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The Changing Face of India’s Urban Poverty

Story by UN India November 15th, 2016

The world is rapidly becoming more urban. By 2030, the world’s population will have increased by as many as 1.7 billion people. 90% of this urban explosion will occur in Asia and Africa.

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By 2030, around 400 million people will be living in cities in India. Furthermore, today, one in every six of India’s urban households live in slums, a number forecast to rise exponentially over the next few decades.


To meet this exponential demand and set the ball rolling for sustaining equitable and inclusive urban development, the government launched a series of flagship initiatives - Housing for All, the Atal Mission for Urban Rejuvenation and Transformation (AMRUT), and the Smart Cities Mission.


However, while cities can be drivers of growth and globalisation, they can also aggravate the stark contrasts and inequities inherent in society. Poverty, unemployment, unsustainable energy consumption patterns, pollution and a lack of basic services are just some of the challenges facing the world’s cities.


Many people migrate to urban centres in search of jobs and better lives, but millions end up living in slums and informal settlements. Many are isolated from opportunities for decent work and are vulnerable to crime, forced evictions and homelessness.


Dilip’s life in Delhi tells the same story. He arrived from Allahabad over two decades ago in search of a better life. He drives a trolley truck for a living but hasn’t been able to move his family to the city. “There are days when I have to sleep in this truck. How can I bring my family here?” Dilip also parks his truck next to a garbage dump and lives in constant fear of becoming sick. ”Delhi is too polluted and unhealthy for my children.”


Sururni Yellamma stands where her house once stood. In 2014, cyclone Hudhud destroyed many homes like hers. Today, Yellamma is forced to cook outside and live in a makeshift shack on a meagre pension of INR 1,000.


Designing and implementing innovative and sustainable solutions for urban challenges requires collaboration across the board, engaging the government, the private sector, non-governmental and civil society organisations, as well as local communities.


The nature of urban poverty in India poses challenges for housing, water, sanitation, health, education, social security, livelihoods and the special needs of vulnerable groups such as women, children, older people and those with disabilities. In India, 37.4% of the urban population lack access to improved sanitation facilities.


Parmila Devi has been living in an urban slum for over 35 years. She lives with 12 family members and is forced to run a thrift shop near a slum-rehabilitation building. “There are no decent living facilities like clean water, sanitation or health care in our slum. One day we will live in this building after our slums are demolished.”


In India, many major cities are vulnerable to disasters, earthquakes in particular. Almost 40 cities with populations above 500,000 fall in zones 3 to 5, i.e. face medium to high risk of earthquake. Additionally, since cities both contribute to and are affected by global emissions and climate vulnerability, strategies for urban development must ensure resilient and sustainable growth.


To meet these challenges, in October 2016, world leaders signed the Quito Declaration on Sustainable Cities and Human Settlements for All. The new framework, adopted during the Habitat III Conference in Ecuador, will set the world on a course towards sustainable urban development by rethinking how cities are planned, managed and inhabited.


It is clear that transforming our world for the better means transforming our towns and cities. That means better urban governance, planning and design. It means more investment in adequate and affordable housing, quality infrastructure and basic services. It also means engaging women and girls in making towns and cities safer and more productive for all.