The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world


Keeping track of urban poverty in India

The Indian government agencies responsible for managing the country's urban slums talk of ICT and GIS technology to help them keep track of and infiltrate slum communities, yet they should also reach out to another ally closer to the ground--community-level NGOs.

Cities: Delhi

Topics: National governance, Information and technology, Community organisation, Informal settlements

Anurita Saxena lectures to a group of counselors-in-training at Operation ASHA's main office in New Delhi. Operation ASHA coordinates closely with the Indian government to provide tuberculosis treatment in seven Indian states. Photo: Kieran Oudshoorn
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Poverty is the same everywhere, right? Lack of employment, healthcare, water, sanitation, and other necessities is what makes a person poor, whether they live in a city or in the countryside.

Not necessarily in India. Urbanisation is a hot topic worldwide, but India's exploding cities bring the topic to life, especially if one ventures into one of the country's sprawling urban slums.

The global community hails India's speedy growth as a sign of prosperity, but greater wealth for the middle and upper classes translates into unforeseen side effects for the poor.

The number of poor occupying the margins of India's burgeoning urban spaces is growing at a faster rate than any other geography in India. With a projected 40 per cent of its total population, 576 million in all, destined to live in one if its exploding 'mega-cities' by 2030, India will need to figure out how to accommodate these impoverished, high-density populations.

India's capital, Delhi, has the highest percentage of urban poor relative to total population of all the States and Territories in India. Estimates predict that the number of urban poor will double by 2026, a real issue for municipalities and local governments tasked with providing basic services and infrastructure to these sprawling settlements.

In response to overwhelming need, the Ministry of Urban Development and the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation (MoHUPA) launched an initiative in 2005 focused on providing basic servies to the urban poor. The Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission provides basic services such as housing, water, sanitation, environmental improvement, street lighting and other civic amenities in 63 of India's cities, including Delhi.

However the Mission is struggling to keep pace with the number of unregistered slums developing in cities as existing ones overflow, making implementation difficult to nearly impossible. More than 3 million people live in these unregistered colonies with no formal infrastructure and little to no access to basic services, and the government can't keep track of them, let alone evaluate their needs.

In March, the National Convention on Urban Governance examined the role of ICT (information and communication technology) in citizen-centric planning. GIS (geographic information system) mapping and other technologies, they concluded, could be used for better tracking of new settlements and coordinating efforts between NGOs and government initiatives to cover all vulnerable areas.

Tracking is just one issue. Even if the government can keep track of the slums, infiltrating them is another issue entirely. Rural areas are remote but at least reasonably accessible by foor or vehicle. A community health worker from outside a slum could spend days wandering unmarked streets. Fortunately, the Indian government has allies in its struggle to serve the urban poor: non-government organisations (NGOs). Besides tracking and mapping, government programmes need to colaborate with NGOs and other civil sector organisations that already employ locals from within the communities or have established ties with them to effectively deliver basic services. NGOs and the civil sector could benefit from a unifying force such as the government to consolidate and streamline their efforts.

Getting at the heart of urban poverty requires getting into the heart of the slums, and only a coordinated and concerted effort on the government and civil society's part will allow us that accessibility.


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