Recently released census figures on urban slums reveal two distressing facts. First, that Indian cities are amongst the most unequal and least inclusive in the world. Second, the enumeration of the urban poor and their places of habitation are grossly incomplete and thus inaccurate. Data from 2,613 of the 4,041 statutory towns show that the population living in slums has increased by 25 per cent in the last decade, reaching 65.4 million in 2011. The figures would have been much higher — and the disparity would have appeared even wider — had the enumeration been diligent and complete. Other estimates place the population living in slums at over 90 million. It would be incorrect to attribute migration as the principal reason for the increase in slums. As the expert group on urban poverty and slums for the formulation of the Twelfth Five-Year Plan has clearly stated, their proliferation is a result of the failure of housing policies. For instance, the interest subsidy scheme, which is meant to provide financial assistance to lower income groups to secure housing and enable construction of three lakh units, has so far reached only 13,485 beneficiaries. Similarly, many State governments have failed to implement the National Urban Housing and Habitat Policy’s recommendation to allocate 15 per cent of land in residential projects for housing the poor.
The census also discloses another disquieting fact. Though there are more than 13.7 million households living in abysmal conditions, States have formally notified only about a third of them as slums. This leaves a large number of others in a more vulnerable condition: health and sanitation facilities hardly reach non-notified slums, and they are prone to forced eviction. In situ rehabilitation of existing slums without any discrimination is imperative. Following the failure of many earlier schemes, the government launched a new one entitled Rajiv Awas Yojana (RAY) in 2011. RAY has promised slum free cities in future, and commits to rehabilitate existing slum dwellers in the same place where they are living, provide secure tenure and improve access to services and sanitation. The State governments should implement this ambitious scheme across cities without delay and dilution. The key challenge is to provide serviced land for social housing. Realising this, the National Advisory Council, in its suggestion to improve RAY, has recommended that cities should earmark about 25 to 40 per cent of land in their development plans for social housing. Without this important measure, it would be difficult to prevent the formation of new slums. Sustainable and equitable urban development is possible only when our cities adequately address the issue of housing the poor.