By 2030, 40 per cent of India’s population will be living in urban areas according to projections. The gargantuan gap between the inexorable rise of the country’s urban population, on the one hand, and policy making on urban entitlements, investments, infrastructure, and administrative norms, on the other, is therefore extremely discomfiting. This is not for lack of scholarly interest in the subject. Many academics and researchers, both within the country and outside it, have studied or been studying the phenomenon, some of them choosing specific cities as their vantage point.
The volume under review belongs to this category-it has Delhi as its sole focus. Although it first came out almost eight years ago and its author, Arup Mitra, a Professor of Economics at the Institute of Economic Growth, has since done a great deal more work on the subject, this work remains an important attempt to understand the process of how the Other Half lives, works and contributes to the growth of a city that also happens to be the country’s capital.
In fact it is the unique status of Delhi that invests the book with significance, because many of the country’s attempts at evolving a policy matrix for urban India found its first expression in this city. From the early attempts to integrate people from low income groups into the city’s development to draconian ones like the ‘Slum Areas (Improvement and Clearance) Act 1956, Delhi has been the site of several interventions. The binary ‘clearance/improvement’ is a rich trope that ran through its modern history, where ‘clearance’ invariably amounted to demolishing the dwellings of the non-privileged in order to bring ‘improvement’ to the lives of the privileged-Turkman Gate, Yamuna Pushta, or the recent demolitions that preceded the Commonwealth Games, et al. The strength of Mitra’s 2003 work lies precisely in providing those who go by the collective term ‘slum-dwellers’, a local habitation and a face.
Mitra’s analysis is marked by empathy. Based on a micro survey conducted in 802 households in 30 slum clusters of Delhi in 1999-2000, the book situates the phenomenon of squatter settlements firmly on the terrain of uneven industrialization. In fact Mitra sees the slum as a coping strategy of those who have fought to escape the poverty inherent in their very location and iterates that the city benefits from their labour. He believes there is a great deal to be learnt from the ‘informal mecha-nisms of networking’ within a slum.
In the course of this slim volume of nine chapters, Mitra provides a framework to understand the growth of these slums and their living standards, analyses government policies and the inter-household transfer of funds, and examines the nature of urban labour markets as well as the
“One important reason why Mitra contests the demolition approach is the fact that these migrations should not in any way be considered as short-term measures since the migration itself could stretch on for decades”
human mobility within them. He also looks at women in the urban informal sector and how this contrasts with male involvement.
There are several insights to be had within the covers of this book. For instance, Mitra dwells on the ‘two-stage mobility’ of the urban migrant: the first occurs when the poor, and even non-poor, are pushed out of the agricultural sector; the second when they seek entry into urban markets by deploying their contacts, resources, and job experience. Personal contacts based on caste, kinship and village bonds, and driven by factors such as caste, gender and education, are crucial in this process of securing a toe-hold in the city. Mitra teases out some significant details. According to him literates have a lower probability of getting regular wage employment than the non-literate, probably because lower-end jobs are unattractive to those with higher literacy levels. Initially at least the type of jobs a migrant may do is determined by the employment possibilities within the geographic area of the slum itself.
One important reason why Mitra contests the demolition approach is the fact that these migrations should not in any way be considered as short-term measures since the migration itself could stretch on for decades. This suggests that such movement is a ‘natural response to economic opportunities’ and cannot be summarily dealt with, unless such measures are accompanied by more holistic and equal growth that presents economic opportunities in both the places of origin and destination.
One has to keep the fact that the survey is over a decade old, and some of Mitra’s propositions need to be tested against new data. For instance, the conspicuous lack of mobility of female labour that this study underlines may be changing, even if the pace of that change may be slow. According to Mitra, ‘occupational choice, particularly that of women, is largely determined by the narrow choice or range of jobs available within the geographic area where they reside rather than what they are actually capable of pursuing’. It would be interesting to see if this has changed given that public transport within the National Capital Region has improved and the determination of women to pursue better jobs has become more manifest. Recently, I had the opportunity to interview a group of women working as cab drivers for a Delhi-based taxi agency. Without exception, they all lived in shanty towns and had to make long commutes to, first, access their driver’s training courses and later reach their workplace. But despite such examples, there can still of course be no disputing Mitra’s general point that women continue to find themselves on the lower rungs of the urban informal sector.
This book does not pretend to be more than an ‘exegesis’, an interpretation of a research survey. You would look in vain for a writerly digression within it, or an attempt to read Delhi against its rich historical backdrop. Its value lies in its diligent attempt to explain why the slums and squatter settlements that dot the capital are the inevitable consequence of a certain kind of urbanization, an urbanization born out of unequal economic development and poor policy making.