Feature story

Homes ahoy

Drones are the unlikely allies in a programme that employs eye-in-the-sky technology to help provide land rights to 1 million slum dwellers in Odisha’s urban centres

Residents of Gopalpur in the Ganjam district of Odisha scan the skies regularly as they watch out for the cyclonic storms that frequently hit this coastal village and, almost as frequently, leave havoc in their wake. But what they spotted recently was astonishing indeed — unidentified flying objects.

The objects were drones deployed under a programme — jointly undertaken by the Government of Odisha and the Tata Trusts — to conduct an aerial survey of nine urban local bodies of Ganjam and Puri districts. This survey of slums by unmanned aerial vehicles is part of the Tata Trusts engagement in a pioneering urban rehabilitation project being implemented by the Odisha government.

Urban rehabilitation is a critical move for Odisha, where 23% of the population lives in urban slums. The first step in the ambitious urban transformation initiative was taken in August 2017, when the state legislature passed the Odisha Land Rights to Slum Dwellers Act, which will enable the government to execute what it says is the world’s largest ‘slum land titling’ initiative.

This project is an urgently required urban necessity. It emerged from the realisation that slum dwellers are in many ways the lifeline of the state’s urban centres and that Odisha cannot become better without them being uplifted. It began in August 2017 with Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik announcing his cabinet’s decision to provide land rights to slum dwellers. He described it as an important part of his government’s effort to bring about growth that is inclusive and empowering.

This was followed up by the Odisha Liveable Habitat Mission, launched by the chief minister on May 7, 2018. Present at the state-level function were Ratan Tata, chairman of the Tata Trusts, and Norman Foster, the renowned international architect. Mr Tata described the distribution of land rights as “earthshaking” and “far-reaching” and promised the Trusts’ support for it.

The habitat mission — also known as the Jaaga mission — aims to hand over land titles to the largest-ever group of such beneficiaries: about 200,000 households in all. The mission covers not just housing but also aims to improve urban living standards by providing piped water, individual toilets, good roads, street lighting and common facilities like parks and playgrounds.

The Jaaga mission

G Mathi Vathanan, Odisha’s commissioner-cum-secretary, housing and urban development, says that the government realised that merely giving land rights to slum dwellers would not improve their lives. “We conceptualised the Jaaga mission to convert existing slums into liveable habitats,” he says.

The land rights piece in the mission covers 1 million people living in 2,000 slums across 109 towns of the state. Covering this area through manual surveys would have taken years. This is where the Tata Trusts stepped in with a technology solution.

“We identified technical agencies and guided them to deploy drones to conduct aerial surveys and map the slums,” says Shishir Dash, who leads the urban habitat project for the Trusts in Odisha. Deploying a dozen drones helped speed up the survey process. The outcome: Odisha will be issuing 200,000 land titles by the end of 2018.

The government has provided 1 billion for the mission in the current year’s budget. It has also invested about 4 billion in the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation to ensure that every slum household will get two piped water connections. And there’s Awaas, launched in 2015, which aims to enable housing for all and provide financial assistance of 200,000 per beneficiary.

It’s going to be tough

The scale of the challenge that lies before the state administration is monumental. Of the 2,000 slums covered by the mission, about 1,000 come under five municipal corporations and the rest are spread across 100 urban local bodies. The Odisha government decided to speed up the survey by using technology and allocated the technology and capacity building tasks to the Trusts.

“We provided rigorous training for government officials and volunteers,” adds Mr Dash. “We gave them tablets and developed applications to collect information.” The Tata Trusts are partnering international organisations like the Norman Foster Foundation, the Omidyar Network and Cadasta for technological support.

This is a programme deliberately designed to not bring beneficiaries to government offices. It adopts a community-based approach with the focus on doorstep delivery of services. NGO partners will visit the slums and collect the required household information. “We are happy that in the pilot phase, covering nine urban local bodies consisting of 47 slums in two districts, about 2,000 land rights certificates have been distributed without the slum dwellers visiting any government offices even once,” points out Sangramjit Nayak, director, municipality administration.

The project has introduced new ways of working. For instance, a WhatsApp group was formed and it includes everyone from the urban development commissioner to collectors of all the 30 districts of the state, executive officers, NGO representatives and volunteers.

Other well-known institutions are also associated with the Trusts in implementing this pilot programme for the Jaaga mission. They include the Indian Institute for Human Settlement, the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, the Centre for Urban and Regional Excellence and about 26 local NGOs.

Shikha Srivastava, head, urban habitat and migration with the Tata Trusts, points out that this project will be a blueprint not only for other similar ones in India but also for other parts of Asia. “The basic premise of the project is to give ownership to communities, empowering them and making them partners in the development process,” she says.

The challenge has been in meeting the expectations of our people within a stipulated time period.”

‘Odisha cannot improve at the cost of the poor’

Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s determination to transform Odisha is the driving force behind his government’s effort to improve the lot of slum dwellers through landmark legislation and trailblazing programmes. In this interview with Horizons, he explains why transforming slums into liveable habitats has to be a non-negotiable component of the urban agenda of every state in India.

What kind of social development do the Land Rights to Slum Dwellers Act and the Odisha Liveable Habitat Mission promise?

Odisha has created history and emerged as a model state by according land rights to urban slum dwellers. The slum dwellers as well as their political representatives have welcomed this unique initiative of my government that helps address urban poverty.

The intent is that the urban poor living in slums will get land rights as well as a liveable habitat, and this will improve their quality of life. The process is underway. I personally review the programme and have made it a priority for my government.

What are the challenges you have faced in rolling out the programme and what have you learned along the way?

The challenge has been in meeting the expectations of our people within a stipulated time period. The key learning has been that Odisha cannot improve at the cost of the poor, and specifically the urban poor. We needed to bring in proactive policy changes that acknowledge the challenge of developing slum settlements and address the community’s aspirations.

The capacities of local governments to undertake slum land settlement through transparent and good governance has to be strengthened. We need to identify and secure adequate — and additional — funding to carry out further slum improvisation activities. My officers are on the job to make this process simpler and quicker.

I am happy that the Tata Trusts are partnering the Government of Odisha in this project, providing technical support, and bringing in global partners like the Norman Foster Foundation, the Omidyar Network and Cadasta. The Trusts are helping us in adopting best practices and in learning from international benchmarks.

The two initiatives are unique and path-breaking. Can they be replicated in other parts of the country?

Transforming slums into liveable habitats has to be a non-negotiable component of the urban agenda of all state governments in India. The unique Land Rights to Slum Dwellers Act aims to provide a distinctive opportunity for economic, social, political and environmental transformation on a massive scale. Our approach on this is progressive and is being driven on a multi-sectoral and convergent basis.

Will the rollout of such programmes help tackle the urban crisis that is confronting India?

All major cities in India are combating the issue of slums. Slum populations have not been accounted for through inclusive planning and have remained underprivileged. Through the Odisha Liveable Habitat Mission, we have attempted a three-pronged approach to tackle the issue.

Our approach is as follows: first, stop eviction and demolition. Second, adopt a curative approach by upgrading slums through physical improvement (street lighting, infrastructure for drainage and solid waste, etc), social and economic measures, as well as land and tenure security. Third, use preventive measures such as affordable housing solutions. This three-pronged approach will greatly enhance the capacity of our cities to fulfil the needs of new migrants in urban areas.

Naveen Patnaik (right) gives a land title deed to a family of urban slum dwellers at a function held in Chhatrapur