Posted in Poverty, Published Article, Urban India

Why we are still asking the wrong questions on Slums

Published in Times of India, Pune on 14 November 2018. Lost and found. Posted here for you.

Informal housing – or ‘slum’ as it is derisively called – has become the hallmark of all metros in the developing world, from Rio to Lagos to Nairobi to Mumbai.

The evolution of slums in post-Independence India, however, is the stuff of legend, on which many a career in New Wave Indian Cinema of the 1970s was built….

Several studies during this period revealed that the typical migrant to urban areas was a semi-skilled or skilled male, 18-35 years old, who sent a major share of his earnings back home to support his family.  Housing was a low priority for such a person and he was ready to squat or settle at any location which cost him the least of his hard-earned money. The social vacuum created by a separation from rural roots was compensated by congregating along ethnic, caste, linguistic and regional lines, and such arrangements provided a strong social support system to compensate for the break-up of the rural extended family.

The downside of this has been ghettoization, which not only enhances strife and bigotry, but provides easy mobilization in violent crises – be they communal riots, industrial unrest, or underworld gang wars.

In planning terms, the assumption that slums and urban poverty were co-extensive and coterminous led to numerous ad hoc ‘slum improvement’ schemes at this time, where it was naively assumed that upgrading living conditions in slums in a piecemeal fashion, would eliminate the scourge of poverty from our towns and cities.

However, as the research and information base has grown, it has become clear that the relationship between urban poverty and slums is both tenuous and complex – especially as a second generation of slum dwellers, with few choices and little upward mobility, begin to emerge on the urban scene. They can look forward to a life only in the informal economy of the city, and given our outdated civic laws, even a new-born child in such a household, breaks a dozen laws as he or she draws its first breath…

During the 1980s, urban slums could no longer be seen as extensions of rural poverty and became more or less autonomous. As thriving, self-sustaining social systems in their own right (Dharavi being an example), urban slums were no more synonymous merely with urban poverty. While urban poverty incidence has declined between the early 1970s and the late 1980s, there is no evidence of any decline of the slum population.  As a result, fewer people have access to safe drinking water and nearly 70% are reported to be without basic sanitation. 

Poor housing, infrastructure and urban services are the problem, not poor people.

The consequences of regarding urban poverty and slums as one and the same have been largely negative:

Once a slum is recognized as such, subtle political forces prevent it from ever becoming de-notified and this has stigmatized entire communities of urban poor, doomed to be labeled ‘slum-dwellers’ for generation after generation. As a result, slums become powerful vote banks and can be mobilized for various anti-social activities like crime, extortion, land grabbing, strike breaking and communal violence.

Meanwhile, badly designed slum upgradation schemes have set up an unsustainable regime of subsidies, inculcating the same dependency syndrome among beneficiaries, which was earlier seen only in Indian villages. Providing basic services in slums was made synonymous with poverty alleviation, and the neglect of health and education in urban slums continues to eat away at the human potential of slum populations, pushing them further and deeper into unemployment, under-employment and the informal sector.

On the side of local government, there is a tendency to underestimate the ability of the urban poor to pay for services and they have to learn to ‘do without’ these services. Slum schemes with their emphasis on shelter and basic services, neglect informal enterprise, and compound the problem by making no effort to integrate the informal slum economy within the larger city economy.

Almost all housing schemes continue to neglect the key issues of access, security of tenure, and affordability and it is this – the most visible housing dimension of urban poverty – which continues to scar Indian cities.

Finally, with the entry of private commercial interests into slum rehabilitation projects currently being implemented across India, there is a danger of encroached government and municipal lands passing forever into private hands.

This would be an irrecoverable loss of public assets for generations to come. Instead, Indian cities can perhaps take a leaf out of capitalist Singapore and communist China’s public housing and long-term lease policies to ensure development with equity.


Housing Dimension of Urban Poverty

Cities without Shelter

Formalizing the Informal – the only economic reform that matters

Read more: Why we are still asking the wrong questions on Slums
Posted in Poverty

Working with Poor Communities

In February 2021, President Xi Jinping of China proudly declared the eradication of extreme poverty in his country – and this is indeed a historic achievement for the world’s most populous nation, with centuries of endemic poverty, inequalities and feudal injustices to deal with – but how far the rest of the world will be able to emulate China in this regard, is a moot point.

