India's 'slumdog' reality

A UN-Habitat report ‘State of the world cities 2010/2011: bridging the urban divide’, glowingly praised India and China for taking “giant strides to improve slums,” and credited the two nations for together having lifted at least 125 million out of slums between 1990 and 2010. The report says that India has lifted 59.7 million people out of slum conditions since 2000. Apparently, we should not rest on our laurels.

According to a report released by a government committee, India’s urban slum population is expected to touch 93.06 million by 2011 and likely to cross 100 million by 2017 from the estimated 75.2 million in 2001. The report is believed to be conservative because the figures only include survey of just the 1,743 cities and towns with a population of more than 20,000 as against the 5,161 cities/towns in the country besides which non-notified slums were kept outside review. In yet another report released by National Sample

Survey Office (NSSO), the urban landscape in India is still benighted by 49,000 slums, many of them beside public sewers and railway tracks. This is no good news to the UPA government if it wants to make India slum-free in five years.

Exploitation of resources

The urban population in India is estimated to be around 506 million by 2026 and about 700 million by 2051. The most critical environmental concerns in India’s cities include problems relating to water supply, sanitation, drainage, solid waste management, transport, pollution from urban wastes and emissions.

Since urban settlements, especially large cities, home to majority of migrants and slum-dwellers, draw heavily on natural resources such as water, forests and soil, the absorptive capacity of nature gets so much undermined that it goes beyond the handling capacity of institutions. Slums add to the combination of lack of institutional capability and demographic pressures that explains the current state of the environment in Indian cities.

Technology-driven industrialisation may be the need of the hour but the growing casualisation of labour indicates that it is happening in an unsustainable manner. There is no fair account of the displaced population, mostly the landless rural poor, who are migrating to urban areas to occupy slums.

If one were to understand the scale and rapidity of urbanisation, as per one analysis, about 1,00,000 rural people move every day to urban areas all over India, making annual migration to the tune of about 3.6 per cent of the population. In 1951, the five million-plus cities contained about 16 per cent of the urban population. By 2001 this figure has increased to 38 per cent. By 2026, over half of the total urban population will be residing in 70 million-plus cities.

That the urban development can be improved is warranted by at least two instances. Surat was transformed following the 1994 plague; after the implementation of higher emission standards and the phasing out of leaded fuel, the air quality of Delhi dramatically improved.

But compared to some of the leading economies of the world, Indian institutions falter on effective action to address urban environmental problems or to lay out infrastructure able to curtail, for instance, congestion, traffic jams, pollution and marginalisation of the poor.

With the concentration of economic activities into particular zones/areas/cities, the migrant population also tend to overcrowd them, so added with low-cost transport to commute them, it is necessary that sites for economic activities along with newer job opportunities, which primarily cause urban squat, get spaced out.

In India, the revenue situation of urban local bodies has been accentuated by political populism, which remains afflicted with inadequate budgets, large backlogs in providing infrastructure and a resource base singularly incapable of generating the capital geared to address the backlog. In view of the 74th Amendment to the Constitution that has transferred powers to local bodies to raise tax and non-tax revenues to enable them to exercise their responsibility of planning and development, governments which provide the slums electricity and drinking water rarely press on resource mobilisation.

Unauthorised slums routinely become vote banks and thus come to be perpetuated. Any talk about hierarchisation of slum dwellers is often shouted down by irresponsible social activism. Well-to-do among the slum dwellers are seen to use TV sets, refrigerators and mobile phones who despite their apparent prosperity continue to live in slums for lack of affordable housing and also to avoid paying rent and property taxes. Legalising the urban poor’s informally held assets can surely stem it.

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