Essay On Life In Indias Slums

The definition of "slum" varies from country to country. In India, The Slum Areas Improvement and Clearance Act of 1956 defines 'slum areas' as places where buildings: are in any respect unfit for human habitation; and are by reason of dilapidation, overcrowding, faulty arrangement and design 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.

The Census of India defines a slum as "a compact area of at least 300 in population or about 60-70 households of poorly built, congested tenements in an unhygienic environment usually with inadequate infrastructure and lacking proper sanitary and drinking water facilities". The United Nations agency UN-HABITAT, defines slum as "a run-down area of a city characterized by substandard housing and squalor and lacking in tenure security".

Slums are an urban phenomenon and they represent an imbalance between migration into cities and economic growth within the city itself. They grow due to poor utilization of the reproductive child health services provided by the government, lack of awareness regarding birth spacing, very low use of contraceptives, illiteracy, and marriage at a young age. Another reason for growth of slums is migration from rural areas to more developed areas by people looking to earn more through higher-paying manual labor compared to the low-returns life of agriculture.

People living in slums face problems of housing, access to drinking water and sewage facilities. Residents live in overcrowded situations, a majority of them with dirt floors and poor ventilation which can lead to rapid spread of respiratory and skin disease. Also, the lack of safe drinking water facilitates the spread of water borne diseases. The presence of stored water further promotes the breeding of mosquitoes and diseases such as malaria. It is estimated that over one third of slum households have no access to bathroom and toilet facilities, promoting open defecation, which in turn leads to spread of faecal-oral disease and parasitic infestation.

According to the 2001 census, literacy in slums is only 65 per cent, though slums in Chennai are at 80 per cent, above the national average. Though education is provided free to slum children, the dropout rates remain high, and many students do not continue studying beyond their 8th standard. Even those children who become literate, lack suitable educational levels to pursue higher studies-the only way to break out of a vicious cycle of poverty.

While slums represent a huge economic failure, the problems that slums suffer from are beyond economic ones. For example, alcoholism is a disease endemic to slums and it leads to moral and economic degradation. Besides limiting the amount of people's income that can be spent for their family, alcoholism also leads to social diseases of domestic abuse as well as serious health problems. Thus, the very existence of slums raises questions of civic planning and governance in urban India.

When one considers the status and living standards of slums of India, sometimes it becomes difficult to consider them as human settlements. They are looked upon as cattle or any other lower form of life. Slum population in India, according to 2001 census, stood as high as 40,297,341 i.e. about 4 per cent of the total Indian population. About 22 per cent of the slums dwell in the cities.

Amongst the states, Maharashtra leads with a slum population of 10,644,605 persons, followed by Andhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. While Goa is at the bottom in the list, the city of Mumbai has about 49 per cent of its population living in slums. Slums cover only six per cent of Mumbai's land and its growth rate is greater than the general urban growth rate.

Even globally, the number of slum dwellers is rising due to increasing population. Around one billion people worldwide live in slums and the figure is likely to double by 2030. A common characteristic feature of slums across the world is the low socioeconomic status of its residents, most of whom employ them in the informal economy. This can include street vending, drug dealing, domestic work, and prostitution. In some slums people even recycle trash of different kinds from household garbage to electronics for a living. They either sell the odd usable goods or strip broken goods for parts or raw materials.

Often slums are informal settlements and hence they face the brunt of natural and man-made disasters, such as fires, landslides, as well as earthquakes and tropical storms. In many slums, especially in poor countries, people live in very narrow alleys that do not allow vehicles like ambulances and fire trucks to pass. The lack of services such as routine garbage collection allows rubbish to accumulate in huge quantities. The lack of infrastructure is caused by the informal nature of settlement and no planning for the poor by government officials.

It seems that the global community is falling short of the Millennium Development Goals which targeted significant improvements for slum dwellers. In India too, the number of people living in slums has more than doubled in the past two decades and now exceeds the entire population of Britain.

Many governments, especially in the Third World, have attempted to solve the problems of slums by clearing away old decrepit housing and replacing it with modern housing with much better sanitation. However, when a slum is cleared, often the former residents are not welcome in the renewed housing. Moreover, new projects are often on the semi-rural peripheries of cities far from opportunities for generating livelihoods as well as schools, clinics etc. Hence, at times inner city slum dwellers militantly oppose relocation to formal housing on the outskirts of cities.

