Saturday, August 13th, 2022 15:53:56

The Industry Of ‘Empowerment’

Updated: November 29, 2014 8:00 am

The urbanisation of India project is being executed in the name of the ‘urban poor’. But the urban poor themselves are lost in the debate over methodologies to identify and classify them and the thicket of entitlements, provisions and agencies to facilitate their ‘inclusion’ and ‘empowerment’

2015 will be the tenth year of India’s largest urban recalibration programme. That decadal anniversary will, for one section of our society, be used as proof that new infrastructure in cities has lowered poverty, that new housing has raised the standard of living for those who need it most, that urban rebuilding capital is focused better through such measures and, because of these and like reasons, that giant programmes such as the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) must continue. With or without the name of India’s first prime minister applied to the mission (itself a noun used liberally to impel urgency into a programme), it will continue, enriched with finance and technology. The JNNURM, a year from now, will be the foremost symbol amongst several that signal to some 415 million Indians (city-dwellers all, for that will be the approximate urban population a year from now) why city life and city lights are what matter.

For another section of society, less inclined because of experience with administrations indifferent or venal, life in India’s (and Bharat’s) 7,935 towns goes on minus the pithy optimism of governments and their supporters in industry and finance. The promise of higher monthly household incomes is somehow expected to compensate for the grinding travails that urban life in India brings, and it is a promise documented inside 50 years of gazettes and government orders, countless circulars and memoranda, hundreds of reports by committees high-powered and technical. Still the number of villages that are transformed, statistically and temporally into towns (census and statutory) grows from one census to another (and in between), and still the urban agglomerations—some sprawling uncaring from one district into another, consuming agricultural land and watershed—expand, for the instruction of the market is that it is this process of gathering citizens that leads to the growth of gross domestic product (GDP), the prime mechanic in the alleviation of poverty, whose workings in cities are much studied but elude definition.

The density of programmes and schemes that envelop urban-dwellers—those whose households hover above or below a poverty line, those whose informal wage earnings are insufficient to maintain a crumbling housing board tenement—is confusing, inside administrations as much as outside them. The thicket of entitlements and provisions that have been designed, so we are told, to ensure the provision of ‘services’ and ‘amenities’, confounds navigation. There are economically weaker sections and lower income groups to plan for (provided they remain weaker and lower); there are ‘integrated, reform-driven, fast-track’ sub-missions and components that are aimed at increasing the effectiveness and accountability of urban local bodies, all as part of the ‘Urban Infrastructure and Governance’ standards to be applied under the Urban Infrastructure Development Schemes for Small and Medium Towns (UIDSSMT, which defies any attempt to make acronyms pronounceable) in 65 mission cities.

Prominent within this grand and swelling orchestra of urbanisation are some of the star creations of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty-Alleviation. There is the Basic Services to the Urban Poor (BSUP) and the Integrated Housing and Slum Development Programme (IHSDP) and these round up the gamut of concepts proffered by the urban planning dogma of our times: “integrated development of slums through projects”, “providing for shelter, basic services and other related civic amenities with a view towards providing utilities to the urban poor”, “key pro-poor reforms that include the implementation of the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act”, and “delivery through convergence of other already existing universal services”. There are public-private partnership templates to guide business (and the odd social entrepreneurship) through this new topology; there are special purpose vehicles formed that mendaciously grey the distinctions between bond and financial markets and the greater public good, but which we are assured will function as the money backstop for public administrations whose clerks peer befuddled at slick online reporting formats (transparency at work, round the clock, accessible through apps on the beneficiaries’ tablet phones).

There is ‘inclusion’—that most essential salt that flavours the substance of governance today—to be found in every direction. There are plenty of beneficiaries to enlist in this urban social re-engineering that is proceeding on a scale and pace unthinkable a generation ago in our towns (public sector housing colonies and waiting lists for scooters), when ‘income inequality’ was an uncommon topic of discussion and ‘gini coefficient’ had yet to become a society’s alarm bell. The new cadre of GDP engineers is well schooled in the language of human rights and normative justice, and so we have ‘Social Mobilisation and Institution Development’ which attends ‘Employment through Skills Training and Placement’, both of which facilitate ‘empowerment, financial self-reliance, and participation and access to government’.


