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Odisha slum mapping project- Making technology work for the deprived

While the world is progressing rapidly and skyscrapers are emerging increasingly, a darker side of the story prevails. Over one billion people currently live in informal settlements called ‘slums,’ and with the global population increasing, this number is only expected to grow in the coming decades.

At a time when technology is getting largely used in making life more luxurious for the privileged ones, the benefits must be extended to the underprivileged sections of the society. Fortunately, few are willing to ‘walk the talk’. Governments and few agencies in developing countries like India, where immediate attention is required are being proactive to make a difference. Born by the same spirit, is the inspiring story of the recent collaborative efforts of the Government of Odisha, Tata Trusts and Omidyar Network, following the Land Rights to Slum Dwellers Act, 2017.

What was the need?

The Indian state of Odisha is a low urbanized state, however, urbanization is taking place at a fast pace there. People from rural areas are migrating in large numbers to the urban areas. They are becoming the helping hand to run the lifestyle of the city. They are working hard for the upkeep of the houses and road construction.

However, for them, the conditions are not favorable. To start with, the places they stay in are not livable. They are deprived of even basic services and adequate livelihood opportunities. Add to that the agonizing fact that the piece of land they are living is not their own. They are also not able to access a lot of government schemes because they don’t have an identity.

The situation is worrisome and thankfully has stirred the heart of the Government of Odisha. As a step to improvise the living conditions of the slum dwellers, the Government has recently passed the Land Rights to Slum Dwellers Act, 2017. The Act is a pioneering legislation seeking to deliver 250,000 land titles (impacting 1 million people) by the end of 2018—putting it on track to become the world’s largest slum-titling project.

Tata Trusts – trusted to upscale slum dwellers

The Land Rights to Slum Dwellers Act, 2017 seems promising, but to reap its benefits fully, it has to be executed properly. Keeping in view the large area and population to be covered, the Government needs extra hands, and this is where premier firms like Tata Trusts and Omidyar Network step in.

Tata Trusts has been working in the slums for the last two and half years and thus was entrusted with the responsibility of helping the authorities in mapping and surveying the slum households.

In the words of Mr Shishir Dash, Area Manager, Tata Trusts, “Tata Trusts is providing technical support of slum mapping, and also hand holding the Government. We have three technical agencies and we are mapping the slums using drones. Tata Trusts is not just providing support; it is also helping to transform those slums into livable habitats. How do people get the basic services, how common places can be improved, and how can people get access to government schemes and benefits that are available.”

Realizing that traditional land surveying methods are too expensive, time-consuming and manpower intensive for a project of this magnitude, the Government of Odisha, as well as Tata Trusts, pondered over the idea of adopting an alternative solution for identifying eligible households—one that would be efficient and transparent. Tata Trusts took the right decision to take the aid of modern technologies like drones and associated with Omidyar Network for supporting the use of drones for mapping the slum households.

Drone mapping by Omidyar Network

The drone-based methodology has been a powerful epicenter for community involvement in mapping households. Drone imagery visualizes marked boundaries of residences accurately, leading to lowered chances of exclusion errors. Additionally, a view from the sky fosters a more holistic understanding of the use of communal space in slums. It also fosters engagement with community members, who help identify the eligible households through their local networks of knowledge.

odisha slum mapping projectIn the words of Roopa Kudva, MD, Omidyar Network, “Omidyar Network is supporting the use of drones to initially map 100,000 slum households. We are also supporting the development of detailed process documentation which can be an important playbook for other states to use. We leveraged our experience of using drones with the Asia Foundation for surveying urban settlements in the Philippines, coupled with our learnings from ongoing research efforts in machine learning and geospatial technology.”

She says, “We champion mapping technologies, including drones, as the cost-effective surveying solution to scale the delivery of rights to households. Our experience in the Philippines and now Odisha, India, has demonstrated that drones can capture detailed, accurate, high-resolution images for mapping in less than a month, compared to the months or years and resources expended on mapping boundaries through traditional surveys.”

Drone maps clearly identify the boundaries of properties with a high level of detail, and enable an objective discussion between the government and community members to jointly agree and sign-off on the map for the community.

Progress so far

Tata Trusts has organized the entire project into nine urban development bodies, and the relentless efforts of Tata Trusts and Omidyar Network have already led to the issuance of land title certificates to 2227 households. By end of June, Tata Trusts is expecting to complete 100,000 households’ survey, and by end of this year, it is confident of completing the entire project.

The Odisha slum titling project is an important step in helping the more than 65 million Indians currently living in slums. Formal documentation is one way to break the cycle of poverty for this population. Formal titles (or patta) and similar documents allow people to invest in home improvements, access loans and start small businesses. The ripple effect extends beyond individual households: communities where people have patta see less poverty, increased school attendance, greater equality for women, and better land and resource conservation.

This project is going to be a stepping stone for many such significant milestones that will enable the slum dwellers to live a better life. As Mr Dash says, “Once we have started developing a model of livable habitats then the Government of Odisha is setting up an Odisha Livable Habitat Mission which will replicate the efforts to other urban-based slums. Tata Trusts is partnering with the Government to support them in sustaining this activity in the longer run.”