Counting the Slums the Indian Government Isn't Counting

August 28, 2018

Duke professor Anirudh Krishna describes how slums are defined and change over time.

 A slum in Bangalore, India. Photo courtesy Anirudh Krishna

-By Duke Global staff

Using satellite images, Anirudh Krishna, a professor of public policy and political science at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, has been tracking the changing boundaries of slums in Bangalore, India. In one of his latest studies, Krishna found that there are 2,000 slums in the city, rather than the 597 slums the government recognizes.

The Times of India recently reported on this long-term project.

We asked him to describe some of the concepts behind his work, such as how slums are characterized and how they may differ from each other, as well as what living in a slum could mean for the upward mobility of its residents.

Q: What defines a slum? Why are definitions important in considering slums and low-income settlements?

There isn’t a precise definition of slums nor one that is consistently adopted across all countries. UN-HABITAT, the United Nations agency with expertise on the subject, identifies slums in terms of lacks and deprivations – cramped living spaces, lack of sewage and clean drinking water, and so on.

Nor indeed is it easy to precisely define a slum, for slums span a range of living experiences, with more and less cramped spaces, more or less access to sewage or drinking water, more and less security of tenure, etc. In our research we’ve identified different types of slums.

Q: Do different types of settlements have different needs, and does your study help us identify those?

Great question. We’ve identified a hierarchy of slums. Homes in slums at the bottom of the hierarchy consist of plastic sheets supported on four poles. The principal needs of this type of slum are drinking water, street lighting, and waste disposal. At the other end of the hierarchy are multi-storied concrete buildings. Living quarters are cramped, and the jobs people have are low-paying, but not as low-paying as those of people in the bottom type of slum. In the top type, people ask for better education for their children and better upward mobility supports. Policy responses need to be sensitive to these differences within slums.

Q: How does property change hands in low-income settlements?

Homes in slums are typically “informal” properties: most lack clear and full property titles. Strictly speaking, they cannot be bought or sold. But there’s great demand for housing in the growing cities of the developing world. Slums expand, and means are found for buying and selling properties that shouldn't be sold. Lawyers with established practices help prepare affidavits that sellers of slum properties use for reassuring potential buyers that the sale will not be contested in the future. Boilerplate documents of these kinds circulate in slums. Leaders and neighbors provide additional reassurances to buyers of properties in slums.

Prices for similar accommodation vary depending on the slum’s location, the quality of services it receives, and the kinds of property papers that people have. Our research team distinguished 18 different kinds of property papers that slum dwellers possess in Bangalore, only one of which is a proper (and legally binding) title.

Q. How does living in slums affect poverty levels and the chance at upward mobility? What is India’s “Broken Ladder”?

Many people, a large majority, have been staying in slums for multiple generations. There is little evidence to support the hypothesis of upward mobility. Very few slums have experienced noticeable improvements over time. The children and grandchildren of slum dwellers remain in slums. Hardly anyone has the resources – including money, information, guidance, and role models – that are necessary to aspire to, and to achieve, a higher station in life. Not everyone in slums is below the national poverty line, but many are, and the others live just a tad above the poverty line.

Too many smart and hardworking children born to disadvantaged parents are unable to climb to positions commensurate with their individual potentials. The ladder of opportunity is broken. In diverse walks of life, India makes poor use of its vast human potential, because only a small fraction of its talent pool is able to connect with the better opportunities. The situation is similar in many other societies where social mobility is similarly low.

The boundaries (white) of a newly established slum in Bangalore, India. Photo courtesy Anirudh Krishna

Q: Why is it significant that your study found so many more slums than the government recognizes? Can updating those numbers provide a way up the broken ladder?

Slums are expanding rapidly, and traditional survey methods, requiring boots on the ground, are too expensive and too cumbersome for keeping track of this growth. Government surveys of slums quickly become outdated.

The methods we used demonstrated the utility of using high-resolution satellite images for the initial identification. Image analysis has rarely been used before for these purposes. Our predictions weren't always verified by what we found on the ground, but through multiple iterations these predictions have become better. We were able to keep track of changing boundaries and characteristics and spot newly arisen slums.

Using these techniques to update the slum record and to speed up the notification of slums that are eligible for various government services would certainly help improve the lives of slum residents, promoting movements up the otherwise broken ladder.

Slums that come up on lands belonging to the railroads or the highways, or which are situated in natural drainages, are not eligible for official recognition. That recognition is necessary for obtaining certain services. For other slums, the process of official notification takes very long, delaying people’s access to sewerage, tarred roads, and education facilities.

Q: Your work is collaborative and carried out with Indian partners – how has that collaboration worked? 

We worked with a number of collaborators in India and are grateful for their encouragement and support – the Jana Urban Foundation, the Omidyar Network, the International Growth Center, the Indian Space Research Organisation, IIM Bangalore, the Asian Development Research Institute in Patna, and the Institute of Development Studies in Jaipur.

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