In some countries, the situation has been addressed by rescuing rural property rights to support traditional sustainable agriculture. However this solution has met with open hostility from capitalists and corporations. It also tends to be relatively unpopular with the slum communities themselves, as it involves moving out of the city back into the countryside, a reverse of the rural-urban migration that originally brought many of them into the city.

It can be argued that slum clearances tend to ignore the social problems that cause slums and simply redistribute poverty to less valuable real estate. Moving of communities out of slum areas to newer housing may result in loss of social cohesion. If the original community is moved back into newer housing after it has been built in the same location, residents of the new housing may face the same problems of poverty and powerlessness. So, there is a growing movement to demand a global ban of 'slum clearance programmes' and other forms of mass evictions.


Dhaka, Bangladesh

São Paulo, Brazil

Cairo, Egypt

Nairobi, Kenya

State of Mexico, Mexico

Jakarta, Indonesia

Cape Town, South Africa

Mumbai, India

Caracas, Venezuela

A slum is a highly populated urban residential area consisting mostly of closely packed, decrepit housing units in a situation of deteriorated or incomplete infrastructure, inhabited primarily by impoverished persons.[1] While slums differ in size and other characteristics, most lack reliable sanitation services, supply of clean water, reliable electricity, law enforcement and other basic services. Slum residences vary from shanty houses to professionally built dwellings which, because of poor-quality construction or provision of basic maintenance, have deteriorated.[2]

Due to increasing urbanization of the general populace, slums became common in the 18th to late 20th centuries in the United States and Europe.[3][4] Slums are still predominantly found in urban regions of developing countries, but are also still found in developed economies.[5][6]

According to UN-Habitat, around 33% of the urban population in the developing world in 2012, or about 863 million people, lived in slums.[7] The proportion of urban population living in slums was highest in Sub-Saharan Africa (61.7%), followed by South Asia (35%), Southeast Asia (31%), East Asia (28.2%), West Asia (24.6%), Oceania (24.1%), Latin America and the Caribbean (23.5%), and North Africa (13.3%). Among individual countries, the proportion of urban residents living in slum areas in 2009 was highest in the Central African Republic (95.9%). Between 1990 and 2010 the percentage of people living in slums dropped, even as the total urban population increased.[7] The world's largest slum city is found in the Neza-Chalco-Ixtapaluca area, located in the State of Mexico.[8][9][10]

Slums form and grow in different parts of the world for many different reasons. Causes include rapid rural-to-urban migration, economic stagnation and depression, high unemployment, poverty, informal economy, forced or manipulated ghettoization, poor planning, politics, natural disasters and social conflicts.[1][11][12] Strategies tried to reduce and transform slums in different countries, with varying degrees of success, include a combination of slum removal, slum relocation, slum upgrading, urban planning with citywide infrastructure development, and public housing.[13][14]

Etymology and nomenclature[edit]

It is thought[15] that slum is a British slang word from the East End of London meaning "room", which evolved to "back slum" around 1845 meaning 'back alley, street of poor people.'

Numerous other non English terms are often used interchangeably with slum: shanty town, favela, rookery, gecekondu, skid row, barrio, ghetto, bidonville, taudis, bandas de miseria, barrio marginal, morro, loteamento, barraca, musseque, tugurio, solares, mudun safi, karyan, medina achouaia, brarek, ishash, galoos, tanake, baladi, trushebi, chalis, katras, zopadpattis, bustee, estero, looban, dagatan, umjondolo, watta, udukku, and chereka bete.[16]


Slums were common in the United States and Europe before the early 20th century. London's East End is generally considered the locale where the term originated in the 19th century, where massive and rapid urbanisation of the dockside and industrial areas led to intensive overcrowding in a warren of post-medieval streetscape. The suffering of the poor was described in popular fiction by moralist authors such as Charles Dickens – most famously Oliver Twist (1837-9) and echoed the 'Christian Socialist' values of the time, which soon found legal expression in the Public Health Act of 1848. As the slum clearance movement gathered pace, deprived areas such as Old Nichol were fictionalised to raise awareness in the middle classes in the form of moralist novels such as A Child of the Jago (1896) resulting in slum clearance and reconstruction programmes such as the exemplary Boundary Estate (1893-1900) and the creation of charitable trusts such as the Peabody Trust founded in 1862 and Joseph Rowntree Foundation (1904) which still operate to provide decent housing today.

