Urban Poverty in India, Slamming the Slums

May 3, 2013
Challenges of urban poverty in India are intimately tied with challenges of the country’s fast development. Indian cities have come to dominate the charts as the world’s biggest cities for the first time in modern history. (Header photo courtesy of Akshay Mahajan)

Such high-speed, colossal growth, as impressive as it may be, poses several problems if not threats: pollution (air, soil, water), and a disproportionate concentration of poverty, among others. Those two issues stem directly from the fact that by growing that fast it makes it hard to plan for everything all at once: housing (for a while some cities grew by a million inhabitant per year) and the gigantic urban planning mish-mash that it presupposes.

Chaotic growth

The case of urban poverty in India has been exemplary in terms of mismanaging (or not managing at all) urban growth. Cities have become the best place to foster poverty and destitution at a scale and extent unseen before. Rural poverty is one thing, but urban areas added a whole new breed of revolting aspects to it: diseases, violence (more than at the countryside), disintegration of communities and the social fabric.

But building and increasing the size of cities obviously costs billions and India was somewhat short of cash at the time. Consequently, it has decided to radically reduce the public services it offers as well as its investment in infrastructure. You might think “Okay, but they were broke”, but this is where strong political will makes a difference, considering that other countries in the same situation managed very well their transition despite a few controversies (e.g. China).

The birth of Indian slums

As cities grew, so did the slums, "welcoming" more rural migrants and aggravating urban poverty. Even though people keep on flowing from the countryside, the government has persisted in not creating enough housing for everyone. Let's not even speak about affordable housing for the poor.

However things are getting better as proportionally speaking poverty has been waning over the past decade or so. Employment generation schemes have been working quite well. The apparition of micro-finance has allowed many Indians to start small businesses and the trend is growing as flows of credit arrive.

A tricky poverty line

This has helped only part of the poor, those not too far below the Indian poverty line. For the rest, the poorest of the poor, no government policy, no pro-poor local organization has managed to reach them and help them. The reasons range from social discrimination (some organizations help only people from their community or social class/caste), to the difficulty to locate the poorest as they often migrate throughout the city in quest of a temporary job.

Finally urban poverty is convenient to many local authorities as the higher cost of living makes more people fall above the poverty line (which is the same for the whole country, urban and rural areas alike). As the poor need to survive in more expensive big cities, they technically have more money than rural residents but they also spend it all very quickly to feed themselves.

The Indian poverty line thus shows no consideration of the other aspects of poverty: homelessness or living in the slums, access to water, electricity, public transportation, job, etc…  Surprisingly, and what makes many say that Indian officials don’t give a damn about the poor, social housing is still not a very high priority  nationwide (do correct me if you find anything new).

What’s more, there is no standard definition of slums and the massive lack of research provides no account of the lives of the poor. This way no one knows the real extent of urban poverty.

The demise of the state and public services

What are the causes of urban poverty in India?
‍What are the causes of urban poverty in India?

Private and public sectors together

What a lot of research points out is that, while there's no doubt that the private sector is crucial to alleviate poverty, this doesn’t mean that the state should disappear. In a country like India, on the contrary, the private sector has to be spurred. And the state would have been of great help if it had invested in very basic infrastructure from the beginning... As usual, poverty and state efficiency are context-based and in the case of developing countries, the government plays a crucial part.

From the US to the UK, France and Germany, from Japan to South Korea and China, what the neoliberal doctrine of free markets didn't mention is that all of them have actively used government intervention and protectionism to develop their economies (yes, even the US, for more details see the economist Chang Hajoon's famous book "Kicking Away the Ladder" )

Social corruption and rivalries

In India as in many other nations, specific social groups lobby for influence and favors from the government. This is even more intense in India because of the rivalries inherent to the Indian society (i.e. the caste system). And when politics eventually meddle in this, it becomes ugly by forming sort of an institutional segregation in terms of who or which community will receive public and social services and which one will not.

Typically things get worse at the local level with huge differences between cities. So for example Mumbai (Bombay) fares 4 times worse than the capital and Calcutta over twice worse than Delhi in terms of providing public services, in particular basic health care and education. Funnily enough, the rich enjoy much better services and infrastructure in Mumbai than in the two other cities. Now where did that money come from?

Local corruption and embezzlement

Another issue is that technically speaking it’s the central government that finances the local public services and its infrastructures (from street lights to sewers) and if you just consider that these are completely nonexistent in certain parts of town (i.e. the slums), you realize that the government needs to work more directly with local authorities and make sure that the money gets where it’s supposed to go.

The catastrophic growth of slums

Indian slums, corruption and discrimination
‍Indian slums, corruption and discrimination

Waste pickers vs. collectors

Let’s have a look at a typical class of workers in the slums that make up one reality of urban poverty in India: waste pickers and collectors, for recycling use. Both pickers (who pick up waste from the streets) and collectors (who collect from households) are at the very bottom of the social order – even while their role is crucial for recycling and the environment – with the pickers at the lowest position, by far.

Most of them usually came from the countryside and had to settle in the slums because they had no other choice (read: not enough money). Collectors make enough to live just around the Indian poverty line, while pickers live far below the line.

