Defining slums: A Review of Literature



As the population of India is increasing at a large scale and at a very fast pace and the opportunity for employment is mainly concentrated in the urban areas , people from the rural areas are migrating on a large scale to urban areas; most of the times settling in squatter settlements or “slums”. Delhi is one of the metropolitan cities having a large number  of slums and resettlement colonies. Several studies have been undertaken related to slums; the review of which has been presented as follows: 

Many scholars have defined slums and given different interpretation  of slums .  Some describe a slum by its physical structure whereas some scholars  define slum by  social, cultural or economical perspective.  As pointed out by Nangia and Thorat (2000) in their study, slums are used to indicate housing which “falls below a certain level  which is necessary to contribute to human development” or  “ areas characterized by overcrowding , deterioration , insanitary conditions  and conditions which endanger the health , safety or morals of its inhabitants or the community” or as “a habitat having small tenements, narrow lanes and a lack of sanitation” . The Oxford dictionary defines  slum “as a street , alley, court etc.  in a crowded district of a town or city, and inhabited by  people of  low income  class, or by the very poor; a number of these streets and courts  forming a thickly populated neighbourhood  of a squalid and wretched character.” The  Advanced Learners’s  Dictionary of current English explains slum “as court, street or alley of dirty crowded houses”.  

According to Delhi  Development  Authority  (as defined by Slum Area Improvement   Act, 1956): 

“Slums are those areas where the buildings are in any respect unfit for human habitation  and are by reason  of dilapidation, overcrowding, faulty arrangements of streets, lack of  ventilation , light or sanitation facilities or any combination of these  factors, are detrimental to safety, health and morals.”                                                                                      

Birdi (1982) has observed that slums are not only a conglomeration of  crowded houses but also it is a “way of life”, characterized with its own set of norms and values, poor health values and practices, deviant  behavior  and social isolation.  According to Thakur and Dhadave (1987) in their study on the social aspect of the slum dwellers in Gulbarga city of Karnataka the “slum is a consequence of  poverty and socio-economic backwardness…. …..It is a locus of poverty although people living in the slum makes substantial contribution to the economy of the urban place”.  They have also discussed some of the conditions which give rise to the slums. These are:

  • Overcrowding
  • Tenurial pattern of the area
  • Unsatisfactory condition of provision of basic amenities like water, electricity etc.
  • Poverty due to lack of opportunities    

They go on to give a description of a slum in its social aspect rather than only physical conditions. They argue that the slum is more than an economic condition. It is a social phenomenon in which the attitudes, ideas, ideals and practices play an important part. They further suggest that to improve the conditions of slum a number of welfare measures like, housing, health, sanitation drinking water facilities etc. should be undertaken, and also measures should be taken to bridge the socio-economic gap between the slum and non slum. 

 Leiwen Jiang (2006)  has studied  the housing condition of the slum population in China and gives a description of the physical conditions of the slums in China. The study reveals that the quality of housing was poor, more than half of Chinese urban households had no shower or bath facility, 40 percent had no access to clean cooking fuel, about 25 percent had no bathroom, and more than 20 per cent had no access to tap water. He did not give any measures to improve the present condition of the slum dwellers rather he said that compared to the slum situation in other developing countries , the slum situation in China is under control. 

Most of the studies show that poor economic conditions at their native place causes migration to the cities in search of livelihood . The reason for poor economic  condition as observed by Dahiwale (1997) can be “lack of employment  opportunity”(Rao & Rao 1984), “landlessness and indebtedness” (Das 1994), or natural  calamities, disintegration of family etc.  When they migrate to the cities in search of work they do get employment but to find a decent place to live in is difficult. Consequently they find some cheap accommodation with inadequate basic facilities like water or electricity. Generally these people are unskilled and usually get absorbed in the informal sector. The author has suggested policies for improvement in agriculture to reduce rural poverty resulting in checking migration of poor  from rural to urban areas.

