an article on problems of slums

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  • According to the census of 2011, more than 17% of the urban population of India live in slums.
  • They do not have access to safe drinking water.
  • lack of a proper sanitation system
  • criminal activities are rampant because of the lack of law and order
  • lack of education and employment opportunity
  • unhygienic air and crammed spaces 
  • breeding ground for diseases
  • Government must take up positive steps to improve their living conditions.


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 There are some problems that seem beyond solution. This is because the causes of the problems are either not known, not well understood, or are so paradoxical and contradictory, so hopelessly intertwined with one another that they cannot be effectively identified and addressed. The problem of slums [some prefer the term 'squatter communities'] is one of these seemingly insoluble problems. They are a global problem and a growing one, as exponential population expansion in many countries forces a disproportionate number of people into increasingly untenable living conditions.

Most slums exist in countries struggling to emerge from colonial exploitation, economic isolation, political anarchy, sectarian violence, and a host of other conditions that do not effect more developed countries, or not so drastically. Poverty is the cause of slums—people do not have money, and little prospect of getting any. Thus they don’t have adequate food, drinking water, medical care, education, or any way to escape their poverty by moving away or up. They are trapped in poverty, more or less without hope. But what is the cause of their poverty? The answer is brutally simple: an unequal distribution of wealth and the resources it can buy and control. Why is a country’s wealth unevenly distributed? Again, painfully simple: because the people who have been able to get the money and resources want to hang on to them, and to get more. Their justification for doing this, even in the face of the visible horrors of poverty and the human suffering it causes, is that those who have the wealth and resources are best able to manage them well. If they were turned over to the poor, they would be squandered and wasted, because the poor have no experience at managing them. The stability of society itself would be threatened. Further justification lies in the presumption that if the owners of the wealth and resources are allowed to do their good job of managing, the poor will benefit, too, because the whole community will prosper. This is sometimes called the Trickle Down Effect.

The problem with these justifications is that they are much too optimistic, particularly for the emerging communities and countries where the most terrible poverty is rampant. The poor are in desperate condition and cannot wait for bits of wealth to filter down to them from the upper socio-economic strata, even if that were to happen. Tragically, the upper strata in the societies most afflicted by poverty and the slums it creates are most likely to be comprised of corrupt and rapacious managers of the wealth, whether in the form of political leaders or private entrepreneurs. Presiding over a politically disempowered and disenfranchised populace, the managers have no one to hold them accountable. Cycles of coups, civil wars, and revolutions usually replace one set of self-enriching despots with another, and the state of the poor is unaffected or made worse. One would hope for the enlightened despot to come along who would enforce true reforms that would improve the lot of the poor, but this has not happened and no one, especially the poor, can count on it. Meanwhile, their lives, played out among the most abject and dehumanizing conditions, goes on. Somehow, and in spite of everything.

Human beings are resourceful. Adaptiveness is the essential human quality, enabled by self-conscious intelligence. Where other animals can live only within a relatively narrow, biologically determined range of conditions, humans can modify either the conditions or themselves to such an extent that they can live at the extremes. Extreme heat, extreme cold, extreme poverty. People adapt and use their ingenuity and inventiveness to survive, but also to find meaning and purpose, and whatever degree of pleasure, even happiness, that humans may know. Living in the slums, which means living without many beneficial, even necessary, things, but also with so many threatening, even dangerous, things, is a great test of human ingenuity, and of the human spirit, which means nothing less than finding, or creating, a degree of satisfaction in being human. In the slums, people’s ability to modify the living conditions is minimal, because they do not have the resources to do so. A few pieces of tin, scrap lumber, cardboard make a house. Clothing and food are scavenged from the refuse of others with more. Health care is homeopathic, and life expectancy is short. Education is in the home, but more often in the dirt paths that pass for streets in the slums. Childhood is truncated; children have to do something useful for the family’s survival, as soon as they are able, or—orphaned at any early age, or cast out because they are too expensive to keep—fend entirely for themselves. Slum dwellers have no choice but concentrate on modifying themselves: adjusting their expectations from life to a minimum; surviving on a minimum of material means; learning how to deal emotionally with daily deprivations that would crush the pride and sense of self-worth of those accustomed to having even a modicum of material comfort and security. In the face of these conditions of existence, their resourcefulness is crucial. People with steady jobs and incomes, who are assured of having enough money to go to school, to the doctor or clinic; who can save some money, buy enough food and clothing to last a while; who can plan for the future; all too often coast along without thinking very much or having to fall back on their resourcefulness. But there is no coasting for the slum dweller. Everything is now, today, and each day is a new struggle for survival. The gains made yesterday were maybe enough, but they were consumed yesterday. Nothing carries over, except the needs.

