Slums: Two stories

The latest NSSO estimates put the number of slums in India at a much lower level than Census 2011.

Published : Jan 08, 2014 12:30 IST

The latest National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) survey estimates the number of slums in India at 33,510 with 8.8 million households in them. The study, “Key indicators of urban slums in India”, was conducted between July and December 2012.

Census 2011’s “Housing stock, amenities and assets in slums” puts the number of slums in the country at 1.08 lakh with 14 million households. Will it be right to assume that the slum population in India is coming down?

Slum classification

The Census categorises slums as follows:

Notified slums declared as such under any statute including Slum Acts;

Recognised slums that may not be notified under statutes but are acknowledged and categorised as slums by State or local authorities; and

Identified slums, which are compact areas with at least 300 residents or about 60-70 households in poorly built, congested tenements, in unhygienic environment, usually with inadequate infrastructure and lacking in proper sanitary and drinking water facilities.

Unlike the Census, the NSSO’s count is a lot more generous. It counts both the notified and non-notified slums and keeps the cut-off limit for the latter at 20 or more households.

Slums and poverty

In a paper titled “Of Slums or Poverty: Notes of Caution from Census 2011” (EPW, May 4, 2013), Gautam Bhan and Arindam Jana say: “The slum data in Census 2011 need to be interpreted with caution on three counts: the correlation between the definition of ‘slum’ and urban poverty; the dimension of quality when estimating access to basic services; and the question of why so few cities and towns report any slums.”

They caution against making the facile assumption that “if slums are doing better, therefore, so are the poor.”

Census 2011 found there were 40,309 identified slums, constituting 37 per cent of the total. They argue that with a cut-off threshold thrice that of the NSSO, there could have been a significant undercounting of slums. Given these facts, the NSSO’s projection of lower numbers is counter-intuitive.

The argument they make is equally relevant to the NSSO study: “Do the poor live only in ‘slums’ as defined by the Census? If not, then how does the Census data capture marginalisation faced by the urban poor not counted as slum households? What does this mean for what the Census data allow us to say about urban marginalisation with respect to access to housing and services, as opposed to slums?”

The excluded

They see the possible emergence of a new spatial form of urban poverty that is not limited to or bound by the “slum” as defined and measured in this Census but is far more fragmented, mobile and temporary.

If the NSSO data are used as a basis for urban planning, what Bhan and Jana say should ring a huge note of caution: “Read within the context of increasing cycles of displacement across Indian cities, the possibility of such new spatial forms demand more analysis and research particularly if they could impact the processes of implementation for programmes of urban welfare ranging from housing to service provision to public distribution systems and employment guarantee. Put simply: targeting the slum may increasingly not allow one to target the urban poor. If poverty and vulnerability are the question and object of intervention, the slum is perhaps neither the only answer nor should it be the only site of action.”


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