Is the glass half full or half empty?

Urban slums, indeed, offer a plethora of opportunities to the rural population to escape unemployment and improve socio-economic conditions and quality of life. Amitabh Kundu writes.

india Updated: Apr 18, 2013 23:22 IST

Slums have reported significant improvement in terms of access to basic amenities and possession of consumer assets, reducing thereby gaps between slum and non-slum areas over time, according to the recently-released Population Census of 2011. The percentages of households having electricity, education, healthcare facilities and consumer assets like cellphones, television, etc, in slums are not much below those of non-slum areas. Furthermore, by most of these indicators of well-being, slum-dwellers are better off than the rural population. The news has been welcomed because all these are being taken as an indication of inclusivity of the cities and opportunities they offer to migrants in slums to get integrated with city lifestyle.

Urban slums, indeed, offer a plethora of opportunities to the rural population to escape unemployment and improve socio-economic conditions and quality of life. Unfortunately, what has received little attention among the media, researchers and policy-makers is the fact that the percentage of slum population has come down drastically during the past decade. Arun Kumar Misra, secretary in the ministry of housing and urban poverty alleviation, has observed that “our own projections were that the all-India slum population would be 27.5% by 2011, so the new data comes as a pleasant surprise.” Is the reported figure of slum population as 17% indeed pleasant and satisfying?

The 2011 Census records about 66 million people residing in slums. This low figure, compared to 93 million as projected by the Pranab Sen Committee for Slums, clearly suggests that the window of opportunity available to the poor to put their foothold in the city has diminished over time. Some confusion is created by the fact that the figure in 2001 was 52.4 million which had gone up by only 14.6 million in 2011. It must be clarified that the figure of 2011 is based on information obtained from 4,041 statutory towns while the number covered in 2001 was much smaller since only the statutory towns having a population of more than 20,000 were covered. This declining percentage of slum population is confirmed also by the data from the National Sample Survey.

The decline in the growth rate of slum population, people below the poverty line and even that of total urban population are clear indications of an exclusionary urbanisation in the country. This process of exclusion is much stronger in metropolitan cities that provide high quality infrastructure to attract national and global entrepreneurs and build commercial and residential complexes for the upper middle class and the middle class. The process of ‘sanitisation of cities’ is operationalised by pushing the slums from the central areas to the peripheries, particularly in metro cities. This has led to demolition of slums that did not have the basic amenities or those where poor migrants lived in extremely unhygienic conditions. The percentages of households having access to amenities and assets have, thus, gone up through elimination of slums at the lower end.

Among the million-plus cities, Mumbai and Visakhapatnam have 40% households in slums while Kolkata and Chennai record 30%, much above the urban average. Would it then be fair to presume that the incidence of slum population is much higher in mega and million-plus cities compared to smaller towns? Noticeably, many of the small towns have indeed not reported slums in the 2011 Census. This is largely due to perceptional bias as awareness and resentment against slums is much more in big cities. This bias was carried into the Population Census by excluding towns having a population less than 50,000 from reporting slums until 2001 and the National Sample Survey having a separate frame with adequate sample size in the case of only the million-plus cities. Surprisingly, in a survey conducted for the ministry of housing and urban poverty alleviation for 2001, the Registrar General of India had reported that the entire population in many of the smaller towns having a population of below 50,000 can be considered to be living in slums due to their poor living conditions.

Finally, the data provided on basic amenities by the Census captures the availability of the amenities and assets but not the quality variation. People do not survive without drinking water and even if they get a bucket or two after waiting for two hours in front of a public stand post, they are placed in the category of people having tap water. The same is true for all other facilities. The Indian statistical system has been slow in responding to capture the quality aspect and new variety of assets, partly because it does not want to lose comparability with the earlier Census data. The slum-non-slum gaps become conspicuous in case of facilities that capture quality aspects.

Amitabh Kundu is professor of economics, Jawaharlal Nehru University. The views expressed by the author are personal.

First Published: Apr 18, 2013 23:16 IST