About 30 years ago, The State of India’s Environment 1984-85 (Centre for Science and Environment) noted in a tone of cautious optimism that “planners are beginning to realise that squatters are economically valuable citizens who add to the gross national product by constructing their own shelter, no matter how makeshift, which saves the government a considerable amount of money”. That was a time when governments still sought to save money and the CSE report went on to explain that squatters “are upwardly mobile citizens in search of economic opportunity and have demonstrated high levels of enterprise, tenacity, and ability to suffer acute hardships; that the informal sector in which a majority of the slum-dwellers are economically active contributes significantly to the city’s overall economic growth; and that they should be helped and not hindered”.

The ‘help’ of that period, envisioned as a light leg-up accompanied by informal encouragement, has become instead an industry of empowerment. There are “bank linkages for neutral loans to meet the credit needs of the urban poor”, the formation of corps of “resource organisations to be engaged to facilitate the formation of self-help groups and their development”, there are technical parameters to set so that “quality of services is not compromised”.

Financial literacy—of the unhoused, the misnourished, the chronically underemployed, the single-female-headed families, the uninsurable parents and dependants, the uncounted—is essential so that ‘no frills’ savings accounts can be opened (the gateway to a noxious web of intrusive micro-payment schemata: life, health, pension, consumer goods). Such a brand of functional literacy is to be dispensed by city livelihoods centres which will “bridge the gap between demand and supply of the goods and services produced by the urban poor” and who will then, thus armed, “access information and business support services which would otherwise not be affordable or accessible by them”. So runs the anthem of the National Urban Livelihoods Mission, the able assistant of the national urban mission and its successor-in-the-wings, the Rajiv Awas Yojana.

The existence of the ‘urban poor’ is what provides the legitimacy (howsoever constructed) that the central government, state governments, public and joint sector housing and infrastructure corporations, and a colourful constellation of ancillaries need to execute the urbanisation of India project. Lost in the debate over methodologies to find in the old and new bastis the deserving chronically poor and the merely ‘service deprived’ are the many aspects of poverty in cities, a number of which afflict the upper strata of the middle classes (well housed, overprovided for by a plethora of services, banked to a surfeit) just as much as they do the daily wage earners who commute from their slums in search of at least the six rupees they must pay out of every 10 so that their families have enough to eat for that day.


These deprivations are not accounted for nor even discussed as potential dimensions along which to measure the lives of urban citizens, poor or not, by the agencies that give us our only authoritative references for our citizens and the manner in which they live, or are forced to live: the Census of India, the National Sample Survey Office (of the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation), the municipal corporations of larger cities, the ministries of health, of environment, and the ministry most directly concerned with urban populations, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty-Alleviation. Exposure to pollution in concentrations that alarm the World Health Organisation, the absence of green spaces in wards, a level of ambient noise high enough to induce stress by itself, the weekly or monthly reconciling of irregular income (at any scale) versus the inflation that determines all costs of urban living—these are but a few of the many aspects under which a household or an individual can be ‘poor’. Income and food calorie poverty—which have been the measures to judge a household’s position in relation to a line of minimum adequacy—are but two of many interlinked aspects that govern a standard of living which every government promises to raise.

This catechism was repeated when the Sixteenth Lok Sabha began its work, and President Pranab Mukherjee mentioned in his address to the body a common habitat minimum for the 75th year of Indian Independence, which will come in 2022 (at a time when the many vacuous ‘2020 vision documents’ produced during the last decade by every ministry will have neither currency nor remit). Housing for all, Mukherjee assured the Lok Sabha, delivered through the agency of city-building—”100 cities focused on specialised domains and equipped with world-class amenities”; and “every family will have a pucca house with water connection, toilet facilities, 24×7 electricity supply and access”.