The very first two goals of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are in fact:

  1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere
  2. End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture

However, with the fallout from a year of pandemics and disasters still being measured, it is extremely unlikely that the governments in vulnerable areas like South Asia will be able to achieve these goals on schedule. And with some of the most populous nations on the planet, the figures from South Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh et al) can affect global targets drastically.

Meantime, civil society around the world has been moved by the plight of the suffering millions on an unprecedented scale, and every country, city, community is looking for ways in which the better-off (especially the young) can do something to ‘give back to society’.

Unfortunately, many of these well-intentioned efforts remain unorganized, making them prone to opportunistic politicization, or else individual inspiration drips away as a trickle into the empty desert sand – making no lasting impact on the lives of their intended beneficiaries.

I have noticed that one of the most bookmarked posts on this website is Dimensions of Urban Poverty, and always believed that it was something students googled most often, perhaps for a class assignment or as an introduction to their own writings on urban poverty. Then I got a request from somebody in India who felt inspired by my various posts on poverty and wanted my help in designing certain voluntary actions because they ‘wanted to give back something to society’ by working with deprived communities in their areas. As the viewership of this blog has now hit 155 countries, I realized that people across the world may be looking for some framework to hang their good intentions on, so why don’t I attempt a simple generic template for voluntary action among poor communities, which could be customized to local needs and used across the world?

This framework draws largely on the well-known Sustainable Livelihoods Framework, where sustainability is achieved by building up 5 types of ASSETS or CAPITAL: Human, Financial, Physical, Social and Natural.

The underlying assumption is that as we build up each of these capitals, the LIVELIHOOD POLYGON of an individual or community becomes progressively enlarged, so that the individual or community gradually gets lifted out of ABSOLUTE and eventually, RELATIVE poverty.

The SL Framework defines five types of Capital Assets. These are:

Unfortunately, most government programmes tend to focus on just one type of capital/asset, thereby greatly shrinking the options available to the poor. For example, slum upgradation programmes in India concentrate on providing only physical infrastructure like internal roads, storm drains, public water and sanitation, and neglect the growth of human capital through better health and education services. This results in a skewed livelihood polygon with a much smaller area of opportunity for the individual and community.

This is where Voluntary Action can fill the interstices, as it were, and help in building up all 5 types of ‘capital’ in a poor community so that the overall livelihood polygon can be expanded.

Thus, FINANCIAL CAPITAL can be greatly augmented through:

  • Providing a place for a cooperative store / fair price shop to be run by the community
  • Starting kitchen gardens
  • Installing metered electricity connections in each household
  • Forming women’s Self-Help Groups and Thrift Societies
  • Setting up labour cooperatives
  • Providing vocational training geared to local handicrafts / industry
  • Helping artisans to adopt modern design, manufacture, and management practices to make their traditional goods attractive to the modern consumer
  • Facilitating the listing of local businesses on e-retail sites like Amazon

NATURAL CAPITAL can be enhanced by easy ‘doables’ like:

  • Providing a playground for children near their homes
  • Initiating participatory activities for improving community environment and sanitation
  • Providing the means for rainwater harvesting, localized garbage treatment and recycling
  • Developing sources of renewable energy like wind or solar power, depending on the geography and feasibility
  • Ensuring a clean and safe drinking water supply in every home

The growth of HUMAN CAPITAL in a community is a combination of sound health, education, skill development and capacity to work. All countries have numerous human development programmes either initiated by donor agencies, through NGOs, or undertaken by Governments themselves. Voluntary agencies can run their own micro-programmes within communities to enhance their Human Capital, such as:

  • Holding camps for regular antenatal and post-natal check-ups including counselling and testing for HIV/AIDS and STD
  • Conducting nutrition checks on under-5 children on a monthly basis
  • Mass testing for communicable diseases
  • Organising immunization camps
  • Running training camps in various sports for children
  • Running a mobile clinic scheme for a cluster of poor communities with help from local corporates under their Corporate Social Responsibility Programmes
  • Improving housing and sanitation
  • Running ‘pavement’ schools and night classes for school dropouts / child labourers
  • Mobilising Women’s Self Help Groups for running awareness campaigns against drug addiction, alcoholism, domestic violence, underage marriages, teen pregnancies etc, and monitoring school attendance to prevent drop outs

PHYSICAL CAPITAL because of the high capital outlay is best left to the local authority, though voluntary agencies and self-help groups can play a role in ensuring that this expensive asset is well taken care of, not misused or allowed to fall into disrepair.

