India: Preparing for the Great Migration

One of the major mental shifts of recent years, especially among policy-makers, has been the recognition that urbanisation is an intrinsic part of economic development. Rather than being seen as a problem to be denounced and somehow delayed, it is now accepted that urbanisation, in its various forms, needs to be accommodated. Indeed, current trends suggest that India will be an urban majority country by 2040. If Prime Minister Modi succeeds in implementing his vision of rapidly expanding the manufacturing sector and building heavy infrastructure, the country will hit this milestone a lot sooner.

The implication of this shift is that 300-350 million additional people have to be accommodated in urban centres within a generation, even though Indian cities are already struggling to provide for the existing population. The Prime Minister clearly appreciates the issue and his plan to create 100 smart cities should be seen as an attempt to create urban infrastructure in anticipation of the deluge.

Although I am glad that policy-makers are finally paying more attention to urban issues, it is important to recognise that urbanisation is a dynamic process rather than a static end-state. In particular, we need to think about how hundreds of millions of people will be matched to jobs, homes and amenities according to their needs and abilities. The Indian government lacks the socio-political controls, such as the hukou permit system, which allowed the Chinese authorities to manage the mass migration from rural areas.

India’s predicament is not unique: the tools available to the Chinese were mostly not available to today’s developed countries when they urbanised in the 19th and early 20th centuries. So, what was the mechanism that sucked in millions of people and slotted them into the urban landscape of Europe, North America and Japan? The answer is – slums.

As with other complex adaptive systems, the term “slum” is not easy to define. A slum will generally include elements such as urban poverty, dense living conditions, informal economic activity and migrants, but is more than the sum of its parts. Most people will know a slum when they see one. Nonetheless, it is important to distinguish between the problems of agglomeration faced by slums and the problems of decay faced by Detroit.

Almost every country has suffered slums during the urbanisation phase. The slums of London and New York were notorious well into the 20th century. A century ago, the now trendy Meatpacking District of Manhattan had over two hundred slaughter-houses where many new immigrants worked. Harappan cities and Mughal Delhi had slums. Even today’s China, despite the administrative controls, has slums.

Most people think of slums as places of static, urban despair as depicted in films like Slumdog Millionaire – the only way out is winning a lottery. While the poverty is real enough, real-life slums could not be more different. Once one looks past the squalor, slums are ecosystems buzzing with activity – shops, mini-factories, people moving in, people moving out. This is where migrants will first find shelter, get their first job, become connected with social networks and receive information about opportunities in the wider city. In other words, slums play a critical role as routers in the migration process.

What is even more interesting is that slums are surprisingly effective in this role. According to estimates by UN Habitat, 60 million people moved “out” of Indian slums between 2000 and 2010. Some may have gone back home, but many climbed the economic ladder into the new urban middle-class. This is exactly why slums continue to attract new migrants despite the awful living conditions – the migrants know that they or their children have a fighting chance of breaking out of the cycle of poverty.

As Indian cities have expanded, they have absorbed the surrounding rural areas. In some cases, the old villages have been swept away but, in many others, they survive despite being engulfed by the expanding urban sprawl. Scattered across modern Indian cities, there remain enclaves where the contours of the old villages are clearly discernible decades after the surrounding farmlands were converted into offices, roads, houses and shops. They make their presence felt in many different ways – as the source of vagrant cattle, as homes to armies of informal workers, as the place to visit if one wants to buy cheap construction material. Many of these villages have been newly absorbed into the urban fabric but some are old and have been embedded in the city for generations.

Despite being ignored by civic authorities, these urban villages play an important role in the evolution of the city and the naturalisation of the rural population into the urban fabric. For the purposes of this article, I will limit myself to Delhi’s experience although the story can be easily generalised to many other Indian cities with appropriate adjustments for local conditions.

