There are some lanes in Govandi's Shivaji Nagar, a neighbourhood in northeast Mumbai, where residents deliberately avoid making their house look good on the outside. Some local contractors even make an extra effort to ensure that recently done-up homes look old and shabby. This is mainly to avoid attention from local municipal authorities who work hard at maintaining the slum-like quality of Shivaji Nagar. The tension between the willingness of residents to invest in their homes and a hostile civic environment is a major cause for the perennial presence of slums everywhere in the city.
Shivaji Nagar stands on soggy ground that was once reclaimed from marsh. This is one of many things it shares with the more notorious 'slums of Dharavi', only a few kilometres away. Other shared features include hyper-density, a dramatic lack of infrastructure and a population that has historically been discriminated against.
Whether they are poor Muslims or low-caste Hindus, most of them have to make do with some of the lowest quality of life levels in the city.
Residents of Shivaji Nagar are well aware that the gas fumes emanating from the nearby dumping ground - the largest in Mumbai - are not exactly salubrious. Large parts of the neighbourhood do not have running water, and most streets have open drains - all to be expected in places that have grown outside any planning and regulatory framework. However, Shivaji Nagar, now called a slum even by municipal officers, was originally a planned resettlement colony. It was created in the 1980s to house displaced slum dwellers from other parts of Mumbai.
How it became a slum is a story of prejudice, inadequate and inflexible regulations, institutional corruption, and lack of political vision.
The result is a neighbourhood that today develops without any support and against all odds. Residents push above and beyond the once well-gridded street network, palliating the poor infrastructure with makeshift systems that are both innovative and insufficient.
Yet, for a vast majority of residents, leaving is not an option.
Having a home in the pulsating economic capital of India means access to employment and education. Being in Shivaji Nagar is no sinecure, but what could be more precious than a better life in the making?
Yet, visitors expecting to see a slum populated by depressed souls begging for subsistence are quite surprised to see something else altogether. Far from the clichés of the villa miseria, Shivaji Nagar is - for the most part - an upbeat neighbourhood, where the sound of houses being repaired and rebuilt syncs with everyday life, and where street markets are as busy as suburban trains. In Shivaji Nagar, as in Dharavi, many houses double up as home-factories producing all kinds of goods ranging from embroidery to cosmetics. A web of local artisans takes orders from all over the city for iron grills, wood furniture or polystyrene models.
Nowhere is the enmeshing of livelihood with living spaces as obvious as in the construction sector. Squads of specialized masons, plumbers, bricklayers, concrete mixers, plasterers, and electricians serve the insatiable local demand for improvement. A 300-feet house would typically take just a little over a month to build with nearly 100 people working in a well-choreographed construction ritual. Most of these labourers live in the neighbourhood, which means that at least part of what they earn is spent back in the local economy.
Shivaji Nagar's artisans of construction are experts at dealing with constraints that would make most architects balk: limited availability of space and resources, the shallowness of the ground and corrosive weather. Add to that an indifferent or antagonistic middle-class opinion. But the biggest hurdle of all for neighbourhood builders is the generally hostile bureaucratic and legal context in which they have to operate. For instance, antiquated regulations mean that building a second floor, reinforced walls or a toilet inside a house are illegal.
People's basic aspirations for better living are monetized in the form of bribes, which represent millions of dollars of informal revenue for some unscrupulous officers. The problem, however, is not as much corruption per se as inadequate policy, which create a black market for construction permits, much in the same way fixed exchange rates create a black market for currency. The worst case scenario would be to address corruption without addressing its root cause.
While incremental improvement by capable local builders and perseverant residents is virtuous and deserving of support, it won't be enough to realize the potential of Shivaji Nagar and other burgeoning, struggling neighbourhoods in Mumbai and elsewhere.
What Mumbai needs more than ever is an official strategy based on the recognition of the internal dynamism of spaces that have been marginalized and repressed for far too long, and a clear mandate for the government to provide infrastructure and amenities that they lack so badly.
It is also time for authorities to come up with new policies for slums, which would formally recognize the occupancy rights of residents of Shivaji Nagar and other 'homegrown' neighbourhoods, so they can at last build on solid ground.
For this to happen, the government must turn the page over several decades of failed slum rehabilitation policy and realize that the most radical and innovative path may be the one that residents have carved for themselves.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. NDTV is not responsible for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information on this article. All information is provided on an as-is basis. The information, facts or opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.