Dimensions of Urban Poverty

For the new government in India, poverty is the proverbial elephant in the living room.

Poverty in the tribal areas and the resulting unrest is brushed off as a law and order problem; rural poverty is hidden well away from the public consciousness by the pliant and adoring media… But what cannot be hidden from visiting dignitaries and potential foreign investors, is the urban poverty, so blatantly on display in all of India’s metros. It is argued that if these slum-dwellers can afford TV sets and mobile phones, they aren’t actually poor. Problem solved. Q.E.D.

This myopic view stems from the 1960s mindset that the poor are poor because they have no income, but development theory has since moved on…

It is now widely accepted that poverty everywhere, but especially urban poverty, is no longer a question of lack of income or insufficient calorie intake. It has broadened to include several areas of deprivation such as inadequate and unsafe housing, insecure workplaces, debilitating environments, insufficient social services, lack of opportunity for education and formal employment, increased vulnerability to natural and man-made disasters, and consequent disempowerment, and even disenfranchisement, of vast swathes of urban society.

Unlike rural areas, where lack of assets and incomes is still a reasonably good measure of poverty, the complexities of providing adequate shelter and workplaces has added several dimensions to urban poverty – chiefly, deprivations of income, health, education, security and empowerment. The urbanisation of poverty, which has unpredictable, irreversible and long-term social, cultural, psychological, behavioural and political effects, has also brought to the forefront its multidimensional nature. Let us look at these dimensions in some detail…

Income Dimension: Poverty of income may have its genesis in a macro-economic crisis, which in a developing country could be triggered by a couple of failed monsoons, a border conflict, internal unrest, weak governments, communal strife, poor fiscal policies, or global events like a sharp rise in the price of petroleum goods. In such a crisis, real incomes fall at every level, and naturally, those at the bottom of the income pyramid are worst affected.

Secondly, a country may have very stringent planning and zoning laws prohibiting small enterprises in certain areas. In India, most Municipal bodies also regulate a number of private activities like trades, professions, house building, land use, markets, entertainment and transport. These additional controls involve lengthy bureaucratic procedures, which the poor simply cannot cope with, and they get pushed further into the informal sector, as a result.

Finally, in most developing countries – like India – the local government depends entirely on taxes generated from the wealthy (property owners and traders) and therefore they are under great pressure to set their development priorities according to the needs of their ‘paying customers’. Consequently, in budget after budget, road expansion and maintenance get priority over public transport; large hospitals over primary health care; and because the wealthy have other options for educating their children, municipal schools remain understaffed and ill-equipped. This has an immediate and long term impact on the life chances of the poor, and their income generating abilities.

Income poverty is characterised by dependence on cash for purchase of goods and services; employment insecurity; casual work/ labour/ unskilled wage labour; lack of skills to get well-paid jobs; and trade-off between distances to jobs and cost of housing.

Health Dimension: The biggest factor that makes health a dimension of urban poverty is inadequate, congested and unsanitary housing, and unsafe places of work. Land and housing regulations can make proper housing unaffordable, and the poor often end up living in dangerous places like near the roads or railway tracks, or on disaster-prone riverbanks or hillsides, or near polluted areas like garbage tips or toxic waste dumps, where they salvage and scavenge to eke out a living. This is as true of Manila or Bangkok, as of Mumbai. The hazards are further aggravated by the inadequate physical and social infrastructure and services provided in poor neighbourhoods, whether it is water and sewerage, solid waste disposal, drainage, or vector control.

Poverty itself is debilitating in several ways – in fact its effects begin in the womb. A poor, malnourished and anaemic mother is more likely to give birth to an underweight child, who may suffer from birth defects and chronic disorders which greatly reduce its chances of survival beyond infancy. Such a child is also more vulnerable to preventable diseases like polio because it may fall outside the formal immunisation efforts of Government. If the child survives, an inadequate supply of food and water will haunt its growing years and undermine its natural resistance to the health hazards that the urban environment will throw at him or her.