According to architect Ranjit Sabikhi, there are 106 villages within the city-state. They are many more in the wider metropolitan area if one includes Noida and Gurgaon. My studies suggest that, in general, these villages go through the following cycle:

• As the city expands, the government or a developer acquires farm land. However, the villagers usually retain their houses in the old village settlement. This settlement, dubbed a “lal-dora” area, is exempt from the usual municipal and building codes. The former farmers notice that large numbers of construction workers and contractors are moving into the area. They therefore use the lal-dora exemption to build a mish-mash of buildings inside the village which they then rent out to the newcomers. This is where construction workers and other service providers live, and the village turns into a slum with the old villagers as slum-lords. It is difficult now to witness this initial phase of urbanisation within Delhi state but it is taking place at the city’s fringes in neighbouring Haryana and Uttar Pradesh

• After about ten to 15 years, construction work in that particular area begins to wind down. The construction workers drift away to other sites. New migrants move in – security guards, maids, drivers, amongst others – and work in the newly-built urban space. The commercial establishments too go through a parallel transformation. The shops selling construction material and hardware are steadily replaced by shops selling mobile phones, street-food, car-parts and so on. The settlement is still a slum and the former farmers are still the slum lords, but the migrants become more permanent and often bring in their families from their ancestral villages. This leads to an interesting supply-side response – the “English Medium” school. Language is seen by the poor as the single most important tool for social climbing. There are many such village-slums within Delhi, especially in East Delhi and Gurgaon. Nathupur in Gurgaon is an example of a village that is currently in the second stage. Next door, the village of Sikandarpur is shifting to the next level.

• After another ten to 15 years, the village goes through yet another transformation. By this time, the surrounding area is well settled and open agricultural fields are a distant memory. We now see students, salesmen, and small businessmen move into the village. Some of them may be the newly-educated children of migrants but they are now of a higher social class. The old villagers still continue to be the dominant owners of the land but they now begin to invest in improving their individual properties in order to elicit higher rents. In many instances, the owners have become politically important enough to lobby for public investment in basic drainage and sanitation. Begampur, near IIT Gate, is a good example of such a settlement. Note that public transport connections have a strong positive effect on the economic dynamism of the village-slum as demonstrated by Sikandarpur village in Gurgaon which has jumped from the second to the third stage in the last five years, due to the opening of a metro station nearby.

• The final stage in the process of transformation is that the old village gentrifies. This can happen in a number of ways. Since the early nineties, Hauz Khas village has transformed itself into a warren of boutique shops, art galleries and trendy restaurants. More recently, Mahipalpur has seen an explosion of cheap hotels due to its proximity to the international airport. Similarly, Shahpur Jat has become home to numerous small offices and designer workshops. In many cases, the old villagers have encashed their real estate and the ownership pattern has become much more mixed. The children of migrants now work in the hotels and offices, and many have become part of the new middle-class. These areas now grapple with the problems of prosperity, such as inadequate parking.

The evolution of urban villages reminds us that Indian slums are not places of hopelessness but are often industrious and changing ecosystems. The process of evolution has a big positive impact on the economic and social development of both the old villagers as well as new migrants. However, there are two important findings to consider. First, public investment in the “commons” speeds up the development process. Amenities such as common toilets, public transport and drainage can have a huge impact on the quality of life of residents, as well as attracting new economic opportunities. Second, the process of adaptation depends on decades of steady investment by the owners. This is only possible because private property rights are clear: the same process of evolution does not easily take root in Mumbai, where the slums are mostly on squatted land. Thus, Mumbai’s slum-dwellers may slowly move up the economic ladder but the slums themselves do not improve without external intervention.

Understanding urban poverty as a dynamic “flow” has very important implications about how we design and manage the smart cities promised by Prime Minister Modi. We need to design for urban spaces that will play the role of slums. Notice that this is not about solving a housing problem but the functioning of a wider eco-system. Thus, creating neat, low-income housing estates will not work unless they allow for many of the messy economic and social activities that thrive in slums. Additionally, property rights will have to be carefully arranged so that new migrants can enter the system easily and climb the socio-economic ladder. This would include cheap rental accommodation, easy financing to allow home purchase, liquid secondary markets and so on. This is very different from the current thinking that emphasises subsidised housing for the poor but only gives non-marketable ownership rights. From a flow perspective, the subsidy is less important than the availability of alternatives; clear property rights, financing and a secondary market that allow new migrants to constantly climb the ladder.

Finally, access to the “commons” is very important to the lives of the poor. Thus, the lowest rung in the housing ladder can be basic, including dormitories, but must have access to public transport, schools, parks and sanitation. Most importantly, they must be safe and secure for newcomers.

To conclude, slums have always played an important role in the urbanisation process. This is where new migrants are absorbed and naturalised into the urban system. Indian policy-makers need to design for urban spaces that will play the same role. By anticipating this need, one hopes that the absorption process can be made more efficient and the worst of the squalor can be avoided.

Sanjeev Sanyal is Deutsche Bank’s Global Strategist and author of several books on India.