In the hundreds of conversations with the poor in Mumbai in the last decade, there was no one who gave up a meal to have a coffee at Starbucks or chose an expensive sandwich at a swish foreign bakery over the humble chapati-bhaji, or bought a car on income-guzzling EMIs and ended up sleeping in it because they did not have enough money left for rent. Instead, there were thousands who ate at the roadside out of compulsion, not choice, and slept in the rickshaws and taxis they drove to tide over the acute shortage of space in their single-room homes.
Neither did they sport expensive smartphones with 4G connections on which they trawled the social media to discuss the hashtag #urbanpoor as many of us have been doing for days now. The urban poor, who live a life of poverty with an eviscerating lack of choice in their lives, do not have time to discuss their poverty; they spend their time searching for ways to alleviate themselves from the miserable condition.
In portraying the 20-something millennials with education and jobs with decent five-figure incomes, but who run out of money at the end of the month or starve themselves for days in order to buy an expensive sandwich as the urban poor, the essay on a popular cross-platform for news and entertainment did a disservice to the very meaning of the phrase.
It sought to appropriate the term “urban poor” for better-off strata of society that still has enormous agency, choice and means to satisfy its needs.
The social media-driven debate and the semantics matter because they dilute the definition of the urban poor and paper over the genuine problem of urban poverty. The extent may not be as large as rural poverty, but urban poverty cannot now be glossed over.
Thirty-five per cent of urban Indian households were tagged as poor in the Socio-Economic and Caste Census, 2011. More than two-thirds of the urban poor live in slums. About 22% of the urban poor have debts compared to 31% rural poor. The bottom 10 per cent had assets worth only Rs291 on an average, while their rural counterparts had assets worth Rs25,071 on an average, largely as a result of the value of land.
The National Commission on Urbanisation offers a view of what characterises poverty in urban areas: The proliferation of slums, growth of the informal sector, crushing pressure on civic amenities and a growing sense of hopelessness.
The erstwhile Planning Commission used the lens of vulnerability – economic, housing, social and personal – to identify the urban poor, and stated that lack of access to civic services, low levels of education and income are the markers to watch out for.
We routinely meet the urban poor – the car driver who does double shifts, the slum child who serves tea and cleans cars, the domestic help who skips a meal, the young accountant or data entry operator struggling to study and earn at the same time, the old woman who cannot afford the health care she needs, the daily wage labourer and the repairman, the papad-and-pickle maker in a slum, the second-class railway traveller without ticket, the rickshaw driver who rents only half of a 10x10 room, and more. Their lives deserve greater attention and policy interventions.
Mumbai has nearly 3 million poor people, according to the Commission’s parameters and BMC estimates.
The 20-something millennials are not part of this demographic. Indeed, they exist and may be caught in debt cycles or running out of their finances before the end of a month. But this condition does not come close to being poor.
Instead, it displays a stunning lack of decision-making capacity, an inability to balance one’s income with expenditure, and a warped value system, which places a primacy on appearances.
This calls for some serious adult-level hand-holding, not tagging them as “urban poor”. As it is, urban poverty and inequality hardly rouses political attention these days.