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56% urban Indians living in slums

Last updated on: June 14, 2007 15:02 IST

Forget about Utopia or even the dystopian Los Angeles depicted in Blade Runner. The future of the city is a vast Third World slum.

This year, the world will pass a milestone so profoundly significant that 2007 will become a touchstone for future historians. For the first time, more people will be living in cities than in the country.

The individual who tips the scales might be a baby born to a city dweller or an adult migrating from the countryside, but in either case, it's likely that his or her new surroundings will include flimsy walls, disease and an enveloping stench of sewage and trash. The newcomer will have arrived in a Third World slum.

By 2030, an estimated 5 billion of the world's 8.1 billion people will live in cities. About 2 billion of them will live in slums, primarily in Africa and Asia, lacking access to clean drinking water and working toilets, surrounded by desperation and crime.

Already these slums are huge. According to Mike Davis, author of Planet of Slums, nearly 80% of Nigeria's urban population, or some 41.6 million people, live in slums. The comparable numbers in India are 56% and 158.4 million. Many of these slum dwellers are also squatters, lacking leases or legal title to their homes.

Not all slums are equal. By the United Nation's definition, their residents are missing at least some of the following: durable walls, a secure lease or title, adequate living space, and access to safe drinking water and toilets. A fifth of slum households are missing at least three of these basic needs.

To the outsider, many developing-world slums look unbearably awful, but to their residents they do function, complete with social hierarchies, commerce and a degree of home-grown government. Still, when one sees a family living in a flyblown concrete cell in Karachi, inside a mud hut in Nairobi or in a cardboard shack in Lagos, one might be inclined to ask, Are they really better off than in the villages they fled?

Dismal though the slums may be, the answer is often yes. After all, nearly all of the residents are there by choice (many, in fact, pay some sort of rent), so they themselves think they are better off.

The vast majority moved to the city seeking better economic prospects, and many find them. A 2005 study on migration and poverty in Asia by the International Organization for Migration notes that "even if migrant jobs are in the risky informal sector, the gains to be made can be several times higher than wages in rain-fed agriculture."

Many slum dwellers are in fact entrepreneurs, albeit writ very small. They recycle trash, sell vegetables, do laundry. Some even run tiny restaurants and bars for their neighbors. Even though they are technically squatters, lacking legal title to their land, many also improve their dwellings--often just one brick at a time.

After decades of home improvement, some of the best dwellings in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro sport balconies and ocean views.

Indeed, for many decades the slums offered a degree of upward mobility. Migrants squatted on city outskirts, drawn by free or nearly free land and proximity to urban jobs.

Over the decades many of the residents built permanent housing and succeeded--often after a long wait--in getting services like water, sanitation and electricity routed to their neighborhoods.

Onetime poor colonias in Mexico City have gentrified since the early 1980s. The favelas of Rio de Janeiro, the oldest of which date back to 1897, are famously vibrant, replete with lively bars and low crime rates--even if they happen to be "governed" by local drug gangs.

Davis, the author of Planet of Slums, comes to a darker conclusion. "That frontier of free land is essentially over," he says. "Squatting has now been privatized."

Since the 1980s, he says, new migrants to the slums have had to pay for the privilege of living there. In some cases, as in Pakistan and Kenya, the land is ostensibly public, but local police forces or corrupt politicians demand "rent." In others, as in many Latin American slums, the newest, poorest arrivals rent space from more-established squatters.

A byproduct of this diminishing supply of free land is that new arrivals move onto more marginal land: steep gullies in Tijuana, vertical hillsides in Caracas, flood-prone flats in Dhaka.

Davis also argues that in cities like Mumbai, urban job growth has failed to keep pace with city growth since the 1990s. "These areas are now supersaturated with Darwinian competition," he says.

And even when there is more economic opportunity in the city, life in the slums is extremely perilous. According to the United Nations, slum children in sub-Saharan Africa are more likely to die from water-borne and respiratory illnesses than rural children, while women living in slums are more likely to contract HIV than their country cousins.

In countries including Egypt, Bangladesh and Guatemala, slum children are less likely to be enrolled in primary school than their urban counterparts.

Still, the dream of a better life in the city persists. Overall, the world's urban population is expected to grow at an annual rate of 1.78% until 2030, while rural communities shrink.

Ways to mitigate poverty amid this massive shift are not easy to find. Just last month, the government of the Indian state of Maharashtra announced an ambitious plan to transform one of Asia's largest slums.

The neighborhood, Dharavi, is home to about 600,000 people crammed into one square mile at the heart of Mumbai. But no sooner had the government proposed the $2.3 billion scheme, which would rehouse the slum dwellers for free, than local activists denounced it for favoring the rich and driving out Dharavi's myriad of small businesses.

Turkey offers some lessons to governments serious about grappling with urban poverty. As Robert Neuwirth documents in his book Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, a New Urban World, Turkey has two laws giving squatters legal and political rights, which encourages them to invest in their homes and neighborhoods.

Neuwirth, who lived in the squatter communities of Rio de Janeiro, Nairobi, Mumbai and Istanbul, writes that a legal system like Turkey's could benefit squatters all over the world. Of course, that kind of legal reform presupposes a measure of democracy and good government, something much of the developing world doesn't have.

For decades, governments around the world simply abdicated responsibility for this massive urban influx. One result is that most of the world's slum dwellers--a billion people--remain cut off from the legal economy, working outside the tax system and with only tenuous rights to the land on which they live. Into this vacuum of power have stepped all sorts of organic movements.

Some are potentially positive: Pentecostalism is on the rise in slums, according to Davis, and Indian slums have spawned influential groups that fight for squatters' rights. But for every benign community organization that rises to power in a slum, so does a criminal gang or a militant movement like Hamas.

Western security experts rightly fear failed states; in the future, they will have to worry about failed cities. Mega-cities, of 10 million or more, are on the rise across Asia, while cities like Dhaka, Jakarta, Lagos and Delhi will cross the 20 million threshold by 2020. Planning and building is not keeping pace. The world ignores the slums at its own peril.

Elisabeth Eaves, Forbes