Slums are often associated with Victorian Britain, particularly in industrial English towns, lowland Scottish towns and Dublin City in Ireland. Engels described these British neighborhoods as "cattle-sheds for human beings".[17] These were generally still inhabited until the 1940s, when the British government started slum clearance and built new council houses.[18] There are still examples left of slum housing in the UK, but many have been removed by government initiative, redesigned and replaced with better public housing. In Europe, slums were common.[19][20] By the 1920s it had become a common slang expression in England, meaning either various taverns and eating houses, "loose talk" or gypsy language, or a room with "low going-ons". In Life in LondonPierce Egan used the word in the context of the "back slums" of Holy Lane or St Giles. A footnote defined slum to mean "low, unfrequent parts of the town". Charles Dickens used the word slum in a similar way in 1840, writing "I mean to take a great, London, back-slum kind walk tonight". Slum began to be used to describe bad housing soon after and was used as alternative expression for rookeries.[21] In 1850 the Catholic Cardinal Wiseman described the area known as Devil's Acre in Westminster, London as follows:

"Close under the Abbey of Westminster there lie concealed labyrinths of lanes and potty and alleys and slums, nests of ignorance, vice, depravity, and crime, as well as of squalor, wretchedness, and disease; whose atmosphere is typhus, whose ventilation is cholera; in which swarms of huge and almost countless population, nominally at least, Catholic; haunts of filth, which no sewage committee can reach – dark corners, which no lighting board can brighten."[22]

This passage was widely quoted in the national press,[23] leading to the popularisation of the word slum to describe bad housing.[21][24]

In France as in most industrialised European capitals, slums were widespread in Paris and other urban areas in the 19th century, many of which continued through first half of the 20th century. The first cholera epidemic of 1832 triggered a political debate, and Louis René Villermé study[27] of various arrondissements of Paris demonstrated the differences and connection between slums, poverty and poor health.[28]Melun Law first passed in 1849 and revised in 1851, followed by establishment of Paris Commission on Unhealthful Dwellings in 1852 began the social process of identifying the worst housing inside slums, but did not remove or replace slums. After World War II, French people started mass migration from rural to urban areas of France. This demographic and economic trend rapidly raised rents of existing housing as well as expanded slums. French government passed laws to block increase in the rent of housing, which inadvertently made many housing projects unprofitable and increased slums. In 1950, France launched its Habitation à Loyer Modéré[29][30] initiative to finance and build public housing and remove slums, managed by techniciens – urban technocrats.,[31] and financed by Livret A[32] – a tax free savings account for French public.

New York City is believed to have created America's first slum, named the Five Points in 1825, as it evolved into a large urban settlement.[4][33] Five Points was named for a lake named Collect.[33][34] which, by the late 1700s, was surrounded by slaughterhouses and tanneries which emptied their waste directly into its waters. Trash piled up as well and by the early 1800s the lake was filled up and dry. On this foundation was built Five Points, the United States' first slum. Five Points was occupied by successive waves of freed slaves, Irish, then Italian, then Chinese, immigrants. It housed the poor, rural people leaving farms for opportunity, and the persecuted people from Europe pouring into New York City. Bars, bordellos, squalid and lightless tenements lined its streets. Violence and crime were commonplace. Politicians and social elite discussed it with derision. Slums like Five Points triggered discussions of affordable housing and slum removal. As of the start of the 21st century, Five Points slum had been transformed into the Little Italy and Chinatown neighborhoods of New York City, through that city's campaign of massive urban renewal.[3][33]

Five Points was not the only slum in America.[35][36]Jacob Riis, Walker Evans, Lewis Hine and others photographed many before World War II. Slums were found in every major urban region of the United States throughout most of the 20th century, long after the Great Depression. Most of these slums had been ignored by the cities and states which encompassed them until the 1960s' War on Poverty was undertaken by the Federal government of the United States.

A type of slum housing, sometimes called poorhouses, crowded the Boston Commons, later at the fringes of the city.[37]

Rio de Janeiro documented its first slum in 1920 census. By the 1960s, over 33% of population of Rio lived in slums, 45% of Mexico City and Ankara, 65% of Algiers, 35% of Caracas, 25% of Lima and Santiago, 15% of Singapore. By 1980, in various cities and towns of Latin America alone, there were about 25,000 slums.[42]

Causes that create and expand slums[edit]

Slums sprout and continue for a combination of demographic, social, economic, and political reasons. Common causes include rapid rural-to-urban migration, poor planning, economic stagnation and depression, poverty, high unemployment, informal economy, colonialism and segregation, politics, natural disasters and social conflicts.

