In her opening address to Parliament the president said, among other things, that the government would extend financial support “to states that are willing to assign property rights to people living in slum areas...to create a slum free India in five years.” However unlikely that outcome may be, this is a wonderful statement of intent that goes to the heart of the problem of housing the poor in our cities. It also goes to the heart of the problem of drawing the poor into the mainstream of an entrepreneurial society, with all its dreams, rewards and limitless opportunities.
Slums have grown in all our cities because of the disconnect since Independence, between providing employment and ensuring proper housing for the employee. Mumbai in January 2005 had 4,413 police constables and 81 police inspectors living in slums. They were simultaneously officers of the law and illegal residents of the city. A policeman is given a job, but not a place in the city where he can legally pitch his tent. And then of course, if like any other slum dweller he lives in the city somewhere, somehow, his home can be bulldozed and whatever he has spent on building it destroyed without compensation. The assigning of property rights to slum dwellers will at least begin to redress that injustice. It is no guarantee that the bulldozing will not happen, but at least the victims will have to be compensated monetarily.
Hernando de Soto, the distinguished Peruvian economist, in his book The Mystery of Capital asks why capitalism is a success in the West and a failure everywhere else. He concludes that it first happened because of the almost inadvertent creation of property rights, properly documented and enforceable. Originally designed to settle disputes, these recorded property rights have then provided the collateral needed to raise capital, and thus underpinned the entire process of funding innovation and entrepreneurship. In other words, capital comes to life because of enforceable property rights. The greater the number of people who have marketable, enforceable property rights, the bigger will be the pool of potential business talent and enterprise. The eventual result should be a stronger economy. Perhaps it is the poor who can make our country rich (and help themselves in the process).
So the proposal to assign property rights to those living in slums is entirely laudable. It gives the poor the same access to legal property transfers as are already enjoyed by the rich. And if they have the freedom to offer property as collateral it has the potential of opening up for the poor opportunities for access to capital as are already available to the rich. Now for the caveats.
As a society, we have deeply entrenched notions of inequality. In India we do believe, in our heart of hearts, that human beings are unequal. This may be on account of the circumstances of birth, or skin colour, nature of occupation or money in the bank. Whatever the reason, we accept inequality as a fundamental fact of life, and feel perfectly justified not only in defending our position in the hierarchy, but also in ill-treating those below us to the point of gross injustice. And the Supreme Court of course supports us in upholding inequality. …
And then, what exactly will the poor have title to? Plots of 12.5 and 18 sqm per family, as in Bawana, thus condemned to this size of house forever? Or will these be larger plots, for a society of occupants, with each family entitled to a flat, and that necessarily implies multi-storeyed construction? Clearly there is great deal of thinking through to be done before we can achieve genuine, marketable property rights for the urban poor. Without that, the government’s intentions can be all too easily defeated, brushed aside by a hostile bureaucracy. And you can be sure voters will judge the outcome, not the intent.
(The author is an urban planner based in Mumbai.)