The risk of bundling the 65 million that live in 'slums' in India

Highly anticipated data from the Indian Census on socio-economic situation in slums is now in the public domain. One important and interesting stat is that over a third of the 65 million people live in ‘slums’ that are not acknowledged as settlements by the government and thereby do not enjoy tenure rights or access to municipal services. This may not look good for the ambitious plans for Slum Free India 2014 if only those slums recognized as such by the respective state governments are being addressed.

Slums in the census are defined as "residential areas where dwellings are unfit for human habitation" because they are dilapidated, cramped, poorly ventilated, unclean, or "any combination of these factors which are detrimental to the safety and health". For the latest round, the census designated slums in three different ways - notified, recognized and identified (identified slums do not have legal status as a slum, but must consist of at least 60-70 tenements with at least 300 people).

While the census data is attempt at a more realistic categorization of slums and may work great for activism and politics, the data doesn't offer much analytics to understand the problem of poor quality habitat. In fact such overall stats are overwhelming and can lead to action paralysis. It over-generalizes laying the bait for a policy offering a one size fit all solution- Rehabilitation. Mass Housing. Tenure. Ownership. How will we go about doing this before 2014?

If we were to 'un-slum' a settlement it would mean ensuring dwellings are hygiene and fit for human habitation with adequate ventilation and space. At one extreme improving poor quality housing may require some degree of rehabilitation and relocation (think settlements near floodplains & drains). A minimalist intervention may require providing decentralized sewage technologies (think inhabited settlements not yet legal for residential uses). Some settlements and their situations may require pro-activate role of the community and/or intermediary organization (e.g maintenance of community toilets), others may require a change in legislation or company policy (e.g enabling housing finance institutions to lend in the area).

One simplistic framework we attempted relied on land-use, security of tenure that imply the level of access to services, finance and other services (table below). As any savvy sales and marketing professional would advise, we need to know which way to slice the markets we want to serve and what we have to offer. It’s not a trivial matter and nor is it a simple task. It would be fascinating to hear more efforts on nuancing informal settlements that offer insight for action to improve quality of living in different ways for the 65 million that live in 'slums'.

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