Experts estimate that 50% of Indians will live in urban settlements in 35 years, or less. However, if we go by current trends of population growth and proliferation of settlements, it is extremely likely that most of this “urban development” will be closely linked to the growth in size, number, and growth of slum settlements. As a result, it is estimated that the majority of the population will find themselves inhabiting slums that are typically characterized by a sub-standard quality of life and essential services, where one can see people defecating in the open, living in unhygienic conditions, and labouring for hours in queues to fetch a bucket of drinking water.
In most slum areas, population density is high and public amenities are low. Across the country, most slum houses do not have proper sanitation and water facilities – either because of bureaucratic delays, or because of land disputes and legalities. While one may argue that these systems are vital to the smooth functioning of government operations, the fact of the matter is that in the endeavour to find a careful, nuanced solution that ticks all the right bureaucratic and judicial boxes, the ground reality of a slum-dweller’s life is one that has very little scope for change.
With the slums accounting for almost 30% of the urban Indian population, the lack of access to drinking water and proper sanitation facilities is nothing short of appalling. Not only is quality of drinking water something that they cannot depend upon, the urban poor have no other choice but to brave through the severe health hazards that come with sub-par sanitation facilities. Research shows that at least 25% of all slums are located dangerously close to open sewers and drains, and that more than 50% of all slums are at the constant risk of water logging in monsoon seasons.
At a policy level, local and state governments seem to consider slum areas as a hindrance to the dream of achieving a “developed” society. Often, the fact that several slums are in fact illegal settlements becomes a way for the government to neglect the provision of basic living amenities to these areas. However, this very same issue is often viewed by local politicians as a great opportunity to appeal to and sway vote banks when it comes to municipal and local elections.
With the increasing rise in population and migration to urban settlements, the problem of providing adequate housing, water and sanitation facilities to the urban poor is a problem that requires immediate attention. The only way in which we can achieve a truly “developed” society is if, at a policy level, there are clear and legitimate action-oriented steps taken towards working towards the development and inclusion of the urban poor in the project bettering urban infrastructure. Public policy and infrastructural projects at the local, state and national level need to stop looking at the construction of highways, roads, flyovers, metro stations, etc. as the only markers of urban development and also start working towards ensuring a safe and decent quality of life for the urban populations that are most vulnerable.