Where there is a government funded Housing Scheme for the poor, volunteers can play a major role in arranging proper legal advice to the beneficiaries especially in the matter of land ownership, title, mortgage and taxation which are most nebulous in most developing countries and prevent the assets of the poor from becoming fungible and tradeable – so that the poor remain poor in perpetuity.

It is often said that SOCIAL CAPITAL is the only wealth of the poor, given the vast array of caste, clan, ethnic, linguistic, tribal and kinship networks in rural and tribal areas around the world. These ties, however, are the first casualty, when the rural poor migrate to cities. However, it is possible through development interventions to build new networks and support systems – the most obvious examples being Self Help Groups, Thrift Societies, and Workers’ Cooperatives. Group activities like literacy drives, religious festivals, carnivals, mass immunization campaigns, and nutritional assessment camps are also instrumental in cementing community bonds, besides helping with human capital growth.

Working with the urban poor needs an understanding of the underlying social and political reality and the Sustainable Livelihoods Framework is the most practical template to apply.

Posted in Poverty

Multidimensional and Societal Poverty

The World Bank’s Report on Poverty and Shared Prosperity 2018 is titled: Piecing together the Poverty Puzzle.

In his Foreword, the outgoing WB President Jim Yong Kim points out that the world had impressively got its act together in implementing the Millennium Development Goals to bring down extreme poverty from 33% in 1990 to 10% in 2015. He is sure that global efforts will continue under the new Sustainable Development Goals, to reduce extreme poverty to less than 3% percent by 2030.

He goes on to point out that most of the world’s poor now live in middle-income countries, and research indicates that those countries tend to have a more demanding view of poverty. Drawing on national poverty lines, the World Bank now also report poverty rates at two higher thresholds—$3.20 per day and $5.50 per day—which are typical of standards in lower-middle-income countries, like India, and upper-middle-income countries, like China.  

These higher-valued poverty lines reflect social assessments of what defines minimum basic needs in countries at these income levels. As may be expected, these two standards for measuring poverty portray a less encouraging picture of the level of well-being in the world relative to the measure of extreme poverty, which is forecast now to be in single digits. Nearly half the world (46 percent) lives on less than US$5.50 per day, a standard that defines poverty in a typical upper-middle income country, while a quarter of the world lives on less than US$3.20 per day.

The Societal Poverty Line (SPL) to measure poverty relative to the standard of that society is a combination of the absolute income-based poverty line (IPL), and a poverty line that is relative to the median consumption (or income) level of each country. Specifically, it is equal in value to either the IPL or US$1.00, plus half of daily median consumption in the country, whichever is greater. This means that, for the poorest of countries, the value of the SPL will never be less than the IPL, although after a certain point, as countries get richer, the value of the SPL will increase as the consumption level of the median individual in that country increases.

This increasing value of the SPL corresponds with the fact that the value of national poverty lines typically increases as countries grow richer. In fact, the SPL is constructed in such a way that it directly corresponds to the average value of national poverty lines at different levels of (median) consumption for each country of the world. In this sense, societal poverty provides a global measure of poverty that corresponds on average with how all countries of the world define being poor.

When poverty is defined this way, the number of people who are poor stood at 2.1 billion as of 2015, almost three times more than those living under the US$1.90 level.

This Report also presents the World Bank’s first exercise in multidimensional global poverty measurement to account for multiple and overlapping components of poverty. The multidimensional approach highlights how the ways deprivations interact vary widely from country to country, and can be extended to include, in addition to education and access to basic infrastructure services, two other dimensions: health and nutrition, and security from crime and natural disaster. (See: Dimensions of Urban Poverty).

Including additional dimensions of deprivation in measures of poverty can provide valuable insight into how policies can be directed to have the most effect on poverty. The profile of the poor can change as we take a multidimensional view of poverty – as becomes starkly evident in the South Asian Region.

In this regard, the World Bank was anticipated by pioneers of the Sustainable Livelihoods approach, which looks at 5 types of capital available to an individual or a community, and it is the sufficiency or insufficiency of these ‘capitals’ which determine the extent and expanse of one’s livelihood polygon. This can be a great tool to decide the relative focus on various aspects of a poverty alleviation programme. In slum rehabilitation for instance, emphasis seems to be on providing basic physical infrastructure (water, roads, drains) while totally neglecting human development aspects of health and education. As a result, the livelihood polygon of the slum-dweller remains narrowly restricted, and the poverty becomes endemic as it passes from generation to generation (See Sustainable Livelihoods).

