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Home >Opinion >Views >The virus has exposed India’s Dickensian urbanization

Urbanization is supposed to bring modernity and prosperity. The Western example showed how a mass movement off the farm and into cities went together with great leaps in productivity. The hope that a similar experience would be repeated in late-developing countries resulted in vesting a great deal of hope in cities. The results have been mixed. For some families, the move to a city has been accompanied by steadily rising prosperity, but for many more in India, rising prosperity merely remains an urban illusion.

The pandemic has starkly highlighted the precarious condition of India’s urban poor. Longstanding causes of vulnerability need to be addressed, so future pandemics will not result in the same human misery.

In this article (and a sequel to come), we argue for a more effective and empowering slum policy. We draw upon an extensive base of information. Over the past 10 years, our team has studied nearly 10,000 households from over 200 slums across Bengaluru, Jaipur and Patna. More recently, with a covid research grant from the International Growth Centre, we have undertaken multiple rounds of phone surveys with key informants in 20 diverse slums each in Patna and Bengaluru.

Two kinds of city residents have seen few sustained gains—circular migrants (who are usually short-term residents) and slum dwellers (most of whom have lived in a city for multiple generations). These are different groups of people.

Between 30 and 70 million people in India are circular migrants. Since farm sizes are small, less than one hectare per family on average, and declining, rural families send one or more members to the city to work as day labourers for a few weeks or months each year. Separately, another large number, more than 110 million, according to United Nations-Habitat, live in slums. Nearly all of them were born in a city and have lived there all along. They work as maids, auto-rickshaw drivers, plumbers, electricians, mobile phone repairmen, vegetable sellers, etc. More than 80% in our 40 slums have lived here for three or more generations, experiencing little upward mobility. More than half have the same occupation as their parents.

The pandemic cruelly exposed how precarious life is for both groups of poorer city residents. The condition of circular migrants was made vivid by news coverage of the thousands who marched along roads to distant villages. This great reverse migration of people, made desperate by signs of impending trouble, showed that not everyone who comes to a city is able to find a secure perch.

Perhaps because they did not stage dramatic marches, slum dwellers did not receive the same kind of public attention. But the effects upon them have been no less severe. As late as mid- to late-September, residents from 35 of the 40 slums we are tracking continued to cut back on food or other essentials; residents from 30 of these 40 neighbourhoods needed to borrow money to meet essential needs; on average, they still lack more than 50% of their pre-pandemic income.

These new deprivations have come on top of chronic or everyday deprivation. Despite great need, 40% of slum residents did not have ration cards prior to the pandemic. Only 34% had drinking water connections. Just a little over one-third had completed primary school. Only 6% had jobs with written contracts and statutory benefits.

These situations will not improve automatically. A common misconception is that slums are a necessary but temporary part of economic development, providing affordable housing to recent migrants, but disappearing as urbanization fuels greater economic growth, with residents absorbed into middle-class localities. This faulty logic draws on an oversimplified reading of Western history.

There are some revealing parallels with the slum-like conditions that prevailed in early Industrial Age Europe and America, which gave rise to the adjective “Dickensian" and its imagery of squalid living conditions. In 1911 London, described by a contemporary account, nearly 800,000 people lived in slums. “Houses intended for one family each were made to accommodate several, and every available plot of land was built upon without regard to ventilation or any other sanitary condition; dwellings were almost literally piled one upon the top of the other." In New York City, an estimated two-thirds of the population lived in tenements in 1900. According to an account written at the time, “Swine roamed the streets and gutters serving as their principal scavengers."

Forty or 50 years later, these conditions had disappeared. But there was nothing automatic about it. In fact, substantial public sector interventions were made for public health, housing and labour standards, child labour reduction, and educational attainment. In the US, for instance, between 1890 and 1930, spending on social welfare increased over seven times and spending on education increased 17-fold. Large-scale public investments in human capital helped prepare the educated labour force required by growing industrialization.

Even more than in the West, coping with urban India’s Dickensian conditions requires policy supports. The old reasons are still relevant; in addition, two other reasons—rampant informality and creeping automation—make the need for sustained and well-resourced interventions critical, as we shall contend in the sequel.

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