Slum dwellers share something with people caught in a war zone, where the infrastructure of society has been interrupted or destroyed. They have to scrounge and improvise, just to have the basics pf shelter, food, heat. To survive, they have to be inventive. But the people in the war zone can look forward to the end of war, the restoration of society and its services. The slum dwellers have no such prospect. For them the war, its brutalities and atmosphere of cruelty and indifference to human life, never ends.

It is easy enough for people who do not live in the slums and who are nestled more or less comfortably in their lives to shudder at the unhappy fate of their fellow creatures, while at the same time feeling relieved that it is not their fate. Their security seems assured by their ties to the institutions, and persons, managing the wealth and resources. Their roles in the grand scheme might be small, but they fulfill them earnestly, and steadily, and surely they are necessary to the ‘system,’ so long as they are loyal and useful. Or so they believe, or must believe. Actually, they—the middling servants of the great system—are mere fodder and entirely dispensable. Tomorrow, they could get their pink slips and be out of work, for reasons completely independent of their loyal servitude. Corporate mergers. Downsizing. Outsourcing. Accounting corrections. Computer errors. Their being cast into the streets, however, is largely metaphorical. Even unemployed, they are still part of the system. Someone will pick them up. They have experience, education, they are certified, conditioned, too valuable to be thrown away. Or so they hope.

The slum dwellers have not been thrown away either, because they have never been part of the system. A relative few manage to find paid work in factories, or as day laborers, but most fend for themselves, the system’s illegitimate children, its orphans. They scavenge in city dumps, living in one way or another on the waste that others, better off than they, produce. And they do this ingeniously. Like the can collectors in New York City, where the state levied a bounty on a few recyclable materials, slum dwellers work hard to collect from the dumps recyclable materials like plastics, fabrics, rubber and even metals like iron from construction refuse and aluminum from domestic discards, selling them to scrap companies, who in turn sell them by the ton to major recyclers. From there the materials are returned in semi-raw form to factories and the cycles of consumption that constitute the global economy (see below). The slum dwellers, the scavengers and pickers, are part of the big system, but not officially, in the sense that they find a recognized and rewarded place. They get no benefits or perks from the companies that benefit from their labor, but get only what they can earn daily from the crumbs that fall off the big table.

From a safe distance, it is tempting to demonize, or romanticize, slum dwellers. On the demon side, they are parasites, unclean, unwanted, unhealthy, attached to the body of organized society. On the romantic side, they are outsiders, struggling subversively within the system, surviving by their wits and stubbornness, masters of that indispensable human quality, ingenuity. Each view is an extreme of the reality, and each serves the purposes of different interest groups occupying higher social strata. Consequently, both views in effect accept the existence, and persistence, of slums.

Of course, only the most rabid ideologues would openly admit such a thing. “We’ve always had the poor, and always will!” proclaim those on the political far right. “The poor will rise up, and revolutionize the whole society!” proclaim those on the political far left. Sad to say, the far right position is more widely accepted. The idea of radicalizing the poor is a dream or a fantasy of people who do not actually share their desperate conditions. They, the slum dwellers, have no time for political idealism—they are too busy trying, day to day, to survive.

There is much that is admirable in the way that slum dwellers struggle against overwhelming adversity, but admiration must be tempered by the realization that they do not struggle because they choose to, out of principle, or in the service of high social or political ideals, but because of their desperation at the brutal limits of survival. It is a mistake—and a grave disservice to them—to imagine that their ingenuity, resourcefulness, and capacities for self-organization can in any way serve as models for our present global society. To believe so would be to endorse the dog-eat-dog ethics that rule their lives and, all too often, those occupying society’s more economically advantaged classes. To believe so would be to endorse the most cynical and degraded vision of the human future imaginable, a throw-back to the barbarous 19th century perversion of believing in ideas such as ‘the survival of the fittest’ and ‘the nobility of poverty,’ which justified the blatant exploitation of many by a few.

