Urban poor remain on margins in the growth story

Poverty is old, but takes on new dimensions in the present context.  As the wealth generation assumes unprecedented proportions in a context of globalisation, the dark shadows of poverty obviously appear darker by contrast. This contrast is much more grossly apparent in mega cities, where wealth and poverty co-exist visibly.      

Social justice and redistribution are now tired concepts, that no longer have specific politics attached to them. The simple facts that the poor are poor because their incomes are low, work is unavailable or inadequately available, and that urban economic growth is structurally exclusive rather than inclusive, somehow do not attract the attention of policy experts.      

We find therefore that governments’ concern for the urban poor remains tied to half-hearted attempts at providing what is called ‘basic amenities’: water, toilets, street lights, or resources like schools and anganwadis in slums and so on.

This approach is politically convenient, as it need not at all look at the thorny question of redistribution. Access to basic amenities can be extended without threatening anyone else’s access. Where, in fact, such access can potentially affect powerful vested interests, for example, urban land, governments typically skirt this explosive issue and talk about housing, without talking about urban land.

Rising scale

Civil society, is understandably overwhelmed by the rising scale of urban poverty, their own limited resources, and fragmented activities. Unfortunately, civil society initiatives are frequently trapped in the state’s paradigm of basic amenities. We find a large number of groups working on what are called ‘projects’ to provide water, toilets, school enrolment, housing loans, in slums.

These activities, laudable as they are, lack any substantive engagement with the issue of why the urban poor are poor and remain so.  This question is particularly interesting in the context of Bangalore.  In Karnataka, the urban poverty ratio is higher than the rural poverty ratio. A large number of Bangalore’s citizens have been left outside of the framework of the city’s spectacular recent economic growth, and this domain of exclusion expands as a continuous flow of lower class migrants join the city’s unskilled workforce in low paid, insecure work.

In fact, the poor in Bangalore fall into two spatial and analytical categories.  The old poor, found in inner city neighbourhoods, live in slums which are as old as 40 years to 70 years old, now housing second and third generation of low income residents. Poverty levels are extraordinarily high in these old slums, whether in Lalbagh in the south or in Yashwantpur in the north, where most households remain tied to low earnings in insecure occupations in the informal sector.

This applies to both wage earners (coolie labour, domestic servants) and to the self employed in petty trade ( selling a few vegetables on the road side, pushing a cartload of plastic goods, or running a small provision store inside a slum). Third generation residents in a slum of rag pickers continue to pick for a livelihood from road-side garbage dumps.  

The new poor are those who have migrated to Bangalore in the last ten years, living in the peripheral areas of the city in temporary shacks, and almost universally employed in the construction industry. Wages in Bangalore’s construction industry are higher than elsewhere (thus we have migrants from West Bengal, Bihar, Rajasthan, as well as from other parts of Karnataka). Nevertheless, living conditions are abysmal, access to health and education limited, and incomes subject to work availability, whims of the contractor, and unprotected by accident or health insurance.  

Bangalore’s recent growth has occurred via the knowledge and capital intensive service sectors: IT and ITES, banking, finance, insurance. The spill-over effects of this growth into other service sectors --hospitality, transportation, entertainment, retail, private health services and so on – has opened up some opportunities to the urban lower classes, --drivers, watchmen, cleaners, retail salespersons and so on. The vast multitudes of the illiterate and unskilled have no place in this economy.

Thus while Bangalore is celebrated as an icon of growth based on the growth of the service sector, the urban underclass have derived very few opportunities from this economy which appears to have modernised prematurely, before its time. On the other hand, employment in industrial manufacturing - which typically provides work in the early stages of industrialisation to unskilled or semi skilled workers -- has steadily declined in Karnataka, even as employment in the public sector and small scale industries sector continues to fall.

Manufacturing, led by the private sector, both domestic and foreign, is largely capital intensive, providing little scope of employment. These economic factors, that underlie the marginalisation of the urban poor, rarely feature in the policy discourse.  

(The writer is a professor at the Institute for Social and Economic Change)

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