Posted in Poverty

Poverty now an ascribed status?

While I was writing a piece on understanding urban poverty for a newspaper, I was struck by the fact that being poor has become as much an ascribed status in South Asia, as caste, class, race or gender.

In other words, you live and die with what you are born into – an accident of birth that marks you for life. And you start ‘paying’ for this accident in the womb itself – with a malnourished mother giving birth to a chronically undernourished child.

Look at the state of children today – at the forefront of every conflict, born and growing up with the sound of rockets and bombs in their ears – not their mother’s lullabies. Escaping war only to succumb to entirely treatable diseases like cholera, ravaging their malnourished little bodies. All across the world, what begins as politics and resource grabbing, ends up as another humanitarian crisis where the children of the poor continue to pay the price for being born at the wrong place at the wrong time: whether in Syria, Yemen, Gaza, or Myanmar.

If a child of a poor household escapes being born in a war zone, it will have other conflicts to endure – child labour, trafficking, slavery, sexual exploitation, little food and less education. In other words, no aspiration or escape from the terrible conditions he or she is born into – only a childhood lost forever.

The Sustainable Development Goals may speak of ending poverty in the next decade or so, but see how the world is treating its future generations: children make up the majority of those living in extreme poverty. In 2013, an estimated 385 million children lived on less than US$1.90 per day. Still, these figures are unreliable due to huge gaps in data on the status of children worldwide. And this income data by itself is far from sufficient to truly gauge the depth of deprivation among poor children worldwide.

Gone are the days when poverty, especially urban poverty was measured merely by the lack of income, or resources. As Robert McNamara pointed out as far back as 1980: the deprivations of the absolute poor “… go beyond income. And in many cases, even if their income were higher… they could not by that fact alone free themselves from their difficulties. The reason is that absolute poverty is a complicated web of circumstances, all of them punitive, that reinforce and strengthen one another.”

And the reinforcement covers all dimensions like low income, little or no access to credit, lack of security of tenure, unsanitary living and working conditions, malnutrition and poor health, low learning capacity and lifelong unemployment and underemployment.
Trapped in this vicious circle, can the poor ever break out on their own?

Cycle of Poverty

Obviously not. But there are several points at which a government can break the cycle, provided it has the political will not to sell out to the rich, and to agree with McNamara when he says: “To reduce and eliminate massive absolute poverty lies at the very core of development itself. It is critical to the survival of any decent society.”

Governments, especially those in South Asia, need to realize that the universalization of primary and secondary education is key to all future development – social, industrial and economic. Schools themselves can become an agency to monitor the nutritional status of children and their immunization against the deadliest childhood diseases besides spreading the message about hygiene and sanitation.

With the basic education structure in place, social evils like child and forced labour can be eliminated from society, and the future workforce can continue learning long enough to move to vocational and professional education, which will enable employment in the formal sectors of the economy and gradual formalization of the tiny, micro and informal sectors through proper registration, record and regulation by the government.

South Asian countries must also put in place a representational system for all assets, liabilities, and inventories of the poor to give them access to institutional finance. The absence of such a system is one of the reasons that the poor and their assets cannot be mainstreamed into the local, regional and national economies in these countries, resulting in huge losses to governments in terms of unassessed and uncollected taxes.

But these things have been said again and again and nobody seems to care anymore.

I hang my head in shame…

Posted in Poverty

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:


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…

Posted in Poverty

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.


Posted in Poverty

Poverty in South Asia

With the viewership of this blog now touching 95 countries, the most views appear to be on issues of poverty and human development and so I thought it was time to revisit some aspects of income poverty, especially in the South Asian Region, which is home to the largest number of poor people: 43 per cent of the developing world’s 1.4 billion poor people live in South Asian countries.

Although the three largest countries in the region, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, have managed to substantially reduce extreme poverty in the last 2 decades, their vast populations add up to frightening absolute numbers of the absolute poor (< US$ 1.25 per day per capita). What is more challenging for the governments in this region however, is the proportion of their populations in the next slab (US$ 2.5-US$4) – just escaping being labelled as the absolute poor, but still seriously deprived in all aspects of life such as health, education, shelter and livelihoods.

poverty post 1

So who are these people? The small land-holder, share-cropper or farm labourer in rural areas; and the stalwarts of the informal sector in urban areas. This group may have just enough primary education and basic food security to cross the official poverty line, and ironically, are doubly deprived because they miss out on the meagre subsidies earmarked for those below the poverty line.