The only thing we can learn from slums today is that they cannot be tolerated in any form, or under any circumstances; that poverty, their most terrible feature, must, as rapidly as possible, be alleviated; that the wealth and resources of any community—which prominently includes its human resources—cannot be controlled for the benefit of an elite, under whatever name or ideology it goes; that the survival of the emergent, global society depends on its reformation of institutions—public and private—presently managing society’s material and cultural wealth; and that reform must come not by violence from the lower social strata, but from enlightened leadership from the higher, if not the highest, strata of the social and economic structure.


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 The picture that conjures up in our minds, when we talk about slums, is that of a dirty, unhygienic cluster of impoverished shanties with long lines of people crowding around a solitary municipal water tap, bowling babies literally left on street corners to fend for themselves and endless cries and found voices emanating from various corners. Most of them are engaged in eking out their daily lives, always below the poverty line, by working as construction labourers, domestic helps, rag pickers and chhotus in neighbourhood dhabas. Though their living conditions are utterly unhygienic, gloomy, dismal and dehumanized, many of them still dream of improving the quality of their lives. 

The majority of slum dwellers identify themselves with the city rather than with their native place and plan to settle permanently in the city. In spite of poor conditions in slums, second generation residents who are not nostalgic about their rural background - feel that life in slum is reasonably tolerable and city life is probably better than rural life.

They greatly value improving their working situation through getting a better job, yet have low aspirations and have an optimistic view of their chances of improving their socio-economic status.

Many of the younger generation, irrespective of gender, income level and educational attainment express their regard for education and foresee upward social mobility for their children by educating their offspring as much as possible. 

Our slums are indeed very dingy, dark and dismal. But the dark clouds are now fading. Despite the inaction of civic authorities, and despite the efforts of politicians and slum mafia to keep slum dwellers to remain docile, there are definite signs of younger slum dwellers to improve the quality of their lives. Silver linings are now becoming visible. 

Plentiful of these was available in rural areas. They were encouraged to come to cities and work. People, who migrated to the cities and found work, brought their cousins and rest of the families to the cities. Unable to find housing and afford it, they decided to build their shelter closer to work. Thousands of shelters were built for the migrating labourers. Conniving governments provided electricity and drinking water. Politicians looked at the slums as vote bank. They organized these unauthorized dwellers into a political force; hence slums took a bit of a permanent shape. More slums developed as more population moved to the cities. By mid sixties Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi, and all other large cities were dotted with slums.

Recent years have seen a dramatic growth in the number of slums as urban populations have increased in the Third World. According to a recent UN-Habitat report, 327 million people live in slums in Commonwealth countries almost one in six Commonwealth citizens. In a quarter of Commonwealth countries (11 African, 2 Asian and 1 Pacific), more than two out of three urban dwellers live in slums, and many of these countries are urbanizing rapidly.

Why ??? 

Slum1Slums are the products of failed policies, bad governance, corruption, inappropriate regulations, dysfunctional land markets, unresponsive financial systems and a fundamental lack of political will.

Each of these failures adds to the toll of people already deeply burdened with poverty. This frustrates the enormous potential for human development that opportunities in urban life offer.

Urbanisation has created a number of problems like shortage of dwelling units, mushrooming growth of jhuggis, encroachment of public land and expansion of unauthorized residential colonies. The rapid growth of urbanization is creating a number of problems. Whenever a big project is commenced, a lot of workers migrate to towns in quest of employment. With no proper place to live, they usually encroach public land and the sites earmarked for various developmental projects. This causes expansion of jhuggis and unauthorized colonies.Thus building enormous pressure on civic services and creating major bottlenecks in the proper development of cities.


Sllum problemsPeople residing in slums face many problems like improper sanitation, unhygienic environmental conditions, social, economic, health, educational and cultural problems and many more. The basic problems inherent in slums are Health hazards 

Lack of basic amenities like safe drinking water, proper housing, drainage and excreta disposal services, make slum population vulnerable to infections. These further compromise the nutrition requirements of those living in slums.

It is projected that more than half of the Indian population will live in urban areas by 2020 and nearly one third of this urban population will be slum dwellers. The ongoing process of rapid urbanization has deleterious repercussions on health and nutrition, especially for children. Malnutrition in young children has long-term negative effects on physical and cognitive development. The major causes of childhood malnutrition in slum population are inappropriate child feeding practices, infections, improper food security and suboptimal childcare besides poor availability and inadequate utilization of health care services. Addressing nutritional problems of urban poor is essential for overall development of the country.

