Urban displacement and Vulnerability

Urban Slum Dwellers Displacement and Vulnerability

By: Vandana Desai
Elite slum dwellers bargain, negotiate and build complex alliances outside the slum to gain power to displace, marginalise and exclude the poorest slum dwellers. Widowhood, one of the most vulnerable statuses, faces dispossession shaping conflicts within slums.
Gender Justice Life

The government has encouraged private construction companies to develop land and housing on which slums reside, especially in the prime locations, through cross-subsidization of the housing projects. At an everyday level, local elite slum dwellers’ interests intersect with other poorer slum dwellers and the urban elites within the city. This speculation has inflated property prices within the city and the poor citizens have become more marginalized than ever before.

Using a slum pseudo-named as Gomuti in Mumbai as a case study, the article analyses these processes. Data for the study were collected in 2013-2014. Although 65 ethnographic in-depth interviews were carried out, primarily with interviewees from the Muslim background, the particular focus of this paper is interviews with 38 widows. Their ages ranged from 39 to 80 with a median of 60. They belonged to mainly landless families who came to Mumbai in search of work and had lived in this particular slum for about 30 years. Most of the women had been married young, at the age of 15-16 and had accompanied their husbands to the city. About three-quarters of the widowed women had house ownership.

As the city has grown northwards to accommodate its rising population, Gomuti is now in the prime location of Mumbai which has generated numerous developers’ interest. This has led to a buying spree by local elite slum dwellers who can afford to speculate to acquire assets among the local slum dwellers in the area as a way to gain access to the lucrative housing market even though it is the poorest part of the city. The author’s fieldwork collaborated this particular strategy adopted by mainly young entrepreneurial slum dwellers to buy whatever properties they can lay their hands on, based on local information of the neighborhood families wanting to sell or transfer their assets.  The interviewees reported that there were owners who owned 15-16 hutments, some of whom did not even live in the slum. These are the new forms of social power emerging within slums of the global south and these articulate with existing forms of (dis)empowerment.  As urban fringes get regularized through individual titling, land and housing prices generally increase, forcing lower-income residents to be forcibly displaced to homelessness and begging on streets or for alms at mosques and temples or hoping for family or relatives to offer them to live with them. Such incidents highlight the vulnerability of widowed women—one of the most marginalized, socially oppressed, disrespectfully treated, humiliated and economically exploited segments of the population in the slums.  Although the exact statistics are not available for the widows in the slums, the observation that 3 out of 5 single older women are very poor is some indication of the gravity of the problem. That they are likely to be widows is compounded by the general trend of younger women marrying older men, women’s higher life expectancy, social disapproval of widow remarriage, patrilineal inheritance, and unemployment. The combined effect is to render widows more vulnerable than most other groups in the society.

It is difficult to estimate how many widows are disowned by their relatives and thrown out of their houses in the context of land and inheritance disputes or commit suicide. Yet financial transfers are often gendered, with denial of material assets such as land ownership, property claims, and inheritance, affecting the bargaining rights of separated or widowed women who are disproportionately influenced compared with men or married women.

 Invisibility of widowhood

Most of the women who lived on their own were unemployed due to loss of earning capacity in old age and some also suffered from ill health. This lack of any employment security also means that the elderly widows have to find some work as casual laborers in the informal sector. They thus have the experience of insecure employment and livelihood through their lifetime. Most of the widows had very poor literacy levels having an implication for the kind of work that they could get. Their economic survival strategies reflect a high level of vulnerability and malnutrition.

Drifting intergenerational relationships

The change in the family structure and an increase in nuclear households have resulted in the breakdown of the expected ‘traditional family support’ and the assumed co-residence pattern once considered typical in the Indian context. Another development impacting negatively on the status of the widows is the increasing occurrence of dual career families amongst the younger generation having implications for elderly care. The problem is compounded with the continued high fertility rate in Gomuti putting the unaffordable burden on younger families which have led to diminished responsibility towards the elderly.

In the interviews, these widowed women particularly highlighted their concerns for the next generation of children and grandchildren and the challenging economic environment they had to live in. They were candid in admitting that they were looked after by their families because they had the ownership of the house they lived in. Passing the ownership of their house in the slum was one way of transferring material assets although jeopardizing their well-being. Although working couples find the help they receive from their old parents, limited space in small slum dwellings coupled with high cost of their health-care continues to be an issue.

The transformation of the new role of ‘old’ is one that is more complex and complicated.  In the Indian context, these widowed women were mainly living with their son’s family and hence endured gendered power relations within the households. This highlighted reversal of roles between carer and cared that accompanies aging. There were comments during the fieldwork which pointed out some of the inter-generational conflicts within households over the assets. Some widowed women and men were also keen to bring to notice how some widowed women living with families faced abuse and exploitation in some form or the other. This is one of the most hidden and veiled areas of violation of women’s human rights.  Now, elderly widows have to cope not only with the changing family structure but also with changing role relations within the family. This realization was often reported in the interviews as a feeling of loss of status, worthlessness, and feeling of inferiority, depression, loneliness and marginalization. There were instances where the widowed women spoke favorably of the daughter’s role in their well-being and were more amenable to accepting help from daughters.

Displacement and dispossession

There were also families and individuals who were victims of house grabbing. Widows especially fared worse in the housing market where they were either forcibly evicted from their dwelling or had to sell off the lodging to pay off the debt incurred due to husband’s demise and loss of income. Various incidents were reported in the interviews where women lost their houses; they were bullied and harassed over a period of time either by some people within the slums or by their own relatives and members of households as they were often concerned about widows staking a claim to her share in the husband’s property.  One widowed woman reported that she had human excreta at her doorstep every morning, another reported neighbors continually being aggressive and noisy, keeping the television on and shouting at her at every opportunity. Women also reported fires within the slums when the aged owners were away or out. Lower level bureaucracy and corruption in various procedures to prove ownership or claiming benefits from a state are further compounded with low levels of literacy, lack of legal literacy, confidence and lack of awareness making widows more vulnerable to various kinds of frauds from speculative predators.


Slum dwellers are particularly vulnerable, especially widows, who because of existential dependency on their sons and changing dynamics of inter-generational relations, lose out on their bargaining power. The scenario also outlines the spatial processes which aim at examining the politics of housing claims, speculation, dispossession and practices shaping conflicts over urban property within slums and the households.


  • Desai V. and A. Loftus. 2013. Speculating on Slums: Infrastructural fixes in informal housing in the global South. Antipode, 45 (4): 789-808.
  • Desai V. and M. Tye. 2009. Critically Understanding Asian Perspectives on Ageing.Third World Quarterly, 30 (5): 1007-1025.

The author is a Senior Lecturer in Development Geography, Royal Holloway, University of London. v.desai@rhul.ac.uk

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