That is why, although concerned academicians and veteran NGO karyakartas will exchange prickly criticisms concerning the use in urban study of NSSO first stage units or the use of Census of India enumeration blocks, it is self-determination in the urban context that matters to a degree somewhat greater than the means we choose to use to describe that context (see Box 1). From the time of the ‘approach’ discussions to the Tenth Five-Year Plan (2002-07)—which is when the notion, till that time regarded as experimental, that the government can step away without guilt from its old role of providing for the poor in favour of the private sector—the dogma of growth of GDP has included rapid urbanisation. That such GDP growth—setting aside the crippling ecological and social costs which our administrative technorati, for all their ‘progressive’ credentials, do not bring themselves to publicly recognise—is deeply polarising and is especially so in cities is not a matter discussed in any of the 948 city development plans (1,515 infrastructure and housing projects) of the JNNURM. From then on, the seeking and finding of distinctions as they exist within the residential wards of towns and cities has been treated as heretical.



This chart describes how urban populations vary considerably in their composition, not only of slum and non-slum residents, but also between size classes of cities and the proportions of those who live in slums and outside them.

Plotted here are 98 of the top 103 cities in India whose slum populations are above 100,000 (2014 estimates). The five that are left out are Mumbai, New Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai and Hyderabad. This has been done to keep the chart legible, else the scale of these cities (especially Mumbai) and their populations would obscure the details for smaller cities, particularly those with populations of 100,000 to 500,000 residents.

The left scale is used to plot the percentage of a city’s total population which lives in slums. We can see a group of cities whose slum populations are above 50%—Loni (Uttar Pradesh), Korba (Chhattisgarh), Kulti (West Bengal), Ambernath (Maharashtra), Rajnandgaon (Chhattisgarh) and Nizamabad (Andhra Pradesh) amongst them.

The bottom scale is used to plot cities by the size of their slum population. Jhansi (Uttar Pradesh), Chandigarh, Coimbatore (Tamil Nadu) and Nashik (Maharashtra) are amongst a group of cities all of which have slum populations of under 200,000 (and above 100,000), but these form less than 20% of their total populations.

The size of a city’s circle in the chart indicates its total population. Bengaluru, Ahmedabad, Surat, Kanpur and Pune are the largest circles to be seen, none of which has slum populations that are more than 16% of their total populations (according to Census 2011).

A chart such as this is helpful for urban comparisons between cities of similar size but different slum population proportions—Census 2011 enumerated 13.7 million households in slums reported from 2,543 cities and towns (out of 4,041). But it must be read with a variety of related material and data.

While this chart can quickly point out cities with slum population proportions above 20%—such as Kakinada (Andhra Pradesh), Aligarh (Uttar Pradesh) and Indore (Madhya Pradesh), all of which have different-sized slum populations and total populations—this does not mean that those residents are worse off, in terms of household income and access to basic services, than similarly-housed residents in cities like Bhiwandi (Maharashtra), Rourkela industrial township (Odisha) or Jabalpur (Madhya Pradesh).

Cities in which municipal councils practise policy and legislative inclusion of slum residents can and do foster the success of micro-enterprises by encouraging the provision of spaces in which these residents can work and live without fear of falling afoul of regulations.

A city with a slum population proportion of under 20% may—by forcing the location of work-home spaces in the margins, with poor ventilation, lighting and sanitary conditions—treat such a resident more unfairly than a city with 40% or more of its residents living in slums but whose needs and contribution to the city economy are recognised. That is why a slum household in Ambarnath may not be worse off than one in Kanpur, and a household in Vishakhapatnam may not be worse off than one inJhansi.                                                                                                                                                   (RG)


From 2001 to 2011, the censuses listed an increase of 870 towns reporting slum populations—from 1,743 in Census 2001 to 2,613 in Census 2011.

“Under Section 3 of the Slum Area Improvement and Clearance Act, 1956, slums have been defined as mainly those residential areas where dwellings are in any respect unfit for human habitation by reasons of dilapidation, overcrowding, faulty arrangements and designs of such buildings, narrowness or faulty arrangement of streets, lack of ventilation, light, sanitation facilities or any combination of these factors which are detrimental to safety, health and morals.”

“Higher productivity in the secondary/tertiary sector against primary sector makes cities and towns centres of economic growth and jobs. Cities act as beacons for the rural population as they represent a higher standard of living and offer opportunities to people not available in rural areas. This results in large-scale migration from rural to urban areas. Negative consequences of urban pull results in upcoming of slums characterised by housing shortage and critical inadequacies in public utilities, overcrowding, unhygienic conditions, etc.”

