In a country where very few rights are operationally universal, the Indian government continues to fund and provide several entitlements to the poor on the basis of whether they live in rural or urban areas. Of the two, rural development and poverty alleviation schemes have historically received far more funding and detailed needs assessments, whereas urban policies have suffered a significant lack of attention. First, several programmes for the urban poor employ outdated methods of identification-most notably, reported income-that have lost credibility as robust qualifiers even in rural development. Second, there is a lack of administrative or financial machinery to execute existing policies. Finally, schemes that treat urban and rural poverty as completely independent ignore the dynamics existing between urban and rural areas, overlooking many people, especially migrants.
Experts have shown that India's five-year plans-planning documents that outline national policy, programme and funding priorities-have largely focused on rural development since independence. K.C. Sivaramakrishnan points out that the term "urban development" featured as a plan chapter title only in 1974. Prior to this, urban policy centred on the issue of housing. At the time of Independence, with 87 per cent of India living in villages (it shrank to approximately 69 per cent by 2011), low agricultural productivity and sluggish national growth, steering funds towards rural areas became the political norm. Many programmes for health, employment, housing and social security were developed for the rural poor, long before similar benefits were extended to urban areas.
A number of urban poverty alleviation schemes including housing, sanitation and slum upgrading programmes still principally target on the basis of reported household income, and fail to incorporate a more nuanced understanding of poverty.
For a household to access some of these services, they have to be recognised as being below the poverty line (BPL). In rural areas BPL households are identified through a survey that the Ministry of Rural Development conducts every five years. In 1992, the first of these surveys used annual household income as the sole indicator. Expert committees have since acknowledged that income was a problematic qualifier. Poverty is not merely a function of annual income: household size, assets, cyclical unemployment, compound vulnerabilities, and variations in regional price indices and minimum wage are other factors that are not necessarily evidenced in a household's income level. Since 1997, the BPL survey has included other indicators in addition to income, yielding combinations that are still very problematic and have warranted additional criticism.
In contrast, the first comparable BPL survey in urban India-the Socio-Economic and Caste Census-has been underway only since 2011. In the meantime, a number of urban poverty alleviation schemes including housing, sanitation and slum upgrading programmes still principally target on the basis of reported household income, and fail to incorporate a more nuanced understanding of poverty.
A second major limitation in urban areas is the lack of administrative reach and financial resources to deliver existing schemes. Take, for example, Swarna Jayanti Shahri Rozgar Yojana (SJSRY), presently the largest national livelihood and employment intervention in urban India. Established in 1997, as of 2010-11 it had reached only 3,903 out of the 7,935 towns identified in the 2011 Census. By comparison the largest rural employment intervention, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) begun in 2006 , was active (though not uniformly) in 619 out of 640 districts. Apart from sheer geographical reach, its budget is 80 times the size of the funds earmarked for the urban employment programme.
A common-though not always overtly stated-assumption in exclusive rural programmes was that providing relief and services within rural areas would mitigate migration to urban areas. This disposition is still vaguely present in the MGNREGS, which provides 100 days of unskilled labour at minimum wage to one adult per household. The official guidelines cite the reduction of 'distress migration' as an objective. The programme, however, is a temporary, stopgap measure. If a worker availing of this scheme moves to an urban area, either by choice or out of 'distress', as a migrant they are no longer eligible unless they return to enlist for work through their village. Similarly, the Urban Self-Employment Programme conducted under the SJSRY has an eligibility requirement of three years' residence in the urban area, automatically excluding recent migrants.
Urban poverty alleviation schemes have large gaps that render them less equipped to address the needs of the poor, much less poor migrants. There are simply not as many schemes. Existing ones are poorly funded and are not offered on the same scale as programmes in rural areas.
While there are stark, overarching distortions in how urban and rural poverty are addressed, the administrative boundaries have been blurred in some programmes. For example, the Ministry of Rural Development extends some social security to the urban poor as well as the rural poor where the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation does not currently offer these provisions. Coverage is not universal. Nonetheless, it illustrates a makeshift, not ideal, alternative to the urban-rural divide in current development policy.
This is not to say that poverty schemes should disregard the impact that rural and urban residence has on poverty or vulnerability. What cannot be overlooked, however, is how the two are inter-related.
A contemporary response to the lack of policy initiative in urban areas is to design urban programmes that mirror rural schemes, particularly in the areas of health and livelihoods. On a positive note, the trend indicates a growing realisation that urban poverty requires more attention and intervention. This is long overdue, considering that urban India now constitutes 31 per cent of the population. Nonetheless, the approach is largely problematic. While there are many missing services for the poor in urban areas, merely creating parallel urban initiatives deepens the urban-rural divide even further.
This is not to say that poverty schemes should disregard the impact that rural and urban residence has on poverty or vulnerability. What cannot be overlooked, however, is how the two are inter-related. Treating urban and rural poverty interventions as completely independent entities has compromised the extent and number of services that are offered to the urban poor. This pattern needs to be corrected to ensure that it does not harm migrants. The anomaly of migrants in the dualism of the current system is thus, yet another compelling reason to forge greater links between rural and urban poverty alleviation efforts.