Lack of sanitary conditions

LackPoor sanitary conditions and poor quality of water lead to illnesses like diarrhoea and other water borne diseases, affecting the life expectancy of slum dwellers. According to a recent case study, water and sanitation diseases are responsible for 60 per cent of environmental health. Among water borne diseases, diarrhoea disproportionately affects children under the age of five. Poor health among children adversely affects the attendance rate at schools. 

In dense, overcrowded urban conditions it is often difficult for people to find space to build latrines. Many have to defecate in the open or share whatever limited facilities are available which tend to offer no privacy, safety or hygiene. 

Because of human waste and refuse collecting in stagnant pools spread disease and contaminate water sources. The problem is made worse during the rainy season when rubbish and excrement are washed into cramped living areas.

In these conditions it is virtually impossible to remain healthy and clean. Diseases spread rapidly among the crowded conditions and the little money that slum dwellers earn often has to be spent on medicines to help the sick recover.

Often these settlements are unofficial and so, without any legal tenure, the people living there are not entitled to get connections to basic facilities like water and sanitation. These settlements are also vulnerable to demolition as governments reclaim the illegally occupied land for other usages.

Social problems

The slum environment is the perfect breeding ground for a wide range of social problems. High unemployment often causes men to stay around the home growing increasingly frustrated with their pathetic situation and the worsening poverty.

Cramped conditions mean that there is nowhere to go when tensions rise, a factor that regularly leads to domestic violence. Sometimes the situation goes to the other extreme, where people abandon their homes, lured by the prospect of oblivion through alcohol or drug abuse. Once people develop such problems the prospects of finding work diminish. They fall deeper into poverty and the cycle continues.

Child labour

Many children in the slums start work at a very early age with no prospect of getting any education. They make money by rag picking (trawling through rubbish dumps to retrieve anything that can be sold), selling newspapers in traffic jams, peddling drugs or begging. They are at risk of exploitation as well as all the health problems that accompany their lifestyles. Incest and abuse can occur and child marriages are still encouraged in some areas.

Internal and external corruption

Some people manage to achieve a high status within slums and establish themselves as slumlords. They are often allies of certain politicians and gain control of sizeable chunks of the community land. By renting out the land, they make huge financial gains while everyone living in the slum struggles to survive on their meager earnings. The slumlords form elaborate links with local politicians, government officials and the police, and slum dwellers become dependent on them for the smallest of amenities. They have little empathy with the slum residents and exploit them by charging highly inflated prices for illegal electricity and water supplies or for constructing huts.

The men do not like to see the women becoming more powerful through forming women's groups as one of their main concerns is keeping the slum dwellers helpless and under their control.

The sheer volume of people living in slums causes them to be obvious targets for politicians wanting to increase their percentage of the vote. Slum inhabitants are often promised all kinds of support and improvements in return for political allegiance, but their trust is regularly abused.

Gender Inequality

Geber InequalityFemale babies in the slums of India can face discrimination and poor treatment from their very first moments, if they are given a chance of life at all; although gender specific abortion is illegal in India, it is still practiced in some places.

Male children are seen as a blessing and indulged in many areas of Indian society. Children born into the deprived and harsh environment of the slums may not be as fortunate, but male babies are still given better treatment than the girls. Boys tend to be healthier as they are given  better food in greater quantities, and they are also more likely to be sent to school.

In contrast, girls are seen as a drain on precious resources as they will one day get married and their contribution towards the family will end. To make up for this, they are forced to work from an early age and any ambitions regarding schooling or future careers are discouraged.

With that kind of start in life, it's difficult for women within the slums to find a voice. They are used to getting little support from their embers and are not usually considered worth consulting on family matters.

The sheer volume of people living in slums causes them to be obvious targets for politicians wanting to increase their percentage of the vote.


Slum sulutionsProblems of the slum can be dealt by little initiative taken by the government, NGOs and employers. Some of the possible solutions can be

Countries need to recognize that the urban poor are active agents and can contribute to national growth.

Local authorities and national governments should collaborate with the organizations of the urban poor in upgrading slums and providing alternatives to slum formation. Whenever a worker migrates to a city for work his employer must ensure that he is provided with appropriate accommodation. This should be the responsibility of all big and small employers.