Neither the governments in the region, nor the formal sectors have the will or incentive to address this type of poverty. In fact, it is universally acknowledged that it suits and profits the private sector to maintain a large informal sector, especially in the urban areas, as this unorganised sector has no collective identity and therefore no bargaining power and can be exploited at will, relentlessly and for ever.

Another factor brought out by various UN reports and databases is the growing disparity in the countries in South Asia.

South Asia disparity

Income inequalities have grown steadily in South Asia since the early 1980s, in both urban and rural areas. This income inequality does not follow the classic ‘have’ and ‘have-not’ dichotomy across the country, but is further compounded by disparities between regions in the same country. For example, studies of long-term trends indicate that while the share of the total number of India’s poor in the southern states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu decreased from 18% in 1993-1994 to 15% in 1999-2000; the share in the total number of poor in the states of Bihar, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal jumped from 57% to 63% during the same period. Therefore, although there has been a steady decline in the incidence of poverty in India, the efforts of the Government have not resulted in a uniform impact across regions.

So the writing is on the wall in all the countries of the region. Address the issues of deeply entrenched poverty – extreme and relative deprivation – or else pay the price through increasing social unrest, growing extremism, and the endless cycle of violence and state oppression… And the time is definitely running out on this clock…






Posted in Poverty

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.



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…”

Posted in Poverty

Part I: Why poor countries remain poor

In everybody’s life there comes a book which is a revelation; a book that explains simply and beautifully a complex process which one finds perplexing… and if (like me) you are a lucky wanderer in the vaults of human knowledge and wisdom, then you are sure to have experienced many such ‘a-ha’ moments.

The book which prompted this post is ‘The Mystery of Capital’ by Hernando de Soto – respected Peruvian economist, political adviser, and reformer. Published in 2000 (a decade into the era of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation), and based upon extensive field research in Asia, Africa and Latin America; the book poses a simple question – why does capitalism work only in the rich countries of Western Europe and North America?

The reason, according to de Soto, is that the poorer countries simply fail to generate capital. He goes on to show that even in the poorest countries, the poor save – for instance, in Egypt the wealth that the poor had accumulated at the time of publication, was 55 times as much as the sum of all direct foreign investment ever recorded there, including the Suez Canal and Aswan Dam.

However, these assets of the poor are not fungible assets – they cannot be turned into capital, cannot be traded, cannot be used as collateral for a loan, and cannot be used as a share against an investment.

The heart of de Soto’s theory is that the poor countries remain poor because they lack a representational system which documents every parcel of land, every building, every piece of equipment, every store, every inventory, thus making it visible so that it can connect to a larger formal economy, thereby making the vast hidden assets of the poor and informal sectors fungible. But unfortunately, developing such representational systems takes time, resources and a much longer time-frame than a government on a 5-year run can afford.

Take the case of land titles in India.

In the prevalent system, a registered sale deed does not confer title ownership and is merely a record of the transaction. The current system of 7/12 extracts are no more than a caveat emptor or ‘buyer beware’ type of document, conferring only presumptive ownership, which is liable to be disputed.

A proposed amendment to the Registration Act, 1908 would convert land registration into a ‘guaranteed title certification’ and would affect a paradigm shift in India’s land titling system, bringing it in line with other Commonwealth countries which follow the Torrens system of land titling. Under this system, a registered transaction would extinguish all previous rights and become sanctified as a formal title transfer to the purchaser, as prospective land buyers would only need to examine the land register, and purchase from the recorded owner.

However,  such a system is only as good as the Land Register supporting it.

The creation of a land-holdings register requires that land parcels be identified, with clearly demarcated boundaries, through maps of individual land parcels and their location within an area’s land grid. This has to then be correlated to undisputed, litigation-free ownership rights. Both these records then have to be publicly notified before they take effect. But the devil is in the details of course.

As in most developing countries, the land record systems in India are archaic with no provision for regular systematic updates. In fact the terms used in land records (and the Act itself)  hark back to the British colonial era, or even further back to the Mughals! No register, which reliably confirms title, exists anywhere in India; and small experiments in some states to build such registers have not succeeded in achieving comprehensive coverage.

