Slums are hubs of hope, progress and dignity – Swaminomics

TerraUrban recently shared the results of the new report showing that 64 million people, representing one in six urban residents, live in slums with unsanitary conditions “unfit for human habilitation” by the Census Commissioner.

Today’s writing of Swaminathan S Anklesaria Aiyar in The Times of India, questions this notion of slums – still being seen as “unfit for human habilitation”. Infact, he argues that slums are quite to the contrary of being unfit for habilitation, instead they are entry-points of the poor into the land of urban opportunity.They are also  hubs of rising income and asset ownership, which have already generated several rupee millionaires These entry points are  illegal, yet fully accepted by politicians as a legitimate form of entry. So, shanty-towns are frequently regularized before election time.No politician dares raze them. Rather, they are improved through supplies of water and electricity. Many slums simply steal electricity, with the tacit backing of politicians plus bribes to linesmen.

The census description of slums as “unfit for human habitation” is highly misleading. In fact census data prove that slums are much better off than villages, which are presumably fit for habitation! No less than 70% of slum households have TVs, against only 47% of total Indian households. The ratio is just 14.5% in Bihar and 33.2% in UP. Even Narendra Modi’s shining Gujarat (51.2%) and Pawar’s Maharashtra (58.8%) have a far lower rate of TV ownership than our slums!

True, 34% of slums don’t have toilets. Yet the ratio is as high as 69.3% in rural India. Ratios are worst in rural Jharkhand (90%) and Bihar (82%). But even Modi’s Gujarat (67%) and Pawar’s Maharashtra (62%) are far worse off than urban slums.

Similar stories hold for access to tap water, education, healthcare, electricity or jobs. As many as 90% of slum dwellers have electricity, against barely half of rural households. Ownership of cellphones (63.5%) is as high among slum dwellers as richer urban households, and way above rural rates. One-tenth of slums have computers, and 51% have cooking gas (not far short of 65 per cent of total urban households). Amazingly, more slum households (74 per cent) have tap water than total urban households (70.6 per cent).

So, let nobody misinterpret the Census report on slums as a terrible indictment. The report does indeed highlight unsanitary, cramped conditions, and the need to improve these. Yet it also provides a wealth of data showing how slums are better off than villages, and how on some counts slum-dwellers are as well off as richer urban dwellers. The report fails to highlight the extent to which slums have generated thousands of thriving businesses. It also fails to highlight the role of slums in helping conquer rural caste and feudal oppression.

As S.A. Aiyar summarises: “We need more slums, more hubs of opportunity. The urban gentry want to demolish slums, but they are plain wrong. Instead we should improve slum sanitation, water supply and garbage disposal. We need more improved slums, upgraded slums, but slums nevertheless”

Question is – How should a ‘planned’ slum be?!!


Illustration from Indian Express


2 thoughts on “Slums are hubs of hope, progress and dignity – Swaminomics

  1. terraurban April 2, 2013 at 3:07 pm Reply

    G Mitra • It is true and a stepping stone for urbanization and prosperity. – G Mitra

    Farhan Anwar • i think it is a bit of both….and its this failure to understand this merger that is often the cause of failed interventions for change….either they are considered as an urban eyesore (government reaction mostly) that leads to extreme measures as bull dozing whole settlements or overly glamorized (the NGO approach) where any attempts at development oriented improvement is considered as a conspiracy…to me the bottom line is that such living is undesirable and unacceptable..however interventions for change need to take into account the core ground realities in terms of the type of rehab measures get implemented

    Tim Greenhow • The notion of “slum” has so many different definitions that the “question should be questioned.”

    We think, live and behave in accordance with our perceptions. If I have a particular view of what constitutes a “decent” quality of life I may see slums as dismal, sad, and undignified places. If I grew up in a so called slum, had all my childhood friends as well as my family there; if it was there in a small room I found my personal security, and happiness, the “slum” would be HOME. And whether we live in a rural village, a “slum” or a middle class suburb, I have little doubt that most of us have dreams of something better.

    I can see the people living there as hopeless cases who cannot pull themselves out of misery and poverty, or I can see them as people with dreams, hopes, enormous potential, myriads of ideas, ingenious simply in their ability to survive and cope with such living conditions. I can see the energy, the possibility, the creativeness, the ability to live with very little.

    I have had the privilege of seeing different kinds of “slums” and so I share Farhan’s response: it is a bit of both. Where I have a slight variation on that theme is that “slums” represent a failure of local and national governance. We tend to think negatively of the people living in the slums – our eyes should focus rather on those who can and should be something SIGNIFICANT about improving the conditions in these settlements, avoiding the growth of new ones, and aren’t. (Myself included!)

    (I’m quite aware that a lot of people and organisations ARE doing “something” and I applaud these efforts, but it is also evident that so far “something” is not enough, and/or is not working.)

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