water or private toilets. In India’s largest slum, Dharavi there is just one toilet per 1,440 people.

In 2009, the Indian Government promised to tackle this housing nightmare. Through a series of redevelopment schemes, it vowed to eradicate all slums within five years. The government’s promise sprouted plans like Mumbai’s Slum Rehabilitation Scheme – a strategy, which demolishes slums and relocates residents into high-rise apartment buildings.

Since the scheme’s inception, however, critics have argued that it often leaves people worse off. The scheme, they say, fails to provide proper community consultation and leaves people disconnected from their communities, businesses and in improper housing without electricity and water.

India’s urban poor had rarely been consulted about their housing future.

Creating new ideas

In late 2008, architects Filipe Balestra and Sara Göransson from the Swedish firm Urban Nouveau were invited to India to challenge the status quo.

They were asked to draw-up a slum redevelopment scheme that built on what was already there and made residents planning partners. The work began in Netaji Nagar a slum in the heart of the Pune – a rapidly expanding city just three hours out of India’s financial capital Mumbai.

“It was a very poor place with many shacks. At the same time it was very active with commercial activity and informal marketplaces,” Filipe recalls. “People would gather in the narrow lanes between the houses to do their laundry, to wash the dishes or just to talk to their neighbors.”

For seven months, the Urban Nouveau team, with the help of the Indian housing organisation SPARC (Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centers) and the community organisation Mahila Milan, ran resident meetings to draw up blueprints for the slum’s redevelopment.

Three designs for a better future

The result was three basic house designs that look like several square lego blocks stacked upon each other. One showed a three-storey home with a vacant ground floor, which could be used as a shop, laundry or parking area. Another design, allowed for a void in the middle floor that could be converted into a veranda.

All three designs were based on a ‘four column technique’, which Filipe says, was vital to the concept’s success.

“The majority of the footprints of the houses in urban villages are not square, nor rectangular, but a collection of irregular trapezoids,” Filipe explains. “With four columns we could stretch and contract the placement of each column to adapt each new home to the current irregular plot size.”

Sara and Filipe had helped form the starting blocks for a new way to develop India’s slums, but with the average household wage being just 5,000 rupees or approximately 87 Euros/836 SEK per month, serious money was needed to bring the vision to life.

Funding a vision

Fortunately, those working at the national infrastructure program, Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) were impressed. Under JNNURM, more than 1,200 families in Pune’s slums were allotted 300,000 rupees (5,279 Euros, 50,390 SEK) to build new homes in the city. Ninety per cent of the money would be provided by the government, with the rest to be contributed by the homeowner.

“Sara and Filipe were working on it when it was a basic and experimental project, and then it became a commissioned project. That’s when my firm took it over,” Indian architect Desai Prasanna explains.

Following on from Sara and Filipe’s work, the architects designed a plan that would transform not just a single house but the whole slum. Individual homes would be reduced slightly to create open space, allow for greater air ventilation and let in sunlight. To the architects, it seemed like a perfect vision.

But it wasn’t long before Desai and his team realised that what they imagined and what residents wanted where very different.

Back to the drawing board

“We wanted to reduce the footprint of individuals houses by two to three feet so the area could have larger alleyways and contribute to the overall amenity of the area,” recalls Vedang Bagwe, an architect from Desai Prasanna’s firm.

“But one of the primary concerns [of residents] was that their lot of land should not be reduced. The majority will not let go of their footprint.”

Height restrictions and building costs also meant that Urban Nouveau’s original designs needed reworking. New small-scale models were built, more sheets of paper were rolled out and architects sat down with residents once again to discuss design plans.

These consultations were vital to the success of the strategy. They not only garnered community support but allowed residents to offer design suggestions, which the architects, who were unfamiliar with slum living, wouldn’t have thought of.

“In some slum areas water is only available on outside taps in the morning and afternoons, so people were asking for underground water tanks to be included in the house designs. This enables people to store water in the house during the day,” Vedang adds.

“They also said they wanted toilets outside their house, rather than inside, and others opted for porches or small verandas . . . So community consultation was vital in bringing this about.”

Two basic designs took shape. The first, is a two-storey block which includes an outside toilet, bathroom and allows for a small veranda or porch area. While the second is a combined apartment style dwelling, which allows adjoining families or neighbours to share footprints.

