The Census And The Economic Status Of The Slum-dweller

By Gajanan Khergamker

On any given dark foggy morning at an open ground in South Mumbai’s dhobhi ghat off Transit Camp – one of the myriad dhobhi ghats that India’s financial capital is known for – it’s easy to find at least twenty-odd slum-dwellers defecating, all in a row.

There’s a wall that shields direct viewing and joggers and morning office-goers rush through their day on the other side. Senior executive Sudhir Jadhav, who lives in nearby Ambedkar Nagar, too joins the defecating lot every morning, ironically, with his iPhone 5 and a Bluetooth receiver hooked on as he briefs his team members about the day’s work, all through his morning ablution.

Sudhir is an established telecom company’s team leader and earns Rs 35,000 per month. He handles a team of 15 sales staffers who are supposed to ‘hit the field’ before he reaches office. “There’s no other time to discuss work with them. It’s only in the mornings that I manage to talk to six of my team members, get the previous day’s report and plan their tasks for the day ahead,” he says. Sudhir has lived in Ambedkar Nagar all his life and by most urban standards, he has had a good life.

But with a wife, three children and an aged mother, there’s no more room in his 10ft by 12ft home for anyone else, forget constructing a toilet. That said, Sudhir rides a Yamaha FZ-S, possesses a 32-inch flat-screen TV, a laptop and three mobiles, no financial liabilities to boot and has a social standing among his circles. That Sudhir goes to defecate in the open despite Ambedkar Nagar having public latrines constructed for residents may come across as a surprise.

However, many residents refuse to use the latrine and prefer to defecate in the open. “Who has the time to stand in line for one’s turn?” he says. “My mother, wife and children use the latrine, but I prefer coming out in the open,” adds Sudhir. The man could be blamed of being disregardful of issues of public hygiene and civic legality but to attribute his behavior to ‘urban poverty’ is completely missing the point.

So, when the newly-released Census data revealed that one in every six urban Indian residents lives in a slum, it was open to convenient interpretation. It may be noted that the Census defines a slum as “residential areas where dwellings are unfit for human habitation” because they are dilapidated, cramped, poorly ventilated, unclean, or “any combination of these factors which are detrimental to the safety and health”.

The definition does not touch upon the economic status of the slum-dweller. For the first time, the Census had helped the authorities get an accurate view of the numbers that mattered. For one, the percentage of slums in urban areas was assumed to be much higher than revealed in the survey. In Mumbai, it was widely considered that half of the population lived in slums but the figure is closer to 40 per cent.

The total Slum Enumeration Blocks (SEBs) in Census 2011 is about 1.08 lakh and Maharashtra leads the number of slum dwellings at 21,359. As against 789 lakh households in the urban areas, the total number of households that live in slums is 137 lakh, the Census revealed.

Quashing popular myths, the Census also revealed that slum residents had the basic amenities like drinking water and electricity and even facilities like mobile phones, internet and private vehicles. The only service missing is sanitation, already globally popularised by the widely-discussed sequence of a young Jamaal getting locked in a public latrine in Slumdog Millionaire, only to jump into a pool of human excreta in his excitement to meet his idol Amitabh Bachchan. “Yuck!” the world exclaimed in unison, and pitied the millions in India living in slums for a poverty that didn’t quite exist. They missed the very point, the Census makes.

Now, the Census revealed some very strategic facts. In urban areas, barely 70.6 per cent people have access to tap (drinking) water whereas in slums a whopping 74 per cent have access to the same. Where power is concerned, 92.7 per cent of urban zones are lit with power with slums closing up with 90.5 percent. The difference in the reach of amenities in urban zones in comparison to those in slums is almost negligible.

For the purpose of the Census, slums were categorised and defined as notified slums, recognised slums and identified slums and, for the first time, all the 4,041 statutory towns (those with municipalities) were covered. It was revealed that of the lot, only 2,542 had slums.

Sudhir Gaikwad harbours a pricey hobby – photography. He has three SLRs with professional lenses and flash guns worth Rs five lakh, a professional video-camera, a high-end washing machine, a Samsung laptop, a television, a huge refrigerator and a split air-conditioner too. He pays an electricity bill of nearly Rs 4,000 every month. His wife Shivani Gaikwad wears heavy gold jewellery every day. That said, the Gaikwads technically live in Colabawadi, a slum zone. They don’t have any loan liabilities. Save some indicators like sanitation, the popularly perceived ‘poor’ in slums, are financially on par, sometimes even better off than their loan-ridden urban counterparts. Displaying slum poverty is an industrial-like activity with more benefits than drawbacks. It provides the perfect agenda to ‘sensitive’ film-makers, ‘concerned’ political parties and ‘affected’ tourists.

Embarking on a statistical collection of data of this magnitude was a gargantuan task but the first step towards righting a popular wrong. Of the wrongs that need to be corrected, is the urgent need to address the issue of sanitation which directly threatens public hygiene, women and child safety of those affected and gives an opportunity to the motivated to flay the nation’s image as one with skewed human living logistics in the long run.
(The views expressed in this column are the writer’s own)