The popular debate on slums in India is often hijacked by two opposing camps. One sees slums as grotesque markers of poverty and economic inefficiency. The opposing camp sees such settlements as thriving hives of economic activity, or as the inevitable consequence of India’s rapid growth over the past three decades. The truth is often hard to establish because of a paucity of credible slum data.
Unfortunately, the slum census results released last month seem to have polarized the debate even further. Slum cheerleaders have pointed out the near-equity among slum and non-slum urban households in the possession of consumer durables, and even in access to amenities such as tap water. Critics point out that indicators are not reflective of slum prosperity for two reasons. One, this is hardly an exhaustive census as it leaves out smaller slums. Second, equal access to amenities such as tap water do not mean equal usage and the data needs to be interpreted accordingly. Many slums, for instance, have communal water connections and receive smaller shares of water each day compared with non-slum households.
The critics do have a point and some of the issues they raise were flagged by Union ministries after the 2001 census. The 2011 results are akin to a large-scale survey rather than an actual census. It is also biased towards older and recognized settlements, and includes some non-slum households. Nonetheless, this census marks an improvement over the 2001 version, and suggests three broad conclusions.
First, slum dwellers, especially those living in the older slums, have indeed moved up the consumption ladder. The use of television sets and computers is only a shade lower for slum households compared with non-slum households and access to a mobile phone is nearly equal. Yet, nearly half of slum households have either one room or no exclusive room of their own, and fetch water from outside.
Second, economic activity or the pace of urbanization cannot explain the growth of slums. Two of the states with the lowest slum populations, Gujarat and Kerala, are highly urbanized and are relatively better off economies. Visakhapatnam, which has replaced Mumbai as India’s slum capital, is neither the densest nor the most prosperous city in the country.
Finally, slums should be seen as symbols of urban mis-governance. Slums arise because of poor urban land laws which are cynically exploited by political elites to seek rents from slum dwellers and real estate barons.
Recognizing the individual achievements and aspirations of slum dwellers should not detract attention from our public failure to find solutions to India’s housing crisis.
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