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How is urban poverty different from rural?

The past practice of seeing all poverty in a rural light and applying rural solutions in urban conditions will not yield the expected results.

In India, for several decades post-Independence, elimination of poverty superseded all other priorities of government. This policy, however, had a rural perspective. India lived in her villages and rural poverty was pervasive. Millions of villagers did not have enough food to eat and suffered from hunger and malnutrition. What we understand as ‘absolute poverty,’ the existence of a person below poverty line where he or she is unable to afford the minimum prescribed calorific intake, deserved the highest care.

However, concentrated attention on the rural did not stop the country’s urbanisation. The urban population that stood at 17.29 percent in the 1951 Census almost doubled in percentage terms by 2011 (31.16 percent). The urban population itself went up six times from 62 million to 377 million in the same time frame. One of the principal factors assisting this transition has been the migration of the rural poor into cities in search of a better livelihood. This phenomenon is universally acknowledged as the urbanisation of poverty. The visible face of such poverty became manifest in the growth of massive slums that by 2011 were housing 65.5 million Indians. It also began to be accepted, with experience, that cities imposed certain characteristics on urban poverty that differentiated it from the rural.

 

"Concentrated attention on the rural did not stop the country’s urbanisation. One of the principal factors assisting this transition has been the migration of the rural poor into cities in search of a better livelihood."

 

In order to better understand the phenomenon of urban poverty, certain aspects of towns and villages need to be kept in mind. Villages have a small population — a few thousand people. Urban settlements, however, could vary from a town of a few thousand to tens of millions. ‘Urban’ is typically characterised by human and built density and by the degree of non-agricultural economic activity. The Indian Constitution divides them into Nagar Panchayats (those transitioning from a village to a town), Municipal Councils (towns that are through with transition but yet small) and Municipal Corporations (towns that are full-fledged urban centres). Still larger cities get named as metropolitan cities (above a population of a million), and mega cities (above a population of 5 million). I name those above 10 million as ‘giga cities’ and there soon would be several of them in India.

Agriculture is the primary occupation in villages where people live in proximity of their lands. This allows them operational ease and higher efficiency. Consequently, populations are dispersed and densities are low. As the productivity of cities is centred on density, they continue to densify as they grow. Since all villages in many ways are similar, they can be addressed by standardised solutions. Cities, on the other hand, are greatly impacted by their size and very dissimilar dimensions would not lend themselves to similar solutions. The character of poverty would also be impacted by such differences, and interventions to alleviate urban poverty would need customisation to suit dissimilar requirements. In villages, internal distances are small and every village corner is easily accessible. In cities, intra-city travel gets more difficult to negotiate, traffic congestion multiplies and negotiating distances consumes more time and money. These have adverse implications on the income of the urban poor.


"What really differentiates the urban poor is the lack of adequate housing and basic services."
 

In economy, villages are mainly at the stage of primary production. Towns move away from primary economy, getting more diversified as cities balloon in size. While environment, soil, water resources and forest cover could be under threat on account of production processes in villages, cities are additionally greatly threatened by pollution levels. These generally rise with larger human, vehicle and construction density and greater waste generation. These especially affect the urban poor and their poverty.

Rural and urban poverty may have some common characteristics — adequate employment, food, health care and education are issues that are common concerns. So are access to information and lack of voice and representation in the settlements in which they live. In either case, their ability to influence decision-making is remote, since they end up powerless in the face of the landed gentry in villages and the rich and organised classes in cities.


"There are other dangers and challenges lurking — challenges of transport, the dangers of extortion and increased vulnerability to crime."

 

What really differentiates the urban poor is the lack of adequate housing and basic services. In villages, security of tenure is not an issue. In cities, it is a huge problem. As has been explained, in cities, the poor get pushed into slums or informal housing. Here, the urban poor get squeezed into single rooms that are grossly inadequate for a family to live in. Since such shelter is mostly unauthorised and built without permission, slum dwellers could be evicted at any time. To add to the misery, the urban poor are also much more deprived in the areas of sanitation and infrastructure. The non-availability of toilet facilities, especially for women; lack of drinking water, clean air and ventilation; and exposure to disease make living conditions awfully run-down. There are other dangers and challenges lurking — challenges of transport, the dangers of extortion and increased vulnerability to crime. It is not difficult to imagine what kind of family relationships and human values will get nurtured in such a disparaging environment.

The stark differences that are seen in the living standards of the urban rich and the urban poor have a significant bearing on the psychology of the urban poor. Within the rural society, the standards of living of all village folk across the economic spectrum are far less stratified than in cities. Consumption patterns are likely to be less dissimilar, since the variety of consumer products available in a village is narrow. As a consequence, relative poverty is a less conspicuous term in a village on account of an almost enforced standardisation of quality of life in many villages.


"The deprivations of poverty, unlike in rural areas, hit the urban poor hard, because they see what the others have and what they don’t."

 

Such differences, however, rise in cities. With regard to the range of choices available in cities — whether it be in housing, clothing, food, education, health, or transport or in the range of services offered — the rich have far better availability. In rural areas, the range of availability of consumer goods is narrow. As a result, certain goods are inaccessible to all village folk, whether poor or rich. In urban areas, those with money can avail of a very large range of goods and services. However, the urban poor cannot afford them. The deprivations of poverty, therefore, unlike in rural areas, hit the urban poor hard, because they see what the others have and what they don’t. The situation breeds powerlessness, emotive confusion, resentment and buried anger. These differences escalate as cities become larger and worsen the cited characteristics of poverty.

It is only after these differences are sufficiently appreciated that appropriate antidotes can be found and proper solutions can be devised to tackle urban poverty. The past practice of seeing all poverty in a rural light and applying rural solutions in urban conditions will not yield the expected results. Furthermore, the design of anti-poverty policies needs to be looked at in the context of overall urban policies, urban planning and legal and institutional frameworks. This is not happening today. In all such analyses, it will be realised that land is the primary constraint since little land is committed in cities to the needs of the poor, whether it be for housing, enterprise or amenities.


"The design of anti-poverty policies needs to be looked at in the context of overall urban policies, urban planning and legal and institutional frameworks."

 

However, there seems to be some realisation emerging within government that there needs to be a relook at poverty definitions. Recently, a working paper on poverty released by the Union rural development ministry has proposed that the future definition of poverty line cannot be the subsistence level income required by an individual, but will have to factor in living standards that encompass facilities like housing, education and sanitation, amongst others. Although emanating from the rural department, this thinking is on the right lines, more applicable to urban poverty than the rural. One hopes this seeps into national official thinking.

Ramanath Jha (ORF)
27 November 2020

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