Dimensions of Urban Poverty – Revisited

My rather long absence from the blog was meant to be an assessment of the usefulness and direction of what I have been writing on issues of development and governance, and it is quite gratifying to learn that the traffic on the site holds steady, and the readership has now extended to 115 countries… What is rather surprising, is the continuing popularity of the ‘dimensions of urban poverty’ post I put up almost two years ago.

I had then optimistically hoped that with a new government, which came to power in India on a promise of ‘Development for All’, the following issues would receive serious consideration:

  • 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

However, recent events in India force me to revisit this subject, and perhaps add a refinement or two to the original enunciation. I have been covering the different dimensions in various posts, and wish to bring them together only to underline one sad reality: that a country cannot progress, no matter how many missions are launched to make it SMART, digital or business-friendly, unless the various dimensions of poverty, especially urban deprivation, are addressed with long-term, cogent, inter-related, holistic policies and programmes.

Under the Income Dimension of urban poverty, we had noted that its commonest manifestation was the daily cash transactions that constitute the economy of the poor. Nowhere was this point better illustrated than in the furore and hardship caused to the urban poor and middle classes, by the Indian government’s decision to demonetize 86% of the country’s currency in one fell swoop. Venezuela too tried something of the sort, leading to riots in the streets.

Another side effect of the demonetization was that it turned the focus on the urban informal sector (again marked by cash transactions) which is on the verge of choking the formal economy to extinction, as mentioned in my previous post. It emerged that it is this informalisation of the urban economy (unchecked over the years) which results in tax evasion on a massive scale, though in a myriad petty ways, by the poorer classes of middle India. And I iterate that unless these informal sectors are formalized through cooperatives, labour collectives and self-help groups, with a user friendly tax regime to back it, the transactions of the average Indian consumer will continue to be in cash, unrecorded and therefore untaxed.

Under the Health Dimension of urban poverty, we had noted the pernicious impact of chronic malnutrition, and how it debilitated a nation’s human resources, bringing India’s demographic dividend to naught. It is also well documented that in a food deprived household in a largely patriarchal society like India (with a marked son-preference), the meagre resources go to feed the men in the family – the male ‘breadwinner’ and the beloved son; and the girl child is doomed to a lifetime of malnutrition and anemia.  In such a scenario, any attempt to introduce a fixed basic income cash transfer to replace subsidized food grains under the Public Distribution System, would be tantamount to condemning vast swathes of the population to virtual starvation, as the direct cash transfer is unlikely to feed an individual buying food on the open market. So much for the basic human right of food security. This does not augur well for the future of India, which is already home to 25% of the world’s hungry.

Under the Education Dimension, we had noted how the lack of access, facilities and quality in primary education doomed the urban poor to a lifetime of deprivation – generation after generation. The Indian Government has made no new investments in primary and secondary education and even the Prime Minister limits himself to the children of the well-heeled in his frequent radio and TV broadcasts to motivate them about such earth-shaking things as Yoga! Of course, the worst thing this government has done to the children of the poor, is to virtually legitimize child labour by permitting it in ‘family’ businesses. The same absence of policy results in a total failure to take concrete steps along other dimensions of urban poverty like housing, security and empowerment.


The single-minded pursuit of higher economic growth in a globalized world, has only resulted in increasing inequality and disparities, the flip side of which is the growing marginalization of the world’s poor, and a cold disregard for the UN’s recently announced Sustainable Development Goals.  This graphic from Statista, based upon the latest Oxfam Report on disparity, says it all:

world-inequality-in-oxfam-report

What an irony then, that the move away from globalization to a more insular and protectionist mode has begun in the West, where it was born; and its strongest defendant today is the President of Marxist China addressing the world at Davos…

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Housing Dimension of Urban Poverty

UN Habitat estimates that 1.6 billion people today live in inadequate shelter around the world, and 1 billion of those live in informal settlements or slums. An additional 100 million people worldwide are homeless. It goes on to state that by 2030, an additional 3 billion people or 40% of the world’s population, will need access to housing. This translates into a demand for 96,150 new affordable units every day and 4,000 every hour. By 2050, 70% of the world’s population is projected to be living in urban areas, causing slums and unplanned settlements to swell. About one in four people on this planet, live in conditions that harm their health, safety, prosperity and opportunities. Estimates of homelessness in the richest country on earth, the United States, vary from 1.6 million to 3 million people. Most studies conclude that about one-third of the homeless are children.

In one of the most popular posts on this blog – Dimensions of Urban Poverty – it was pointed out that urban poverty had many dimensions such as income, education, health, housing and security and alleviation of urban poverty can only happen if all these dimensions are addressed synchronously. That has not happened. While globalization may have put more money in the pockets of the urban poor  (especially in the burgeoning and untaxed informal sector), the access of the urban poor to education and health remains questionable in both developed and developing economies, and of course, housing remains a major problem from Santiago to Shanghai.

