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Rajeev George offers a viable solution to the acute housing problems faced by the urban poor. His unique approach to city planning is founded on high-integrity, verifiable data, the strategic use of future-sensitive technology, and the active participation of settlement dwellers.

This profile below was prepared when Rajeev George was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2004.


Rajeev George offers a viable solution to the acute housing problems faced by the urban poor. His unique approach to city planning is founded on high-integrity, verifiable data, the strategic use of future-sensitive technology, and the active participation of settlement dwellers.


Rajeev’s vision is that all urban inhabitants should have their share of urban space and services. But the reality is that millions of India’s poorest inhabitants today have no access to adequate legal housing and are forced to live in slums where they lack basic services and are constantly threatened with eviction. Rajeev believes that before this housing crisis can be solved planners and policymakers must change their apathetic attitudes about the poorest of the poor and become actively engaged in pushing for workable solutions.

To stop government agencies from ignoring the problem, Rajeev is creating a comprehensive inventory of all squatter settlements and confronting these planners with the reality of the situation, forcing them to develop a concrete, workable solution to the housing crisis that meets the needs of the urban poor. Unlike other methods, his approach actively invites the urban poor to participate as partners in the urban planning process for the first time and thereby engage with essential issues concerning their lives. Rajeev is not only focused on the problems of today. Using Geographical Information System (GIS) and other technologies, he works with communities and city planners to optimally use public land for relocations and new settlements, incorporating low income housing into the master plan. His goal is to give the present and future populations of urban poor legal, affordable city housing where they can live with access to jobs and services and without the constant fear of eviction.


Adequate housing is a basic human right enshrined in the universal declaration under the International Convention on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. Yet the reality is that millions of people in India have neither adequate housing nor the most basic services. The housing shortage, which was estimated at 66 million units in 1997, shot up 40.8 million by 2000 and is only expected to increase in the future.

Approximately 90 percent of this shortage affects poor and lower income groups, about one-third of India’s population. These urban poor are the domestic workers, the city garbage and laundry workers, and others who labor in the informal sector. These hard-working people hold a vital place in the urban economy, contributing immensely to the development of the cities and subsidizing them with cheap labor, yet even minimum-wage work is not enough to grant them safe, legal housing. Unable to survive in the available low income housing at the distant fringes of the city where there is no water, no roads, no electricity, and no jobs, the poor are forced into unregulated and unauthorized squatter settlements without access to work. These slums mushroom around textile mills and construction sites in cities like Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Surat, and Indore, where migrant laborers and construction workers live primarily in makeshift arrangements. A substantial number of working groups from all walks of life have ended up living in slums or on the pavements and streets.

Besides the inhuman conditions and lack of basic services, slum dwellers also live under the constant threat of eviction. In spite of court orders against them, evictions are conducted, often during the monsoon, without notices and in a most brutal manner—bulldozing houses, destroying property, confiscating materials, quelling peaceful protests, and refusing treatment to injured evictees. The concerned urban authorities always come armed with police forces but never with the option of a viable alternate piece of land. Mass forced evictions and relocations at so-called rehabilitation centers have only led to more slum-like conditions.

Many relocated poor are forced to relive the trauma of eviction over and over again. There have been cases where slum dwellers, though relocated under the 15 percent reservation provision, were evicted again within a few years. In the capital city of Delhi, the scenario is worse. In recent years the Delhi administration has given evictees a five-year conditional land lease. If the evictees construct houses, there is no guarantee that after five years they will obtain tenure entitlement. Thus, the threat of multiple evictions and imposition of new relocation schemes constantly loom large over the urban poor.

The urban local government bodies are well equipped with pro-poor policies, laws and special provisions in several states to provide for low-income housing. For instance, in Madhya Pradesh there is the Patta Act of 1998 as well as a provision to reserve 15 percent of the land for economically weaker sections in registered residential colonies under the Madhya Pradesh Housing Policy. But the reality is anything but pro-poor and, in spite of land availability, the local government body has not implemented these schemes effectively. Vacant land in the center of India’s cities is being hijacked by land mafia, powerful business interest groups, and developers, and public lands are rapidly being put to other uses. The rights of slum dwellers will continue to be overshadowed by these powerful forces unless the urban poor are recognized by planning agencies and given a voice in the planning process.


To make the urban poor more visible, Rajeev is creating a detailed digital map of all squatter settlements as well as fighting for pro-poor planning policies for the revised city master plans throughout the country. Through these tools and forums, he is getting slum dwellers involved in the planning process and giving them a say in shaping their future. Rajeev carries out his work on urban planning primarily through two organizations: Deenbandhu, which focuses on integrated development processes and campaigns for habitational justice in and around Indore, Madhya Pradesh; and the National Forum for Housing Rights, which is involved in housing rights campaigns throughout the country.

