Why are there so many slums in India?

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Last week, my little sister Rupa came to visit! In her honor, we have just one Hindi word this week, her favorite because she thinks it sounds cool:

1) Khana banana – to cook (or literally, to make food).

While Rupa was here, for a couple of days, I was a comparative expert on life in Mumbai. Showing her around, I realized that I have gathered a lot of knowledge since I’ve been here – both about Mumbai and also about India’s evolving role in the world. We talked a lot about both of those things, and one question Rupa asked me has been on my mind ever since she left:

“Why are there so many slums in India?”

The answer is certainly complex and important. But the interesting part for me is just how quickly and naturally that question comes to mind when you visit India. If you look up, Mumbai and many other Indian cities are decidedly urban – with tall buildings just like those you might expect to find anywhere else in the world. But when you look down, India becomes unique. Literally interwoven throughout the high-rises are smaller, makeshift residences that house a huge portion of the population.

Yes, there is a lot of poverty in India. But remember, with 1.2 billion people, there is a lot of everything in India. As Pallavi (my Hindi teacher) pointed out to me, the richest man in India is richer than the richest man in the United Kingdom. So why is India so well known for its poverty? And what makes India’s poverty so striking?

As usual, the population size seems to drive the answer. (It is my sixth week here, and I am just as in awe as I was in week 2. ONE POINT TWO billion people. One point two BILLION…okay, okay, you get the point.). Because there are so many people in India, open spaces tend to get filled. Take the roads, for example. Lanes exist only in theory. People, cars, bikes, and sometimes even animals fill in every bit of open space. (Despite my initial struggles, I am now frequently a proud, open-space-filling pedestrian myself). There simply isn’t space for dividing lines.

The same goes for housing. Unlike in the United States, poverty is constantly and openly visible in India. For the same reason that people think plane crashes are more common than car accidents, that visibility has a way of making poverty seem like an “Indian” thing. Residential segregation puts poverty out of sight and out of mind in the U.S., making Rupa’s question less likely to arise.

But even though poverty is very much in sight in India’s cities, it still manages to stay out of mind. Slums are forgotten just as quickly as they are noticed, maybe precisely because of their proximity and pervasiveness (for a great discussion of how we can simultaneously see and not see or know and not know certain uncomfortable facts like the extent of poverty or discrimination in our own cities, check out The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander).

Rather than urban slums, “poverty” tends to first bring to mind faraway rural images – sprawling farmland, bullock carts, distant schoolhouses, and isolation. Perhaps because these are the images that stick, donors tend to be keen on rural rather than urban financial inclusion programs, as an employee at Swadhaar’s non-profit arm suggested during my first week here.

Maybe rural images of poverty stick better because they are less unique to India. Four years ago, during my internship at the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala, a really wonderful Guatemalan woman working the Embassy took the other two interns and me to see the ruins of an ancient Mayan city. At some point during the six-hour car trip, I woke up from a nap to a very Bollywood-sounding song on the radio. I remember looking out the window and truly believing for a moment in my confused, half-asleep state that I had somehow been transported to India. With very similar climates, flora, and fauna, rural India and rural Guatemala look quite alike. Much more alike in some ways than even urban and rural India.

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Images of rural poverty, though somewhat ubiquitous, are certainly very powerful. They inspire tons of voluntourists every year to pack up and teach English or build houses all around the world. (Note: This is a luxury in itself. While American teenagers can travel the world basically at will, young adults in India have to condition all of their life plans that involve travel around the availability of very expensive visas, which can be anything from a persistent inconvenience to a career-defining barrier for people in all socioeconomic classes.)

As visible as urban slums are, rural obstacles like isolation and a lack of infrastructure are much easier to picture and understand than the barriers to receiving financial services that the urban poor face. But lack of access comes in many different forms, not just physical separation. The urban poor in Mumbai might live right next to a bank, and still go their whole lives without ever opening an account. And the images we do have related to urban poverty can be misleading. For example, satellite TV dishes are not uncommon on slum area rooftops. But owning a television set may not signify ascent into the middle class – an alternative explanation might be that the same economic forces contributing to poverty are also driving down the prices of these “luxury” goods.

So maybe the first step toward financial inclusion is to recognize our biases and broaden our intuitions about just who we want to include. All in all, this challenge is just one more reason that I am excited to be at Swadhaar this summer, one of relatively few institutions in India focused on the urban poor.


Rathna Ramamurthi is working out of Mumbai, India, with Swadhaar FinServe, an Accion partner and microfinance institution, on process improvements for a joint liability loan product.

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2 Responses to “Why are there so many slums in India?

  • Hi Rathna

    A really interesting perspective, how we take poverty to be very rural in all its aspects and forget there is a rural angle to it as well. So are you at Accion also researching/designing financial inclusion products more suited to the urban poor? I would love to know more about the design constraints and factors that you would take in mind while doing so.

    Looking forward to reading your other posts as well.


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