Rural–urban migration[edit]

Rural–urban migration is one of the causes attributed to the formation and expansion of slums.[1] Since 1950, world population has increased at a far greater rate than the total amount of arable land, even as agriculture contributes a much smaller percentage of the total economy. For example, in India, agriculture accounted for 52% of its GDP in 1954 and only 19% in 2004;[46] in Brazil, the 2005 GDP contribution of agriculture is one-fifth of its contribution in 1951.[47] Agriculture, meanwhile, has also become higher yielding, less disease prone, less physically harsh and more efficient with tractors and other equipment. The proportion of people working in agriculture has declined by 30% over the last 50 years, while global population has increased by 250%.[1]

Many people move to urban areas primarily because cities promise more jobs, better schools for poor's children, and diverse income opportunities than subsistence farming in rural areas.[48] For example, in 1995, 95.8% of migrants to Surabaya, Indonesia reported that jobs were their primary motivation for moving to the city.[49] However, some rural migrants may not find jobs immediately because of their lack of skills and the increasingly competitive job markets, which leads to their financial shortage.[50] Many cities, on the other hand, do not provide enough low-cost housing for a large number of rural-urban migrant workers. Some rural–urban migrant workers cannot afford housing in cities and eventually settle down in only affordable slums.[51] Further, rural migrants, mainly lured by higher incomes, continue to flood into cities. They thus expand the existing urban slums.[50]

According to Ali and Toran, social networks might also explain rural–urban migration and people's ultimate settlement in slums. In addition to migration for jobs, a portion of people migrate to cities because of their connection with relatives or families. Once their family support in urban areas is in slums, those rural migrants intend to live with them in slums[52]


The formation of slums is closely linked to urbanization.[53] In 2008, more than 50% of the world's population lived in urban areas. In China, for example, it is estimated that the population living in urban areas will increase by 10% within a decade according to its current rates of urbanization.[54] The UN-Habitat reports that 43% of urban population in developing countries and 78% of those in the least developed countries are slum dwellers.[6]

Some scholars suggest that urbanization creates slums because local governments are unable to manage urbanization, and migrant workers without an affordable place to live in, dwell in slums.[55] Rapid urbanization drives economic growth and causes people to seek working and investment opportunities in urban areas.[56][57] However, as evidenced by poor urban infrastructure and insufficient housing, the local governments sometimes are unable to manage this transition.[58][59] This incapacity can be attributed to insufficient funds and inexperience to handle and organize problems brought by migration and urbanization.[57] In some cases, local governments ignore the flux of immigrants during the process of urbanization.[56] Such examples can be found in many African countries. In the early 1950s, many African governments believed that slums would finally disappear with economic growth in urban areas. They neglected rapidly spreading slums due to increased rural-urban migration caused by urbanization.[60] Some governments, moreover, mapped the land where slums occupied as undeveloped land.[61]

Another type of urbanization does not involve economic growth but economic stagnation or low growth, mainly contributing to slum growth in Sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia. This type of urbanization involves a high rate of unemployment, insufficient financial resources and inconsistent urban planning policy.[62] In these areas, an increase of 1% in urban population will result in an increase of 1.84% in slum prevalence.[63]

Urbanization might also force some people to live in slums when it influences land use by transforming agricultural land into urban areas and increases land value. During the process of urbanization, some agricultural land is used for additional urban activities. More investment will come into these areas, which increases the land value.[64] Before some land is completely urbanized, there is a period when the land can be used for neither urban activities nor agriculture. The income from the land will decline, which decreases the people's incomes in that area. The gap between people's low income and the high land price forces some people to look for and construct cheap informal settlements, which are known as slums in urban areas.[59] The transformation of agricultural land also provides surplus labor, as peasants have to seek jobs in urban areas as rural-urban migrant workers.[55]

Many slums are part of economies of agglomeration in which there is an emergence of economies of scale at the firm level, transport costs and the mobility of the industrial labour force.[65] The increase in returns of scale will mean that the production of each good will take place in a single location.[65] And even though an agglomerated economy benefits these cities by bringing in specialization and multiple competing suppliers, the conditions of slums continue to lag behind in terms of quality and adequate housing. Alonso-Villar argues that the existence of transport costs implies that the best locations for a firm will be those with easy access to markets, and the best locations for workers, those with easy access to goods. The concentration is the result of a self-reinforcing process of agglomeration.[65] Concentration is a common trend of the distribution of population. Urban growth is dramatically intense in the less developed countries, where a large number of huge cities have started to appear; which means high poverty rates, crime, pollution and congestion.[65]

Poor house planning[edit]

