Census 2011 enumerated that 377 million people live in urban India. By 2050, India will have 404 million urban dwellers (World Urbanization Prospects — UN DESA, 2014). By 2050, the largest urban population will be in three countries mainly: India, China, and Nigeria (World Urbanization Prospects — UN DESA, 2018). With increasing urbanization in India there has also been increasing inequality, and issues of accessibility, safe and secure livelihoods for the urban poor have only compounded.
The urban poor are a heterogeneous group, with people from different socio-economic backgrounds. Predominantly employed in the informal sector, a large chunk of the urban poor are migrant workers who were left in the lurch post the pandemic-induced lockdown in 2020.
To alleviate the impact of the pandemic, the central and state governments announced several relief schemes for the urban poor. These included an expansion of existing social protection systems — direct cash transfers, additional supply of food grains, free gas cylinders, direction to the state governments to support construction workers through cess funds, loans for women self-help groups and street vendors. Affordable rental housing complexes were also launched for migrant workers under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY).
However, a study conducted by YUVA, in Mumbai city and community consultations in different regions of India by Wada Na Todo Abhiyan (WNTA) found an accessibility gap, predominantly due to lack of legal identity documents such as ration cards, voter identity cards, bank accounts, Aadhar cards, worker’s registration cards, PAN cards, etc. With government benefits such as water, sanitation, social protection, food, electricity, housing and healthcare increasingly linked to these identity cards, the absence of legal documents results in the urban poor being unable to avail of these benefits.
In 2015, India committed to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, of which Goal 11 resolves to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. SDG 11 is interlinked with SDG 3 (health), SDG 4 (education), SDG 6 (clean water and sanitation facilities), and SDG 8 (decent work for all) — all of which play a critical role in responding to the challenges of the urban poor. However, while SDG 11 focuses on making cities safe, resilient and sustainable, the urban poor are often left unheard and unseen.
The urban poor, residing in non-notified settlements, lack security of tenure and are prone to eviction as they are perceived to be illegally occupying spaces. The possibilities of them not being able to access government schemes and municipal services are high. The housing rights of these vulnerable communities are only taken into consideration during elections when they are viewed as potential voters. With a steep decline in income during the pandemic, these marginalized populations became more prone to the terror of eviction.
Through the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act, 1992, the devolution of government power took place, with Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) being responsible for the well-being of the city and to ensure that cities are serving the needs of the vast majority. The government’s urban plan, however, does not include the communities who are most at risk. The Smart Cities Mission intends to privatize basic services, where access to transportation, housing, fair wages, decent work, education, nutrition, health services, environmental justice and inclusive habitats will be provided to the urban poor but with an attached price tag.
The challenges of the urban poor have been further compounded during the pandemic.
A study by Action Aid India showed that 78% of the urban workers lost their jobs during the lockdown, and the remaining 49% received no wages, 15% received only a partial wage and only 36% continued to receive full wages through the lockdown.
Education was severely affected during the pandemic. According to UNICEF, more than 1 billion children are at risk of falling behind due to school closures. Schools were shifted to virtual modes of education without acknowledging the existing digital gap. As per the NSSO 75th Report 2017–18, 42% of Indian urban households do not have access to internet services. The shift in online education and the lack of resources for the urban poor during the lockdown kept many children from acquiring education.
The pandemic further reiterated the importance of clean water and sanitation. However, urban India saw a significant shortage of water with people having to pay large amounts to obtain it. The Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) of the Government of India aims at making India Open Defecation Free (ODF). However, lack of access to individual toilets and restrictions on mobility forced many to defecate in the open as the public toilets were overcrowded, no hygiene was being maintained and people affected with COVID-19 were also using the same toilets.
Given the existing challenges in the current landscape, the following recommendations are proposed:
● The One Nation One Ration Card (ONORC) scheme needs to be accelerated in all states to ensure food security for migrant workers, with the distinct nutritional needs of adolescent girls and lactating mothers met.
● Although the Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana (PMJAY) offers medical insurance and bears the cost of accessing healthcare, the scheme is applicable only for in-patient care. Out-of-pocket expenditure for medicines and outpatient consultation costs should also be integrated in the scheme to lighten the burden.
● Investment and resource allocation in education needs to be increased to mitigate the adverse impact of the pandemic on urban poor children. Efforts should be made to overcome their learning loss since the school closures, opt for alternate, accessible modes of education and ensure targeted support for learners at risk of dropping out.
● The government must ensure adequate water supply in the slums, irrespective of notified or non-notified dwellers. The construction of toilets should be universalized with specific needs of the user, i.e., number, age, disability, etc., and ensure installation of sewage systems to maintain hygiene.
● As many laborers and migrants lost their jobs during the pandemic, employment schemes need to be furbished. Schemes like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) should be adapted for urban areas to provide decent employment.
The United Nations has given a call to make 2020–2030 the ‘Decade of action to deliver the SDGs’. Even as the COVID 19 pandemic creates far-reaching challenges for governments to sustain development and progress, it is important to remain true to the bold vision and commitment of the SDGs and deliver on them. It is important for the government at all levels to recognize the specific needs and requirements of vulnerable communities and create mechanisms and measures to meet them; the SDGs and the ‘Leave No One Behind’ principle provides an impetus for it.
This blog is co-authored by Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA) & Wada Na Todo Abhiyan (WNTA). It was first published on the WNTA webpage on 24 May 2021