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The state of the slum

Census data on slums is of questionable quality,hobbling the discussion on one of India’s most important demographic transitions

Census data on slums is of questionable quality,hobbling the discussion on one of India’s most important demographic transitions

A few weeks ago,the Census of India released an important report on living conditions in India’s slums,titled “Housing Stock,Amenities and Assets in Slums — Census 2011”. Given the country’s accelerating arc of urbanisation,this report deserves detailed analysis.

Like others,I believe that urban India is the flywheel of India’s economic engine and subscribe to the long-held position by generations of Dalit leaders that cities are a liberating force for the poor. It would,therefore,be nice to see evidence of improving conditions in our slums,and to see that migrants and urban poor residents are living with dignity even as they pursue their pathways to prosperity. Unfortunately,the Census report offers little credible information to support this position. Let me elaborate.

First,the results are only for a category called “statutory towns” and don’t include “census towns”. Census 2011 has 4,041 statutory towns,but also 3,894 (49 per cent) census towns across urban India. Between 2001 and 2011,these census towns grew by almost 200 per cent from 1,362,compared to a rise of barely 6 per cent in statutory towns. More importantly,these census towns will likely see faster growth in slum settlements,given that they are beginning their journeys of urbanisation. I am not sure how a report on slums can ignore 49 per cent of India’s towns.

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Second,the survey data states that only 2,543 of the 4,041 statutory towns have slums. Are we to actually believe that the other 1,498 towns (37 per cent) don’t have a single slum in them? In 2010,the report of the Committee on Slum Statistics/Census of the ministry of housing and urban poverty alleviation (M-HUPA),notes the reporting bias in Census surveys,“In some states,the district/town authorities have not reported all the towns/ enumeration blocks that needed enumeration.” Clearly,there are major errors of omission here.

Third,the Census has a high bar to determine what should be counted as an “identified slum”,requiring a minimum of 300 residents. The M-HUPA report criticised this approach: “This definition excludes pockets with less than 60 households having slum-like features. This has resulted in gross underestimation/undercoverage of slum population in the country.” This high bar also does not consider temporary shacks where most first-generation migrants tend to settle — our own study at Janalakshmi,done with Professors Anirudh Krishna and M.S. Sriram,shows that Bangalore itself has close to 2,000 such migrant settlements that didn’t exist 10 years ago. Hence,focusing only on established large slum settlements grossly underestimates the true number and conditions of life of the urban poor.

After these errors of omission,the Census reports that 17 per cent of urban India lives in slums,but astonishingly arrives at this figure by dividing the slum population in 2,543 towns by the total urban population of India across all 7,935 towns. What could the right figure actually be? The M-HUPA Committee on Slum Statistics (of which the registrar general was also a member) did a thorough analysis of Census 2001 data,corrected it for methodological errors,and projected the 2011 slum population to be 94 million — a full 50 per cent higher than the Census report,making the slum share not 17 per cent as reported by the Census,but 25 per cent of India’s urban population. Importantly,these additional numbers would come from slums and settlements with much poorer amenities than those surveyed by the Census.

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The errors don’t stop here. The data on the amenities and services in even these “upper-end” slums is more like “Ashwathama,hatha kunjaraha”,because the Census method makes a significant approximation during enumeration — wherever a slum is notified or recognised by a state government,the entire block is included,with all non-slum households in that block,thereby biasing the level of amenities and services upward. Amazingly,68,000 of 1,08,000 blocks (63 per cent),have information that is distorted by such non-slum families. To be fair,the Census can do little about this methodology,but we needed full disclosure on such issues,along with explicit caveats on the data.

Because of these reporting errors,it is hard to feel good about the upbeat indicators in India’s slums: 77 per cent of dwellings being permanent,70 per cent resident-owned,74 per cent with tap water (higher than the rest of urban India,by the way!),90 per cent having electricity,and so on. But even this “good” news cannot mask one troubling statistic — barely 53 per cent of these “slum” households have formal banking services,and a full 33 per cent of all city residents don’t have access to banks. These are not people living in remote villages,but literally in the shadow of the banking system across our cities. This data should trigger at least some introspection in the Reserve Bank of India,given its unshaking belief that the formula for financial inclusion is proximity to bank branches. In reality,the challenges are much more about product design and delivery,the type of human resources,as well as the leadership and culture of a bank,to truly do justice to excluded clients. These are fundamental issues of institutional DNA,and can only be addressed by diversity in our banking system.

The Census survey on India’s slums is not just another report. Rather,it will be a frequently-quoted source on one of India’s most important demographic transitions over the coming years — the challenges facing the millions of poor living in and migrating into our cities and towns. As we discuss the policy options available to us,our choices should be framed by robust evidence. The Registrar General of India’s office has a significant obligation here. First,it must release the entire set of raw data on its slum report,along with all assumptions. Beyond this,it must also set aside more resources to improve the quality of such information,so that we can have fair and vibrant debates about the state of our slums and the future of urban India.

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The writer is co-founder of Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy,Bangalore,and chairman of Janalakshmi,an urban microfinance institution

First published on: 09-04-2013 at 12:23:23 am
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