“For the first time, in Census 2001, slum areas were earmarked across the country, particularly, in cities and towns having a population of 50,000 or above in 1991 Census. Subsequently, the slum data was culled out also for towns with 20,000 to 49,999 population in 2001 and statutory towns having population less than 50,000 in 1991 but reported more than 50,000 population in 2001 and were not considered for carving slum EBs earlier.”

“Definition and types of slums (slums have been earmarked in all the statutory towns irrespective of their population size based on the same definition as in 2001):

  • ll notified areas in a town or city notified as ‘slum’ by state, union territories administration or local government under any Act including a ‘Slum Act’ may be considered notified slums.
  • All areas recognised as ‘slum’ by state, union territories administration or local government, housing and slum boards, which may have not been formally notified as slum under any Act may be considered as recognised slums.
  • A compact area of at least 300 population or about 60-70 households of poorly built congested tenements, in an unhygienic environment usually with inadequate infrastructure and lacking in proper sanitary and drinking water facilities. Such areas should be identified personally by the charge officer and also inspected by an officer nominated by the Directorate of Census Operations. This fact must be duly recorded in the charge register. Such areas may be considered as identified slums.”                                                                                                 (RG)





The National Sample Survey Office (Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation) measures consumption expenditures, the National Family Health Survey (Ministry of Health and Family Welfare) measures the ownership of consumer goods, and the India Human Development Survey (IHDS) of 2005 was one of the first to measure detailed income.

The detailed data sets of each provide a different aspect of economic position, and are best read together with a good lacing of subjective and qualitative study. Incomes can be gauged via many interlinked measures: wages and salaries, net farm income, family business net income, property, and pension incomes being but a few. The IHDS had found that the average Indian household (no rural and urban distinction) had an annual income of Rs 27,857 in 2004. Some households earned much more than this median, and so the mean was Rs 47,804: the five quintiles that households in this survey were divided into had their boundaries at Rs 14,000, Rs 22,950, Rs 36,098 and Rs 69,000. These income points and quintile boundaries are not automatically to be multiplied by the rate of increase in average per capita income to give us equivalences for 2014, but they serve to illustrate the breadth of the income classes and the startling difference between average and mean, differences that have undoubtedly widened and deepened over the ensuing decade.

Separate from the setting of income and expenditure quintiles is the matter of households (slum or not) undergoing current economic distress (or recovering from its effects). This is where the multiple aspects of poverty—of being poor for want of any one or a combination of several essentials that together contribute to a decent and safe standard of life—are seen but not documented, for even these households during their hard times (such as consumer goods owned, educational levels, security of titles and tenures) can appear to be moderate income households rather than poor households in the bottom quintile.

The report, ‘Nature Of Poverty And Identification Of Poor In Small And Medium Towns’, by the Institute of Human Development (New Delhi) for the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty-Alleviation and the Planning Commission, 2012, provided a particularly valuable survey, small though it was, of income and expenditure in small and medium towns. Some of the salient findings were:

  • Across towns, about 60% of the household expenditure was on food items (which can range between 70% and 55%), 24% on non-food items and 16.3% on health and education.
  • The mean monthly per capita income of the lowest quintile was Rs 499 and mean monthly per capita expenditure was Rs 320. In the second quintile, the mean MPCI was Rs 808 and the mean MPCE was Rs 529. For the third quintile, the mean MPCI was Rs 1,110 and the mean MPCE was Rs 736. The mean MPCI of the fourth quintile was Rs 1,651 and the mean MPCE was Rs 1,088, while for the fifth quintile the mean MPCI was Rs 4,581 and mean MPCE was Rs 3,428 (all incomes and expenditures for 2012).
  • Overall, the mean income of the self-employed was highest at Rs 7,243 per month, followed by regular wage/salaried workers whose mean income was Rs 4,393 per month, followed by own account workers at Rs 3,395 per month and finally casual wage labour earning Rs 3,055 per month. The lowest monthly incomes were of household-based piece rate workers who earned an average of Rs 1,660 per month.
  • The highest incomes were earned by government teachers and doctors followed by security forces and other middle-level government staff. Other professionals such as doctors and engineers earned Rs 12,700 a month, followed by government clerical staff, small business owners and contractors.
  • Workers who earned between Rs 4,000 and Rs 5,000 per month were autorickshaw drivers, masons, private drivers, shop owners, lower level administrative staff (privately employed), nurses, ward boys, salesmen, chit fund brokers, and government sweepers. Workers who earned between Rs 2,500 and Rs 4,000 a month were construction labour, brick kiln labour, head load workers, other factory and casual labour, rickshaw pullers and cart pullers, welders, carpenters, plumbers, hotel waiters, painters, hawkers and vendors, small household manufacturing unit owners, small shop owners (of tea/beedi/paan), repair mechanics, traditional artisans (weavers, bidri workers, kite makers, goldsmiths), security guards, priests, and barbers. (RG)


