Planning for Informal Settlements in India

By Jessica R. Barnes and Amar Sawhney

About 3,000 people live and work in this community, earning a living by collecting, scavenging, and selling materials from the trash of the surrounding middle class flats. They build homes from found materials, including tarps, metal, and cardboard. Photo by Jessica R. Barnes.

Jessica Barnes, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Geography, Planning, and Recreation at Northern Arizona University, and Amar Sawhney, Professor of Architecture, Building Construction and Interior Design at Miami-Dade College, were participants in the 2019-2020 CAORC-AIIS Faculty Development Seminar to India. In this joint essay, they discuss the immense challenges facing India’s numerous and densely populated informal settlements as they become incorporated into new urban development programs in Delhi and other major cities.


A trash dump lies in the shadow of a 5-star hotel on the outskirts of New Delhi. This dump is a community where 3,000 people work and live – gathering refuse, sorting scrap for recycling, doing laundry, cooking, raising children. About two hundred homes are built here in the Bhowapur ragpickers colony out of salvaged materials (such as tarps, rugs, cardboard, and corrugated metal). The municipality brings water for a communal tap, but there are also a few wells that sip from the polluted land below the dump. There are no toilets. Electric wires web through the settlement siphoning power from illegal hook ups. Satellite dishes top some of the structures and the sound of radios and televisions drift through the air with the smell of burning plastic as people fuel their cooking fire and try to create some heat on this winter day. The cold chills the ripeness of what must become an overwhelming smell in the sweltering summer heat.

Most of the families here earn their living as ragpickers – gathering trash from the middle class communities and businesses around them and reselling and reusing recyclables. This earns them about 6,500 rupees per month (about $3 USD a day), which is enough to provide daily meals. They glean clothes and building materials from the waste of Indian’s burgeoning consumer society. Ninety percent of the people here are scheduled caste – marginalized groups in Indian society who have traditionally done the most dangerous and dirty jobs for low pay. Some are Muslims, a group that also faces social and economic discrimination in Indian society. Many are migrants who have come from rural Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and West Bengal looking for opportunities in the sprawling megacity of Delhi.

One in six urban Indians, about 93 million people, live in slums. These informal communities fill in the unutilized spaces of the city: river banks, the edges of the railroad tracks, and trash dumps. Rather than being pushed to the exterior, cities here have developed a patchwork of wealthy and middle class housing and poor informal settlements. The poor who live in informal settlements often work in the nearby homes and neighborhoods of the middle class as domestic workers, trash collectors, etc. The most pressing challenges of informal settlements include access to clean water, adequate sanitation, sustainable livelihoods, and rights to the land. The housing structures vary greatly, but often rely on found materials, lack the safety net of formal planning code, and face the constant threat of demolition. Some of these settlements and their residents have lived in these places for generations. Massive disparities related to social and health indicators exist between slum and non-slum populations. These conditions have long fostered inequalities that negatively impact people in informal settlements: exposure to greater health risks and limited access to economic and education opportunities.

In Bhowapur ragpickers colony, workers live in structures they have created out of found materials and sort recycling to be sold to make them a meager income of about 6,500 rupees per month (about $3USD per day). A luxury hotel stands in the background. Photo by Amar Sawhney.

More people around the world are moving to cities, and populations within cities are growing, with about three-quarters of the global population expected to be living in urban areas by 2050. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals call for “making cities inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable.” However, cities in India, like many developing countries, suffer from overurbanization when cities grow more rapidly than they can create employment and housing. The Indian government has created a new program offering housing for the poor – Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojna (PMAY) - Housing for All. This program aims to move people from informal settlements into planned residences such as flats with basic services. Such redevelopment projects are taking place across India, but questions are emerging about who will have access to this housing and how these new spatial configurations may rupture the social and economic connections that have sustained these communities. The scale of the program is immense, promising 20 million homes in urban India by 2022.

The lives and livelihoods of people in informal urban settlements are woven into the fabric of the city. The labor of Delhi’s 500,000 ragpickers is essential to keep the city from being buried in the nearly 5,000 tons of non-compostable solid waste produced every day. It’s estimated 15-20 percent of the city’s trash is recycled by waste pickers, according to environment research non-profit Chitan. The Ragpickers Union has organized these workers throughout the city and in multiple other cities. Their key concerns include improving working conditions, providing safety gear, and ensuring fair wages. When pressure mounted to remove the community at the dump, the union organized a strike stopping waste pick-up in the neighborhood, using what leverage they had to provide some security.

Another way to work towards security is to improve the lives of the children living in these communities so they can move into safer and better paying jobs. In the Bhowapur ragpickers colony there is a one-room school built by the community with help from the PHIA Foundation, a charity working to end poverty, exclusion, and discrimination. The school is about 10 by 12 feet, made from cardboard, tarps, and metal. Thirty little kids crowd inside, sitting on the floor while their teacher tries to impart enough basic skills to prepare them to attend formal schools. She introduces languages such as Hindi and English that can unlock more opportunities. This school has been demolished five times in the last five years because the settlement is illegal, still the community rebuilds it again and again in the hopes it will unlock more opportunities for their children. Even with an education, these children will likely face discrimination due to their caste.

In the Bhowapur ragpickers colony, about 30 students and their teacher crowd into this one-room school built from found materials with help from the PHIA foundation. Classes prepare students for formal school, though they will likely face discrimination due to their caste as they try to find better employment opportunities. Photo courtesy CAORC-AIIS Faculty Development Seminar Fellows.

With government investment coming through the PMAY program, urban planning can potentially help remake cities to promote more equitable access to resources and create more sustainable communities. However, planners need to understand the complexities of local contexts and critically examine how their interventions impact social justice. Opportunities abound as urbanization increases throughout the world and more cities are designated as Smart Cities, claiming a focus on sustainable and inclusive development by leveraging technology, information, and data to efficiently deliver infrastructure and services. As these efforts change the fabric of urban spaces, attention must be given to the social impacts of redevelopment efforts on informal settlements. In particular, the voices of the people living in informal settlements must help shape how policies unfold to ensure their continued access to sustainable livelihoods and communities.

CAORC’s 2019-2020 faculty development seminar to India was organized with the American Institute of Indian Studies and supported by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the following U.S. National Resource Centers in South Asian Studies: Columbia University, Cornell University, Syracuse University, University of California, Berkeley, University of Washington, and University of Wisconsin, Madison.


Learn more about CAORC Faculty Development Seminars.

About the Authors

Jessica Barnes (right) is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Geography, Planning, and Recreation at Northern Arizona University. Amar Sawhney (left) is Professor of Architecture, Building Construction and Interior Design at Miami-Dade College. The two were among 16 faculty participants in the seminar “Exploring Urban Sustainability through India’s Cities,” and intensive capacity-building and curriculum development seminar held in India from December 26, 2019–January 10, 2020.