Feel good figures

Feel good figures

The 69th report of the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) has some heartening news. It says that the number of slum households in urban India is coming down.

According to the survey conducted between July and December 2012, there were nearly 90 lakh urban slum dwellings in 2012, compared to 1.3 crore the previous year. It points to improving conditions in slums too; 93.5 per cent have power supply, 71 per cent have access to drinking water, and sewage and garbage disposal facilities are better. The NSSO’s findings suggest that programmes of urban renewal seem to be making a dent on the quality of infrastructure in slums. Not surprisingly, its findings have evoked considerable scepticism.

After all, rural to urban migration is growing at a rapid pace. Where are these migrants staying? Urban planners have been drawing attention too to a trend of smaller but more numerous slums in our towns. Are these squatter settlements mushrooming around building sites being counted? Conditions may have improved in some slums but the reality on the ground hardly matches the rosy picture emanating from the NSSO report. According to Census 2011 figures released earlier this year, India’s slum population is poised to increase to 104 million by 2017. If the number of slum households is indeed falling as per the NSSO survey, this would suggest a significant expansion in the size of each household.

If there are sharp differences in the findings of various surveys,this cannot be interpreted as improving conditions because often the scope of these surveys is different. How the 2011 Census and the 69th NSSO report defined a slum was different. While the NSSO defined a slum as a crowded settlement with poor sanitation and with at least 20 households, the Census required a slum to have at least 60-70 households. Comparing figures thrown up by different studies to illustrate supposedly improving conditions is therefore meaningless.

Surveys of socio-economic conditions of people should provide an accurate snapshot of the reality. While such enumeration is enormously difficult in a country of India’s population size, there can be no excuse for the grossly inaccurate figures that are being dished out.  Manipulating these figures is not just politically motivated disingenuousness but worse, it has serious implications for urban housing and sanitation programmes. Downsizing slum households will encourage our planners to invest less in urban renewal programmes.

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