The digital mapping of the city is the first pilot project of Deenbandu. Using GIS technology, Rajeev and his team make detailed maps of the squatter settlements, collecting and analyzing vital information on these areas such as drainage facilities, electricity, water, road access, places of worship, and land ownership. Unlike government surveys, Rajeev’s inventory takes into account temporary as well as permanent settlements. GIS technology is equipped with multilingual support so that using the system is easy for all. The location of each settlement is clearly printed on maps showing the size of the slums, and resettlements zones from the city’s official master plan are highlighted in the information system, making it easy to see future housing options. Once they are complete, these digital maps and databases become a powerful tool for organizations and community-based leaders working for urban reform, allowing them to approach the urban local government body with their requirements in a more informed and confident manner. To ensure the tool is used to its full potential by all interested parties, Rajeev provides intensive database training, including data collection and uploading.

Currently, the master plans of every city are being revised and framed afresh for the next 20 to 25 years. To avoid more housing shortages in the future, Rajeev is pushing hard to have the needs of urban poor addressed in the new plans and has so far carried out this strategy successfully in Indore, Hyderabad, and Lucknow. Rajeev prefers to operate within the legal system of the country, thereby helping reverse what he feels has been an increasingly hostile attitude of the courts towards the urban poor. Recently, for example, in conjunction with Human Rights Law Network (Ashoka Fellow Colin Gonsalves’s organization), Rajeev has used Public Interest Litigation (PIL) to file for an alternate arrangement for tuberculosis patients when the Indian Institute of Management took over their land, forcing them to close the sanabrium. The case went to the Supreme Court, which passed a judgement favoring the PIL. Today an alternative tuberculosis sanatorium is being built. Besides these legal actions, Rajeev has also held workshops in these various cities to train and inspire local organizations and community leaders to engage in pro-poor master plan interventions and become active participants in planning their future.

On the national level, Rajeev is using his position as the Convener of the National Forum for Housing Rights (NFHR) to spread his community-based digital information and mapping model. In the near future, he plans to bring this strategy to the states of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, West Bengal, Assam, Orissa, Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Pondicherry , and Kerala. He is also using a number of other strategies to disseminate his model nationally and internationally. For example, he invites social work and architecture students from across the country to come to his organization for fieldwork and internships, and he is working to include habitational crisis in the curriculum of schools of architecture, journalism, mass communication, social work, and engineering. Most importantly, Rajeev is documenting his work and preparing a handbook to facilitate easy replication in other urban areas with acute problems in adequately housing the poor. He is also involved in a number of other forums and projects to help the urban poor. Most of his initiatives are managed by slum dwellers themselves, with Rajeev serving as facilitator and guide.


Rajeev was born in 1970, the youngest child in a conservative Christian family. His father, a priest and homeopathy physician still serves in marginalized communities. Since his early youth, Rajeev had an urge to work among the poor, and through his parents’ inspiration he has made this work his profession.

During his college days, Rajeev started working with rag pickers and beggars, residing near a slaughterhouse in the most inhuman conditions. Along with friends, he started the project Look Beyond Yourself. Having no resources to run this project, he hit upon the idea of collecting old unused materials and other donations from the affluent streets of Mhow. Then with help from the Red Cross, he and local doctors organized immunization camps. Since there were no schools nearby, he helped start a preschool center that today is sponsored by prominent local citizens. During his graduate days in social work, Rajeev lived in a five-feet by seven-feet room in a slum community of about 3,000 people. These experiences gave him the opportunity to understand first-hand the problems faced everyday by slum dwellers. They also gave him confidence that his effort could have a positive impact on many lives.

Rajeev’s first initiative in Indore was the formation of a savings and credit group with teenaged boys who were involved in criminal activities such as petty thefts and pickpocketing. Many of the group’s members eventually started small businesses like bicycle repair shops, vegetable vending, and handcart delivery services. When this group organized a cleanliness drive, they gained popularity, respect, and recognition within the community, as well as local media attention. During this time, Rajeev experienced the trauma of eviction.

“I realized how traumatic it is when the authorities ruthlessly bulldoze our homes,” he remembers. “Men, women, children, and the old were running in panic. They were picking up materials—whatever they could carry in their hands.” This experience helped fuel his desire to work on initiatives for housing the urban poor. In the meantime he completed his postgraduate studies. Then, in June 1994, Rajeev along with his friends from social work and the slum, started Deenbandhu, or Friend of the Poor, which focuses on assisting communities to find their own solutions to poverty. It works in partnership with groups struggling with such issues as housing rights, livelihood, and basic rights.