Lack of affordable low cost housing and poor planning encourages the supply side of slums.[66] The Millennium Development Goals proposes that member nations should make a "significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers" by 2020.[67] If member nations succeed in achieving this goal, 90% of the world total slum dwellers may remain in the poorly housed settlements by 2020.[68] Choguill claims that the large number of slum dwellers indicates a deficiency of practical housing policy.[68] Whenever there is a significant gap in growing demand for housing and insufficient supply of affordable housing, this gap is typically met in part by slums.[66] The Economist summarizes this as, "good housing is obviously better than a slum, but a slum is better than none".[69]

Insufficient financial resources [70] and lack of coordination in government bureaucracy [63] are two main causes of poor house planning. Financial deficiency in some governments may explain the lack of affordable public housing for the poor since any improvement of the tenant in slums and expansion of public housing programs involve a great increase in the government expenditure.[70] The problem can also lie on the failure in coordination among different departments in charge of economic development, urban planning, and land allocation. In some cities, governments assume that the housing market will adjust the supply of housing with a change in demand. However, with little economic incentive, the housing market is more likely to develop middle-income housing rather than low-cost housing. The urban poor gradually become marginalized in the housing market where few houses are built to sell to them.[63][71]

Colonialism and segregation[edit]

Some of the slums in today's world are a product of urbanization brought by colonialism. For instance, the Europeans arrived in Kenya in the nineteenth century and created urban centers such as Nairobi mainly to serve their financial interests. They regarded the Africans as temporary migrants and needed them only for supply of labor. The housing policy aiming to accommodate these workers was not well enforced and the government built settlements in the form of single-occupancy bedspaces. Due to the cost of time and money in their movement back and forth between rural and urban areas, their families gradually migrated to the urban centre. As they could not afford to buy houses, slums were thus formed.[75]

Others were created because of segregation imposed by the colonialists. For example, Dharavi slum of Mumbai – now one of the largest slums in India, used to be a village referred to as Koliwadas, and Mumbai used to be referred as Bombay. In 1887, the British colonial government expelled all tanneries, other noxious industry and poor natives who worked in the peninsular part of the city and colonial housing area, to what was back then the northern fringe of the city – a settlement now called Dharavi. This settlement attracted no colonial supervision or investment in terms of road infrastructure, sanitation, public services or housing. The poor moved into Dharavi, found work as servants in colonial offices and homes and in the foreign owned tanneries and other polluting industries near Dharavi. To live, the poor built shanty towns within easy commute to work. By 1947, the year India became an independent nation of the commonwealth, Dharavi had blossomed into Bombay's largest slum. [72]

Similarly, some of the slums of Lagos, Nigeria sprouted because of neglect and policies of the colonial era.[76] During apartheid era of South Africa, under the pretext of sanitation and plague epidemic prevention, racial and ethnic group segregation was pursued, people of color were moved to the fringes of the city, policies that created Soweto and other slums – officially called townships.[77] Large slums started at the fringes of segregation-conscious colonial city centers of Latin America.[78] Marcuse suggests ghettoes in the United States, and elsewhere, have been created and maintained by the segregationist policies of the state and regionally dominant group.[79][80]

Poor infrastructure, social exclusion and economic stagnation[edit]

Social exclusion and poor infrastructure forces the poor to adapt to conditions beyond his or her control. Poor families that cannot afford transportation, or those who simply lack any form of affordable public transportation, generally end up in squat settlements within walking distance or close enough to the place of their formal or informal employment.[66] Ben Arimah cites this social exclusion and poor infrastructure as a cause for numerous slums in African cities.[63] Poor quality, unpaved streets encourage slums; a 1% increase in paved all-season roads, claims Arimah, reduces slum incidence rate by about 0.35%. Affordable public transport and economic infrastructure empowers poor people to move and consider housing options other than their current slums.[82][83]

A growing economy that creates jobs at rate faster than population growth, offers people opportunities and incentive to relocate from poor slum to more developed neighborhoods. Economic stagnation, in contrast, creates uncertainties and risks for the poor, encouraging people to stay in the slums. Economic stagnation in a nation with a growing population reduces per capita disposal income in urban and rural areas, increasing urban and rural poverty. Rising rural poverty also encourages migration to urban areas. A poorly performing economy, in other words, increases poverty and rural-to-urban migration, thereby increasing slums.[84][85]

Informal economy[edit]

