Interviews | VOL. 9, ISSUE 56, September-October 2009

Urban Poverty and Climate Change in India

Dr Amitabh Kundu

Professor of Economics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

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Dr Amitabh Kundu has worked extensively in the field of urban poverty in India. His pioneering research has not only been appreciated within the country, it has also gained considerable international recognition over the years. Dr Kundu has also played a key role in bringing out the ‘India: Urban Poverty Report, 2009’ (see highlights on page 23). In a conversation with the Editor, G’nY, the Professor said that although both urban and rural poverty in India have been consistently declining, urban poverty levels are declining at a far slower pace. Ironically, he argues that cities are linked to higher investments, and in effect, poverty in urban areas should fall faster – yet the decline is slow. He adds that the Planning Commission of India has warned, that although India may meet the Millennium Development Goals in bringing down poverty levels by half by 2012, we should not take it as a serious achievement, as associated social development, such as malnutrition and infant mortality are not falling as much. Professor Kundu berates the fact that calorie intake has not increased despite increased incomes as the consumption basket has diversified.

What is the present percentage of urban population living below the poverty line?

The figures for the urban population living below the poverty line are not available from the latest five yearly National Sample Survey Organisation survey on Consumption Expenditure. The figure for the year 2004-05 is 26 per cent (based on consumption expenditure reported by households on monthly basis for all commodities).

 

Is urban poverty a uniform all-India phenomenon – or does it occur in specific pockets of the country?

The inequality in poverty across states has gone up in recent years, despite decline in poverty at the national level. It is high in a several less developed States like Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa etc. But interestingly, it is also high in a few developed States such as Maharashtra and Karnataka. It is understandable that urban poverty will be high with lack of development but strangely it is high even with development! The reasons thereof thus may be sought in the nature of development.

 

With rising number and population of slums in Indian cities – what is your view on organising slum communities?

There is no data available on slums showing an increase in slum population. There is a process of sanitisation which is reducing the percentage of poor and slum population in several metro cities in the country through slum eviction and negative policies and programmes towards in-migration. This is mainly because civil society organisations in cities are not mass based, and systematically exclude slum dwellers.

 

What is the percentage of slum dwellers above the poverty line – and why do they continue to occupy areas of squalor?

No reliable figure is available but it could be well above 40 per cent. It is largely due to housing shortage for the economically weaker section. However, slums by definition are identified as per area and their characteristics. The fact is that there are many houses in slums that are quite liveable.

 

With India turning increasingly disaster prone, as a fallout of climate change, have you found any linkages between disasters and increased urban poverty?

Much of the rural-urban migration – seasonal and long term, has been linked with natural disasters, devastating the household economic balance of the poor. The dependence of agriculture on monsoon has not sizeably gone down over the years. Only the cities have become hostile to migrants. With ‘elite capture’ of urban space in large cities, there is no other option but to create a large number of small and medium towns. That is the only way the cities can become slum free. Also, with agriculture having limited possibility of labour absorption, the increased labour force must find livelihood in non agricultural activities and these can be promoted in these towns.

 

As policy interventions – what do you think would work best for the urban poor?

Among many other interventions that may hold the key, closest to my heart are infrastructural investment in small and medium towns to strengthen their economic base; Provision of land tenure to the poor in large cities; Provision of civic amenities to urban poor; and, No subsidisation of high and middle income housing in the name of the poor.

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