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New Delhi: Proclaiming the Indian village to be a ‘sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism’, the economist-turned-lawyer and the architect of the Indian constitution, B.R. Ambedkar famously exhorted Dalits to move away from villages practicing residential segregation to the anonymity of cities.

Seven decades after India’s independence, Ambedkar’s great dream of cities as equal spaces for citizens still remains a distant dream. Ward-level census data from India’s six largest cities show that all of them have extremely segregated residential patterns, with marginalized groups — Dalits or scheduled castes (SCs) and scheduled tribes (STs) — largely relegated to a few clusters.

According to the census, SCs and STs collectively form only 11.25% of the population of the six biggest cities — New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Hyderabad and Bengaluru — much below the share of SCs and STs in the country’s population at 25.6%.

Of these, the share of SC/ST population exceeds 10% in only three — Chennai (17%), Delhi (16%), and Bengaluru (13%). And, in all three, a large proportion of SCs and STs is clustered in wards neighbouring railway lines, suggesting that many of them could be living in slums and lacking access to civic amenities. In two of the three cities—Delhi and Chennai—a large share of the SC/STs are clustered in a few high-concentration wards.

Of the 155 wards in Chennai, 33 have high concentration of SC/STs (share in ward population greater than 25%). And these wards account for a little less than half of Chennai’s entire SC/ST population. Residential segregation is alive and kicking in the country’s capital as well. More than a third of SC/STs living in Delhi are clustered in 42 high-concentration wards in a city with a total of 234 wards.

In Delhi, Chennai and Bengaluru, wards with highest SC/ST population lie along railway lines.
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In Delhi, Chennai and Bengaluru, wards with highest SC/ST population lie along railway lines.

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Bengaluru appears to have a more uniform and less segregated distribution of caste groups compared to Delhi and Chennai. But even there, a fifth of SC/STs are clustered in 19 high-concentration wards in a city with a total of 198 wards.

The share of SC/STs in the other cities — Hyderabad (8.4%), Mumbai (7.5%), and Kolkata (5.6%) are relatively lower, which makes it trickier to compare their spatial segregation with other cities. An index of segregation computed by the researcher Pranav Sidhwani that takes into account the distribution of a particular caste within a ward vis-à-vis the caste population in the entire city shows that Kolkata has very high levels of segregation among the cities with lower share of SC/ST population. A cluster of eight wards spread across eastern Kolkata (in a city with a total of 141 wards) accounts for roughly a third of the city’s entire SC/ST population. Hyderabad and Mumbai have relatively lower levels of segregation, and a more uniform distribution of SC/STs.

Wards with highest shares of SC/ST population lie towards the edges of Hyderabad, Kolkata and Mumbai.
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Wards with highest shares of SC/ST population lie towards the edges of Hyderabad, Kolkata and Mumbai.

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One caveat worth noting is that wards in cities such as Mumbai are very large and hence ward-level analysis of spatial segregation could understate the true level of segregation in such cities. Data from census enumeration blocks could give us a better idea of such segregation but such data is not publicly available.

Sidhwani’s research, published in the Economic and Political Weekly in 2015 also showed that wards with the highest SC/ST populations are also the ones that lack access to amenities such as piped water and toilets across cities, suggesting that caste determines access to basic amenities in India’s biggest cities.

The lack of access to basic amenities may be partly because of poverty but there is enough evidence around the globe to suggest that residential segregation itself is a cause of poverty, impairing chances of education and employment for marginalized groups.

Realizing Ambedkar’s dream will not be easy. But the first step to realize the progressive potential of our cities must lie in acknowledging their unequal and segregated structure.

This is the fourth of a ten-part data journalism series on life in Indian cities

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