Land, Politics, and Insecurity in Slums: A Photo Essay

In 2002, job opportunities in the Peenya Industrial Area of northern Bengaluru (then Bangalore) attracted workers from Tamil Nadu, northern Karnataka, and Telangana (then a part of Andhra Pradesh).[1] They came for a range of jobs in the industrial, construction and daily labour sectors. In the process, the Peenya Industrial Area became one of Asia’s largest industrial sites (Prasanna 2014).[2]  


90 houses in Ashrayanagar slum were demolished for in-situ rehabilitation in 2016. It has since become a parking lot for trucks. 

Since these new workers needed housing, government officials directed them to a land that was amid factories and power lines. The slum that emerged here is called "Ashrayanagar" (or “the place of shelter” when roughly translated from Kannada). While it is not the only slum in Peenya, it was one of the first. 


Images from Google Earth Pro that show the emergence of the Ashrayanagar slum from 2000 to 2017.  


The residents of Ashrayanagar are not sure who owns the land. Some say the land is owned by private developers; while others say the land is owned by the Karnataka Electricity Board (KEB), whose power lines now hang over their heads. According to a rumour, the land was privately owned at first and later sold to the KEB.  Despite the legal uncertainty about the ownership of the land, Ashrayanagar has gone from an empty fallow land to a dense site housing thousands of people in just 16 years—from 2002 to 2017.  

One of the nine toilets built by the local politician. This toilet is utilised by more than 500 residents of Ashrayanagar. 

We chose to document the lives of residents of Ashrayanagar as they navigate complex sociopolitical networks to access basic amenities as a part of our broader multidisciplinary research on slums in India.[3] We conducted interviews of 25 households and four key community members over about eight months—from July 2018 to February 2019. For the interviews of households, we used the snowball sampling method. We divided the site into four quadrants using Google Earth and reached out to an equal number of people from each quadrant to ensure fair representation. However, the selection of households for semi-structured interviews in each quadrant was eventually dependent on their consent and availability. In each of these 25 interviews, we interviewed the male or the female head of the household. We identified four individuals who were willing to share more detailed information on their community and lifestyle. These members were chosen based on our fieldwork. We spent extended time with these individuals to comprehensively learn about their life experiences and specifically their experience living in Ashrayanagar. All in all, our study focused on three questions: how slums emerge, how slums function, and how slums affect the welfare of residents. 


A view of the hazardous electric grids hanging over dwelling units in Ashrayanagar. 

Ramamma is one of the six local leaders in Ashrayanagar. In some pockets of the slum, she is known for her ability to help residents in difficult situations. One resident recalled a time when her 12-year-old daughter, having just come of menstruating age, desperately needed a functioning toilet in her house. Ramamma, the resident said, swiftly responded by personally overseeing the construction of the toilet and subsidising the costs through her connections in the construction sector.  


Residents of Ashrayanagar maximise utility in a limited space, risking potentially hazardous situations, by drying clothes on electric wires.


As a leader of the community, Ramamma also liaises with local political leaders to fight for the development of the slum. This includes efforts to get the area categorised as a notified slum. If successful, the government would officially recognise an area to be a slum and start a more formal process that can improve access to basic amenities such as roads, drainage, and water. While Ashrayanagar has existed since 2002—for about 17 years—it is yet to be notified. 

One of the reasons sprawling slums are tolerated is that they are valuable vote banks for local politicians.[4] In such a system, slum leaders like Ramamma become nodal points between voters and politicians, seeking amenities and security in exchange for votes. But, not every resident of the slum sees the benefits of these close relationships between slum leaders and local politicians.


A dense line of transit houses inhabited by residents whose houses were demolished for in-situ rehabilitation. 


For instance, Shivani, who resides on Ramamma’s lane, is sceptical of promises made by politicians to provide social services and basic amenities, and believes that any provisions benefit only slum leaders, rather than a majority of the slum dwellers.


“Why must there be so many leaders? What do they do? We were promised houses but that fell through; we still live in squalor but the slum leaders keep getting richer,” she says. “We shouldn’t be negotiating amenities for votes; we should be given amenities as it is our basic rights.” 


