In Mumbai, the commercial capital of India and home to 12 million people, some 24,000 families have lived for almost two decades along heavily traveled suburban rail lines, with some huts hardly a meter from the tracks. Besides risking death and injury, these residents suffer from a near-total absence of basic services. A project to improve the city’s traffic and transportation system required the resettlement of these slumdwellers. To represent civil society in the resettlement plan, the Maharashtra Government task force sought the participation of an alliance of The Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centers (SPARC; a registered NGO), the National Slum Dwellers Federation (NSDF), and a savings cooperative of women slum and pavement dwellers. A constituent unit of the NSDF is the RSDF, made up of the Mumbai families who would have to move for the railway project.
By June 2001 the alliance had resettled 10,000 families, in just over a year, without force, to accommodations with assurance of secure tenure and basic amenities of water, sanitation, and electricity. How was this done? The Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority in charge of the railway project was willing to give up some of the powers normally held by government agencies in resettlement and rehabilitation—determining eligibility, obtaining baseline information on the community, allocating housing. Such functions, which provide opportunities for rent-seeking and corruption, were ceded to the NGO alliance.
Long before the railway project was initiated, the RSDF had collected information on the railway dwellers as a means of community mobilization and had the trust of its own members as a resource for the resettlement process. The households agreed on the criteria for allocating permanent and temporary accommodations. In the new settlements the families have formed lending cooperatives to compensate for income forgone as a result of the move. The experience shows that a mobilized and self-governing community of poor people can act collectively for its own good and for the good of the larger urban society when there is mutual trust and flexibility on the part of the community and government agencies.