KOLKATA, India, March 7 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - It's
not easy giving directions when you live in a slum.
All his life, Dipak Roy had identified his home as the one
on the corner, down the third by-lane, near the hospital on the
main road in the Panchanantala slum in Kolkata.
Then a year ago, that changed.
Roy received something he had always thought impossible: an
address, which has helped his family access social benefits and
open a bank account, previously out of reach.
"I did not think I would have an address as long as I lived
here," he said, gesturing to the tiny homes all around.
"Having this address has made so many things possible, like
receiving our mail at home and opening a bank account," said
Roy, a student, showing his bank passbook.
About a third of India's 1.25 billion population lives in
cities, with numbers rising every year as tens of thousands of
people leave villages to seek better prospects. Many end up in
overcrowded slums lacking basic amenities.
Up to 37 million households - a quarter of India's urban
population - live in informal housing including slums due to a
critical shortage of affordable housing, according to a recent
report from social consultancy FSG.
Panchanantala is a warren of more than 2,300 one-room brick
homes and shops, sat under tin roofs and crammed with stoves,
trunks and furniture.
There is not much to distinguish one tenement from the next,
except for a narrow, blue-coloured laminated strip with a jumble
of letters and numbers on every door frame.
These are so-called geo postal codes generated by technology
from Addressing the Unaddressed, a Dublin-based non-profit
organisation working in Kolkata's slums to give people
About 16,000 dwellings in nine slums in the city have so far
got the codes. An estimated 1.4 million slum dwellers in 350,000
homes in Kolkata will receive geo codes by 2026, said Alex
Pigot, chief executive of Addressing the Unaddressed.
"With GPS and Google Maps, anyone can identify the
geo-coordinates of any place on the planet," said Pigot, who
developed the GO Code system for urban slums and rural areas
where conventional addresses do not apply.
"Giving people an address is relatively simple and
inexpensive. Yet it makes a big difference to the lives of slum
dwellers, as they can better identify themselves and are more
easily able to access services," he said.
Pigot set up his mapping system in response to a United
Nations initiative in 2009 aiming to give addresses to everyone
living in shanty towns. Since working in Kolkata, Pigot has been
approached by more Indian cities, as well as by African nations.
It has been a group effort to get the system in place.
Pigot, along with Tina Roche, chief of the philanthropic
Community Foundation of Ireland, travelled to India in 2012 to
assess the need for addresses. With the Hope Foundation, which
works to protect children, they then created a system for
Kolkata's Chetla slum, giving each home a nine-digit unique ID.
They convinced bank officials to recognise the codes as a
legitimate postal address.
They trained postmen how to deliver mail to a code, and won
the right to use it to access benefits.
About 250 homes can be coded every week, at a cost of 150
rupees ($2.25) each, said Pigot, who is working with Google on
adding the slum lanes to its maps.
"At first, many residents were concerned that getting a code
would make them more vulnerable to eviction since authorities
could now find them easily," said Geeta Venkadakrishnan,
director of the Hope Foundation in Kolkata.
"But once they saw how it would help them get identification
documents and open bank accounts, they were convinced of its
benefits," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Having addresses has also helped officials identify the
needs in a slum, including healthcare and education.
"City officials tend to resist any effort that legitimises
slums dwellings, as they see them as encroachments," said Vinod
Kumar Rao at SPARC, a Mumbai non-profit.
"For slum dwellers though, particularly new slums where
there are no services, an address makes dwellings legitimate and
helps ensure access to services."
Slum dwellers battle the threat of eviction every day.
In Kolkata, after several botched attempts to relocate slum
dwellers to the city's fringes, social workers prevailed upon
authorities to improve registered slums.
A registered slum is one where residents have proof of
ownership or secure tenure. For that, they need identification
documents - hard to get without an address.
After Chetla was geo coded, social workers lobbied with city
officials to register the slum. Panchanantala was also
registered after the geo coding, said Venkadakrishnan.
"But the first step is identity - which is difficult to
prove when you don't have an address. Once you have an identity,
then you are a legal resident. No one can question your right to
be there," she said.
For residents including Roy and Gouri Poilaan - who moved to
Panchanantala when she got married four years ago, and got her
identification documents after the geo coding - that is key.
"All over the world, slum dwellers are in constant conflict
with authorities," Pigot said.
"Our work in Kolkata shows that by empowering slum dwellers
by mapping and giving postal addresses, slum upgrading can occur
successfully, and without the use of displacement or violence."
($1 = 66.7593 Indian rupees)
(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran, Editing by Lyndsay
Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the
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