Managing cities require local solutions. Local authorities need to be empowered with financial and human resources to deliver services and infrastructure to the urban poor. Cities should draw up local long-term strategies for improving the lives of slum dwellers.

Local governments should develop strategies to prevent the formation of new slums. These should include access to affordable land, reasonably priced materials, employment opportunities, and basic infrastructure and social services.

Public investments must focus on providing access to basic services and infrastructureWorking with the urban poor, cities need to invest in housing, water, sanitation, energy, and urban services, such as garbage disposal. These services and infrastructure must reach the poor living in informal settlements.

Role of the government and the NGOs. In a usual scenario a migrated laborer secures a  job with security agencies, waste management service providers, contractors, householders etc. They usually employ slum dwellers as rag pickers, sweepers, construction labors, masons, carpenters, domestic helps etc. For such migrating labors there should be acentralized labor registration center where they can register themselves and secure their labor ID number. These centers should have direct contact with prospective employers and they should try to find suitable jobs for these workers according to their skills. These migrated labors should also be allotted dwelling units and the accommodation expenses should be borne by their respective employers. The dwelling units should be located on the outskirts of the town and transport facilities should be made available to the workers in order to make commutation easy for them.  Locating proper dwelling units on the outskirts would minimize the proliferation of dingy slums in the city. Along with these arrangements certain regulations should be made by the government:

  • A minimum wage rate should be created for workers immigrating to town.
  • Computerized ID numbers should be allotted to the laborers for maintaining records.
  • ESI dispensaries and counseling services should be provided in dwelling areas. All labors should be centrally registered
  • Strict rules should be formulated  to prevent the misuse of funds.
  • Aim for 1 Lakh units of construction every six months.
  • Import high volume construction machinery from China for the speedy construction.
  • Factories with a workforce of more than 100 labors should have compulsory dwelling units. The accommodation facilities should be made available before the commencement of any project

NGOs can play a vital role in improving the existing conditions of slums. NGOs should work for the underprivileged in the slums. NGOs should work in close coordination with government and make sure that the following facilities are available to the slum dwellers:

  • Counselling services to minimize crime and other problems.
  • Basic amenities like schooling, proper sanitation, potable water, health facilities and common electricity with minimal charges.
  • Free weekly medical and healthcare facilities.

Manifestation of income and other gaps in health, education, skills, etc. can be seen in slums and squatter settlements of most urban areas in developing countries. Slums are not 'problems' that have to be 'solved' - but are indeed results of lopsided and vested urban policies covering land ownership, infrastructure provision and maintenance, and other socio-economic issues. And for the poor, they represent a solution.  The need of the hour 
is to find light in the darkest of the dark scenario and infuse life in the lives that are still waiting for the silver lining.

Fading dark clouds

Poverty, slums and urban squat can be controlled in next couple of decades. Reversal of this phenomenon will begin after sufficient economic progress had been made. Eight percent GDP growths is a good sign. With quadrupled GDP in 25 years, there is a good chance that the new and upcoming generation may stay away from slum dwelling. It may take another 25 years before the slums are vacated.

Silver lining
The problems prevailing in slums give us the challenge to rebuild a society that is more equitable where equal opportunities could be provided to all for living with dignity. Many hurdles have to be overcome to achieve this objective.

The despair of the underprivileged has to be replaced with hope, their fear with security, and their ignorance with knowledge. Give them the opportunity to secure good health, immunity from curable diseases, employment opportunities, sufficient and nutritious food, clean water and a clean environment, capability to protect their children against exploitation and discrimination. Their children should have the right to get adequate education for becoming responsible citizens of India. 

Slum dwellers should be empowered to enable them to improve the quality of their own lives........

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     A minimum wage rate should be created for workers

immigrating to town.
Computerized ID numbers should be allotted to the laborers formaintaining records.
ESI dispensaries and counseling services should be provided indwelling areas. All labors should be centrally registered
Strict rules should be formulatedto prevent the misuse of funds.
 Aim for 1 Lakh units of construction every six months.
Import high volume construction machinery from China for thespeedy construction.
Factories with a workforce of more than 100 labors should havecompulsory dwelling units. The accommodation facilities shouldbe made available before the commencement of any project

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