Seperating pukkas from kachhas

The designs are being carried out in Yerawada – a suburb in Pune, which is home to seven high-density slums. Some families have been living in Yerawada’s slums for more than 50 years. Single rooms are home to five to six people, on average. It’s crowded outside too.

In Mother Teresa slum there are 444 houses per 12,500 square metres – that’s just over 140 houses squeezed into every acre. This concentration of life creates a strong communal atmosphere. Women gather on pavements to wash saris, sheets and tin dishes and kids have turned narrow alleys into cricket pitches.

It’s a place saturated in colour. Exteriors range from bright blues, pinks and greens to yellows and oranges. Houses are connected by a series of narrow alleyways, which to an outsider, seem to form a giant, impenetrable maze.

In Yerwada houses can be divided into two distinct groups. Pukka houses are permanent concrete structures, while kachha homes are temporary dwellings made either partially or completely of tin. Due to the number of homes and families in Yerwada’s slums, at present JNNURM is only providing funding for the most needy or those living in Kachhas. Out of this funding seperation, Vedang explains, a unique set of challenges grew.

Assembling jigsaws

In the slums, houses can share up to three walls with neighbouring dwellings, which means that if you have a kaccha dwelling nestled among a cluster of pukka homes, demolition and building is extremely difficult. Kachha houses are often irregular shapes and some don’t meet the minimum requirement when it comes to the size of the home’s footprint.

Instead of being able to demolish and re-work a block from scratch, architects had to finish the jigsaw with what felt like incorrectly cut puzzle pieces. To make it work, architects have spent the past year getting lost in Yerawada’s narrow lanes, drinking cups of sugary chai and talking to each family.

“We had to go to each person and explain how the house would be designed. This process was very tedious. Each beneficiary had to submit documents that prove residency and then they have to provide money to the government,” Vedang says.

Working on this individual basis has allowed residents to create a home tailored to their needs.

“There might be handicapped or old people in the family, so we would try and incorporate their needs into the design, like providing a bathroom on the ground floor instead of on the first.”

What’s happening now

More than a year after the project began, Jon Rainbow, a supervisor with SPARC, says there is a swelling feeling of optimism and excitement in the slums. Building has began at 16 sites and another 20 homes have been demolished throughout Yerwada.

Residents are cutting costs by demolishing their own homes and are running wheelbarrows full of buildings material through narrow lanes. Kids sit in deck chairs amid the mounds of tin, brick and concrete, while paintings of Hindu deities hang on broken down walls. A lone door stands where a house used to be – now all it leads to is air.

“There were points when I wondered if it was ever going to happen, so it’s incredible to finally see all this,” Jon comments. “It’s really going to change people’s lives.”

Looking forward

The Pune project is the first of its kind in India and many are watching to see whether it will be a success.

“It’s the first time that the Government of India has come in a big way to support government housing. It’s an experiment for them,” President of the National Slum Dwellers Federation, A. Jockin says.

Jockin has been working on the strategy since it began and believes it is a sustainable solution for slum redevelopment in smaller cities, where high rises are not necessary. Of more significance, Jockin says, is the scheme’s ability to nurture broader social changes through empowering slum dwellers.

“The most important thing is how to make people start to believe they can bring about change. It’s not the politicians, it’s not the government, it’s not an outsider, but them,” Jockin asserts.

“They need to believe they can bring about changes. The moment people realise that, change will occur that is sustainable. You are not changing because someone is forcing you. You are changing because you want to.”

Families build a better tomorrow

In a few months the Kamble’s will be part of this transformation. Their weathered home will be torn down to make way for a solid concrete house. For the first time they will have a bathroom, a toilet and two rooms instead of one. The new home will mean no more floods during monsoon rains or visits to the public toilet block.

“I’m putting 10 per cent of the money in, and in return I am getting a good house, I am getting a roof. I won’t have the sense any longer that something bad might happen – that the roof might blow away,” Anjana says.

Now, like any new homeowner to be, Anjana is dreaming of how she will decorate.

“I feel like I should buy everything new for my house.”

Published in Spana! Magazine – an online art publication for Riksutställningar Swedish Travelling Exhibitions – on August 19, 2010


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