Many slums grow because of growing informal economy which creates demand for workers. Informal economy is that part of an economy that is neither registered as a business nor licensed, one that does not pay taxes and is not monitored by local or state or federal government.[86] Informal economy grows faster than formal economy when government laws and regulations are opaque and excessive, government bureaucracy is corrupt and abusive of entrepreneurs, labor laws are inflexible, or when law enforcement is poor.[87] Urban informal sector is between 20 and 60% of most developing economies' GDP; in Kenya, 78 per cent of non-agricultural employment is in the informal sector making up 42 per cent of GDP.[1] In many cities the informal sector accounts for as much as 60 per cent of employment of the urban population. For example, in Benin, slum dwellers comprise 75 per cent of informal sector workers, while in Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic, Chad and Ethiopia, they make up 90 per cent of the informal labour force.[88] Slums thus create an informal alternate economic ecosystem, that demands low paid flexible workers, something impoverished residents of slums deliver. In other words, countries where starting, registering and running a formal business is difficult, tend to encourage informal businesses and slums.[89][90][91] Without a sustainable formal economy that raise incomes and create opportunities, squalid slums are likely to continue.[92]

The World Bank and UN Habitat estimate, assuming no major economic reforms are undertaken, more than 80% of additional jobs in urban areas of developing world may be low-paying jobs in the informal sector. Everything else remaining same, this explosive growth in the informal sector is likely to be accompanied by a rapid growth of slums.[1]


Urban poverty encourages the formation and demand for slums.[2] With rapid shift from rural to urban life, poverty migrates to urban areas. The urban poor arrives with hope, and very little of anything else. He or she typically has no access to shelter, basic urban services and social amenities. Slums are often the only option for the urban poor.[93]


Many local and national governments have, for political interests, subverted efforts to remove, reduce or upgrade slums into better housing options for the poor.[12] Throughout the second half of the 19th century, for example, French political parties relied on votes from slum population and had vested interests in maintaining that voting block. Removal and replacement of slum created a conflict of interest, and politics prevented efforts to remove, relocate or upgrade the slums into housing projects that are better than the slums. Similar dynamics are cited in favelas of Brazil,[94] slums of India,[95][96] and shanty towns of Kenya.[97]

Scholars[12][98] claim politics also drives rural-urban migration and subsequent settlement patterns. Pre-existing patronage networks, sometimes in the form of gangs and other times in the form of political parties or social activists, inside slums seek to maintain their economic, social and political power. These social and political groups have vested interests to encourage migration by ethnic groups that will help maintain the slums, and reject alternate housing options even if the alternate options are better in every aspect than the slums they seek to replace.[96][99]

Social conflicts[edit]

Millions of Lebanese people formed slums during the civil war from 1975 to 1990.[100][101] Similarly, in recent years, numerous slums have sprung around Kabul to accommodate rural Afghans escaping Taliban violence.[102]

Natural disasters[edit]

Major natural disasters in poor nations often lead to migration of disaster-affected families from areas crippled by the disaster to unaffected areas, the creation of temporary tent city and slums, or expansion of existing slums.[103] These slums tend to become permanent because the residents do not want to leave, as in the case of slums near Port-au-Prince after the 2010 Haiti earthquake,[104][105] and slums near Dhaka after 2007 Bangladesh Cyclone Sidr.[106]

Characteristics of slums[edit]

Location and growth[edit]

Slums typically begin at the outskirts of a city. Over time, the city may expand past the original slums, enclosing the slums inside the urban perimeter. New slums sprout at the new boundaries of the expanding city, usually on publicly owned lands, thereby creating an urban sprawl mix of formal settlements, industry, retail zones and slums. This makes the original slums valuable property, densely populated with many conveniences attractive to the poor.[107]

At their start, slums are typically located in least desirable lands near the town or city, that are state owned or philanthropic trust owned or religious entity owned or have no clear land title. In cities located over a mountainous terrain, slums begin on difficult to reach slopes or start at the bottom of flood prone valleys, often hidden from plain view of city center but close to some natural water source.[107] In cities located near lagoons, marshlands and rivers, they start at banks or on stilts above water or the dry river bed; in flat terrain, slums begin on lands unsuitable for agriculture, near city trash dumps, next to railway tracks,[108] and other shunned undesirable locations.

