Understanding slums for social work practice

In present times slums have become  a common phenomena associated with city life ,  especially the metropolitan cities. The challenge of slums : Global report on Human settlements, 2003 presents that   in 2001 , 924 million people or 31.6 percent  of the world’s urban population, lived in slums  and  554 million or  60 percent of world’s total slum dwellers lived in Asia.(Sabir Ali,2006) It is projected  that by the year 2030 there will be two billion people living in slums, and by 2050, three billion. Every day, the world’s cities grow by close to 200,000 people(Neuwirth, 2007). Though growth of slums has occurred world wide, the developing countries like India  has been adversely affected by  this phenomena. (Sabir Ali:2006) especially the metropolitan cities Mumbai, Calcutta, Delhi and Chennai. 

 India has been  urbanizing at a rapid pace due to industrialization and economic liberalization and  opening of a large number of multinational firms. This has provided job opportunity to people who migrate, from rural  to urban areas, in search of employment  to earn a livelihood (Dahiwale,1997; Habib,2009). The National Commission on Urbanisation has described urbanisation in India as a process whereby the surplus population of workers from rural areas resettles in urban centres where non-agricultural job opportunities are available. If job opportunities are productive and lead to gainful employment, urbanisation becomes a catalyst for economic development. If, however, urbanisation is merely a process of transfer of rural poverty to an urban environment, it results in a concentration of misery (Economic Survey of Delhi, 1999- 2000).

Factors leading to Slum  Formation

As a large number of people migrate to urban areas every year in search of employment.  Unchecked migration aggravates housing problem resulting in the increase in land prices. The combination of high population density amid poverty and limited resources makes for an environment that favours the rapid growth of slum areas (Leiwing, 2006). Most of the people who migrate to earn a living  are unskilled and  find low paying jobs (Sabir Ali,2006; Thakur & Dhadave,1987) Since their  income is low they cannot find a decent place to live and hence  “they squat , the land which they do not own,”  resulting in the growth of slums (Neuwirth, 2007). Delhi is one of the metropolitan cities having a largest no. of slums and  resettlement colonies, after  Mumbai.  According to the Population Census 2001, Delhi has been noted as the third most populated city in India  with a total population of 13.85 million and  around 20  lack of  the population in Delhi lived in slums. The density of population in Delhi is the highest among all states/UTs in the country .  Like all other  major cities of the country and the world, Delhi is also facing the problem of in-migration . More than three lack people  migrate every year to Delhi leading to the rapid growth of the population in Delhi (Sabir Ali,2006). While the slum population has increased, the number of slums has decreased-resulting in greater density ( India : Urban Poverty Report 2009). Another characteristic of slum population is that proportion of scheduled castes population is quite high  in the slums as compared to non-slum and urban areas of majority of the states/union territories.( Census of India 2001, Series 1 – Slum population).

        Slum population in million plus cities.

Source: Census of India 2001, Series 1-Slum Population

Though the government is trying hard to cope with the demands of basic amenities and infrastructural facilities especially for the weaker sections , still the living condition of a large section of the people remains miserable . According to the study (economic survey 2007-8), major reasons for people migrating to Delhi during 1991-2001 was employment opportunities and the maximum number were from Uttar Pradesh followed by Bihar and Haryana.

Migrants classified by reasons for for migration

Reasons Migrants
Employment31.29 37.6
Movement of family41.4536.8
Marriage 15.6213.8
Natural calamities0.13
Education 2.282.7
Source: Economic Survey of Delhi 2007-2008

Characteristics of  Slums 

The UN-HABITAT definition states “a slum household is a group of individuals living under the same roof in an urban area that lack one or more of the following:

1. Durable housing of a permanent nature that protects against extreme climate conditions.

2. Sufficient living space which means not more than three people sharing the same room.

3. Easy access to safe water in sufficient amounts at an affordable price.

4. Access to adequate sanitation in the form of a private or public toilet shared by a reasonable number of people.

5. Security of tenure that prevents forced evictions.” ( Leiwing, 2006)

Slums have different nomenclature at different places like jhuggi-jhopri, bastee, Katra, Chawl  etc. based on their physical structure. Social scientists have coined terms like ‘blighted area’, ‘inner core area’, ’low income area’, marginal area ‘unplanned settlement’ and ‘substandard settlement’ (Thakur and Dhadave,1987). It is a product of  the socio-economic and cultural conditions of a particular social system inhibiting the physical, mental, moral and social development of the individual. For their study (Thakur & Dhadave,1987) considered slum as :

  1. an area characterised by inadequate housing facilities, over-crowding and congestion, faulty arrangement of streets, lack of ventilation, light, or sanitation facilities,

 ii.   an area characterised by its own way of life, a subculture with a set  of norms and values;            and the people living in slum areas without being fully integrated in the urban community,

   iii.    an area having   minimum social organization  beyond the level of family,

   iv.   an area consisting of people, characterized by strong feeling of marginality, helplessness,   dependence, inferiority, lack of plans for future, sense of resignation , fatalism, widespread belief in superstitions, and high level of tolerance , and

    v.    an area consisting of people  earning low wages, suffering chronic  unemployment and underemployment and incapable of saving , reducing the possibility of effective participation in the growing economic system. 

 As per the survey conducted during NSS in its 58th round between July and December, 2002 in slum areas, Total no. of slums  in Delhi was 1867 out of which 16.71 percent were notified slums and 83.3 percent Non notified slums.

There are four types of slums in Delhi:

J J (Jhuggi  Jhompri) Clusters: These  are a conglomeration of houses built up without regular foundation on public land meant for future development , on the sides of drain, on the sides of railway tracks, on the bank of river Yamuna . These squatter  settlements are made of straw, mud, loose bricks, tin, wood corrugated sheets, etc. Without a regular foundation, jhuggis are not arranged  in a particular order and haphazard development has taken place. 

Slum Designated Area : These are the areas  which have been notified as slums .

Unauthorised Colonies:  These are the areas developed by private colonizers with profitable layout plan without any regard to the need of community facilities as well as the  basic amenities required for the  individual plot. 

J J Resettlement colonies: The Municipality/Delhi Development Authority has allotted small developed plots and modestly built up tenements to jhuggi dwellers in planned and developed colonies, under the slum clearance program. There are around 45 such colonies in Delhi .


Slums have various issues and people living in slum conditions face day today problems which needs to be understood. Research studies to identify the root causes of these problems need to be taken up and plan intervention accordingly.

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