The government, it appears, has persistent difficulties in getting the enumeration of the urban poor right. Despite many surveys and countless reviews, departments involved in gathering data on urban slums do not yet have reliable estimates. The latest counting conundrum has emerged from a survey conducted by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO). Based on a survey of 881 slums, the NSSO has estimated that about 8.8 million households are in slums. This count differs vastly from Census 2011 figures, which estimates that 13.9 million households are in slums. In terms of number of people, this difference amounts to about 24 million. Census figures themselves tend to be underestimations since only 2,613 of the 4,041 statutory towns reported the presence of slums. To add to the confusion, three years ago, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation (MHUPA), after reviewing various estimates, had concluded that the population living in slums would reach about 93 million (19.8 million households) by 2011. Which among the three is an accurate estimation? Strangely, the NSSO survey remains silent about these differences. All it does is to admit that the method used in its previous surveys on slums had been incorrect, and that it had revised the approach this time.

The vast difference between the various estimates raises serious doubts about the soundness of policies that are formulated based on them since enumeration is a critical step for devising slum improvement schemes, fixing priorities and allocating funds. Underestimation poses the real danger of excluding a large number of the urban poor from welfare projects. For instance, when Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission funds were allocated, States such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh received less for slum improvement because of incorrect estimation. Each department adopts different definitions of slums and often goes ahead with projecting the final count despite inadequate data. To correct this, the committee on slum statistics constituted by the MHUPA in 2008 suggested that all government agencies should adopt common parameters. It also discussed the need to use innovative mapping tools to correlate data with ground conditions. It looks like the departments have not adopted these suggestions. The NSSO survey, even in its present form, does not portray much improvement in slum conditions. It shows that only 24 per cent of the total number of slums had benefited from improvement schemes, and one third of slums do not have access to toilet and drainage facilities. It is imperative that the government reviews the methods of gathering data on slums without further delay and significantly retool its development schemes.

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