A small matrix of classifications is the reason for such obtuseness, which any kirana shop owner and his speedy delivery boys could quickly debunk. As with the viewing of ‘poverty’ so too the consideration of an income level as the passport between economic strata (or classes) in a city: the Ministry of Housing follows the classification that a household whose income is up to Rs 5,000 a month is pigeon-holed as belonging to the economically weaker section while another whose income is Rs 5,001 and above up to Rs 10,000 is similarly treated as lower income group. Committees and panels studying our urban condition are enjoined not to stray outside these markers if they want their reports to find official audiences, and so they do, as did the work (in 2012) of the Technical Group on Urban Housing Shortage over the Twelfth Plan period (which is 2012-17). Central trade unions were already at the time stridently demanding that Rs 10,000 be the national minimum wage, and stating that their calculation was already conservative (so it was, for the rise in the prices of food staples had begun two years earlier) (see box, Monthly Pay Packet).

29-11-2014The contributions of those in the lower economic strata (not the ‘poor’ alone, however they are measured or miscounted) to the cities of India and the towns of Bharat, to the urban agglomerations and outgrowths (terms that conceal the entombment of hundreds of hectares of growing soil in cement and rubble so that more bastis may be accommodated), are only erratically recorded. When this is done, more often than not by an NGO, or a research institute (not necessarily on urban studies) or a more enlightened university programme, seldom do the findings make their way through the grimy corridors of the municipal councils and into recognition of the success or failure of urban policy. And so it is that the tide of migrants—India’s urban population grew at 31.8% in the 10 years between 2001 and 2011, both census years, while the rural population grew at 12.18% and the overall national population growth rate was 17.64% with the difference between all three figures illustrating in one short equation the strength of the urbanisation project—is essential for the provision of cheap labour to the services sector for that higher economic strata upon whom the larger share of the GDP growth burden rests, the middle class (see box, Charting Cities and Slum Populations).

And so the picture clears, for it is in maintaining and adding to the numbers of the middle class—no troublesome poverty lines here whose interpretations may arrest the impulse to consume—that the growth of India’s GDP relies. By the end of the first confused decade following the liberalisation of India’s economy, in the late-1990s, the arrant new ideology that posited the need for a demographic shift from panchayat to urban ward found supporters at home and outside (in the circles of the multi-lateral development lending institutions particularly, which our senior administrators and functionaries were lured into through fellowships and secondments). Until 10 years ago, it was still being said in government circles that India’s pace of urbanisation was only modest by world standards (said in the same off-the-cuff manner that explains our per capita carbon dioxide emissions as being well under the global average).

In 2005, India had 41 urban areas with populations of a million and more while China had 95—in 2015 the number of our cities which will have at least a million will be more than 60. Hence the need to turn a comfortable question into a profoundly irritating one: instead of ‘let us mark the slums as being those areas of a city or town in which the poor live’ we choose ‘let us mark the poor along as many axes as we citizens can think of and find the households—in slum or cooperative housing society or condominium—that are deprived by our own measures’. The result of making such a choice would be to halt the patronymic practised by the state (and its private sector assistants) under many different guises.

