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Sangam India - Introduction: Slums in India
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Introduction: Slums in India

by Sriram Ramgopal

The definition of “slum” varies from country to country. In India, each state has its own definition of slum. The National Definition of ‘Slum areas’ was set by the Slum Areas Improvement and Clearance act of 1956.1 It defines them as places where buildings:

  1. are in any respect unfit for human habitation;
  2. are by reason of dilapidation, overcrowding, faulty arrangement and design of such buildings, narrowness or faulty arrangement of streets, lack of ventilation, light, sanitation facilities or any combination of these factors which are detrimental to safety, health and morals.

The Census of India defines a slum as "a compact area of at least 300 in population or about 60-70 households of poorly built, congested tenements in an unhygienic environment usually with inadequate infrastructure and lacking proper sanitary and drinking water facilities."2

Slums are an urban phenomenon and they represent an imbalance between migration into cities and economic growth within the city itself. Slums grow in the following ways3:

  1. Population growth of slums. Indian slums suffer from “poor utilization of the reproductive child health services provided by the government, lack of awareness regarding birth spacing, and very low use of contraceptives,” writes researcher Shraddha Agrawal. Furthermore, "Literacy and age at marriage are not raised in spite of laws made by the government.”4
  2. Migration from rural areas to more developed areas by people looking to earn more through higher-paying manual labor compared to the low-returns life of agriculture. Kumari Selja, Minister for Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation, notes that despite rapid economic growth in urban areas, poverty is still on the rise. “The pace of urbanization in India is set to increase, and with it, urban poverty and urban slums, despite 62 percent of GDP now being generated in towns and cities.”5 However, the effect of this is disputed. “Urban poverty is not a spill-over of rural poverty as generally perceived and the manufacturing sector in India has not been able to provide necessary pull to rural workers,”6 writes researcher S.R. Hashim in the UNDP’s Urban Poverty Report on India.
  3. Changes within a city’s economic structures also contribute to urban poverty. “Restructuring and dismantling of larger industries in big cities like Mills due to higher land prices,” writes Hashim, “[leaves] a large number of workforce jobless forcing them into informal sector activities.”

Health, Hygiene and Sanitation

Housing in slums becomes a major health concern because residents of slums live in overcrowded situations. Two-thirds of households are simple one-room structures, a majority of them with dirt floors and poor ventilation. Such overcrowding can lead to rapid spread of respiratory and skin disease.

Access to drinking water in slums is another major problem. More than two thirds of slum residents lack access to safe drinking water on their premises. The main sources of water are handpumps, though tap water is available in some homes. The lack of safe drinking water facilitates the spread of water borne diseases. The presence of stored water further promotes the breeding of mosquitoes and diseases such as malaria.

Absence of available latrines is a major health problem as well. It is estimated that over one third of slum households have no access to bathroom facilities, promoting open defecation, which in turn leads to spread of fecal-oral disease and parasitic infestation.

Education

Primary schooling, through corporation schools, is a free educational system provided by the Government of India. “Further studies,” writes researcher Vydyanathan Lakshmanan, are “highly dependent on a host of personal factors, like availability of funds, interest in studies, [and] family situations.”7According to the 2001 census, literacy in slums is only 65%; though slums in Chennai are at 80%, above the national average. The Government of Tamil Nadu has done a commendable job in terms of promoting the free educational system. However, dropout rates remain high, and many students do not continue studying beyond their 8th standard.  As one resident of Oduma Nagar, a Chennai slum, says, "we don´t have money to send our children to good school and the local school is of no use."8 Thus, though they are literate, they lack suitable educational levels to pursue higher studies – the only way to break out of a vicious cycle of poverty.

Social Problems and Moral Apathy

It is obvious that slums represent a huge economic failure. Sprawling urbanization has failed to produce corresponding economic growth, thereby leaving many city dwellers behind. However, the problem of slums cannot only be defined in economic terms. In our own experience working with slum dwellers in India, it is clear that slums suffer from problems that are beyond economic ones.

Alcoholism is a disease endemic to slums and it leads to moral and economic degradation. Many men take to consuming alcohol; this limits the amount of their income that can be spent for their family, and it leads to social diseases of domestic abuse as well as serious health problems. In order to advance any program in slum areas, alcoholism must be discussed openly and managed.

Finally, apathy is a major contributor to suffering in slums. Slum residents, men and women alike, hail from villages and come to the cities looking for better work. Viewing themselves as ‘temporary workers’ they tend to neglect the importance of economic and social advancement. From medical to educational issues, residents of slums are unwilling to make changes – however simple – to improve their lives. This is not something that can or should be blamed on the residents themselves. However, no program directed towards the social advancement of slum residents can deny the role of motivation and positive reinforcement.


  1. Chandramouli, Dr. C. (2003). Slums in Chennai: A profile. Proceedings of the third international conference on environment and health, Chennai, India, December 15-17., Chennai, University of Madras & Faculty of Environmental Studies, York University. Retrieved June 30, 2009, from http://www.yorku.ca/bunchmj/ICEH/proceedings/Chandramouli_C_ICEH_papers_82to88.pdf
  2. Census of India. (2001). Retrieved June 30, 2009, from http://nuhru.in/?q=disknode/get/2/Slums%2520in%2520India%2520-%2520An%2520Overview.pdf&download
  3. Times online. (May 18, 2007). Indian slum population doubles in two decades. Retrieved June 30, 2009, from http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/asia/article1805596.ece
  4. Shraddha, A.,& Bharti, B.M. (2006). Reproductive health in urban slums. The Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology in India 56(3), 255-257.
  5. Rustagi, P., Sarkar, S., & Joddar, P. (2009). India: Urban poverty report 2009. United Nations Development Programme. Retrieved June 30, 2009, from http://www.undp.org.in/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=538&Itemid=568
  6. Rustagi, P., Sarkar, S., & Joddar, P. (2009). India: Urban poverty report 2009. United Nations Development Programme. Retrieved June 30, 2009, from http://www.undp.org.in/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=540&Itemid=646
  7. Lakshmanan, V. (2007). A statistical insight into health & education in Chennai slums. Retrieved June 30, 2009, from http://www.ccsindia.org/interns2006/Statistical%20Analysis%20Health%20&%20Education%20in%20Chennai%20Slums%20%20-%20Vydyanathan.pdf
  8. Bandhari, Rajneesh (2009). It's not always 'Slumdog Millionare'. American Chronicle. http://www.americanchronicle.com/articles/view/105271