Urban slums

Take care of the basics first

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While putting an end to urban slums is a priority, there are fundamental issues that deserve our immediate attention…

The Central Government is all set to provide Rs. 200,000 crore to assist the States to end urban slums. But long before all that fructifies, there remains an urgent need not to delay the basics. This article appraises the performance of the metros in attending to four fundamentals: promoting birth control, immunisation, literacy and sanitation.

In Mumbai, every second person is today a slum dweller. In Kolkata, the same slum dwellers have led a slum life for the past 30 years. In Delhi, migration has added so overwhelmingly to the city’s growth that it has far surpassed its natural growth. That trend appears to be reversing of late, but not because of any decline in migration. It is because Delhi has the worst track record of reducing slum fertility. All other metros have successfully equalised the fertility rate of slum women with the rest of the urban women. Fertility levels for all metro women are presently comparable with European levels of fertility which is truly remarkable. But in Delhi the disparity remains enormous. Delhi’s slum fertility is higher than the State of Orissa.

Vicious cycle

But reducing average fertility is by no means the end of the story. With the exception of Chennai, a substantial proportion of slum women in all metros continue to produce four or more children which mean that they either disregard family planning or cannot access it. With the tools to prevent unwanted births so close at hand, it is brutal that thousands of women still undergo a cycle of repeated unwanted births. This needs to be tackled on a war footing if women are to be relieved from this yoke. It primarily calls for enumerating all women and reaching out to them. The second factor which possibly has the greatest impact on the quality of motherhood and mother care is, without doubt, literacy. Unacceptably high levels of illiteracy persist as a proportion of the slum population in the metros; a disgrace, because metros do not have a paucity of teachers and the target groups can be identified easily. Wiping out illiteracy from the slums can only be achieved by constantly identifying old-timers and new-comers and organising special late night classes, rewarding high attendance and achievement, through a guarantee of wage jobs.

Immunisation of children is the third critical obligation which has been given perfunctory treatment by all the metros except, again, Chennai. According to NFHS-3, the disparity between the immunisation cover extended to infants and toddlers in the slums and children in the rest of the city is glaring. Surprisingly in Chennai, slum children’s immunisation has exceeded that of non-slum children, which shows what concentrated attention can achieve. Delhi and Hyderabad fall far behind as hardly half the slum children were found fully immunised. With widespread availability of medical and ancillary staff, full immunisation cover should become non-negotiable for India’s capital as well as high-tech Hyderabad.

Crucial element

Added to these three basics, access to sanitation is all-important. Slum sanitation in Chennai appears to be the worst among the metros which diminishes the city’s glow greatly. If it is a sampling error or some other reason, it requires investigation. With the exception of Hyderabad, in other metros three quarters of the slum dwellers do not have even rudimentary toilet facilities. No guesses for where the muck goes.

On Republic Day each year community toilets are assembled on all roads converging on to India Gate, where lakhs of parade watchers congregate. Separate entry and exits are provided for men and women. This kind of alternative should be tried in large slums as the structures occupy little space and are moveable. Raising and managing them with a fee for service should be licensed to operate as a community venture.

Slummification is a natural process of urban development. If economic pulls from the cities make more sense to the poor, they will respond to the pulls, howsoever deep the quagmire they sink into. New York, Boston and large parts of Great Britain housed enormous slums during the 19th and a large part of the 20th century. Despite similar efforts to move the ghettos into the hinterland, ultimately, only economic growth made people give up slum life. For at least the next 20 years we should be prepared for massive migration into the cities as a part of urbanisation.

Instead of quibbling about notified and non-notified slums, old and new arrivals, there is a need for multi-sectoral project teams with full responsibility for attending to an identified number of families housed in each slum sprawl. The identification of new arrivals should be incentivised so that they can be immediately included in the basic package. Urban poverty can be greatly reduced by promoting literacy, liberating women through birth control and by giving confidence that their children will be healthy. Also by showing zero tolerance for open defecation by promoting innovations and alternatives that are sustainable.

While ending slums is a worthy goal, improving the lives of the people who live in them ought to be the more pressing priority.