How do you build up a land register in a country where rural land has moved from one power elite to another over thousands of years, and inherited land is often partitioned within the family, without any formal registration?

The situation is much worse in urban areas where the chain of ownership is impossible to trace too far back, and most real estate developers take recourse to unregistered power of attorney transactions, when they build houses for the average middle-class buyer. Such a buyer is naturally kept totally in the dark about any title disputes or encumbrances attaching to the land where he dreams of owning a penthouse on the twentieth floor.

The repeated fragmentation of lands generation after generation, with intractable boundary and ownership disputes can lead only one way – to the courts. It is not surprising, therefore that a vast majority of cases pending in Indian courts deal with land-related litigation, and most of the rural undertrials in Indian jails are there as a result of land disputes violently settled.

So as it completes a year in office and is worried that the economy is not really taking off as expected, the Indian government would do well to listen to de Soto. After all, if 68% of the local economy of Mumbai – India’s commercial capital – is estimated to lie in the informal sector, just imagine what a boost the national economy would receive if the assets of the poor were looped into the formal system. Not to mention the assets back home in a city of migrants, which will come into play for procuring credit for housing and business. The entire country can be rejuvenated, city by city and town by town…

But that will take more than five years, so who’s interested?

Posted in Poverty

Sustainable Livelihoods

It is estimated that to break out of the present poverty-pollution-population trap, India needs to create some one hundred million sustainable livelihoods in the next ten years, to cover the backlog, plus a similar number for the new entrants into the job market. With this many jobs created, each family in the country can hope to have at least one member with a reasonably paid job.

Given the present direction in both the public and corporate sectors, it is expected that not even 10% of this target will be met. With the new Government’s Make in India emphasis on further industrialisation, any jobs created will be in the formal sector and for non-poor households. True, there will be some trickle down through outsourcing, but as this sub-contracting will only be in India’s urban informal sector, it is not likely to provide long-term, sustainable livelihoods, nor build up the coping mechanisms of the poor.

What do we mean by Sustainable Livelihoods?

As we have seen in an earlier post, urban poverty is a complex multi-dimensional phenomenon, and therefore the approaches to poverty reduction must also be multi-dimensional. Current thinking in development studies has seen a paradigm shift from top-down planning to participatory micro planning, with the focus on local people and their livelihood strategies. There is also a concerted effort to make people aware of their rights and entitlements, so that priorities are fixed by the people rather than by a faceless bureaucracy.

One such approach, developed initially for rural areas and now successfully adapted to urban areas is the Sustainable Livelihoods Framework (SLF).

The SL framework revolves around three assessment criteria:

Foremost of them is the ASSETS or CAPITAL of the individual or community. Assets may be financial, natural, human, social or physical as detailed later.

The second criterion is the RIGHTS and ENTITLEMENTS available to the community or individual. These may be traditional, social, moral, legal, or political. Entitlements are things that people may rely upon because of legal or customary rights – like access to common-property resources, employment benefits, right of usufruct on land etc. Entitlements could also include the mutual support structures that are often present in localized communities.

And the final criterion is how far ACTIVITIES dovetail with assets and entitlements. Activities are things that people do to gain a living, and these will usually be based on available assets. A personal asset, such as artistic ability, may form the basis of activities that generate income. Land may be used to earn income. Activities may be based on acquired knowledge and skills; thus education and training has a prominent position in a sustainable livelihoods framework. Knowledge and skills may also be acquired through traditional, cultural processes.

Sometimes, a fourth criterion is added to assess how successfully the individual or group can deal with the vulnerabilities and risks of their situation, and how well they can come up with a COPING STRATEGY.

The SL Framework defines five types of Capital Assets. These are:

Financial Capital which denotes financial resources like: wages, salaries, pension, savings, access to credit, rent, remittances and so on.

Physical Capital or basic infrastructure facilities like roads, transport, electricity, water supply, energy, communication, tools and technology for production

Natural Capital like food security, adequate water supply, minimum air and noise pollution

Human Capital through skills, knowledge, good health, ability to work

Social Capital which includes the formal and informal social relationships such as kinship ties, client-patron relationships, networks and organisations that exist in a community

Under the sustainable livelihood framework it is possible to draw a livelihood polygon for an individual, a group or a community, as illustrated below:


The relative length of each of the arrows connecting to the corners of the polygon, is an indicator of the adequacy/ inadequacy of a particular type of capital in a particular community. In the above case, if all assets or capitals are adequately developed, we see a larger polygon, thereby providing greater livelihood opportunities, and stronger coping abilities to individuals/communities.

