Census shockers: Imagine all of France in slums and US sans power

Published: 24th March 2013 07:23 AM  |   Last Updated: 21st January 2014 01:16 PM   |  A+A-


On Friday, Census 2011 presented India with a view of its ugly urban underbelly. It told us that 17 per cent of the population lived in what it defined as “dwellings that are unfit for human habitation”. The ratio doesn’t quite tell the story. Translate this into absolutes. Over 68 million of the 400 million Indians who live in urban India live in slums— and words are even more inadequate. Imagine the entire French population of 65 million, and more, living in slums to get the picture. Mumbai, reduced into India’s slum-bay, has over 7.5 million—or the entire populace of Hong Kong—living in slums. Just in the five metros of Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi, Chennai and Bangalore, 17 million—the population of Netherlands—live in slums.

If you splice the data further, you get to know how the millions exist. Of these 68 million slum dwellers, 43 per cent access drinking water from outside the premises, 37 per cent of the homes have no drainage, and 34 per cent lack latrines at home. Nearly five million of these households—or 25 million people, which would be more than the population of Australia—live in conditions even the government is wary to identify as slums. Despite being in urban India, 25 per cent of the homes use firewood for cooking and 31 million exist without access to banking. Much has been made out about 63 per cent of the slum dwellers owning mobile phones and one of 10 owns a computer. Really, the lipstick on the pig!

Yes, the statistics reflect the intensity of urban poverty. More importantly, they symbolise the failure of public policy. India has long since rationalised failure as part of its complex urban landscape, accepted a four-letter word called “slum”. Indeed, Census 2011 lists that 70 per cent of the residents in slums “own” the homes. Obviously the “owners” have paid for it. But it is no secret that most slums begin as encroachments of public or private land. Thanks to vote-bank politics, squatting gets regularised and illegality legitimised. As a result, the most expensive or valuable real estate across cities now host monuments to politically sanctioned illegality, cheek by jowl to a middle class that has paid thousands per square foot for a dream home. The nomenclature of “Notified” and “Recognised” slums are but certificates of sanction that validate the transfer of public lands and enrichment of private mafia.

It is not as if India is facing a unique problem. Every urban metropolis in the world attracts job seekers and is affected by burgeoning population. This is fuelled by the asymmetry of job opportunities. Government of India statistics show that between 1991 and 2001, 19.3 million jobs were generated in urban areas and only five million in rural areas. Job creation drives incomes and fuels demand for housing at all levels. Singapore and Hong Kong are examples of how public housing was tailored to accommodate growth. Enlightened economies create robust public housing policies where infrastructure precedes development unlike in India where it trails haphazard development.

The template solution is apt for India as well. Yet, India has flailed and floundered. In stark contrast, governments in India created political and physical ghettos. Barring Chandigarh, India has failed to add a decent planned city in six decades of Independence. Worse, disastrous laws like the Urban Land Ceiling Act were legislated, enabling land mafia and the political class to hijack scarce urban land to sustain electoral dividends and the underworld their business models. Ask around, and the only housing scheme visible in public policy space is a sop-opera called Rajiv Awas Yojana.

Even in 2013, there is no viable model visible for public housing. The 12th Plan quite candidly admits that “India has not paid systematic attention to urbanisation so far”. It adds that “as the urban population and incomes increase, demand for every key service such as water, transportation, sewage treatment, low income housing will increase five- to seven-fold in cities of every size and type. And if India continues on its current path, urban infrastructure will fall woefully short of what is necessary to sustain prosperous cities”.

Notwithstanding the confession and sermons, there is no sight of viable-effective solutions or programmes to fix the broken model of urbanisation through the plan. And mind you, the 12th Plan forecasts that every year for the next 25 years India will add nearly 12 million—that is, a Belgium—to the urban populace.

India’s political class may well argue that governments had to prioritise focus on “poor India”. Did they? Here is how the other India lives. Over 100 million rural Indians live in houses with grass, thatch and bamboo walls. Over 36 per cent of homes housing 220 million people fetch water from source located over 500 metres away in rural areas, and 100 metres in urban areas. Six decades after Independence, over 400 million people—more than the population of the US and UK—live without electricity, and use kerosene for lighting. And 650 million people do the “big job of the day” in the open.

India’s founding fathers had wisely distributed the responsibility of development between the Centre and the states. Over the decades, the Centre appropriated policy space and resources. The largest departments in the Centre are of those which are on the state list. The result in true Indian tradition of governance is that everybody is responsible and nobody is accountable. The model doesn’t deliver and must be dismantled. The Centre must delegate power and resources and get out of what isn’t its business. It would do well to heed the original libertarian Lao Tzu: If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.


Shankkar Aiyar is the author of  Accidental India: A History of the Nation’s Passage through Crisis and Change

India Matters


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