Urban Squatters and Slums
Defining Squatter Settlements

Hari Srinivas
Concept Note Series E-036. April 2022.

Definition of a squatter settlement varies widely from country to country and depends on a variety of defining parameters. In general, it is considered as a residential area in an urban locality inhabited by the very poor who have no access to tenured land of their own, and hence "squat" on vacant land, either private or public.

I. Introduction:

For the millions of poor in developing areas of the world, urban areas have always been a means for improving their quality of living and environment, besides getting better jobs and incomes. This, in contrast to deteriorating conditions in the rural areas has generated a considerable flow of migrants to cities, particularly in the last three decades. Priorities of urban migrants change over time, depending on various conditions that they find themselves. But one of the first dilemmas that they face and which persists for a long period, is the question of an adequate house. With little resources, financial or otherwise, skills or access to them, the drastic option of illegally occupying a vacant piece of land to build a rudimentary shelter is the only one available to them. The problem is further compounded by the apathy and even anti-pathy of various government agencies who view the "invasion" of urban areas by "the masses" and the development of squatter settlements as a social "evil" that has to be "eradicated". Such a confusing and knee-jerk reaction and attitude towards squatter settlements has not helped the more basic question of "adequate housing for all". Qualifying definitions, characteristics, quality and examples of squatter settlements vary widely, with the inherent danger of generalization, but an attempt has been made to identify key features which are common to such areas and distinguish them.

II. Definition of a Squatter Settlement:

A squatter settlement therefore, can be defined as a residential area which has developed without legal claims to the land and/or permission from the concerned authorities to build; as a result of their illegal or semi-legal status, infrastructure and services are usually inadequate. There are essentially three defining characteristics that helps us understand squatter settlement: the Physical, the Social and the legal with the reasons behind them being interrelated.

  1. Physical Characteristics:

    A squatter settlement, due to its inherent "non-legal" status, has services and infrastructure below the "adequate" or minimum levels. Such services are both network and social infrastructure, like water supply, sanitation, electricity, roads and drainage; schools, health centres, market places etc. Water supply, for example, to individual households may be absent, or a few public or community stand pipes may have been provided, using either the city networks, or a hand pump itself. Informal networks for the supply of water may also be in place. Similar arrangements may be made for electricity, drainage, toilet facilities etc. with little dependence on public authorities or formal channels.

  2. Social Characteristics:

    Most squatter settlement households belong to the lower income group, either working as wage labour or in various informal sector enterprises. On an average, most earn wages at or near the minimum wage level. But household income levels can also be high due to may income earners and part-time jobs. Squatters are predominantly migrants, either rural-urban or urban-urban. But many are also second or third generation squatters.

  3. Legal Characteristics:

    The key characteristic that delineates a squatter settlement is its lack of ownership of the land parcel on which they have built their house. These could be vacant government or public land, or marginal land parcels like railway setbacks or "undesirable" marshy land. Thus when the land is not under "productive" use by the owner, it is appropriated by a squatter for building a house. It has to be noted here that in many parts of Asia, a land owner may "rent" out his land for a nominal fee to a family or families, with an informal or quasi-legal arrangement, which is not however valid under law.

    In general, there are several attributes that act as generative forces and determine the quality and size of a settlement. Such attributes could be either internal to the settlement or external:

    Internal Attributes External Attributes
    Work place
    Place of origin
    Length of stay in settlement
    Investment in housing
    Construction activity
    Presence of renters
    Land owner
    Tenure security
    Municipal/city government policies
    Length of stay in city

    III. Historical Development of the term, "Squatter Settlement":

    Squatter settlements have been in existence from a long time, in the sense that an individual other than the land owner has built houses with or without the consent of the land owner. But they were not illegal "squatter" settlements as we define and categorize them today. The term "squatter settlement" is infact a more recent western-initiated development, which came about by the writings of Charles Abrams and John Turner and particularly during and immediately after the Habitat Conference of 1976 in Vancouver, Canada. This delineation of such informal or spontaneous settlements as "squatter" settlements represented a growing change in attitude from outright hostility to that of support and protection.

    Abrams (1964) illustrates the process of squatting as a "conquest" of city areas for the purpose of shelter, defined both by the law of force and the force of law. Turner (1969) takes a positive outlook and portrays squatter settlements as highly successful solutions to housing problems in urban areas of developing countries. Payne (1977) similarly puts the development of squatter settlements in the overall perspective of urban growth in the third world and its inevitability. A vast number of case studies at the Habitat Conference at Vancouver in 1976 highlighted the conditions in squatter settlements, calling for a concerted and committed approach towards solving the problems.

    IV. The Squatter

    A "squatter" (in The Concise Oxford Dictionary) is a person who settles on new especially public land without title; a person who takes unauthorized possession of unoccupied premises. Therefore, a residential area occupied by squatters becomes a squatter settlement. But the narrow generalization, especially of settlement type is evident: everything from a brick-and-concrete multistoried house to a "occupied" cardboard carton become "squatter settlements". The need is so much more necessary to understand such settlements so that a concerted action can be taken.

