Slums – The Catacombs for Poor

India is urbanising very fast and along with this, the slum population is also increasing. It has doubled in the past two decades. The current population living in slums in the country is more than the population of Britain. The very definition of slums points at the acute drinking water and sanitation crisis for the slum dwellers. 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. It defines them as places where buildings are in any respect unfit for human habitation and 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. Whereas, 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.

The above definitions of slums suggests that slums breed poverty and along with that diseases. 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 hand pumps, 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. Not only the poor hygiene of the slums proves slums to be catacombs for poor but also the lack of educational infrastructure creates darkness in their life. Their willingness to uplift from the impoverished life remains only a distant dream.

Primary schooling, through corporation schools, is a free educational system provided by the Government of India. But further studies, highly dependent on a host of personal factors, like availability of funds, interest in studies, family’s financial strength and sadly slum dwellers lack in all these basic needs. Thus illiteracy breeds and which leads to unemployment. The only way to get them out of this vicious circle would be vocationalisation of education at secondary level .This would enable them to earn decent amount of money to fill their bellies and also contribute to the per capita income of the country.

The question remains that, what has the governmentt done to eradicate the blot of slums from the life of millions of people. In 1972 the Government of India initiated a programme called Environmental Improvement of Urban Slums under which priority to drinking water and sanitation was given. Again in 1996 government initiated the National Slum Development Programme with substantial fund allocation. It had a specified focus on providing drinking water and community toilets. After spending close to Rs 3,100 crore in nine years, it was discontinued. Statistics speak that 46 million slum dwellers benefited from it but experience says that 4600 politicians would be benefited at the cost of the hope of millions of slum dwellers.

The ongoing programme is the Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) started in 2005, an initiative to encourage reforms and fast-track planned development of certain cities. The larger objective of the mission is to integrate development of infrastructure services; accelerating the flow of investment into urban infrastructure services; planned development of cities including the peri-urban areas and universalisation of urban services to ensure their availability to the urban poor. It has a financial commitment of Rs1,50,000 crore during 2006-12.

Only  time and RTI will tell that for whose benefit this financial commitment was made. But the point here arises is that what other factors other than loopholes in the governments implementation of the policies for slum development hinders the development of slums and indeed helps in its growth in terms of numbers.

The principal reason is the population 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. Furthermore, “Literacy and age at marriage are not raised in spite of laws made by the government. Migration from rural areas to developed areas in tempt of higher income and better living becomes the second chief reason for the outgrowing no. of slums. The reasons being low educational levels of migrants and lack of employment opportunities in urban areas and thus they are forced to live in slums.

This growing slum population and the lack of basic facilities will not only badly impact India’s overall target achievement in water and sanitation sector but also prevents it from achieving it the status of a superpower by 2020.
To prevent our visions from becoming distant dreams we should understand that slum development should be a part of the growth process and not apart from it.

Naina Gupta