It is now acknowledged by all development agencies, that housing poverty (especially in the world’s metros) has little to do with a lack of income, and everything to do with lack of access to land. In former colonies like India, urban land remains inaccessible to the poor for a variety of reasons:

  1. Retrograde laws and practices inherited from the former colonial rulers
  2. A preference for low form urbanization (again, an inherited western bourgeois aesthetic)
  3. Extremely stringent and outdated development control rules which militate against traditional forms of construction
  4. Absence of a reliable land record system rooted in the local ethos
  5. An inherent disconnect between western educated urban planners and ground realities
  6. Failure to reign in the avarice of private developers
  7. Rampant corruption in the housing sector, from the grant of building permissions, to undervaluation, to issuance of completion certificates, to housing loans and subsidies, to transactions under the table to avoid high registration fees and stamp duty.

And this denial of access to urban land continues to divide Indian cities into the haves and have-nots, even when the differences in income, services and assets between the ‘slum-dweller’ and the average urbanite are dwindling away, as these statistics from Census India 2011 clearly indicate:

Slum assets Census India 2011

Clearly, inadequate housing is the problem. Not inadequate income.


Activists across the world have taken a ‘rights’ approach to housing, but unfortunately, such ‘leftist claptrap’ doesn’t sit well with the Government in Delhi… Perhaps housing in urban areas will get more attention from the present government if its economic benefits are pointed out, as UN-Habitat does:

  • Adequate shelter is a critical foundation for breaking the cycle of poverty
  • Adequate housing is vitally important to the health of the world’s economies, communities and populations.
  • Home ownership is a form of wealth accumulation through equity and forced savings from mortgage repayment.
  • Good housing attracts economic investment and development.

Not to mention that in an India increasingly riven by social unrest, insecurity and increasing violence against women, decent shelter makes for safe homes and neighborhoods that help to build social stability and security.

 

Part II: Why poor people remain poor

As I have devoted a couple of posts already to the distress among farmers and rural communities in India, I think it is time to take a look at the growing urbanisation of poverty in the country.

In developing countries like India, most urban workers are self-employed in precarious conditions or are employed on a casual basis without a contract and access to social security. The ILO terms such forms of employment as informal. In most cases, informal employment procures lower, more volatile pay and worse working conditions than employment in formal arrangements, and these informal sectors form the bulk of the urban poor in any country.

The situation has greatly worsened with globalisation, which has deeply fragmented production processes, labour markets, political entities and societies, creating a plethora of interest groups and lobbies which have undermined the integrity of civil society and its rights and entitlements across the world. As a result, the number of permanent secure jobs (even in the formal sector) have given way to contractual/temporary employment, with downsizing, rightsizing and outsourcing becoming the new business mantras. This infographic from Statista puts it very plainly.

 

JOBS Post

Sadly, recent Indian governments seeking their place in a global market are so keen to attract foreign direct investment, that they have lost the national sovereignty to make decisions that benefit their own people, and surrendered control to highly mobile international finance capital. To placate these foreign investors we have begun the privatisation of precious natural resources and shredded whatever pro-labour legislation existed in India, and virtually annihilated Trade Unions in a way that would make Margaret Thatcher proud. But whereas Great Britain had a social security system already in place (in terms of unemployment benefits, old age pensions, compulsory education for the children and free health care), low and lower middle income countries have no such security net for those in distress.

Ergo, once a household falls to the poverty line, it is very unlikely to rise much above it – and therefore the poor remain poor generation after generation.

The vulnerability of the urban poor is exacerbated by the inadequate provision of basic public services, as well as by policy and regulatory frameworks that govern land and housing supply and property rights.

Most of the urban poor do not have tenure security because their dwellings are built on public land or on private property belonging to someone else, or built on shared title land. Further, most dwellings of the poor are constructed without occupancy or construction permits from the municipal authority, or rented in slums without formal renting contracts.

The situation is exacerbated by the inadequacy of planning tools like master planning, zoning and development regulations, in making land available to keep pace with rapid urbanisation, resulting in insufficient land supply and increases in land prices. Master plans in many developing countries like India are too centralised, take too long to prepare, are inherently anti-poor, and fail to address implementation issues or the linkages between spatial and financial planning.

The Development Control Rules too are outdated and inappropriate, often opting for low form urbanisation, redolent of the colonial era. All recent attempts at densification have remained a pipe dream, because it is virtually impossible to upgrade the necessary infrastructure in thickly populated neighbourhoods. Unrealistically high standards for subdivision, project infrastructure, and construction make it impossible to build low-income housing legally, and the poor simply cannot afford to build to these specifications. Furthermore, the poor and low income groups have little or no access to credit, again because of the lack of a representational system to formalise their assets and holdings.

Some of the ways in which the problem of housing for the urban poor has been tackled in different countries include:

  • Some form of transfer of ownership rights to the residents building upon public land
  • Greater flexibility in building specifications, construction materials and infrastructure norms
  • Decentralisation of urban planning
  • Simplification of building permissions and occupancy certification
  • Easier access to housing finance for the poor
  • And a simple transparent system of ownership title which will enable the poor to use their houses as collateral for loans to expand their income generation capability

The lack of adequate and secure housing ultimately aggravates all other dimensions of urban poverty like education, health and income. 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 from the Public Distribution System to feed itself? And where will the sick find succour?

As the National Commission on Urbanisation lamented in its 1988 report: “For the poor, there is simply nothing…”