Building a slum-free Mumbai
03 March 2016
By Yue Zhang
From Mumbai to
When you fly into Mumbai and the plane is landing, the first thing that
meets your eyes is a cramped sprawl of corrugated iron–roofed huts.
They are right next to the airport runway, quietly yet powerfully
reminding you that you are entering a city where nearly half of the
population lives in slums. As India’s economic capital and most
populous city, Mumbai has a total population of 12.44 million — 42
percent of whom live in slums. The percentage of slum dwellers in the
city is so high that locals joke that Mumbai should be renamed
In Mumbai, a
highway divides the “formal city” and the “informal city.”
(Photo by Yue Zhang, January 2016.)
The definition of a slum has two dimensions. From a legal perspective,
slums are unauthorized and illegal structures, where inhabitants do not
have legal title to the land that they occupy. In terms of living
conditions, slums are areas that are short of basic amenities and
characterized by the prevalence of insanitary, squalid, overcrowded
conditions, and hence become a source of danger to their inhabitants’
health, safety, or convenience.
alongside the railway in Mumbai.
(Photo by Yue Zhang, January 2016.)
In the first official survey that Mumbai conducted in 1956, 8 percent
of the total population lived in slums. Over the years, the population
of the city grew at a high speed and so did the number of slum
dwellers. Today, nearly 5.2 million people live in slums, and the
number is still increasing.
Nearly one million people live in Dharavi, the largest slum in Mumbai
as well as in Asia, where the film Slumdog Millionaire was shot. It is
home to a large number of microindustries, including pottery, tanning
and leatherworking, and plastic recycling. A walk through Dharavi or
any other slum would completely change your mind about what slums mean
in Mumbai: they are not clusters of temporary shelters, but complex
ecological and economic systems, “a city within a city.” Many slum
dwellers in Mumbai are not the official poor who live below the poverty
line, but are well-educated, middle-class people who are deprived of
the Prevalence and Persistence of Slums
Large-scale slum proliferation is a complicated issue relevant to a
variety of factors. The scarcity of land, dictated by Mumbai’s peculiar
geography and heightened by the competition from other economic
activities, is one factor that has made formal housing unaffordable for
most Mumbaikars. However, the expansion and persistence of slums in
Mumbai is primarily a function of failed housing policies combined with
other political factors.
In the past 60 years, a series of policies have restricted the land and
housing supply in Mumbai, rather than creating a favorable environment
for the construction of large housing stock needed for the growing
The percentage of slum dwellers in the city is so high that locals joke
that Mumbai should be renamed “Slumbai.”
The Rent Control Act, passed in 1947, led to the freezing of rents,
which disincentivized private capital from creating housing stock for
rental purposes. In 1973, the Rent Control Act was amended to provide
all the tenants’ rights to the licensees, making the rental business
even more difficult for the private sector. Further, the passage of the
1976 Urban Land Ceiling and Regulation Act put several tracts of land
under litigation and restricted the supply of large tracts of land for
the purpose of housing construction.
Even as the rental market has been dismantled and private sector has
been disincentivized to create more housing stock, the government has
made little effort to increase the supply of affordable housing.
In 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the vision of “Housing
for All,” in the hope of providing more affordable housing to the poor.
This is the first time that the Indian government has brought up
housing as a major issue on its agenda, but it is up to each state to
formulate its own plans on how to achieve the goal. The Government of
Maharashtra (which administers Mumbai) formulated a comprehensive and
ambitious New Housing Policy and Action Plan that aims to provide 1.9
million houses, of which 0.8 million will be in Mumbai, for low-and
middle-income groups in the state. But whether and how the plan will be
implemented is still unknown.
Over the years, slums have become “vote banks.”
Politicians periodically provide services to slum dwellers in exchange
for votes. The exchange through electoral politics brings about
incremental improvement of the living conditions of slums, but does not
solve the long-term problem of housing shortage. On the contrary, the
exchange stabilizes existing slums and even provides incentives for the
creation of new slums.
Responses: The History
The Indian government’s responses to slums have gone through several
changes. In the 1950s and 1960s, the initial government reaction was to
clear slums and rehouse slum dwellers in subsidized rental housing.
This approach did not succeed owing to the shortage of resources to
build and maintain housing stocks and the lack of political will to do
so. Meanwhile, it was realized that slum dwellers contribute
significantly to the local economy, so the government began to have a
more tolerant attitude toward slums.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the government adopted a different approach to
improve and upgrade the living conditions in slums. Through various
acts and programs, specifically aid from the World Bank, the government
provided basic services such as water, toilets, electricity, pathways,
street lights, conservancy, and primary health care and education to
slum dwellers. At the same time, leasehold tenure of land was
transferred to cooperative housing societies of slum dwellers. However,
the scale of the programs remained limited and did not prevent slum
Current Model of
After the previous two phases of slum clearance and slum upgrading, in
1995 the government started a new scheme of slum redevelopment. Under
the current scheme, private developers can purchase slum land from the
government at a relatively low price — 25 percent of the fair market
value of the land — and redevelop the land through the incentive floor
space index. (Floor space index, a ratio of built-up area to
appurtenant land, is a planning and development control tool used to
control population density and building design from the point of view
of health and safety.)
