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Our Home is a Slum: An Exploration of a Community and Local Government Collaboration in a Tenants' Struggle to Establish Legal Residency in Janata Squatters Colony, Mumbai, India
The current literature on urban development, urban management and urban poverty alleviation is rife with paeans to the prospective benefits of partnership between the public, private and community sectors. Properly structured interactions among the three sectors, it is posited, will enhance governance, reduce poverty and protect and renew the urban environment for all. Many recently formed partnerships and collaborations of this kind have already been designated as “best practices”, and have been widely promoted for replication in other communities and countries. To date, studies showing both sustained co-operation among the different sectors and broadly positive outcomes, are rare.
This Discussion Paper, Our Home is a Slum, is not one of them. Instead it shows how immensely difficult it is to establish and maintain a configuration of institutional support and social conditions favourable to collaborative relationships that benefit vulnerable groups in a truly globalized city.
At the centre of this study is a conflict between tenants and subtenants in the Janata Squatters Colony, a densely populated slum on publicly owned but officially “vacant” land in the northern suburbs of Mumbai, India’s largest city and commercial capital. Many of the tenants, to whom a second group became illegal subtenants, had been relocated decades before, from another slum in central Bombay. Under the prevailing legislation, the original tenants were given Vacant Land Tenancy (VLT) “deeds” allowing them to rent tiny plots on which to build homes.
Many of the tenants, unbeknownst to and without permission from the Municipality, took over vacant space adjacent to their “deeded” property. On these parcels they also built structures and rented them out, illegally, to migrants and residents moving from other slum areas in Bombay. Those with deeds, though tenants in a legal sense, became “landlords” in practice and outlook. But their social and economic status remained precariously low, barely above that of their subtenants, which explains the desperation characterizing the struggle that the two sides were locked into. While some 3,000 households in Mumbai share a similar legal plight with the VLT (sub)tenants in this story, in a city with at least 5 million slum residents, 40 percent of whom live in poverty, the overall status of vulnerability is shared widely.
This study chronicles a long-standing, if intermittent, struggle waged by a community based organization (CBO) comprised largely of subtenants seeking to put an end to eviction threats, verbal and physical harassment, and time-consuming legal proceedings heaped upon them by their tenant-landlords in the Janata Squatters Colony since 1975. Allied in this effort over a period of approximately two years was the local authority, the Municipality of Mumbai. For it, this is a story about implementing slum-upgrading while recouping some costs through user fees and coming to grips with the need to control public lands within its domain. For the landlords, this is a story about protecting property and income that they had established over decades of practice rather than legal sanction.
The tensions between tenants and landlords began in 1975 with the implementation of the Maharashtra Vacant Lands Act (MVLA), and grew quickly thereafter. The MVLA inadvertently nullified the customary tenant-landlord (or, more accurately, subtenant-tenant) relationship that evolved on the Municipality’s vacant lands through abuses of the VLT. This freed subtenants of previously accepted obligations to pay rent for the dwellings they occupied or the land on which the dwelling sat. A second flashpoint in the struggle occurred in 1985, when the MVLA was struck down as unconstitutional. With the old tenant-landlord relationships thus re-established, landlords began demanding renewed rent and back payments. However, because of the tangle of other legislation governing the management and development of urban land, as well as a long history of lax enforcement of existing regulations concerning slum areas, very few tenants or landlords had a clear idea of their rights and obligations to each other and the Municipality. While many tenants were often unable to pay arrears, others remained unwilling to do so.
With eviction cases flooding the Small Causes Courts, a local NGO, YUVA, stepped in to organize a community-based organization, the Jogeshwari Rahiwashi Sanghatana (JRS, Jogeshwari Residents Organization), to assist the subtenants with their defense and to inform the community at large of their rights and obligations under the legislation governing their tenancy. In 1990 the Maharashtra High Court assigned the Deputy Municipal Commissioner (DMC) to resolve the cases through an investigation and a quasi-judicial ruling. New to his post and unfamiliar with the history of the conflict, the DMC was keen to work with the NGO, the CBO and the landlords to educate himself on all aspects of the situation. This was the genesis of the collaboration with the local authority.
Over an 18-month period, YUVA and the DMC worked with both landlords and the CBO to clarify points of law, individual tenant and landlord status in respect of the applicable laws, and the extent of threats and abuses suffered by the tenants. On the basis of the fact-finding process, the DMC ruled against the landlords in September 1991. The decision rested on the legal priority of the 1973 Slum Improvement Act, under which the neighbourhoods in question had been declared a “municipal slum” in 1976. Still in force in 1991, this legislation had the effect of nullifying landlord status in all “municipal slums”, including the Janata Squatters Colony. All residents in the area, whether formerly legal tenant or illegal subtenant, thence forward held the same status, i.e., tenants of the Municipality.
The decision has yet to be implemented and it is unclear whether it will be. Sensing the legal and administrative vacuum, the former landlords returned to the courts and to extra-judicial harassment of tenants, albeit at significantly reduced levels compared with the period prior to the DMC’s decision. This has continued from 1991 to the present.
Why did the collaboration with the DMC come to an end before the decision could be implemented? The rest of the case study tries to answer this question. Some of the reasons identified include: the nature of quasi-judicial rulings in Mumbai; the transfer of the DMC immediately after he announced his decision against the landlords; the incoming DMC’s lack of interest in tenant issues; the absence of accountability within the Municipal government; the poor level of legal counsel available to most tenants; the inordinate burden of proof placed on them; the politicization and alleged corruption within the JRS, which sapped its interest in advocacy and education efforts among the tenants; more urgent struggles that diverted the energies of the NGO from the tenants’ cases, among them relief efforts following highly destructive and divisive sectarian riots, and efforts to reverse the progressive deterioration in the public distribution system; and India’s transition from welfare-oriented urban development solutions to those driven by the market.
In addition to shedding light on these crucial questions, this case study is important because, implicitly, it encourages scepticism of “best practices” in urban development. Viewed as a successful collaboration between 1989 and 1991, the joint fact-finding exercise appears worthy of emulation and replication. Nonetheless, when viewed in the context of a lengthy struggle of poor residents for secure tenure and a peaceful community, the collaboration appears less than effective in transforming the status quo. Perhaps, at best, the Municipality’s participation can be viewed as a well-intentioned but inadequate effort to achieve justice, while pursuing its own interest in collecting user fees. While the municipality was successful at this, the lasting positive change in the Janata Squatters Colony is harder to see.
Instituting a legislative framework that assures transparency of decision making and accountability of the Municipality to residents and their representatives is one way to move beyond ad hoc, opportunistic collaborations. The 74th Amendment to the Indian Constitution, which mandates participation of CBOs and NGOs in Ward Committees, was a move in the right direction. However, the process for determining how organizations will be selected to sit on Ward Committees, and what their powers will be, remain stalled. For civil society organizations in Mumbai this situation gives increasing cause for worry.
This study cannot predict how long the people will have to wait for the rhetoric of good government to be put into practice. But it does suggest areas where progress can be made, by whom and with whose help and pressure.
The present case study is one of some 20 prepared for the joint UNRISD-United Nations Volunteers project on Volunteer Action and Local Democracy. The purpose of the project was to study the achievements and constraints on collaborations between local authorities and community organizations in their efforts to improve living conditions for traditionally excluded groups in large cities. The findings of the case studies and overview papers from each city have been synthesized in a series of city reports, which will be published in the coming months. Full text versions of the case studies will also be available on UNRISD ON-LINE (http//:www.unrisd.org).
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Pub. Date: 1 Aug 1999
Pub. Place: Geneva