Not all living in slums are poor, but bad health conditions may push them into it

In cities like Chennai and Hyderabad, over 50% of dwellings classified as slum households actually fall outside identified slum settlements.
Not all living in slums are poor, but bad health conditions may push them into it
Not all living in slums are poor, but bad health conditions may push them into it
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The general perception of slum dwellings that people living there are poor and that they probably do not have anywhere else to go. But contrary to the perception, not all slum dwellers may be living in poverty.

“Not all people living in slums live in poverty and many who live in urban poverty reside outside of slum areas,” says a recent study published in Lancet.

According to this study, in Chennai, Hyderabad and Delhi, more than 50% of the dwellings classified as slum households (as per UN-Habitat), actually fall outside the areas identified as slums (according to the Indian definition).

Titled “The history, geography, and sociology of slums and the health problems of people who live in slums”, the research was published in October 2016. The study covers the issue of slum health, and says that there is a need to differentiate between the health of poor city dwellers (those living in poverty but outside slum areas) and the health of people actually living in slums.

The differentiation is important for three reasons:

1. People living in slums experience “neighbourhood effects” where they are affected by shared environmental risks, like poor garbage disposal and sanitation.

2. Slums benefit on the whole from interventions like improved sanitation. This is unlike people living in slum households but not in slum areas.

3. The improvements which work for non-slum localities are not always transferable to slum localities.

The study suggests that because neighbourhood effects are felt more acutely in slum areas, they should be studied as spatial entities. Subsuming them under research on urban health or poverty and health would mean ignoring the significance of space in the relationship between poverty and health.

However, it is also important to note that these spaces are not homogenous in nature and may vary in terms of population density, economic make-up and topography, among others factors.

How slums and formed and why they persist

The Lancet study says that slums are formed near places of work, and often on unclaimed or municipal land. And because these areas are close to work, the slum pushes “upwards” (multi-storey dwellings) and “outwards”. The competition causes rent to increase, making makeshift landlords in some areas richer and those near the periphery, progressively poorer.

The increasing poverty further spurs health inequality. The cycle this creates is referred to in the study as a “poverty trap”: a vicious circle which is spurred by poor health conditions.

After the slum is set up, it is up to the authorities to decide whether to want to recognise the area as a slum. “In India, such notified locations make up only about half of all slums,” says the study.

According to a 2015 study published on National Centre for Biotechnology Information, in India, a notification or legal recognition of a settlement as a slum is needed for government recognition as well.

Over time, it is also needed to afford the slum’s residents' rights to the potable water and sanitation. However, many communities are not notified even when they exhibit slum-like characteristics.

And because people’s residency rights and their conditions are not recognized, they have little incentive to “invest in healthier homes”. They can also be evicted at any time without compensation “to provide more lucrative middle-class housing to the benefit of an extractive elite”, says the Lancet study.

An example is the resettlement that happened in Chennai in January, where 52,000 families were relocated to the outskirts in Perumbakkam, as the slums had to be cleared to make roads and flyovers, reported Rina Chandran for Reuters.

People who had been relocated complained of the housing they were displaced to had leaking pipes, inadequate electricity provisions, and also lacked access to public transport, schools and hospitals.

Because of this lack of access and community involvement, slum dwellers may return to shanties, causing the slum to persist. 

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