According to a report from the Mckinsey Global Institute, India is set to witness a leap in urban population by almost 25 crore over the next 20 years. That translates to roughly 35,000 more people in our cities every day! Rural-to-urban migration looks likely to continue unabated given the skewed creation of employment opportunities in cities.

Large cities have typically been the center of development in India. They have been the centres of manufacturing, of markets, of consumption and of wealth. But they are also the locus of much inequality. Large sections of the city are home to poverty, hunger and unemployment. The rural poor have migrated to cities with the expectation of better livelihoods and earnings. But the infrastructure of these cities has not kept pace with the demands of such population growth. As a result, the face of most Indian cities today has illness and hunger juxtaposed with glamour and wealth.

There are many cities within each city. The first is a clean, orderly structure humming with capitalists, traders and technocrats. People here are safe and wealthy, with access to luxuries. They are deemed the builders of a developed India. Another is of slums. Of filth, of clutter, and crowds. People are unsafe and insecure. Their jobs are insecure, their homes are insecure. They are deemed the hurdles to a developing India.

Part of this is seeded in the structure of the labour sector. In India today, the unorganised sector makes up for 93 per cent of labour. Often used as contract labourers, they have little opportunity to participate constructively or creatively in the economic or political processes of the city. As they continue to be exploited, they are unable to plan or build their own lives. Industries are able to make do with contract workers where regulations are lax and commitment to the worker minimum. Overall unemployment levels continue to grow.

The urban poor are constantly looking for employment and a place to live. Over 5 crore people in India live in urban slums. Since many of these slums are deemed illegal, there are no facilities provided. They have no access to the financial, legal or social infrastructure that cities should offer its citizens. There are no hygiene or health facilities available to these citizens either. Thus, citizens of these slums are even more vulnerable - politically, legally and to illnesses. Thus, a large section of the poor is not able to escape the vicious cycle of poverty.

Economic, social and political forces ensure the perpetuation of such realities. Cities have developed policies to limit the encroachment of slums in public places through force and by continuing 'development' programmes to beautify and develop select areas. The urban poor are marginalized, pushed to living on the edges - figuratively (as described above) and literally (living on the footpath and along railway tracks). Thus, the rights of the urban poor are easily bypassed.

The processes of governance today have very little connect with different urban population groups and their needs. While on the one hand there is rhetoric about decentralization of power, on the other hand, privatization of infrastructure provision has resulted in a breakdown of such participation.


 •  Street-side story
 •  Spaced out in Mumbai

While those who live in the slums provide the labour for development, and for profits, their labour is not valued - financially or socially. On the contrary, their activities are more often under suspicion. As a result, the poor do not want to make themselves visible, even to press for their rights. Programmes that claim beautification or infrastructure development continue to ghettoise the urban poor.

It is difficult for the poor to organize against such urban practices or programmes. Often they are rural immigrants from different regions, speaking different languages and with different religious or caste backgrounds.

On the other hand, government bodies are constrained by limited land, money and other infrastructural capabilities. In Mumbai for example, land is unavailable. 50 per cent of the population lives in slums. But this occupies only 8 per cent of the total land in Mumbai. While the government reckons that every individual needs 5 square metres and a family needs 25 sq.m., that is hardly true.

The absence of housing is one of the biggest problems with the urban poor. The Report on Trend and Progress of Housing in India - 2013 published by the National Housing Bank puts the housing shortage in the urban areas at a stunning 18.8 million units, with 95 per cent of this shortage affecting the economically weaker sections and low income groups. This has been attributed to lack of land, finance and operational constraints on the supply side, and the steady rise in middle class population and urbanisation on the demand side.


Amidst partially demolished homes in Mumbai,
the residents are determined to stay on.

(Picture by Dilnaz Boga)

The government's intent and capability to provide for infrastructure is also questionable. While governments are chosen to help arrange for infrastructure for all, they have in many cases privatised essential services, encouraging the provision of those services that yield profits over others that are needed for human existence and living. After all, private companies are interested in consumers, as opposed to citizens, and the urban poor have very little income that can be used for "consumable" services.

The model of development in urban centers is rarely based on participation by citizens and more often involve technocrats and businesses in policy making. The processes of governance today have very little connect with the urban poor and their needs. While on the one hand there is rhetoric about decentralization of power to increase citizen participation in governance, on the other hand, privatization of infrastructure provision has resulted in a breakdown of such participation. The role of governance has become limited to supervision of contracts.

With institutions of globalization considered the dominant experts in development policy, the space for conversation with citizens and for allowing their dissent has also become marginalized. In fact, dissent is being politically discouraged, even put down. This is counter to the 74th constitutional amendment that recognizes the role that citizen participation plays in policy making and its role in ensuring development of all. While the amendment lays down specific mechanisms to ensure participation, the reality of urban governance has no place for such participation of the urban poor.

The development of a city requires that everyone be a part of the development process. In the absence of such inclusiveness, the chasm between the rich and the poor will not be bridged. The government has come up with innovative ways to reduce urban poverty - by not counting the poor. For example, according to the Controller of Rationing and Director of Civil Supply, Mumbai has only 18,000 people with yellow ration cards. Only 24,000 people are considered below poverty line. Thus, on one hand politicians innovatively engineer reduction in the number of the poor and on the other hand ask for votes based on commitments to the poor.

A city should be a home for all its population. Development for all is possible only when all are involved in the development of policies. This is true not only for housing, but for policies related to infrastructure development, economic policies, budget and finance, etc. Development should not be based on the economic progress of a small group at the cost of everyone else. For such progress for a few only happens at the cost of exploitation of the rest.