The local politicians’ inability or reluctance to develop the slum makes life difficult for the residents who strive to provide for their families. Radha is one of the residents who was forced to navigate and overcome Ashrayanagar’s lack of basic services. 

Radha (name changed), a resident of Ashrayanagar, has set up a garment manufacturing unit in her house with limited resources. 


Radha moved to Ashrayanagar about seven years ago with her husband, mother, and two children. Her husband worked in a unit that manufactures garments, but his income was not enough for their family of five. Her daughter was disabled and required constant care and attention, which made it difficult for Radha to work outside the house. One day, Radha took matters into her own hands and installed two electric sewing machines in her house, employed other women in her neighbourhood, and began working on garment contracts. 

“Most women here have really young children, and can’t venture out for work,” she says. “Isn’t it good for women to have an extra source of income right here in the slum?”


Like most residents in Ashrayanagar, Radha siphons electricity to power her machines as well. However, this practice has been a source of disgruntlement among her neighbours, as they believe she is using too much electricity. The lack of organised and metered electricity has led to residents “stealing” it, children using electric poles to play with, and residents using seemingly “dead” electric wires to dry their laundry. 

Because of the lack of regular electricity at home, Radha has had to rent office space close to the slum to continue her work. This not only incurred extra costs, but it also required her to commute back and forth to look after her daughter. 

“The thing that is stopping me from earning more money and taking care of my daughter is metered electricity,” she remarks. “I don’t want to steal from the government, and I am willing to pay for it, but they won’t give us a meter box.” 


But, not everyone in Ashrayanagar has an equally hard time gaining access to basic provisions.  Several rows of houses, about three lanes from Ramamma’s lane, are in better condition than the rest of the slum. They are freshly painted and the streets are clean. 

60-year old Jihan is this area’s community leader and is one of the first residents of Ashrayanagar. She has a positive relationship with the local politician, who she views as the reason they have received relatively better amenities in the previous five years.


The reverse osmosis (RO) water purifier installed by the politician before the elections to provide residents with clean drinking water. It was later found to be defective. 


One such provision is clean drinking water. Up until 2013, Ashrayanagar—home to about 2,000 households—did not have access to drinking water. However, in the run-up to the 2013 Karnataka legislative assembly elections, a sophisticated reverse osmosis water filtration system was installed at the periphery of Ashrayanagar. “A local political figure in power helped us a lot. We had no clean drinking water until the water filtration system was installed,” Jihan says. As of August 2019, the RO filtration system is no longer functional.

Around the same time, 95 houses in the slum were demolished and its residents were made to move to transit camps. While the local politician promised an on-site rehabilitation project, three years since the demolition, the residents are yet to see the project’s fruition.


“The reason why this politician has not yet built 95 houses on the demolished site, as promised, is because he found out some people did not vote for him. But our people always vote for him, and he knows this. He will help us in good time,” adds Jihan.


Her son, Anwar, who owns a tea shop, adds,


“Moreover, we shouldn’t be asking for much. This place is called Ashrayanagar because it gives us shelter. We should stay as long as we get shelter here.”


A comparatively well-developed house in Ashrayanagar illustrates variance within slums when political networks are leveraged. 


While the demographic variance creates different pockets of vote banks in the slums, the residents of Ashrayanagar unanimously maintain that there is caste- and religion-based unity in the community. Posters of B R Ambedkar adorn the many power grids inside the slum. Madamma, a resident east of the slum says,


“We are like a bundle of leafy greens, some of us are spinach, some of us are moringa leaves, but we are all in this together."


Ashrayanagar is one among thousands of slums across India where residents have to fight for access to basic amenities. These communities arise partly because cities need labour to grow and develop. It is only reasonable that the cities offer a pathway to safe and secure housing to the migrants that fuel their growth. But the electoral process only offers temporary solutions. This results in the poorest residents of India’s cities having to pay higher prices for services despite living in worse conditions than other citizens. This does not fit into any modern definition of justice.


Transit camps next to the government primary schools, which has become a waste dumping ground for slum residents.