India’s Invisible Population

Photocredit: The Hindu

Denying basic amenities to residents of ‘unrecognised’ slums is an affront to their dignity; resettling them fails to address their concerns and is unviable financially.

Since 2005, the Central government has given significant amounts of money to the States to improve conditions for the country’s urban poor, first under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) and more recently through the slow-moving Rajiv Awas Yojana (RAY). Unfortunately, very few studies have looked at how effective these programmes have been in achieving their objectives. Our research in Chennai suggests that money from the JNNURM did not effectively address the needs of the city’s most vulnerable residents.
How could this happen in a programme explicitly designed for this purpose, and in a State known for its generosity to the poor? This is because Chennai faces a problem common to many cities across India: it has two tiers of slums — those with official government recognition and those without, and the JNNURM did not push cities hard enough to directly intervene in slum areas without recognition.

No Action Since 1985

According to the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Act of 1971, the government is supposed to identify slums, officially recognise them as slums, and then improve these areas. As soon as the Act was passed, the Board identified and recognised 1,202 slums in Chennai, and added another 17 slums to the list in 1985. All of these slums were improved in situ, either by building tenements or by providing basic services. However, in a sharp break with this progressive history towards the urban poor, not a single new slum has been officially recognised in the city since 1985.
In the nearly three decades that have passed, hundreds of new slums have come up in the city. Unfortunately, because the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Act states that you must recognise a slum before you can intervene in it, government programmes to increase access to services for the poor, including the JNNURM, have not directly intervened in these areas — with predictably tragic results. Very little reliable information actually exists about these unrecognised slums but we found one study on them commissioned by the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board in 2002. The study found a total of 444 unrecognised slums within the Chennai Metropolitan Area, with nearly half a million residents at the time, and an average of 620 people relying on a single public water facility in unrecognised slums within the city, far more than the norm of 75 people per water facility. Such numbers are shameful. What they show is that these unrecognised slums have effectively become an invisible Chennai, not counted in the official statistics of slum-dwellers used in the Master Plan and by the Slum Clearance Board, and largely ignored by the service provision agencies.