Everyone loves a good slum

Everyone loves a good slum

Much of India’s recent prosperity is of urban origin. The new information technology and services firms and big industries dot the country’s cityscape. There is, however, another reality: Urban areas are blighted with squalid living spaces called slums. As India has grown in the last decade, so has the number of slum dwellers. But now, by the stroke of a pen, this number is certain to swell.

The Union government released the report of the Committee on Slum Statistics/Census on Friday. The committee found that numbers of slum dwellers had been under-reported in the 2001 census. Census data shows that in 2001, India had 52.4 million slum dwellers. Estimates by the committee show that a more realistic number in 2001 was 75.2 million—an underestimate of close to 23 million.

By 2011, the slum population will rise to 93 million or 40.6 million more, 43.7% more than the original estimate of 2001.

The numbers speak for themselves. The definition of a slum says it all: A compact area of 60-70 households of poorly built congested tenements in unhygienic environment usually with inadequate infrastructure and lacking proper sanitary and drinking water facilities.

In theory, there are two options to change this: Either spend massive amounts in cleaning up and clearing slums, or focus on preventing their emergence in the first place. The second option is difficult and calls for some political imagination and will. In India today no one—least of all political leaders—has the time and patience to do that. So, by default, the first option is the only option on table. The result is that gigantic sums of money are spent on what is misleadingly called “slum rehabilitation". Entire wings of state governments eke out their existence by getting money for slum rehabilitation. Slums never get cleared.

All this is likely to change for the worse now. The committee on slums, perhaps inadvertently, is encouraging this. It wants to redefine a slum as a habitation of 20-25 houses (for the 2011 census) instead of the 60-70 now. A definitional flick, this will greatly increase the number of slum dwellers.

Perverse policy effects will follow. On the one hand, there will be more demands for greater state intervention to “do something". On the other hand, corruption on the part of government officials will also increase manifold. With larger budgets for “slum rehabilitation" there will be more money to loot and even less accountability. That is our unfolding urban future.

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