Slum improvement – paternalism versus practicality

By Jonathan

In class we discussed the stunning complexity involved in redeveloping the Dharavi slum in Mumbai. The solution proposed for Dharavi, while innovative in its structure and economics had some clear faults, not the least of which being it provided very little autonomy to the residents of the neighborhood. The timetable, terms, conditions, and construction and design decisions would be made by a select few and imposed on the 700,000 residents of the slum. What’s more, given this centrally-planned approach the resulting community would likely feel monolithic, sterile and completely inorganic.

As flawed as this approach is, it remains an improvement over the most often discussed alternative – providing property rights to the current residents of Dharavi and allowing them to develop the land as they see fit. Technical complexities aside, this alternative approach appears to solve some of the most troubling problems posed by the large-scale, centrally-controlled scheme. First and foremost, it provides the residents complete control over their assets, just as they would have if they lived in non-slum areas. Along with these decision rights come the dignity and respect that all citizens, slum-residents and otherwise, deserve. Additionally, this alterative represents a far less disruptive approach to redeveloping the slum. It wouldn’t necessarily require the wholesale removal of people from their homes to accommodate the massive, simultaneous construction projects. Furthermore, this piecemeal style of development may encourage a more organic-feeling community that is often so lacking in centrally-planned neighborhoods.

While these benefits are not to be discounted, I’m afraid the land-rights approach simply would not work in practice, particularly in a slum like Dharavi where the land values are so high. The first reason I find a flaw in this is that it provides no protection for the citizens from unscrupulous developers that want to take advantage of a slum dweller who is almost certainly inexperienced in dealing with real estate assets, particularly ones of such high value. It’s easy to imagine how this could go wrong. Residents could be cheated out of their property, manipulated or pressured into selling it at discounted rates, and so on. With little to no experience in this regard, they would be unprepared for the challenges of managing their new assets. Furthermore, given the density of the Dharavi I fear the resulting set of property rights would be so fragmented as to prevent any development of meaningful size or scope. Coordinating the perhaps hundreds of property owners that would be required to build a large building could prove so cumbersome that the land would remain undeveloped for years to come.

While never an advocate for paternalism, I’m concerned that there is no superior alternative to the centrally-planned approach. The Dharavi area is in a unique position to take advantage of its sky-high property prices and provide its residents with new, improved housing. While this is far from perfect, I do believe it ultimately provides the greatest benefit to the Dharavi citizens.

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