#4 Odisha’s Slum Dweller Empowerment Project

A new trajectory in urban policy planning ?

Samparna Tripathy
8 min readDec 21, 2020

In what is being hailed as one of the world’s largest slum dwelling projects (covering 18 lakh slum dwellers), Odisha’s Chief Minister, Shri Naveen Patnaik, kicked off the second phase of granting land right certificates to urban squatters under Odisha Livable Habitat Mission in September 2020. The state has recognized that these dwellers form the economic lifeline of the city (contributing to services like gardening, cooking, cleaning utensils, running errands, driving etc.) and that their participation is critical to the city’s orderly growth and development. Since urbanization is inevitable, this policy appears to be a refreshing change from the myopic and often unworkable, politically unsustainable policy of large scale evictions. The extent to which this policy design is congenial to achieve its ambition of “putting people first in the development discourse” and “unlocking true value of land” can only be understood through its critical evaluation.

About the Project

Odisha has set an ambitious goal of making the state slum free in the next 3 years. The project, expected to benefit a million individuals, will also include equipping slums with basic urban amenities like electricity, water supply, healthcare and sanitation and enhancing livelihoods through education and skill development.

The project is backed by two ordinances passed by the Odisha State Government in August 2017 — Odisha Land Rights to Slum Dwellers Ordinance, 2017 and Odisha Municipal Corporation (amendment) Ordinance, 2017. The former grants land title rights to urban poor households in Municipal Areas (for area up to 450 square feet) and Notified Area Councils (for area up to 600 square feet). The latter grants rights to built up households in Municipal Corporations (for area up to 300 square feet). Priority is given to in-situ redevelopment and wherever not possible, adequate provisions to take responsibility for the transfer of the dwellers to the new site have been specified.

This project is a paradigm shift in housing policies to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG11) of making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. It also fits well with the Housing for All by 2022 ambition of the Government of India. Rural urban migration aided by multiple factors like differential employment opportunities, changing land use, civil strife and climate change is expected to accelerate urbanization at unprecedented levels. 6 out of 10 people are expected to be living in urban and peri-urban areas by 2030. Because of gaps in affordable and accessible housing, land administration and urban planning, almost 800 million people in developing countries are residing in slums. In addition to the inhospitable living conditions in these areas , the constant fear of eviction or displacement restricts the right to a dignified life, a fundamental human right recognized by national and international forums and covenants.

Under this project, the certificate of rights to land or property is for residential use and can be inherited, mortgaged for housing finance but cannot be transferred by way of sub- lease, sale or gift to another party. This can ensure that the certificate holder invests in the up-gradation of housing infrastructure, especially when house is used as collateral for finance. Also the owner cannot be coerced or tempted to make a short term windfall gain by selling his property to land grabbers and speculators (mostly from the middle and high income groups) as such transfer is prohibited for 10 years under the legislation. Allowing inheritance also incentivizes investment in home and surroundings since intergenerational transfer of wealth is made possible. Such rights also reduce expropriation risk. With official land or property titles, the former urban squatters do not have to dedicate a person to look after the property at all times.

Providing essential services to these communities is aided by the collection of local tax, revenues and services charges, which can be facilitated by the regularization of such land or property titles. Possession of land or property is a sign of social standing and such certificates improve social inclusion and respect for law and order, thus enabling cohesive and safe communities not only within the slums but in the larger community outside the slum. Better access to water, sewerage, electricity and solid-waste management systems have the potential of freeing up time of the young adults for education and more gainful employment opportunities, thereby making their community gradually affluent and environmentally more sustainable. Over a period of time, it is expected that they would get mainstreamed with the socio-economic and political life of the city. Their economic contribution would get more organized and formalized into the states’ and country’s growth calculations.

Comparison with Prior Implementations

To this extent, land rights do have the potential to unlock “dead capital” from the assets of the poor as noted by Peruvian economist, De Soto in his work “The Mystery of Capital”. But unlike De Soto’s prescription, the current Odisha Government scheme has a social welfare component added to the legal component of handing over property rights to the slum-dwellers. The state, as a part of discharging its welfare role, is also committed to facilitating construction of a house (roof) for the dweller by extending a grant of Rs. 2 lakh per beneficiary and providing all basic city services and amenities to them in this habitation. Thus, the scheme is pitched not merely to offer economic support to the urban poor and squatters, but veritably lead to their human and socio-economic empowerment.