Specifically, after purchasing the slum land and obtaining the consent
of 70 percent of the slum dwellers in the community, the developer will
clear the land and rehouse the eligible slum dwellers free of cost in
multistory-building tenements of 269 square feet (upgraded from 225
square feet) carpet area per household. Only slum dwellers who have
documents to prove that they have been living in the slum prior to the
cut-off date of January 1, 2000, are eligible for the free housing. The
rehabilitation buildings are on a part of the land occupied by the slum
(Photo by Yue Zhang, January 2016.)
In return, the developer can construct buildings on the rest of the
slum land and sell them on the market as a free-sale component. Through
this model, some of Mumbai’s most prominent real estate development
projects have been built on former slum land. For instance, Imperial
Towers, a twin-tower luxury residential skyscraper complex in South
Mumbai, are the tallest buildings and one of the most expensive real
estate projects in India. Inaugurated in 2010, they were built on
former slum land where the current model of slum redevelopment was
first put into large-scale practice.
condominium in Imperial Towers. Each condominium is more than 4,000
square feet and sold at a price of US$3 million to US$5 million.
(Photo by Yue Zhang, January 2016.)
To ensure the implementation of the slum redevelopment model, the
Government of Maharashtra created the Slum Redevelopment Authority
(SRA) in 1997. The authority would be the agency responsible for
evaluating and approving slum redevelopment proposals submitted by
developers. The chief minister of Maharashtra is the SRA chairperson.
In the past two decades, 0.15 million tenements have been rehabilitated
in this model, against the target of 1 million in the first decade.
Another 0.12 million tenements have been approved for rehabilitation,
but construction is yet to begin.
In a recent conversation with Aseem Gupta, chief executive officer of
SRA, he reveals that SRA will expedite the process by giving slum
dwellers an ultimatum to select a developer to work with. If they fail
to do so before the required date, SRA would designate a developer for
the community in order to speed up redevelopment.
Problems of the
Mumbai is among the first cities in the world that have adopted a
market-dominant model to redevelop slums. Given the limited resources
of local authorities, the model provides an alternative approach to
handling informal settlements, an issue that many developing countries
are facing. As innovative as it is, the model demonstrates several
The operation of the model starts from the direct negotiation between
slum dwellers and developers. Although it gives slum dwellers the
freedom to choose which developer to work with, it often leads to
fights between developers, as they all have the desire to redevelop
profitable areas. The unregulated and even vicious competition between
developers also creates opportunities for rent-seeking.
The current model does not provide specific standards on the quality of
rehabilitation buildings. Much discretion is left to developers. Some
of the rehabilitation buildings are designed and constructed in a way
that compromises the living standards of inhabitants. Some
rehabilitation plots do not have sufficient amenities or open space.
There is the danger that the rehabilitation buildings will become
Because of the cut-off date for eligibility of rehabilitation, the
ineligible population is left with no option but to stay in
unauthorized manner in slums. Many of them have to settle in a new slum
after their previous slum is demolished by the government.
The current model provides free housing to slum dwellers, and
developers have to load the cost of rehabilitation on the saleable
component. Therefore, the model does not encourage the construction of
housing at various price levels and ultimately leads to the increase of
housing prices on the formal market.
Many slum dwellers in Mumbai are not the official poor who live below
the poverty line, but are well-educated, middle-class people who are
deprived of adequate housing.
Based on the problems identified above, the following policy
recommendations can be made in order to improve the process and
outcomes of slum redevelopment in Mumbai.
Reform the SRA model. The SRA has been functioning merely as an
approving authority that scrutinizes the developers’ proposals on
behalf of slum dwellers and approves or reject them. To streamline the
process and guarantee the quality of rehabilitation buildings, SRA
should act as a planner, facilitator, and anchor, not merely as an
approving authority. It is important to mobilize the private sector in
the slum redevelopment process, but the public sector should play a
more active role rather than completely taking a backseat.
Increase the provision of affordable housing. The housing stock being
created in the market outside of the rehabilitation component of slum
redevelopment is mostly in the luxury or high-cost segment, and is not
catering to the demand for affordable houses of the low- and
middle-income groups of the population. The government should more
systematically create housing stock for low- and middle-income groups.
Promote rental housing. Under the current regressive rent control law,
0.318 million (16%) of the total 1.935 million houses in Mumbai are
unoccupied. The government must create an enabling environment to
revitalize the Mumbai rental market, both private and public.
The Government of Maharashtra has set a goal to make Mumbai slum-free
by 2022. This is an ambitious goal, considering the current pace of
slum redevelopment. But perhaps what is more important than the pace of
redevelopment is the approach of redevelopment — namely, whether the
approach can efficiently provide quality housing to slum dwellers,
increase the provision of affordable housing in the city at large, and
ultimately contribute to the creation of more livable and inclusive
Yue Zhang is an associate professor
of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and a
2015–16 Wilson Center fellow. She received her master’s and doctoral
degrees from Princeton University and her undergraduate degree from
Peking University. Her principal research interest is comparative urban
politics and policy with a focus on urban governance, urbanization in
developing countries, historic preservation, and globalization. She is
currently working on a book project about informal housing and urban
governance in China, India, and Brazil.
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