With Google Earth, India Can No Longer Hide Its Shantytowns and 'Slumdogs'

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This post is in partnership with Worldcrunch, a new global-news site that translates stories of note in foreign languages into English. The article below was originally published in Le Monde.

SANGLI — Before Google Earth existed, the slums of Sangli, a city of 550,000 in southwestern India, was acknowledged on government maps by nothing more than some clumsily outlined, empty spaces. But then, from high in the sky, the eye of a satellite saw what no municipal geometer had taken the trouble to show: small islands of huts with dilapidated roofs spread throughout the city.

Thanks to the satellite images available on Google Earth, a full picture of these forgotten slums has emerged. They now have borders; they are mapped; they have an identity. And using these images, Shelter Associates, a Pune-based NGO, has begun rehabilitating the slums. For the first time in their lives, 3,900 families in Sangli are going to be moving into apartments.

"Google Earth's maps are true to reality. They help us reshape and rehabilitate the slums in a way that makes sense within the overall city plan of Sangli," says Pratima Joshi, director of Shelter Associates. The families don't just need a leak-free roof or proper toilets; they need to be relocated to a place nearby so they don't lose their jobs — the salary of a domestic worker, a chauffeur or a security guard won't stretch to pay for two bus tickets a day. In Delhi, families who were relocated in comfortable houses in the suburbs returned to the city within a few weeks.

So Shelter Associates teams examine the satellite maps carefully and calculate distances to come up with the best places to relocate families from the slums. Added to the information provided by the maps themselves are precious details gathered by field research teams about each existing family dwelling, such as whether it has electricity and running water and the size of the family living in it and their caste.

In the center of Sangli, the slum where Sanjay Nagar Miraj has long lived was destroyed six months ago so that three-story homes could be built. While waiting for construction work to be completed, slum residents are housed temporarily between two cemeteries — one Muslim, one Christian — in bamboo and sheet-metal huts with tiny gardens.

Fatima Mate lives in one of the huts with her husband and three children. She doesn't dream of having a beautiful living room; what she wants are toilets and a faucet. "Living in the kind of house rich people live in isn't going to make me rich — but at least I won't feel ashamed of saying where I live anymore," she says.

Blind eyes and apathy
Mate and other inhabitants are calling their soon-to-be rehabilitated slum Sunder Nagar (Beautiful Village). Its residents will also be able to live in security, without fear of being chased out by authorities. They will soon be forming an association that will rent the land from the city for 99 years.

Still, there are other residents who are reluctant to leave their slum. Some want to protect their hidden (and illegal) distilleries. Others own huts that they rent out, and local politicians don't want to lose an electoral base.

In cases like this, Shelter Associates staffers, carrying a laptop and a cardboard mock-up of the planned new housing, go door to door to try and get slum dwellers to change their minds. Pulling up Google Earth onscreen, they make the earth turn with a simple movement and zoom in on India, Maharashtra state and finally Sangli. The images show residents that their new house is located near the hospital, a school and a market. The houses were designed with their help. There's a little enclosure on the ground floor where a few goats can be kept. The are no kitchen plans, as women prefer to sit tailor-style on the ground to cook. All the apartments open out onto the same courtyard.

"That way, families who are used to living together won't find themselves feeling isolated," says Shelter Associates' Joshi.

The Indian government has allocated nearly 15 million euros for the rehabilitation and relocation of Sangli's slums. But the local government wasn't happy to see the arrival of the NGO. In early March, the district commissioner skipped the weekly Monday project meeting. The engineer in charge of building and public works in Sangli arrives 90 minutes late. "Everything would be so much simpler if we just relocated them well outside the city," says this functionary in charge of slums.

This kind of apathy and incomprehension from local government officials is as much an obstacle as the reluctance of some inhabitants. Still, thanks to the satellite images, authorities no longer have excuses to delay projects or ignore the presence of the slums.

Could this slum-rehabilitation model be used elsewhere? "It would be possible but more difficult in big cities because of high cost and the rarity of available land," Joshi admits. But her NGO has already mapped a slum in Indonesia and is scheduled to rehabilitate five slums in Pune, India's seventh largest city.

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