Commentary

Slums Are Hubs of Hope, Progress and Dignity

The Census Commissioner has released a new report showing that 64 million people, representing one in six urban residents, live in slums with unsanitary conditions “unfit for human habilitation.” This has caused much moaning and groaning. But conditions are far worse in most villages. Romantic pastoralists may fantasise about happy green villages as opposed to filthy urban slums. But migration of millions proves that villagers see slums, warts and all, as the way forward.

Yes, slums are dirty, but they are also entrepreneurial hubs where India’s poor are climbing up the ladder of opportunity and income. The census report shows that 16.7% of slum households are factories, shops and offices. These are humming commercial centres, not dead-ends. 

Dharavi in Mumbai, India’s largest slum, has an estimated business turnover of $650 million. It has created slumdog millionaires aplenty. They should be objects of envy, not objects of pity.

Yes, slums are dirty, but they are also entrepreneurial hubs where India’s poor are climbing up the ladder of opportunity and income.”

Dalit writers like Chandhra Bhan Prasad and Milind Kamble have highlighted how cities are hubs of opportunity and dignity. Ambedkar rightly denounced villages as cesspools of cruelty and prejudice. Dominant castes continue acting like feudal rulers in many rural areas. Social barriers make it difficult for dalits and shudras to raise their heads in many villages. But once they migrate to towns, they escape the caste discrimination and landowner-dependency of rural India. They earn far more in towns than in villages, and the money they send home frees their relatives from historical dependence on village feudatories.

Slums are the entry point of the poor into cities. Insane tax and urban land policies have encouraged a never-ending avalanche of black money into real estate. Urban land prices have skyrocketed, and bear no relationship to the income they generate. Land is unaffordable by most of the middle class, let alone the poor. This is one reason why urbanization has been so slow in India.

The poor can enter cities only through existing or new shanty-towns. This is illegal, yet fully accepted by politicians as a legitimate form of entry. So, shanty-towns are frequently regularized before election time.

No politician dares raze them. Rather, they are improved through supplies of water and electricity. Many slums simply steal electricity, with the tacit backing of politicians plus bribes to linesmen.

The census description of slums as “unfit for human habitation” is highly misleading. In fact census data prove that slums are much better off than villages, which are presumably fit for habitation! No less than 70% of slum households have TVs, against only 47% of total Indian households. The ratio is just 14.5% in Bihar and 33.2% in UP. Even Narendra Modi’s shining Gujarat (51.2%) and Pawar’s Maharashtra (58.8%) have a far lower rate of TV ownership than our slums!

True, 34% of slums don’t have toilets. Yet the ratio is as high as 69.3% in rural India. Ratios are worst in rural Jharkhand (90%) and Bihar (82%). But even Modi’s Gujarat (67%) and Pawar’s Maharashtra (62%) are far worse off than urban slums.

Similar stories hold for access to tap water, education, healthcare, electricity or jobs. As many as 90% of slum dwellers have electricity, against barely half of rural households. Ownership of cellphones (63.5%) is as high among slum dwellers as richer urban households, and way above rural rates. One-tenth of slums have computers, and 51% have cooking gas (not far short of 65 per cent of total urban households). Amazingly, more slum households (74 per cent) have tap water than total urban households (70.6 per cent).

So, let nobody misinterpret the Census report on slums as a terrible indictment. The report does indeed highlight unsanitary, cramped conditions, and the need to improve these. Yet it also provides a wealth of data showing how slums are better off than villages, and how on some counts slum-dwellers are as well off as richer urban dwellers. The report fails to highlight the extent to which slums have generated thousands of thriving businesses. It also fails to highlight the role of slums in helping conquer rural caste and feudal oppression.

Forget tear-jerkers about our filthy slums. Instead, see them as entry-points of the poor into the land of urban opportunity. See them as havens of dignity for dalits and shudras. See them as hubs of rising income and asset ownership, which have already generated several rupee millionaires.

This means we need more slums, more hubs of opportunity. The urban gentry want to demolish slums, but they are plain wrong. Instead we should improve slum sanitation, water supply and garbage disposal. We need more improved slums, upgraded slums, but slums nevertheless.

Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar is a Research Fellow at the Cato Institute’s Centre for Global Liberty and Prosperity.