These strategies shield slums from the risk of being noticed and removed when they are small and most vulnerable to local government officials. Initial homes tend to be tents and shacks that are quick to install, but as slum grows, becomes established and newcomers pay the informal association or gang for the right to live in the slum, the construction materials for the slums switches to more lasting materials such as bricks and concrete, suitable for slum's topography.[109][110]

The original slums, over time, get established next to centers of economic activity, schools, hospitals, sources of employment, which the poor rely on. Established old slums, surrounded by the formal city infrastructure, cannot expand horizontally; therefore, they grow vertically by stacking additional rooms, sometimes for a growing family and sometimes as a source of rent from new arrivals in slums.[111] Some slums name themselves after founders of political parties, locally respected historical figures, current politicians or politician's spouse to garner political backing against eviction.[112]

Insecure tenure[edit]

Informality of land tenure is a key characteristic of urban slums.[1] At their start, slums are typically located in least desirable lands near the town or city, that are state owned or philanthropic trust owned or religious entity owned or have no clear land title.[107] Some immigrants regard unoccupied land as land without owners and therefore occupy it.[113] In some cases the local community or the government allots lands to people, which will later develop into slums and over which the dwellers don't have property rights.[57] Informal land tenure also includes occupation of land belonging to someone else.[114] According to Flood, 51 percent of slums are based on invasion to private land in sub-Saharan Africa, 39 percent in North Africa and West Asia, 10 percent in South Asia, 40 percent in East Asia, and 40 percent in Latin America and the Caribbean.[115] In some cases, once the slum has many residents, the early residents form a social group, an informal association or a gang that controls newcomers, charges a fee for the right to live in the slums, and dictates where and how new homes get built within the slum. The newcomers, having paid for the right, feel they have commercial right to the home in that slum.[107][116] The slum dwellings, built earlier or in later period as the slum grows, are constructed without checking land ownership rights or building codes, are not registered with the city, and often not recognized by the city or state governments.[117][118]

Secure land tenure is important for slum dwellers as an authentic recognition of their residential status in urban areas. It also encourages them to upgrade their housing facilities, which will give them protection against natural and unnatural hazards.[57] Undocumented ownership with no legal title to the land also prevents slum settlers from applying for mortgage, which might worsen their financial situations. In addition, without registration of the land ownership, the government has difficulty in upgrading basic facilities and improving the living environment.[113] Insecure tenure of the slum, as well as lack of socially and politically acceptable alternatives to slums, also creates difficulty in citywide infrastructure development such as rapid mass transit, electrical line and sewer pipe layout, highways and roads.[119]

Substandard housing and overcrowding[edit]

Slum areas are characterized by substandard housing structures.[120][121] Shanty homes are often built hurriedly, on ad hoc basis, with materials unsuitable for housing. Often the construction quality is inadequate to withstand heavy rains, high winds, or other local climate and location. Paper, plastic, earthen floors, mud-and-wattle walls, wood held together by ropes, straw or torn metal pieces as roofs are some of the materials of construction. In some cases, brick and cement is used, but without attention to proper design and structural engineering requirements.[122] Various space, dwelling placement bylaws and local building codes may also be extensively violated.[2][123]

Overcrowding is another characteristic of slums. Many dwellings are single room units, with high occupancy rates. Each dwelling may be cohabited by multiple families. Five and more persons may share a one-room unit; the room is used for cooking, sleeping and living. Overcrowding is also seen near sources of drinking water, cleaning, and sanitation where one toilet may serve dozens of families.[124][125][126] In a slum of Kolkata, India, over 10 people sometimes share a 45 m2 room.[127] In Kibera slum of Nairobi, Kenya, population density is estimated at 2,000 people per hectare — or about 500,000 people in one square mile.[128]

Inadequate or no infrastructure[edit]

One of the identifying characteristics of slums is the lack of or inadequate public infrastructure.[129][130] From safe drinking water to electricity, from basic health care to police services, from affordable public transport to fire/ambulance services, from sanitation sewer to paved roads, new slums usually lack all of these. Established, old slums sometimes garner official support and get some of these infrastructure such as paved roads and unreliable electricity or water supply.[131]

Slums often have very narrow alleys that do not allow vehicles (including emergency vehicles) to pass. The lack of services such as routine garbage collection allows rubbish to accumulate in huge quantities. The lack of infrastructure is caused by the informal nature of settlement and no planning for the poor by government officials. Fires are often a serious problem.[132]

In many countries, local and national government often refuse to recognize slums, because the slum are on disputed land, or because of the fear that quick official recognition will encourage more slum formation and seizure of land illegally. Recognizing and notifying slums often triggers a creation of property rights, and requires that the government provide public services and infrastructure to the slum residents.[133][134] With poverty and informal economy, slums do not generate tax revenues for the government and therefore tend to get minimal or slow attention. In other cases, the narrow and haphazard layout of slum streets, houses and substandard shacks, along with persistent threat of crime and violence against infrastructure workers, makes it difficult to layout reliable, safe, cost effective and efficient infrastructure. In yet others, the demand far exceeds the government bureaucracy's ability to deliver.[135][136]

