One million people to become homeowners in India's Odisha slums

A government program aims to give land rights along with loans to build sturdier houses to about 1 million people living in slums across the eastern Indian state of Odisha. Living in temporary structures is incredibly dangerous given near yearly cyclones. 

Adnan Abidi/Thomson Reuters Foundation
A girl runs home after receiving a free meal for breakfast at the cyclone-hit Gopalpur village, in Ganjam district in the eastern Indian state of Odisha on October 14, 2013. Monsoons and cyclones pose large threats to families living in mud-and-brick temporary homes in India's slums.

Every year, Neelabeni and her family await the monsoon with trepidation in their mud-and-brick home in an informal settlement near the coast in the eastern Indian state of Odisha.

Nearly every year, cyclones that brewed in the Bay of Bengal would damage the almost 300 homes in their settlement in Gopalpur town, tearing the tin and thatch roofs and smashing the flimsy walls.

This year however, Ms. Neelabeni – who goes by one name – is looking forward to the monsoon, as she and her neighbors will start building pucca, or permanent homes, when the rains stop.

Nearly every family has received a title, or patta, under an ambitious program to give land rights to about 1 million people living in slums across Odisha. They will also receive a loan with which to build their homes.

"We have always lived in a kutcha [temporary] home, and we would spend all our savings on building a new home every year after the rains. Now we will build a proper home," she said.

"This is the first document with my name - everything else only has my husband's name. I will have full rights over the house," she said, showing the laminated title, along with a loan approval document and an assurance from the chief minister.

About 65 million people live in India's slums, according to census data, which activists say is a low estimate.

Nearly half the country's population is forecast to live in its cities by 2025, as more people leave the villages to seek better prospects, according to demographers.

Many will end up in overcrowded slums that lack even basic facilities, with no claim on the land or property, and in fear of being evicted every day.

The Odisha program aims to give titles to 200,000 households in urban slums and those on the outskirts of cities by the end of the year.

Alongside, authorities are widening roads, laying sewage pipes, and installing water taps, toilets, and playgrounds.

"People who come to the cities are all contributing to its economic activity, yet they are considered encroachers," said G. Mathi Vathanan, the state housing department commissioner.

"The usual policy of settling them in the city's periphery doesn't work because they don't want to live so far away. So the idea behind the legislation was, why not settle them where they live, and transform these slums into liveable habitats?"

The Odisha Land Rights to Slum Dwellers Act 2017 gives slum dwellers in small towns rights over up to 600 square feet of land, while in the cities they get rights over up to 450 square feet.

It was unveiled last year by Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, who called it a "historic" legislation.

Charity Tata Trusts is helping implement the mission, as are dozens of local charities that are conducting surveys and verifying documents.

Officials have made detailed maps of the slums after drone surveys and door-to-door interviews to fix property boundaries and ensure that no private lands are encroached.

A slum dwellers' association in each settlement liaises with officials and a designated charity on the data and the applications for titles.

The process is streamlined to avoid bureaucratic bottlenecks, with everyone communicating via mobile chat app WhatsApp, said Mathi Vathanan, showing notifications on his phone from the dozens of groups that he is a part of.

He was a district official in Ganjam, where Gopalpur is located, when a Super Cyclone struck Odisha in 1999, killing nearly 10,000 people and damaging more than 1.5 million homes.

"I realized then how inadequate shelters of the poor are," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"We attach so much value to land, we sometimes don't value people. Owning their homes can ensure their safety and dignity."

Across India, at least six homes are destroyed and 30 people forcibly evicted each hour as authorities modernize cities and build highways, activists say.

Slum-dwellers have long opposed efforts by authorities to relocate them to distant suburbs, which limits their access to jobs and amenities. Instead, they favor in-situ upgrading of facilities and secure tenancy.

But while several states have schemes to give land to the rural poor, the high cost of land in India's cities has hamstrung slum redevelopment and affordable housing schemes.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Housing For All Mission in 2015, with a deadline of 2022. It aims to build 20 million urban housing units and 30 million rural homes.

Despite the shortage, tens of thousands of low-cost homes are lying empty because they are too expensive for the urban poor, or because they are in undesirable locations.

The Odisha program offers financial assistance of up to $2,900 along with the titles, and leaves construction to the homeowner.

Officials have distributed more than 2,000 titles, and aim to hand titles to all 200,000 households by the end of the year.

Odisha's model is "feasible and sustainable, and already imagined at scale," said Renu Khosla, director of the Centre for Urban and Regional Excellence, which is assisting the state in the program.

While other states have hesitated to settle slum dwellers because of a lack of political will and lobbying by developers, Odisha can succeed because it is a collective action led by the community, she said. The impact can be enormous.

"Upgrading slums can trigger development of the entire town or city. So developing slums may be good for the city's development," she said.

In Gopalpur, Neelabeni's neighbors are buying cement, bricks, and paint, and comparing notes on layout and design.

Her home will have a single room and a kitchen, with a toilet added on later with separate funds, she said.

"This house is just mud and bricks; we will demolish it and build a strong house that can withstand any cyclone," she said.

"Once we have our new houses, we will have better lives."

This story was reported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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