Siska Ram is the junior community architect at mHS CITY LAB, having interned here last year. Here she shares her reflections on her incipient interactions and experiences from the field.
Informal settlements in Indian cities are expected to house over 104 million of the population over this year, making it a tenth of the country’s total projected population. These settlements vary in size, typology, density and land title. In the capital city of Delhi, which I have been exploring as part of the mHS team in the past few months, several types can be distinguished: jhuggi-jhopri clusters (JJ clusters) or what are commonly referred to as ‘slums’ , unauthorised colonies, regularised unauthorised colonies, urban villages and resettlement colonies. JJ Clusters fall on the least ‘legal’ and ‘planned’ end of the spectrum, usually originating to accommodate poor migrants from rural areas. On the other end, lie resettlement areas allocated by the government to relocate people that used to live in illegal settlements. Most of the resettled areas are found on the outskirts of cities, making it difficult and expensive for them to maintain their livelihoods as house helpers, rickshaw drivers, shoe polishers, etc.
Moreover, they are granted only temporary leases of 10 years in the more recent cases such as Savda Ghevda, while older resettlement colonies such as Mongolpuri, set up a few decades back, were granted 99 year leases. Those in the JJ clusters are considered ‘illegal’ and as ‘encroachers’ , even though they might have been staying there for decades. In most Indian cities, the government is the largest land owner, which empowers them to have full say on the destiny of millions of people here. This often results in their eviction or unwanted relocations.
To understand these residential organisms and the people that occupy them better, we need to first understand that no settlement is the same as any other. They all have different origins, history and were shaped into different spaces over time, through successive generations. As they haven’t been planned by an authority or designers, they are rather intimate in scale, with every detail coming into place directly as a result of the needs and desires of their people.
First and foremost, the structure they build serves as a shelter – the basic essence of architecture we sometimes tend to forget. An enclosure of space, where one can be sheltered, with their family and their belongings, to collect and keep safe from the outside. As they continue to live there, over time they start adding to their shelter made of brick, wood or corrugated metal sheets. Day by day, with whatever they can find, they try to make their house a home.
The many variations in the facades were the first thing that caught my eye, when visiting an informal settlement for the first time. This was the resettlement colony of Bawana, located about an hour and a half away from Delhi by car, northwest from its center. Having grown up in a city as Bruges, where development of the streetscape is highly controlled for the sake of historical preservation, the urban experience between Bawana and Bruges couldn’t have been more different. The main reason being that a significant part of community life is taking place in the streets. The facades in Bawana are dressed in different paint colours, tiles, posters, religious and aesthetic decoration, no house looks like another. They serve as a vibrant backdrop for the daily activities, mainly the women and children of the community perform. All the neighbours know which house belongs to whom. For that reason the facade of the shelter is also how they show their wealth and creativity. A huge sense of pride is connected to the image of the house. In other words, the image of the house defines the image of its dweller.
However, most of the inhabitants of informal settlements in urban centres of India have little knowledge of housing construction and its importance, nor do they have the resources and access to gain such knowledge. Times are changing and the young generations are getting more and more opportunities in education and personal development, but the understanding of housing construction is not on top of the list.
Another colony I’ve visited, this time closer to the livelihood of Delhi, was RK Puram. Also a resettlement colony, it differs from Bawana in being resettled in-situ or where the slum already used to be. Bawana was set up by forcefully relocating those living in Yamuna Pushta as part of the Commonwealth Games beautification drive. Even though, in terms of the urban and social fabric, there were many resemblances between the two, the architectural expression was completely different. Here, there was a lot of steel used in the facades, stairs, doors and other visible elements. Talking to the inhabitants, we found out that some of the men were craftsmen in the steel industry. As a result, they had brought their skills back to their own surroundings and, even if unintentionally, given this colony its distinct character.
Needless to say, there are several other factors that influence the look and atmosphere of an informal settlement. All of these neighborhoods, scattered around the nation’s capital and other Indian cities tell a different story. If you look closely, you can read parts of that story from the architecture and the way the residents have chosen to express their identity through their homes. Due to their transitory state and the constant migration of their families, these organisms always keeps developing and the urban story keeps evolving.