Anybody for poor?

Are our cities well equipped to welcome the avalanche of new people? Are our economists and sociologists, besides planners ready with any plan, especially for the new lot of urban poor?

That the world is fast urbanising and an unprecedented number of people are migrating to cities from rural areas is now a fact all policy planners, demographers, sociologists and urban designers must keep in mind all the time. More than 50 per cent of the world’s population is already living in cities and large towns and this is likely to grow to 66% by 2050 (UN DESA, 2014). Meaning, in effect, the rural population would be much less than 35% in another three decades time.

A few years ago, the then planning commission released its own figures and the definition of the urban poor and the rural poor when  Montek Singh Ahluwalia was the head of the planning commission and the well-known economic face of the Dr Manmohan Singh led UPA government. But the definition soon kicked up a row as it said that anyone spending Rs 33 or more per day in urban areas was not poor while for the one living in villages, the corresponding figure was Rs 27.

Later the Rangarajan Committee report revised the poverty line and redefined the thresholds as Rs 47 per day for urban and Rs 32 per day for rural. The Rangarajan committee was tasked to deal with redefining the poverty line following the public outrage created by the earlier planning commission figures. According to the Rangarajan panel findings, there are 102.05 million poor people living in urban India.

The question is how we are going to deal with urban poor. While every elected government untiringly talks of poor–urban or rural–in effect we see that in India after close to 70 years of its independence, there seems no robust plan or thinking in the government for the poor living in cities.

India had million-plus cities numbering 35 in 2001 which would be 75 by 2021 and large cities or towns with over a lakh of population would be more than 500. Such a scenario makes us worried wondering whether there is any thinking that goes into the health care, sanitation, nutrition, safety and other issues related to the urban poor’s family support. In other words there looms large a question of inclusiveness in urban governance.

Unfortunately, in addition to the existing poor living in cities be it Delhi or Mumbai, Lucknow or Hyderabad, Bhubaneswar or Bhopal, every day new migrants are entering and first settling in the peri-urban areas and then slowly moving into cities in search of better opportunities or to solve their basic bread and butter issues.


The tottering urban infrastructure of ever-swelling cities is actually not ready to welcome new poor into their laps but there seems no option.

A decade or so ago, suddenly the fashion came in vogue of trying to make ‘slum-free cities’. Some policy measures and concrete steps were taken but that did not rid any Indian city of slums completely. Today the danger that is staring in the eyes of all is that of the system’s apparent failure to provide for a model which is all inclusive.

In the absence of government services, facilities for public health, job and shelter, most of the Indian cities are turning into hell. The municipal corporations or state government’s urban affairs department clearly fall short of any imaginative planning for the urban poor.

Only a few days ago when I visited Ghaziabad, very close to Delhi (and under NCR), I could not believe my eyes when I saw the all round dirt, pollution, filth and odour. The over populated urban pocket is just not livable, not to speak of anything close to smart city planning the government is incessantly talking about. There was this huge land fill area with a fish, mutton market. It was impossible to stand there for even five minutes, such unhealthy atmosphere I witnessed all around. And many poor people came running to me when I was doing a shoot for an environment show, complaining about the odour and unhygienic conditions they were forced to live in.

If this could be near Delhi, though in Uttar Pradesh, we can imagine what could be the condition of people living in abject poverty elsewhere in smaller cities. State of the District hospitals, insufficient (safe)drinking water sources, horrible housing conditions coupled with total lack of sanitation, not to speak of education facilities is the real fact sheet of urban India, barring may be very few exceptions.

With the Modi administration trying to create smart cities, and introducing other urban schemes, social inclusiveness must be the new mantra for urban planners. Or else there would be a very serious social problem on hand besides a huge rise in crimes all over. That social unrest would be difficult to handle if timely focus is not shifted on the lakhs and lakhs of urban poor who unfortunately find no patrons in the government’s scheme of things.

♦ According to the Rangarajan Committee, there are 102.05 million poor in urban India
♦ As per the Committee, People spending less than Rs 47 a day in cities come under Below Poverty Line (BPL)
♦ 32.7 per cent of developing countries’ population lives in slums. UNHABITAT projects 1.5 billion populations to be living in the slums in the developing countries by 2020
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