However, most government programmes tend to focus on just one type of capital/asset, thereby greatly shrinking the options available to the poor. For example, slum upgradation programmes in India concentrate on providing only physical infrastructure like internal roads, storm drains, public water and sanitation, and neglect the growth of human capital through better health and education services. This results in a skewed livelihood polygon with a much smaller area of opportunity  for the individual and community, as shown below:


The SL Framework in Urban Areas

The Sustainable Livelihoods Framework (SLF) can be used in the urban context to assess the current state of assets/capital in a community, and then plan new poverty reduction strategies based on this assessment. In fact, it is the ideal framework for undertaking a City Poverty Profile. Practical solutions can then be worked out within the available resources to maximise each of the five ASSETS or CAPITALS in the community, so that the livelihood polygon of the community can be suitably expanded. It must be remembered that every decision may affect more than one type of capital, sometimes adversely. The emphasis is therefore on thinking holistically and getting the balance right.

Thus, FINANCIAL CAPITAL can be greatly augmented through: Providing a place for a cooperative store / fair price shop to be run by the community; starting kitchen gardens; installing metered electricity connections in each household; forming women’s Self Help Groups; setting up labour cooperatives; and providing vocational training geared to local handicrafts / industry.

NATURAL CAPITAL can be enhanced by easy ‘doables’ like providing a playground for children near their homes, initiating participatory activities for improving community environment and sanitation, and providing the means for rainwater harvesting.

The growth of HUMAN CAPITAL in a community is a combination of sound health, education, skill development and capacity to work. All countries have numerous human development programmes either initiated by donor agencies, through NGOs, or undertaken by Governments themselves. Some of these which have impacted positively on HD across the world include: regular antenatal and post natal check-ups by community health workers; regular check-ups for HIV/AIDS, STD; Gender budgeting; immunization camps; mobile clinic schemes; improved housing and sanitation; night classes for school dropouts / child labourers; women’s Self Help Groups; nutrition checks on under-5 children on a monthly basis, awareness campaigns against drug addiction, alcoholism, domestic violence; increasing the number of group connections for water supply, adult literacy classes; school attendance / drop outs to be monitored by the community itself; constructing / upgrading community toilets for washing, bathing facilities for women… and many more

PHYSICAL CAPITAL is already the only focus of slum improvement programmes in India, but remains very narrow in its ambit. It should also look to augment infrastructure that will help enhance other assets like income, health and education by, for example, transforming muddy approach roads to all-weather roads, building / upgrading community health and family planning centres, improving the housing facilities, removing encroachments, providing covered drains and sanitary facilities, etc.

It is often said that SOCIAL CAPITAL is the only wealth of the poor Indian, given the vast array of caste, clan, ethnic, linguistic, tribal and kinship networks in rural India. These ties, however, are the first casualty, when the rural poor migrate to the cities. However, it is possible through development interventions to build new networks and support systems – the most obvious examples being Self Help Groups, Thrift Societies, and Workers’ Cooperatives. Group activities like literacy drives, mass immunization campaigns, and nutritional assessment camps are also instrumental in cementing community bonds, besides helping with human capital growth.

So where do we go from here? Experts believe that the answer lies in small scale, decentralised industries of a new kind. The key factor is the application of new technologies to the traditional skill and resource base of the community. For instance, the traditional knowledge of certain tribal communities can be successfully utilised in wildlife tourism, and its conservation and preservation. Similarly, with urban heritage suddenly becoming a priority in India, there is a lot of scope for traditional artisans in restoration and preservation of heritage buildings.

If the traditional knowledge handed down from generation to generation is not correctly utilised, it will be lost forever, and will have to be rediscovered and relearnt in Universities (as in Europe), thereby becoming an asset not of the poor – its original owners – but the better off.

Should we sleepwalk through yet another cycle of deprivation, or hear the wake-up call?

Perhaps, the Kudumbashree Programme of the Kerala Government could point the way to sustainable livelihoods for the entire country. They deserve an entire post to themselves, which I shall hope to put up soon. Meanwhile, time for a diversion don’t you think?