Low socioeconomic status of its residents is another common characteristic attributed to slum residents.[137]


Vulnerability to natural and unnatural hazards[edit]

Slums are often placed amongs the places vulnerable to natural disasters such as landslides[138] and floods.[139][140] In cities located over a mountainous terrain, slums begin on slopes difficult to reach or start at the bottom of flood prone valleys, often hidden from plain view of city center but close to some natural water source.[107] In cities located near lagoons, marshlands and rivers, they start at banks or on stilts above water or the dry river bed; in flat terrain, slums begin on lands unsuitable for agriculture, near city trash dumps, next to railway tracks,[108] and other shunned, undesirable locations. These strategies shield slums from the risk of being noticed and removed when they are small and most vulnerable to local government officials.[107] However, the ad hoc construction, lack of quality control on building materials used, poor maintenance, and uncoordinated spatial design make them prone to extensive damage during earthquakes as well from decay.[141][142]

Some slums risk man-made hazards such as toxic industries, traffic congestion and collapsing infrastructure.[53]Fires are another major risk to slums and its inhabitants,[144][145] with streets too narrow to allow proper and quick access to fire control trucks.[143][146]

Unemployment and informal economy[edit]

Due to lack of skills and education as well as competitive job markets,[147] many slum dwellers face high rates of unemployment.[148] The limit of job opportunities causes many of them to employ themselves in the informal economy, inside the slum or in developed urban areas near the slum. This can sometimes be licit informal economy or illicit informal economy without working contract or any social security. Some of them are seeking jobs at the same time and some of those will eventually find jobs in formal economies after gaining some professional skills in informal sectors.[147]

Examples of licit informal economy include street vending, household enterprises, product assembly and packaging, making garlands and embroideries, domestic work, shoe polishing or repair, driving tuk-tuk or manual rickshaws, construction workers or manually driven logistics, and handicrafts production.[149][150]

One of the many New York City slum photographs of Jacob Riis (ca 1890). Squalor can be seen in the streets, wash clothes hanging between buildings.
Inside of a slum house, from Jacob Riis photo collection of New York City (ca 1890).
Part of Charles Booth's poverty map showing the Old Nichol, a slum in the East End of London. Published 1889 in Life and Labour of the People in London. The red areas are "middle class, well-to-do", light blue areas are "poor, 18s to 21s a week for a moderate family", dark blue areas are "very poor, casual, chronic want", and black areas are the "lowest class...occasional labourers, street sellers, loafers, criminals and semi-criminals".
A 1913 slum dwelling midst squalor in Ivry-sur-Seine, a French commune about 5 kilometers from center of Paris. Slums were scattered around Paris through the 1950s.[38][39] After Loi Vivien was passed in July 1970, France demolished some of its last major bidonvilles (slums) and resettled resident Algerian, Portuguese and other migrant workers by the mid-1970s.[40][41]
A slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Rocinha favela is next to skyscrapers and wealthier parts of the city, a location that provides jobs and easy commute to those who live in the slums.
An integrated slum dwelling and informal economy inside Dharavi of Mumbai. Dharavi slum started in 1887 with industrial and segregationist policies of the British colonial era. The slum housing, tanneries, pottery and other economy established inside and around Dharavi during the British rule of India.[72][73][74]
Makoko – One of the oldest slums in Nigeria, was originally a fishing village settlement, built on stilts on a lagoon. It developed into a slum and became home to about a hundred thousand people in Lagos. In 2012, it was destroyed by the city government, amidst controversy, to accommodate infrastructure for the city's growing population.[81]
A slum near Ramos Arizpe in Mexico.
A woman from a slum is taking a bath in a river.
The location of 30 largest "contiguous" mega-slums in the world. Numerous other regions have slums, but those slums are scattered. The numbers show population in millions per mega-slum, the initials are derived from city name. Some of the largest slums of the world are in areas of political or social conflicts.
Slum with tiled roofs and railway, Jakarta railway slum resettlement 1975, Indonesia.
Slums in the city of Chau Doc, Vietnam over river Hậu (Mekong branch). These slums are on stilts to withstand routine floods which last 3 to 4 months every year.
A slum in Haiti damaged by 2010 earthquake. Slums are vulnerable to extensive damage and human fatalities from landslides, floods, earthquakes, fire, high winds and other severe weather.[143]

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