Lastly, the poorest countries have the most polluted cities in the world, posing an ever increasing danger to the health of its citizenry. Increased respiratory mortality, decreased lung function, aggravated asthmatic problems, higher blood pressures, increased cardiac risks and cancers, cough, drowsiness, and eye irritation, have been identified as some of the health hazards emanating from polluting vehicles. It is estimated that more than 250,000 deaths are already attributable in Indian cities to such pollution.

Education Dimension: Lack of adequate education translates into lack of opportunity, making it that much more difficult for the urban poor to break the cycle of poverty from one generation to the next. The inadequacy of schools in poor neighbourhoods is just one aspect. Most poor families need to put their children to work to augment family income – this is especially the case if the family breadwinner is incapacitated for some reason. Child Labour is a curse that’s unlikely to vanish from Indian workplaces any time soon. Even those parents desiring to educate their children and with access to neighbourhood schools, may be unable to afford additional school expenses like transport costs and extra coaching, especially in larger cities.

Security Dimension of Poverty: The strongest feelings of insecurity engendered in the urban poor arise because in most cases they have no security of tenure on the already inadequate places they live and work in. In most countries, insecurity of tenure arises from retrograde land laws and planning practices – usually a colonial legacy, whether in India or Africa, or Latin America.

Even if one does not go far enough to impute an anti-poor bias, the fact remains that Indian planners have simply not been trained to plan for the poor. When such attempts have been made in the past, they made no impact because planning is a holistic process, and area-based initiatives like slum improvement do not tackle poverty in its multiple dimensions. Thus, we have building laws and criteria that make safe housing too expensive and unaffordable for the poor; our zoning laws prohibit hawking, small businesses and small shopping in most areas; our development control rules (which prevent the densification of Indian cities) have made urban land unrealistically expensive and unaffordable, and any poor settlement coming into existence, immediately violates half a dozen rules and regulations.

So if a family has no rights of tenure and may not even know where it will rest the night, how are the children going to register in schools and get an education? How will the parents earn a livelihood? How will the family draw the rations to feed itself? And where will the sick find succour?

Empowerment Dimension: As immortalised by Dostoevsky, Dickens and Hugo, poverty is above all, synonymous with helplessness, reduced options, and loss of control over one’s life and decisions. This is disempowerment at its most basic. The deliberate disempowerment of the urban poor allows them to cast their vote in every election, but curtails their rights and responsibilities as citizens. The poor get the short end of the stick, and this is especially the case in a hierarchically rigid society like India. As a result, the urban poor often live in isolation from the social and economic activity of the city, and are denied the vital information they need to survive – such as their legal rights to services, and availability of jobs etc.


Since independence, India has witnessed several development initiatives to address rural poverty, and despite their sluggish pace, they have succeeded to a large extent in at least providing food security to the poor. However, by failing to see the multi-dimensional nature of urban poverty, we have been stuck with sporadic slum redevelopment programmes with a few basic amenities provided here and there.

Poverty is a historical, social, economic and political problem. Therefore there can be no simple engineering solutions to poverty.

Perhaps, there are other ways in which the elephant can get moving. The new Government should seriously consider:

  • Ending the rural-urban bifurcation
  • Tertiarising the rural economy to stem distress migration to cities
  • Assuring food security for all: rural and urban
  • Providing a place of business that is legitimate, affordable and secure
  • Moving towards urban housing that is formal, affordable and secure
  • Putting in place a representational system for all assets, liabilities, and inventories
  • Augmenting access to institutional finance for all, not just rich industrialists
  • Vigorously enforcing the Right to Education
  • Giving easy and universal access to immunisation and health care
  • Guaranteeing public goods and services on the basis of equity and inclusion
  • Putting in place a social security net to cope with the unexpected

This way, we may eventually succeed in providing sustainable livelihoods for all citizens – a concept I hope to look at in detail in a future post…

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