ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Of Slums or Poverty

Notes of Caution from Census 2011

The slum data in Census 2011 needs to be interpreted with caution on three counts: the correlation between the definition of "slum" and urban poverty; the dimension of quality when estimating access to basic services; and the question of why so few cities and towns report any slums.

Slum residents have better access to drinking water and electricity than their counterparts in the urban non-slum areas”, reads one of a swathe of reports on the release of a summary of slum data from the Census 2011.1 Other reports suggest significant increase in both amenities and assets, suggesting either implicitly or explicitly that the gap between “slum” and “non-slum” is narrowing and therefore the conditions in which the urban poor live are improving. The numbers are indeed striking. They suggest not only far fewer slum households within cities than predicted,2 but also document fewer towns and cities that report having any slums at all. Of a total of 4,041 cities and towns (whether census or statutory), only 2,542 report having any slums at all. One state – Manipur – in fact reports that no single town or city has any slums.

How do we read this data and what are its implications? This commentary sounds three notes of caution in interpretation and analysis: (a) questioning the correlation between the “slum” as defined by the census and the poor especially in the context of increased displacement of the urban poor within our cities; (b) adding dimensions of quality and kind to estimations of access to services like water, sanitation and electricity; and (c) assessing the surprisingly low number of towns and cities that report any slums at all. In doing so, we draw upon more detailed house listing data tables for slum and non-slum households recently published by the census office (Registrar General 2011b).

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