Saturday, June 07, 2008

Are slum-dwellers poor?

Off late I have been running into urban poverty and slum-dwelling a lot through articles on Urban Poverty alleviation and Slum displacement in India Together and a post in ThinkChange India.

At least articles in India Together suggest that slum-dwellers are subconsciously considered poor and marginalized group of people. However, one detail I came across in ThinkChange-India's (TC-I) post slum tourism got me thinking.

"There were two figures that Girish [tourist guide] kept repeating during the tour: 10,000, which is the number of small-scale industries operating in Dharavi, and USD 665 million, which is the annual turnover Dharavi’sresidents are estimated to generate."
When I read the Slum displacement article about the "unfair manner" in which Delhi Development Authority has has displaced the "poor" slum-dwellers to a slightly improved, but small tenements far from the city, I instinctively set out for an arm-chair investigation to ascertain the validity of both of the quoted adjectives.

Google-god :) blessed me with (only) two academic papers related to this topic. (Both open as PDFs)

[1] SLUMS IN CHENNAI: A PROFILE, Dr. C.Chandramouli, I.A.S.Director of Census Operations, Tamilnadu

[2] Livelihoods and Collective Action among Slum Dwellers in a Mega-City (New Delhi), IASCP conference 2002 **unpublished draft version**

The India Together article talks about the finding of a research done on Delhi's slums. The article's main argument about the "unfairness"

"... the plots are given [to slum-dwellers] on a five-year lease and there is no guarantee that the plot holders can continue to live there after that.....Why would anyone, rich or poor, be willing to relocate without a guarantee that they had the right to stay in the new location? "
However, [1] says that about 40% of Chennai slums are rented and indicates the active presence of land mafia. Chances are Delhi's case falls in the same ballpark. [2] directly says that vested interests actively collude the government officials/politicians in keeping slum-dwelling insecure. Given that, a 5-year guarantee of own land seems be a windfall to the displaced slum dwellers.

Further, [2] states that
"Average income about Rs 3000 (NOK 500) per month – more than twice that of official poverty line"
"Majority posessed a one- or two-room brick house (pucca)"
If so, they should be thankful for a 5 year accommodation with better standards of living (as claimed by the India Together article) in spite of not being exactly poor. After 5-years? Well, how about they finding their own way instead of looking for government help?

One possible source discrepancy could be the research methods carried out by the researcher quoted in India Together and the researcher referenced above. I have left a comment for the author in the website, and an e-mail to the authors of [2]. Hopefully that will throw some light.

To add more to this, before watching it in the movie Mudhalvan (Nayak in Hindi) I heard about instances when slum-dwellers do illegally rent out the flats that slum clearance board alloted with an intention to move them out of the slum to a nearby area with better living condition. Consequently, in spite of getting richer from the rent, they continue to more subsidies for being slum-dwellers by choice. I don't have any accepted material for this, but if I were a slum dweller it would make sense for me to do this. Now who is at the receiving end of corruption? The slum dweller or the government?

Getting to the question,
- Are the slum-dwellers really poor? Or are they just institutionalized to living in poor conditions?
- Do they really live there for want of choice or simply to extract more subsidies from govt and NGOs by selling "poverty"?

I think a typical slum is a mix of both, but I get a feeling that the scale is gradually tilting towards the latter on both the questions.

Finally, I later noticed that the post in TC-I carefully addressed only the living condition of Dharavi and refrained from poverty. Well done!

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