    V. Squatter Settlement - Alternative Names:

    One common confusion regarding squatter settlements is its relation to the term "slum". Encyclopedia Britannica defines a slum as "...a residential areas that are physically and socially deteriorated and in which satisfactory family life is impossible. Bad housing is a major index of slum conditions. By bad housing is meant dwellings that have inadequate light, air,toilet and bathing facilities; that are in bad repair, dump and improperly heated; that do not afford opportunity for family privacy; that are subject to fire hazard and that overcrowd the land, leaving no space for recreational use....." Therefore, while a slum settlement refers to the condition of a settlement, squatter settlement would refer to the legal position of the settlement. There are a number of names by which squatter settlement are described by various authors, which highlight the attitudes and approaches towards them, ranging from a positive to neutral to negative outlook. These are:

    • Informal settlements
    • Low-income settlements
    • Semi-permanent settlements
    • Shanty towns
    • Spontaneous settlements
    • Unauthorized settlements
    • Unplanned settlements
    • Uncontrolled settlements

    Some of the local/colloquial names for squatter settlements (often also used for slum settlements)

    Ranchos = Venezuela
    Callampas, Campamentos = Chile
    Favelas = Brazil
    Barriadas = Peru
    Villas Misarias = Argentina
    Colonias Letarias = Mexico
    Barong-Barong = Philippines
    Kevettits = Burma
    Gecekondu = Turkey
    Bastee, Juggi-johmpri = India

    VI. The Development Process of a Squatter Settlement

    The key question to be asked here is why do people squat? There are two reasons for this: one is internal to the squatter, and the other is external. Internal reasons include, lack of collateral assets; lack of savings and other financial assets; daily wage/low-income jobs (which in many cases are semi-permanent or temporary). External reasons include, high cost of land and other housing services; apathy and anti-pathy on the part of the government to assist them; high "acceptable" building standards and rules and regulations; loopsided planning and zoning legislation.

    These reasons leave no option for the low-income householder to squat on a vacant piece of land. The actual squatting is done either by a "slum lord" or simply a initial small group of core squatters . The slum lord appropriates a piece of vacant land, subdivides it and "sells" it to various households for the purpose of building a house. Services like water-supply or electricity may be provided either by this person or by the organization of the squatters, usually at the community level. The core group squatters are a small number of families who, almost overnight, occupy a piece of land and build a rudimentary and temporary shelter. Later, depending on the degree of threat of eviction, this may be upgraded to a permanent and more families may join this group. There are two distinct processes involved in the formation of a settlement. One is the organic and induced processes. The organic process refers to the forces and pressures which are initiated from within the settlement and squatter. They evolve naturally, without any outside intervention and using internal resources of the family or settlement for development, such as labour, locally available materials etc. The induced process refers to the "inducement" set up by agencies and organizations which are external to the settlement. Operating with objectives and goals on a larger, city-wide scale, they initiate programmes and projects for the overall development of the settlement. Both these put together act on the growth of a squatter settlement, through a series of consolidative stages of development. These stages are conclusive in their outcome, in the sense that they represent a continuum with one stage or process overlapping and even running parallel to each other. They are also cumulative in their effects and not exclusive.

    VII. Approaches towards a Squatter Settlement.

    Considering the magnitude and scale of the housing deficit and the lack of concerted action or inadequate response of government agencies, there is no doubt of the positive role that squatter housing plays in housing the millions of poor families. The main question of land ownership and overutilized infrastructure and services will, however, always remain unanswered. Successive generation of governments have recognized this and a number of approaches have been adopted in finding a solution to the dilemma of squatting. The two popular approaches used by the public authorities have been settlement upgradation and sites-and-services. Settlement upgradation has been an option where a compromise has been reached by the land owner and on a sharing basis, the squatter has been allowed to continue on the land parcel, but with a significant upgradation of the settlement's infrastructure and services, including, in some cases, land leases or ownerships. Where such land compromises or sharing has not been possible, the squatters have been relocated to another location, where varying levels of "sites"-and-"services" have been provided, with, again land lease or ownership. Land sharing is an approach which has brought about considerable settlement improvement by the initiative of the people themselves. The squatter, after having organized themselves into a viable organization, have initiated negotiations with the land owner and have "shared" the land, giving the prime locations of the land (for example, the side facing a road) to the owner and using the remaining for their housing, but in a more organized and improved manner. The role of non-governmental and voluntary organizations has to be emphasized in this respect, in mobilization of the people into an organization, in training and educating them, in forming a link with the authorities, and in various other catalystic ways. As a complement to this, the participation of the community of squatters, in improving the quality of their settlement is also an important resource that has to be tapped for improvement. Commonly, community credit programmes, for example, are used as a rallying point for bringing the squatters not only because money itself is important, but also because of the externalities that it can generate.

    VIII. Future Role of Squatter Settlements in Urban Housing.

    Squatter settlements in urban areas are an inevitable phenomena. As long as urban areas offer economies of scale and agglomeration economies, large cities will always continue to grow attracting migrants from rural and smaller urban areas, leading to more squatting. There is no universal "quick-fix" solution that can solve all the problems of squatting in all parts of the developing world. Considering the inevitability of squatting, the need is primarily for a change in attitude towards squatting, squatters and squatter settlements. One such approach that has been receiving considerable attention from various government and public authorities has been the "enabling" approach, where instead of taking a confrontationist attitude, governments have strived to create an enabling environment, under which people, using and generating their own resources, could find unique local solutions for their housing and shelter problems.

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