Friday, November 13, 2009

Housing the Poor: Talking with Ashoka Fellow Pratima Joshi, Pt. I

Recently I had the opportunity to pester Pratima Joshi, an Ahoka Fellow (awesome) and founder of Shelter Associates (SA) here in Pune, with a battery of questions. Shelter Associates is basically a bunch of architects who work on slum rehabilitation and help give the poor a voice in the city planning process. I’ve been going into the slums off and on over the past month, and I wanted the perspective of someone who has worked intimately in the busti for a long period of time (16 years to be exact).

My first, and most nagging question was, where are the slums? Statistics say 30-40% of the Pune population lives in slums, but I keep looking and not finding. As it turns out, what I am looking at is the slums, Pratima explains. When I first arrived, I was amazed at the number of satellite dishes popping off of the tops of these relatively clean concrete dwellings (a luxury in Dhaka). “Slums in Pune are much better than most slums…Most of them have electricity…Most of them [the slum dwellers] have mobile phones nowadays” she continued. She also cited that nearly 75% of the city's poor have their own water connection, which is quite high.

A question I ask every slum dweller I interview is “What are the 3 biggest obstacles in the way of improving your situation?” Invariably, government corruption or lack of government support is somewhere in the mix. One frustrated man I met near the train station charged, “For the last 15 [expletive] years, none of the [expletive] officials have helped us, and all of them have become [expletive] rich in the name of us.” Is the government really doing nothing?

Not exactly. In 2003-2004 the central government gave a grant of 50,000 rupees per “slum” family to convert their housing from kutcha (dried mud) to pucca (brick or concrete), giving them, in addition to improved housing, a sense of security. Also in the works is a government plan to distribute land titles to the poor. Explains Pratima, “They [the government] are trying, but they still need to try a lot harder. The PMC (Pune MunicipalCorporation) focuses mostly on infrastructure and housing." Housing is where SA is working.

But how to give a voice to people at the discussion table when most of them don’t even have documentation that they exist? Answer: Use Geographic Information Systems (GIS) mapping and Google Earth to map every slum and family in the city, and then show the government officials. This pioneering effort by SA is remarkable – try some examples here by clicking the thumbnails. To collect data ranging from income, to housing type, to person-to-latrine ratio, SA employs local youth who reside in the slums to go door-to-door. Then the data is mapped out on top of the Google map, allowing SA to see the crucial problems in different areas. Her approach is so novel that when asked how the Ashoka network has benefited her, she admitted that no one else is doing what she’s doing, so it’s almost been a non-factor.


  1. What does the government structure look like? At what level are government subsidies/programs distributed? If it comes from the central government, I would understand that they would not necessarily understand the lay of the land. However, if it comes from local authorities, I would find it hard to believe that they really don't know where the slums are. What do you think?

  2. Thanks for the good question. The Pune government is run by the Pune Municipal Corporation, and from my understanding most of the programs are federal or state, but carried out by the city. The local government certainly knows where the physical slums are – sure they could point them out – but in many respects they don’t know the lay of the land. I’m especially talking about the important statistics like number of people actually living in each household or the actual average floor space per household.

    For example, the two big players in urban poor development are the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), a central government initiative launched in 2005, and the Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA), a state initiative coincidentally launched in 2005. Both are administered on the local level. To build new housing for the poor, JNNURM will require a 10% contribution from the dwellers while the SRA will give the homes free. Pune is looking to use both of the plans, and Shelter Associates argues that not only does using different plans like this make no sense, but it underscores the city’s lack of deep understanding of the local slums required to rearrange a city. The city doesn’t have an idea as to the population densities, which when makes it impossible to calculate the viability of the project when considering differing land values across the city. Giving the houses away for free certainly won’t help this problem either, and hammers home how the city has not fully taken into account the slum dwellers and the intricacies this project requires. I’ve emailed Mrs. Joshi for her thoughts on this.

  3. Wow. I am really amazed by all your travels and experiences. I kind of envy you. Getting to see it all first hand and visit all these exotic places. To explore and discover by really seeing it. I want to do that someday.