Teach them how to fish!

“Everything is world class, Sir!”

In an era of uninhibited consumerism and commercialization, one can oft hear this cry- the strive to emulate international standards and cultivate a global image of the redundant City. This urban growth for the sake of growth neglects one important ideal real human development, which is essential for creation of humane habitats, especially for the urban homeless. The move to create 100 new smart cities in India, comes at a time when measures to elevate urban poverty still progresses at a sluggish pace, if at all. Slums, squatter settlements and the countless homeless people who survive on the streets of the city are testimonies to the harsh realities of life, against the backdrop of ceaseless “growth” in some parts of Chennai.

Informal Sector, the foundation of urban society.

The urban poor in Chennai, especially the homeless, depend on the Informal sector for their livelihood. Loading and unloading goods, operating the pushcarts, garbage disposal, painting, tinkering and housekeeping are among the many odd jobs that they do, localising around areas where the demand for informal labour is high. Now, the interesting point is that this informal sector thrives in the commercial districts of every city, like George Town in Chennai. Consequently, places that see the most money changing hands are also the places that have the most number of homeless poor squatting on the streets!

Hidden amidst the ever-present sheen of commercialism in George Town is another side to this historic core – the countless urban poor who have made the streets of George Town their home because of the perpetual demand for labour and the mélange of opportunities it confers. As a result of its proximity to two major transit hubs, the Port and the Central Railway Station, it has transformed into a prime commercial district, powered by the never-ending supply of migrant laborers.

Map showing concentration of Homeless in George Town, the CBD of Chennai. [Source : Study done as part of Gsen Trophy NASA 2013]
Within George Town, the homeless poor settle in and around the streets they work in, resulting in a high degree of fragmentation and a displaced sense of territoriality within them. They appear in the night, keeping themselves to the shadows, losing sleep to the mosquitoes and policemen, huddled together on the pavements for warmth and safety. Come morning, they disappear into the crowds, transporting goods in their rickety pushcarts the whole day. This repeats every day, all year. Take a drive through the streets of George Town at 4 in the morning to see pavements lined with sleeping families, some even inside standing autos and pushcarts!


The settling pattern of Homeless along Urban fringes. [Source : Study done as part of Gsen Trophy NASA 2013]
Study of the Homeless population on Broadway Street, George Town. [Source : Study done as part of Gsen Trophy NASA 2013]
The urban poor are considered to be significant only in terms of the benefits they provide for the economic sector. They are used and accepted as an army of cheap labour. They are nothing more than an invisible workforce to the average urban dweller and it is this invisibility that does the most harm. The lack of a definite ‘home’ excludes them from most social welfare schemes; they are relegated to the sidelines even in the matter of their own relocation programmes, forcibly executed by the local authorities.  These rehabilitation crusades blatantly disregard the dependency of the homeless on the immediate context for survival. This is why forced eviction fails– it separates them from a context they are irrevocably tied to. It moves them to places alien to them, and unable to find employment they revert to the original conditions in the core of the city.


So, what is the government doing wrong here? When did housing become an investment opportunity, a privilege rather than a basic human right? While evicting the homeless from their settlements violates that right, what then is the most humane way to tackle the issue of urban homelessness? Moreover, how can architects and urban planners contribute in creating truly humane habitats for the homeless, in a city that is inclusive and socially cohesive?

Integration with the Context

First, it is imperative to understand that the urban poor have a complex, inseparable relationship with the society and the surrounding context. This interconnected nexus dictates their lifestyle and status in the urban fabric. Contextuality is the key to survival for the urban poor. Providing surface level interventions might produce an interim solution but in order to create a lasting effect, all rehabilitation measures need to devise frameworks that integrate the poor with the existing urban context, making them more acceptable in the society.

Urban poor have a complex, inseparable relationship with the society and the surrounding context- an Urban Nexus.

Dealing with identity and empowerment

Designs for affordable housing need to address issues of individual and communal identity within a social group that has been marginalized and neglected for years. The way forward is in not in just providing housing on a silver plate; it is in empowering the poor. Like the saying goes, Give a man a fish, he will live for a day. Teach him how to fish, and he will live forever’. Likewise, enabling and empowering the poor, creating opportunities to break the vicious cycle of poverty is paramount to the success of any rehabilitation scheme. Spaces dedicated to expression of self, social interaction and bonding with the community will generate a form of social capital, a unique asset to the creation of cohesive cities.

Changing mindsets

Above all, a change in the city requires a change in the mindsets of the people. Demarcating areas as ‘slums’ or developing new neighborhoods for the urban poor in the suburbs is nothing but a form of modern spatial apartheid, not unlike the spatial apartheid during British colonisation that saw the creation of Black Town, now George Town. Slums, squatters and other informal settlements should not be viewed as the dark side of increasing urbanization, but as a new form of architecture and urbanism that fuses ethics with aesthetics. It is a resource, one of immense potential, to be shaped and nurtured, and not a liability of a developing city. The value of a slum is generated by its people, through their work in the city and locality. Blurring the boundaries around these settlements, enabling a give-take relationship with the city and society is the first step towards creating a truly ‘world class’ city. Give it time.

[This article is the joint work of NASA Gsen Trophy team of 2013]


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