KOLKATA, India (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-colored 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 organization working in Kolkata’s slums to give people addresses.
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, traveled 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 recognize 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 legitimizes 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)