The east Indian state of Odisha has a population of more than 41.9 million people. Over the past decade, the state’s urban population has grown by almost a third (27%), as people migrate from rural villages to towns and cities in search of work and a better life. Today, roughly one-in-four people living in Odisha’s urban centres live in slums, many of which are located in areas at high risk of flooding or next to waste dump sites. This, coupled with a lack of formal sanitation and infrastructure, makes them dangerous and unhealthy places to live.

The informal nature of the slums also means residents have no land rights and no security of tenure. Without this they are excluded from basic services, unable to enrol children in school, open a bank account or access a range of government benefits and schemes. Residents live in a vicious cycle of increasing poverty and marginalisation, at risk of ill-health, eviction and homelessness. The problem is particularly acute among certain groups, including women and some castes and tribes.

In 2017 Odisha’s government passed the Odisha Land Rights to Slum Dwellers Act, setting in motion a pioneering programme to formalise the state’s 2,919 slums and improve living conditions for 400,000 households (1.8 million people). The legislation is the first of its kind in India and marks a major policy shift by the Odisha government, as it seeks to settle slum dwellers on the land they currently occupy – rather than viewing them as ‘encroachers’. It also recognises the significant contribution of slum dwellers to the economy and to future growth by ensuring inclusive development for all residents.

The project – known as the Odisha Liveable Habitat Mission (OLHM) – is being implemented across all 114 urban areas in 30 districts of Odisha, making it the world’s largest slum titling and upgrading programme. The target for completion is 2021-2023. In the 18 months since implementation, the project has already made a huge impact, granting land rights to more than 50,000 households.

The project in practice

The OLHM involves comprehensive demographic and geographic surveys of each slum in order to identify residents eligible for land rights and to organise the redevelopment and upgrading of the infrastructure.

This work is carried out by the state government in partnership with three technical agencies, 26 Community-Based Organisations (CBOs) and more than 600 field facilitators. The government has also partnered with Tata Trusts, a national philanthropic organisation which has provided technical support for the project and introduced global best practice to the process.

Communities are involved in slum mapping, conducting door-to-door surveys, stickering and numbering dwellings, and local decision-making. Slum Dwellers Associations (SDAs) are formed in each area the project works in, laying the foundation for long-term community empowerment. SDAs are involved in the entire process to ensure local ownership and they make the final application for land rights within the community.

Field teams – made up of one field manager and five data collectors per neighbourhood – capture records for 200-250 households per day using GIS (Geographic Information Systems) apps. The data collectors are slum dwellers, who use their trusted position as a local to speed up the process and ensure its legitimacy. The SDAs are responsible for resolving any disputes between residents, preparing lists of eligible beneficiaries and creating a new slum layout plan with the help of CBOs.

The project also uses advanced technology to accelerate the surveying process. Drones are used to make high-resolution maps of the slums, which are integrated with the GIS data to create an overview of the community. Household survey data is added later by CBOs using smartphones and tablets. The resulting database is a unique, multi-layered record of Odisha’s urban environment.

Residents are deemed eligible for land rights if they occupied land in a slum on 10 August 2017 (the date of notification of the Act). Any document issued by the government, or a government-related agency, is taken as proof of residence and they are not required to visit any government office at any time during the process. Each eligible household is granted a Certificate of Occupancy of 30 square metres. This is supplied free of charge and allows the family to access the government’s housing scheme, which provides grants of up to 200,000 rupees ($2,900 USD) to build a permanent home. The Certificate of Occupancy is inheritable but not transferable, removing the possibility of people selling the land, which has been an issue in other countries where land rights have been issued to slum dwellers.

During the process, some slum land has been reclassified from ‘untenable’ to ‘tenable’, allowing people living there to be granted land rights. However, the surveying work identified 1,452 untenable slums out of the total 2,919 – meaning new locations had to be found and developed with the consent of residents.

The total cost of the project is approximately $120,810,650 USD. It is funded mainly by the Odisha state government’s Housing and Urban Development Department’s annual budget with a contribution of $6,115,578 USD from Tata Trusts. The state government provided an additional grant of Rs 100 Cr ($14,576,500 USD) for both the 2018/19 and 2019/20 budgets.

Social and environmental impact

The OLHM mobilises communities to make their own decisions and improve their living conditions. More than 51,000 families have already been granted land rights certificates, removing the fear of eviction and providing the official proof of residence needed to access other benefits and schemes.

The project ensures women are given equal rights through joint ownership of land and through their active participation in the process. SDAs are encouraged to have at least half of their members as women and give priority to people with disabilities, women-led families and transgender people.

The project has progressed rapidly. Within the first 18 months 1,725 slums were mapped, 1,725 SDAs were formed, 147,000 households were surveyed, 51,041 family land rights were granted, and 15,000 homes were built.

Once implemented state-wide, the OLHM will have issued land rights to 206,000 families in 1,725 slums, benefitting 1 million people. Affordable housing complexes (Right to Dwelling Units) built on government land will provide protection from possible eviction for a further 196,000 families (0.8 million people) in 1,194 slums. Skills development and livelihood support will help to further improve the living standards of these 1.8 million people.

Physical infrastructure developments in slums – such as roads with drains, pipe-water supply, sanitation, individual and community toilets (eliminating open defecation), and street lighting – all contribute to improved health and safety of residents.

Services such as solid waste management – including street sweeping, drain desilting, and rubbish collection, transportation and disposal – are provided in upgraded slums. This has a positive impact on both residents’ health and the environment. Meanwhile, smart energy-efficient LED street-lights are being installed in all towns in Odisha (including the slums), leading to substantial energy savings and contributing to a reduction in CO2 emissions.

The future

If the 2021-2023 deadline for completion of the OLHM passes, the programme will continue until all its objectives have been achieved. In the meantime, other states and territories, including Delhi, are exploring the idea of implementing similar land rights for slum dwellers and a 92-page document setting out the project’s key stages has been developed to encourage transfer.

For the tens of millions of people living in India’s slums, a solution to the growing problem of urban poverty cannot come quickly enough. With the OLHM, Odisha has shown that it might just have the answer.

View the full project summary here