Discrimination among the poor

In fact, they don’t come from the same places: the former are from villages around Delhi, and the latter come from further away provinces where Bengali is the main language. Already, a first form of discrimination - typical of the social structure of poverty in India - is discernible: the poorest communities stick together to vie for resources and the best jobs.

Even by the standards of most slums in India, the living conditions of the pickers are at best appalling (i.e. when they're not being beaten up or asked for bribes). And this is despite their invaluable contribution to the environment and the cities’ waste disposal budget.

That same old need for infrastructure and institution

That’s easy, you need to turn the slums into a normal urban place. Hah, easier said than done, right? There is in fact such program (see end of page), aimed at restoring basic services in the slums and making them a real part of town with access to water, electricity, health care, education, sewers etc. But that’s not enough to help our pickers and collectors in the short run. Education and training are just as vital, however not as long as they’re denied a chance to find a job.

Therefore, a new challenge arises: creating (appropriate) jobs; and why not for example use the fact that they’re specialized in the waste recycling business. Integrating them further up the chain of recycling by making and or re-selling recycled goods is one possibility that will considerably raise their income. With the craze about going green, it’s the best time and there’s a great opportunity for each municipality to help a new section of the private sector grow.

That is nonetheless at the condition that local governments act upon the lack of infrastructure and industries, the limited access to training and job-hunting support. There’s everything to bet that once their income and social status are raised, new opportunities will arise for these people to keep on improving their lives, seek new types of jobs or engage in new business ventures.

The impact of corruption 

Last but not least, Indian cities' pro-poor policies (“pro-poor” is just a technical jargon for "democratic") would have a much better impact if each municipality wouldn't be so prude about policing its own civil servants and its own police.

It’s no secret that they are the flagship of Indian corruption and have this irritating habit to regularly extract money from the poor as a strange toll for working on their territory. Starting with this alone would represent a great step to directly increase the income of many of the slums’ residents.

Better anti-poverty policies

The limits of NGOs and local poor organizations

Just how effective policies aimed at urban poverty in India are depends greatly on how the poor are organized. Their communities, the social structure can become a major drive or a tremendous obstacle to the equitable distribution of public services and anti-poverty programs' money.

In the context of India, you have both cases: social services spread really well within one community, and at the same time poor communities that are higher on the social hierarchy often try to keep as much as possible to themselves and block the diffusion to poorer communities.

Slums - a pillar of urban poverty

And in slums, the poorest of the poor are unfortunately often not organized into communities anymore. This lack of social fabric makes them all the more fragile to their environment and to any shock (rise in food prices, not finding a job for a few days, etc) as they can’t rely on anybody for temporary help. This means that public policies should pay extra attention to so-called poor organizations insofar as they may represent in fact special interests within the larger “poor community”.

Hence the one thing that local governments lack to actually tackle urban poverty is ground research. Finding out who needs what, finding out the right people to target and try to represent and seek a consensus on everybody’s interests and not only those who can afford to gang up and promote their interests (although it’s not entirely wrong either!).

More, more and more research

Including the poor is obviously important to solve poverty and know what they need more precisely. But including the poor can be done in different ways ranging from public consultation and cooperation to household surveys (rather than coming up with numbers and artificial targets in a top-down manner).

The advantage of incorporating direct insights from the poor is to gain both in nuance and thus efficiency regarding the most urgent and effective ways to tackle their problems. More research then becomes essential to target the right people, especially when you consider that the government is generally short of basic information on the state of slums.

The new governmental plan - the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission - from 2005 has been trying to break up with the traditional top-down approach that overlooks long term goals, the value of community-building and social harmony in reducing poverty. As it’s endeavored to restore the provision of basic services, one thing became obvious: there’s a need for more research. A need to know which policies work and which don’t.

That supply is finally picking up, providing vital information on urban poverty in India, but a substantial amount of it will be necessary to create enough results that validate or invalidate strategies in different contexts (e.g. slums in Delhi will likely require somewhat different solutions than slums in Mumbai).


  • Header photo courtesy of Akshay Mahajan
  • Deprivation and Incidence of Urban Public Services, Partha Gangopadhyay, Shyam Nath, The Applied Regional Science Conference (ARSC) / Blackwell Publishers 2001
  • Prospects and Problems of Housing Microfinance in  India: Evidence from “Bhavanashree” Project in Kerala State, Manoj P K, European Journal of Economics, Finance and Administrative Sciences 2010
  • India, Urban Poverty Report, by Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation, The Indian Journal of Industrial Relations Programme 2009
  • Poverty Lines and Lives of the Poor: Underestimation of Urban Poverty - the Case of India, Meera Bapat, Poverty Reduction in Urban Areas Series / IIED 2009
  • Progressive Patronage? Municipalities, NGOs, CBOs and the Limits to Slum Dwellers’ Empowerment, Joop deWit and Erhard Berner, Development and Change 2009
  • Waste Pickers and Collectors in Delhi: Poverty and Environment in an Urban Informal Sector, Y. Hayami et al., Journal of Development Studies 2006

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Dario Berrebi

Digital strategist, researcher & filmmaker. 

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