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Urban Squatters and Slums
Homelessness - an Issue

Hari Srinivas

[This piece, first written in 1987 during the International Year of Shelter for Homeless, is still valid today as it was then - not only because the problem still persists today, but also because the issues and approaches outlined are still necessary, after all these years.]


For whatever reason, India lends herself rather easily to facile generalizations - the oft quoted one is that she lives largely in her villages. This is not however the truth - rapid industrialization, urbanization, depleting natural resources, biased development priorities, and many other factors have led to massive rural urban migration.

In the year 1900 there were only 11 cities with a population of 1 million, but by 2000 there where 300 of them. The number of cities with more than 15 million population will be about 50 in 2010.

Today India is a land of 1 billion million people of which 164 million or about 23% of been based This means that though India is a predominantly rural country it already has an urban population equal to that of USA!

Consider Bombay - 20 years ago there where less than 400,000 squatters in a population of 4.5 million. Today there are 4.5 million in a population of 9 million. Thus, while the nation has grown by 50% and the city by 100%, the squatters have increased by more than 1100%.

The Great Migration

People are coming to the city's packing their belongings, moving, starting, in the most massive moment of people the world has ever seen. People move for many reasons - to find employment, or to escape calamities like floods, famine and drought. Rural poverty is the most fundamental reason for the great migration to the city.

The vast majority of these men and women are farmers and farm laborers who in their villages lack resources and opportunities for an economically active life. A migrants toehold in the city may be a squatter shanty or nearby marginal lands. They often stay with relatives or on undesirable public sites, hoping that the public authorities will not notice their invasion of public or private lands.

Where does the answer lie?

The solution to homelessness, especially in the lower-income bracket, lies not in the supplier of finished homes, but in realizing and supporting the peoples creative energies in building and improving their homes and neighborhoods.

People have been building for centuries and one of the factors overlooked by the government agencies is that the people themselves are a resource. As a person improves his economic base and social standing, his position in the society consolidates, and he expresses this in terms of the finesse of his house. He may even change his location in the city.

Programmes that do not take this mobility pattern into consideration will most likely fail because they use criteria - availability of public lands or the desire to improve the aesthetics of the poor areas - different from those pursued by the squatters. Providing just "homes" misses out the point that they are already finished, and leave no room for flexibility. The quarter will not be able to enlarge or improve his own dwelling when his life improves.

People have the necessary skills, the necessary resources, the necessary involvement, the necessary commitment, to build a user oriented shelter complimentary to his needs and standing in the society.

The influx of rural families to the cities has transformed metropolitan areas into settlements of rural villages - and planners and government officials must take rural forms and traditions into consideration in formulating policies and programmes for the squatters.

Religion, folkways, social organization and life styles, must be interwoven with the more modern forms of the city. They lend variety and rich diversity to the management of our urban life. Survival of rural forms poses a basic challenge to urban architects and planners, as well as local authorities, in developing countries

The need for new attitudes and perceptions

Architects and planners have been slow to understand the evolutionary processes involved in the housing of squatters. Thus, projects are often carbon copies of housing in the developed countries, despite the differences in climate and culture.

So what must happen now is for planners and government officials to recognize the mistakes of the past and to recognize the now-quite-clear new directions that planning and enlightened government intervention should take - directions that take into account the migrants traditional living patterns and integrate them into public efforts.

The problem of housing encompasses several fields, and this is why architects and planners may have to think outside their professional boundaries on such subjective topics as emotion, psychology, commitment, social service, mediatory politics etc. rather than entertain the blinkered eye view of only professional involvement.

Thus, what is required is a new holistic way of looking at a problem. What we need here is not a physical plan or layout, but an attitude (or change in attitude) - a new way of thinking. A revamping of the entire schedule of approach, of parameters, is needed.

The words - commitment, interrelationships, occupations, self-help, community skills, and upgrading should be as much a part of the vocabulary of an architect or planner, as standards, infrastructure, finance, services and land.


Housing is not only a technical problem, it is also a socio-political one. It requires an integrated approach and therefore, we need to decentralize and de-institutionalize the approach to solve the problems of housing. Self-help housing provides not only shelter, but also creates confidence and resourcefulness in the minds of the people. It helps to convert a house into a 'home'.

In spite of the gravity of problem and our limited resources, to shelter the homeless is not an insurmountable problem, it is a manageable challenge.

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