Whether urban residents in our towns and cities will bestir themselves to organise and claim such self-determination is a forecast difficult to attempt for a complex system such as a ward, in which issues of class and economic status have as much to do with group choices as the level of political control of ward committees and the participation of urban councillors, the grip of land and water mafias, the degree to which state programmes have actually bettered household lives or sharpened divisions. It is probably still not a dilemma, provided there is re-education enough and awareness enough of the perils of continuing to inject ‘services’ and ‘infrastructure’ into communities which for over a generation have experienced rising levels of economic stress. At a more base level—for sociological concerns trouble industry even less, in general, than environmental concerns do—India’s business associations are doing their best to ensure that the urbanisation project continues. The three large associations—Assocham, CII and FICCI (and their partners in states)—agree that India’s urban population will grow, occupying 40% of the total population 15 years from now.

The reason they pursue this objective in so predatory a manner is the potential of GDP being concentrated—their guides, the international management consulting companies (such as McKinsey, PriceWaterhouse Coopers, Deloitte, Ernst and Young, Accenture and so on), have determined India’s unique selling proposition to the world for the first half of the 21st century. It runs like this: “Employment opportunities in urban cities will prove to be a catalyst for economic growth, creating 70% of net new jobs while contributing in excess of 70% to India’s GDP.” Naturally, the steps required to ensure such a concentration of people and wealth-making capacity include building new urban infrastructure (and rebuilding what exists, regardless of whether it serves the ward populations or not). The sums being floated today for achieving this camouflaged subjugation of urban populations defy common sense, for any number between Rs 5 million crore and Rs 7 million crore is being proposed, since an “investment outlay will create a huge demand in various core and ancillary sectors causing a multiplier effect through inter-linkages between 254 industries including those in infrastructure, logistics and modern retail… it will help promote social stability and economic equality through all-round development of urban economic centres and shall improve synergies between urban and rural centres”.

Tiers of overlapping programmes and a maze of controls via agencies shaded in sombre government hues to bright private sector colours are already well assembled and provided governance fiat to realise this ‘transformation’, as every government since the Tenth Plan has called it (the present new government included). For all the academic originality claimed by a host of new urban planning and habitat research institutes in India (many with faculty active in the United Nations circuits that gravely discuss the fate of cities; for we have spawned a new brigade of Indian—though not Bharatiya—urban studies brahmins adept at deconstructing the city but ignorant of such essentials as ward-level food demand), city planning remains a signal failure.


Other than the metropolitan cities and a small clutch of others (thanks to the efforts of a few administrative individuals who valued humanism above GDP), cities and towns have outdated and inadequate master plans that are unable to address the needs of city inhabitants in general (and of migrants in particular). These plans, where they exist, are technically prepared and bureaucratically envisioned with little involvement of citizens, and so the instruments of exclusion have been successfully transferred to the new frameworks that determine city-building in India. Democratisation and self-determination is permitted only in controlled conditions and with ‘deliverables’ and ‘outcomes’ attached—organic ward committees and residents groups that have not influenced the vision and text of a city master plan have even less scope today to do so inside the maze of technocratic and finance-heavy social re-engineering represented by the JNNURM, RAY, UIDSSMT, BSUP, IHSDP and NULM and all their efficiently bristling sub-components. The rights of inhabitants to a comfortable standard of life that does not disturb environmental limits, to adequate and affordable housing, to safe and reliable water and sanitation, to holistic education and healthcare, and most of all the right to alter their habitats and processes of administration according to their needs, all are circumscribed by outside agencies.

It is not too late to find remedies and corrections. “As long as the machinery is the same, if we are simply depending on the idealism of the men at the helm, we are running a grave risk. The Indian genius has ever been to create organisations which are impersonal and are self-acting. Mere socialisation of the functions will not solve our problem.” So J C Kumarappa had advised (the Kumarappa Papers, 1939-46) about 80 years ago, advice that is as sensible in the bastis of today as it was to the artisans and craftspeople of his era. For the managed socialisation of the urbanisation project to give way to organic groups working to build the beginnings of simpler ways in their communities will require recognition of these elements of independence now. It is the localisation of our towns and cities that can provide a base for reconstruction when existing and planned urban systems fail. Today some of these are finding ‘swadeshi’ within a consumer-capitalist society that sees them as EWS, LIG and migrants, and it is their stories that must guide urban India.


By Rahul Goswami

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