Another important aspect is the provision of co-ownership of the certificate of rights by both husband and wife in case of married households. Historically, women have been subject to discrimination in formal, informal and customary systems of land tenure. The breakdown of relationships or changing priorities of male owners makes women really vulnerable. Empowering women with equal titular rights has been positively associated with reduced poverty and improved educational (Ecuador) and health outcomes (Argentina) for the entire family. Attributed to greater female autonomy, a 22% reduction in fertility rates has been recorded in groups in Peru that had co-ownership of land titles. With lower risk of default as compared to men, women also have better probability of accessing formal credit on the basis of these land rights and ensuring maximum productivity in land use.

Key Considerations for Policy Success

The moot point however is the extent to which a well meaning legislation for the urban poor can be implemented on ground. The preparatory work of assessing tenure conditions and cadastral surveys (delineation of property boundaries by way of drone surveys and slum mapping) has been entrusted by the Odisha Government to Tata Trusts. In this process, adequate attention should be paid to capture formal, informal and customary rules governing pre- existing land rights within communities (as done in Ghana, Africa). Case studies in other developing economies where such programs have been implemented (Peru, Cambodia) show that administrative procedures regarding land registration, plan approvals and transfers in such programs are so cumbersome and expensive that they end up encouraging more squatter settlements. Hence land administration needs to account for existing political economy. Also capacity building through personnel training and digitization of land records should be given due priority.

Enforcing rights demands an effective dispute resolution mechanism. Under this legislation, decisions taken by a Committee headed by the Collector of the district can be appealed only in front of an appellate officer as appointed by the State government. The decision is considered to be final and binding and no Civil Court has the authority to pass an injunction. The intent may have been to prevent delays due to unnecessary litigation but restricting such powers of the judiciary might be struck down by it in the higher fora. Also typically the poor and marginalized rely on external support such as legal literacy, monetary aid, political advocacy and collective action to claim and defend land rights. Non governmental organizations and civil society should play an active role in this regard (Bangladesh, Philippines).

Another area of concern could be determination of the duration of stay by these dwellers in an existing urban slum, in the absence of reliable documentation. Government would be well advised to be especially careful about it as any discretion here may open the floodgates for irregular titling and unwarranted litigation, thereby jeopardizing the entire programme.

Some lessons are also to be learned from the mixed results achieved on implementation of such projects worldwide. The claim of asset ownership facilitating easier access to formal credit has been debunked by recent research. In Peru, the test group (with land titles) had a 12% more loans sanctioned by the nationalized bank than the control group (without land titles). This state run bank had one of the highest default rates in the industry and was mandated by the government to sanction these loans to make the land titling program successful. No difference was noted in the loan access in case of private banks. The reasons are multiple. First, the squatter occupants are mostly employed in the informal economy and are unable to furnish income proof for grant of loan. Second, banks are skeptical of taking the house as collateral since they fear that government isn’t likely to agree to seizure of homes of the poor and that costs of recovery can far exceed the cost of the loan. Third, housing finance is given on the basis of plan approvals — which might not be sanctioned by the municipal authority in case the habitation doesn’t fulfill building standards. Fourth, squatters may themselves not be interested in putting up the house for mortgage and instead may unofficially lease it to family members for extra income.

Also, integration of lands and properties often leads to an appreciation in land value. With time, the increase in property & inheritance taxes and service charges may lead to market driven displacement of the poor and facilitate occupation of wealthier groups — a process called gentrification. Though there are stringent penalties in place for unauthorized transfer of land that spurs speculation and pushes up land prices, ultimately the efficacy of skill development and consequent employment generated by the State government will be key to help EWS extract maximum benefit from this program.

Pritzker prize winner architect Lord Norman, who attended the launch of this Mission at Ganjam district, said that this initiative by Odisha has the potential to have a ripple effect on global communities for developing such legislations for a sustainable tomorrow. Can Odisha build a future where cities will be places of opportunities for all? Can Odisha be the first state to achieve the goal of Housing for All by 2022? Will Odisha’s programme bring in a new paradigm in urban policy regime and set a new trajectory for empowerment of urban poor? Only time will tell.