Kalyan  Chaudhry (1976)  gave a detailed account of slum situation in Calcutta. He took into account the waterlogging  and the sewage disposal facility. He observed that the slums in Calcutta are located in the low lying area and during the monsoon the people face the problem of water logging  in their mud houses as well as the narrow lanes leading to  diseases like cholera etc. since they are living in extremely unhygienic  conditions. According to him the local government boasts of implementing programmesimplementing programmes to improve the conditions of the slum but in reality there is no change in their situation and the slum dwellers keep suffering from the unhygienic condition. 

 Kamal and  Rashid (2004) in their  study on effect of environmental factors   on the reproductive health of women of slums in Dhaka city , points out that unhealthy and unhygienic living conditions in slums can cause poor reproductive health in women , which consequently can have a negative effect  on the health of the entire family .They also suggest that health awareness  campaigns should be held to sensitize the  women on the negative effects of unhygienic health practice.  Sabir Ali (2006) has also raised concern over the living and environmental conditions of slums in his study on slums in Delhi. Kapadia and  Kanitkar (2002) studied the delivery of the primary  health facilities in the slums of Maharashtra. They highlight that health policies and programs like RCH, NHM etc. have been formulated by the government  which emphasize on rural health but the healthcare in the urban slum areas has been neglected. They suggest that since the urban population is expanding at a rapid pace and the growth is primarily occurring in slums the  government needs to develop health plans and policies taking  into consideration the  urban conditions and needs

According to a study conducted by  Sunder and  Sharma  (2002) on  slums in  Delhi and Chennai, illiteracy was a prominent feature in Delhi slums   and the main occupations of the slum dwellers  were construction and  factory workers, porters,  rickshaw pullers, domestic servant , sweepers and shopkeepers. Also  reporting of morbidity is lower  among illiterates than households having at least primary level of education, people suffer more from infectious diseases like Tuberculosis, malaria, jaundice, due the poor environmental sanitation and the low economic status of the  population in the slums.

Meenakshi  Thapan (1997)  conducted a study on women in slum and stated that women  are seen as the instruments through whom the nation can become more literate . She further presents a picture of literacy rate of females in India; that is;  about 46 per cent of boys and 28 per cent of girls in the appropriate age group progress to upper primary school [World Bank 1996:53]. She goes on to say that education is necessary for the development of the mind so that we are able to analyze the  realities around us and  attempt to bring about a transformation in our lives. In India education is not the only means to bring about empowerment but other cultural aspects also play role in the position of female in the household and their  status  in the society. She focused on female literacy. Kulbhushan Suri (1991) in his study on overpopulation in India suggests that educating the women may help in adopting the family planning measures and consequently might check  rapid growth in population.

Sharma and Sita (2000) presents an analysis of the ( draft) National Slum Policy  and the suggestions for improvement in the living conditions of the urban poor. They address this effort , by the ministry of Urban Affairs and Employment,  as  significant in recognizing the need to tackle the problems of slums on a national level. They further say that a number of efforts had been taken earlier by the government  as well as NGOs but  such efforts are too few as compared to the magnitude of the problem.  The policy makers have started looking into the problems of slums since it attracts foreign investment and also the urban poor  from  a large chunk of  vote bank. They have  criticized the  policy on the grounds that it has absence of realistic overview; it has given solution to all problems , instead it should leave certain decisions  to the state government as every state  has their own typical problems . They have suggested formation of state slum policies. 

Werlin (1999) gave his views in response to the World Bank’s approach to slum up gradation policies. The author emphasizes on Peoples participation in decision making. According to him any policy for slum up gradation cannot be successful unless the people for whom the policy is being made is involved in the decision making process or their opinion is taken into consideration. He quotes Choguill in support of his argument that “the appropriate role of government would seem to be to minimize direct intervention, allowing the urban poor to find solutions that they can afford in their traditional way” (Choguill, 1994, p. 944).

Kumar and Aggarwal (2003)  conducted a study to determine the extent of poverty in Delhi slums. They focused on social and economic aspects of the people living in slums and found out that there is a need for a positive employment generation policy among the  urban slum dwellers and also policy packages for improving education, training and for creating opportunities for them  so that they too can enter into higher productivity areas. They also recommend that in order to check influx into Delhi from other states, there is a need to generate employment and provide facilities at the place of origin of the migrants. Mitra (2010) in his study has argued that to overcome urban poverty, policies for urban employment programmes  should be focused upon, besides policies for education and health as these are key determinants in the wellbeing of a household .

