On the Edge

Crossing Borders

Contrasts make things visible. Contrasts occur mainly at the boundary of an object, a house or a neighbourhood. Right at the edge of a slum, its particularities compared to the surrounding area are clearly visible.

In the informal society of slum dwellers, every building is an accumulation of improvements. Because of the risk of destruction, investments are kept to a minimum. Investments that yield long-term returns are impossible. The strength of formal property lies in the time factor. The certainty that a longer time is available to recover the incurred development costs, it is possible to spread those costs. When demolishing a building to make way for new construction, the residual value, the potential yield and the demolition costs are amortized. These costs can be generated from the future returns. In the informal economy demolition is an unattractive option. Distribution of costs on future returns is not possible. The lack of formal ownership annihilates guarantee about the time factor. Replacement of a building by something better is much less common than adapting a building to the changed needs. So houses clearly look like a stack of improvements and extensions.


Photo 1. Slum as stacked improving, behind it improved stacking.

The formal sector of society has the ability to accumulate capital. People bring their money to the bank for interest and have a guarantee that they are entitled to their assets. The bank can provide credit to investors and developers thus facilitating property to be developed. Like in the case of high-rise houses that can only be achieved with accumulated capital and can only yield profit on the long-term. The informal sector lacks this ability to accumulate.

The encounter of these two worlds, the formal and the informal, can be very sharp but also very diffuse. Sharp in the appearance of these buildings. Diffuse in the use of space. Owners find themselves protected by formality, squatters are informal and are at risk of destruction of their shelter. In the slum, informal and formal are being built against each other or even stacked. A shop is illegally built against a house in the formal sector, with the consent of the formal owner. An owner rents his roof to an illegal migrant. A migrant family is meanwhile legalized by a law but their house is in an illegal spot. Srinanda Sen and Jane Hobson observed that, “Under a resolution passed by the government of Maharashtra, slum dwellers that have lived in the city prior to 1995 are recognised as legitimate dwellers who are entitled to resettlement if evicted. Thus it’s a paradox that the people are legitimate but the slum in which they live is unrecognised and so merits no services.” .1


Photo 2. Encroachment on land owned by the railways.

Railway companies are big land owners and the battle for space in the city will always occur along railways. Not only the land on which the tracks lay, are part of the property. Usually a strip of land on either side of the track is in the possession of the railway, for future rearrangement or doubling of the tracks. Then if the pressure to build houses is very high, that empty spare land along the railroad becomes very tempting. The land of the railway is a lucrative business. In many countries, this reserved land is temporarily leased out or built upon by the railway itself. The revenues are substantial. The rental of land and buildings makes the railway companies an important party on the property market.


Photo 3. Railway land used to grow herbs.

It is understood that the land ownership of the railway property is thoroughly formally stated. A state with statutory ownership in the formal society is at little risk of a successful land theft. However, when that property is attacked by the informal society, matters become more complex. The unregistered, informal, sublegal, extralegal, and illegal migrants are invisible to the administration of the formal and therefore difficult to fight. They cannot be sued or addressed with an eviction notice. Only the use of force would help but leaders rarely become popular by doing so.

Besides the advantage of the invisibility enjoyed by illegal builders, the railways have a physical disadvantage. Their territory is narrow and elongated, the boundaries of their area is above average length. These long land borders are difficult to defend. When the railways clear illegal constructions in their fields, there will be replacements within a very short time. The shacks are very easy to build quickly. The rebuild rate can be huge. A shelter that has been destroyed in the afternoon will stand again the next morning. In Turkey, such dwellings are therefore called Ge├žekondus (“Set up overnight”). The daily cycle of evacuation and reconstruction can keep going for consecutive months. Persistence wins but the victory has a limited shelf life. This cat and mouse game makes life in the land strips along the track always uncertain. An increased risk of destruction always remains and it keeps the buildings from growing.


Photo 4. The closer to the railways (foreground), the more improvised the building.

There is safety in numbers means that the chance to become victim of something becomes smaller as the group increases. In a flock, birds flying in the heart of the swarm are least likely to be caught by a bird of prey. Therefore, it is relevant to fly in a swarm and preferably not on the edge. This instinct also explains the apparent behaviour of a swarm as a body. When each individual adheres to the swarm and escapes outside threats by flying to the heart of the swarm, the flock as a whole creates the typical forms and movements of the swarm. A school of fish moves with the same regularity. Of course, houses in a slum cannot swarm in that dynamic way. However, it explains why houses on the edges of the slum are often smaller than in the middle. The risk of destruction is greater to the edges. As can be seen in building along the railway, violating a formal property is a risk-increasing factor. Besides that, the physical situation also plays a role. The houses on the edge of a slum are simply easier to reach for bulldozers. In the heart of the slum the risk of destruction is smaller and the willingness to invest is subsequently more.


Photo 5. A wall as a clear demarcation of the railway property. Security for both parties.

A wall between the formal property of the railways and the slum reduces the risk of destruction. It is less attractive to live behind a wall outside the residential area, which is ensuring the railways’ property rights not being violated. In return it is unlikely that bulldozers get to the slum via the railway site. The houses along this border are therefore of reasonable quality, investing is less risky, the risk of destruction is notably small. The wall creates an ideal dump location, making it easy to keep the street on the slum side clean.


Photo 6. An old recipe: water provides protection against invasions.

A moat has always been an excellent defense and therefore building along this river is a fairly safe investment. The area left of the river is Thirteenth Compound, where the recycling industry is located. Roofs are used as storage for merchandise. The houses on the left have exceptional facades. Ground floor and upper floors seem to be built as one project, as the facade runs in one surface over two floors. This is exceptional as it requires a significant investment in a short period. Most homes in Dharavi are an accumulation of successive investments with significant intervals. The facades of the different phases show large variations and rarely form one continuous surface.

The river flows into Mahim Creek, a bay of the Indian Ocean. Many sewers discharge into the river and a lot of litter ends up in it. In practice, the river is a large open sewer. The pollution is so bad that fishermen of Koliwada, the original fishing village in Dharavi, can no longer catch fish in Mahim Creek. If a sewer pipe were installed directly from Dharavi into the ocean, it would be a vast improvement to the environment and fish stocks.


Photo 7. Elevation of an embankment. Building techniques are visible as in a CT-scan section of a body.

The embankment of the river is a sharp boundary of the arable land. So sharp that a view on the neighbourhood looks like an abrupt section. As the application of finishing on the water side is almost impossible, techniques used can be clearly seen on that side of the structures. Various types of stones and bricks are processed into a brick wall. The facades of the street are finished with stucco in various colours. The toilets which have been built really on the edge of the wall, have a perfect drainage. In case of interrupted water supply, the drain remains doing its job.
Life on the edge of the slum means an increased risk, as experienced by animals in herds, swarms and schools when they are on the border of the group. Only if the edge has a physical barrier such as a wall or a moat, the risk of destruction is reduced again.

1. Shelter Associates, Pune India, the Pune Slum Census project , Seventh International Seminar on GIS in developing countries, 15 - 18 May 2002, read 18 october 2009.

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