Garg, Sharma and Sahay (2001) has presented a detailed study on the  awareness of  menarche, among  women and adolescent girls in Delhi slums. They found out that awareness level among the adolescent girls was poor and their mothers also did not discuss this issue with their daughters. They suggested that there is a  need to provide information to young girls in ways that are acceptable to their parents, schools and the larger community, and at the same time, allow young women to raise their own concerns. They further say that in order to deal with parental and community resistance the programs and services should be designed in a very innovative and sensitive manner. Education on these subjects should be looked upon  as a long-term, continuous process, beginning well before menarche and continuing long after it. The knowledge thus imparted would lead to an improvement in women’s , health  and increase in self-esteem, and contribute to the reduction of gender disparity.

Vishwanathan and Tharkar (2010) also studied the effect of living  and environmental  and  conditions on the health of the slum dwellers and suggested provision of good and accessible health care facilities and a holistic approach to improve the standard of living of the poor. In a study undertaken by Siddiqui and Pandey (2001) in the slums of Delhi and Allahabad , nature and extent of relationship between economic and environmental issues was focused upon. It was found that the living conditions of people living in slums are deplorable, and people at the low socio economic strata are so much preoccupied with their economic problems that they fail to notice the magnitude of the environmental problems with which they are exposed to.

Enamul  Habib (2009) highlighted some of the obstacles faced by government and NGO’s  in working for the development of the slums in Dhaka city and suggested a better coordination between government , and NGO’s  and between different department of government  since many a times there is overlapping of services. Northridge (2009) has described slums as an attempt by the poor to take care of themselves and it is important to fight poverty without fighting the poor. Nuewirth (2007) in his study has focused on the problem of eviction that the slum dwellers face and  suggested that the people should have access to politics so that they can fight  for their rights. Rosado (2008) studied the problem of scarcity of water in the slum settlement of  Northern Peru. She has highlighted the importance of water in observing hygienic behavior and how scarcity of water leads to increase in the incidence of infections leading to transmissible diseases and suggested a measures for water management for efficient delivery of water.     

Dassi et al have studied the problem of deviant behavior in slums of Delhi and associated it with the tolerance of the family and community for the deviant behavior. They suggest that the community needs to be sensitized about this problem and act appropriately to check this. 

Nangia and Thorat (2000) have found out that illiteracy is the main feature in slums. Very few reach higher level of education particularly among scheduled castes and scheduled tribes . They have pointed out search of job and  poverty as the main cause of drop out followed by marriage. Nearly 84% of girls left education due to their marriage .  Seetharamu (1983) studied  the extent of education in slums of Bangalore focusing upon the utilization of services available and the causes of non utilization and suggested that  since problems of slums differ from rural or  other urban areas the policies for education in the slum should be designed in a special way.

Modon and Sahay (2002)  have presented a case study of an NGO working in Slums of Bangalore stating that the slum dwellers can be empowered through information based intervention so that they are able to advocate for their own development

Hundiede (1999) in his study argued that poverty cannot be studied wholly in terms of economic analysis, but the perception of the slum dwellers about their situation plays a vital role in improving their situation. The author did a comparative study of the slum dwellers of four slums, each in different parts of the globe , namely, India, Indonesia, United States and Europe. He found that people had different opinion about their situation in different cultural setting.  


The above studies have mainly focused on the presenting  data on either the physical condition of slum situation in India and abroad or the environmental condition and social aspect of the slum dwellers; and have suggested guidelines for policy makers to formulate policies to improve the slum situation. Almost all the studies have focused on new policy formulation rather than implementation of the existing policies. Slums have been existing in India for more than fifty decades and many policies have also been formulate to upgrade their living condition, but the  problem faced by these people cannot be solved by focusing one factor at a time, since these problems are interrelated .       

Contrary to the idea of “culture of poverty” (Lewis, 1966, 1968), professional  social work believes that people have the capacity to change and can change, as pointed out by Kumar (2010) in his study on “culture of daily life” , where people have  taken initiatives to overcome their poverty and were successful in it.



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