Everybody who has travelled South Asia or Africa knows them: the images and the harsh realities of slums. But what exactly are slums?

Un-Habitat, the program of the United Nations for human settlements, defines the term Slum as ‘settlement, in which more as half of the residents live in unreasonable accommodation without basic utilities’. Slum dwellers accordingly live without property rights, access to clean water, access to sanitation and without sufficient living space.

In our industrialised world slums are often created due to rural exodus. Due to lack of work villagers start looking for alternative sources of income. This search leads to a strong migration into the cities. Mostly this demographic change is so enormous, and takes place in such a small period of time, that proper assimilation of this new population is impossible. In a first phase usually ghettos are formed. Within these ghettos the living areas of the weaker groups of the populations in a second phase often turn into slums.

Slums usually emerge completely unstructured. Often the slum dwellers live in huts that have constructed with the use of metal plates, jute bags and plastic bags, and in optimal cases later on were improved with rudimentary building materials or were increased in height. The lanes in the slums are often very narrow. In most of the houses there is no natural light. There is no space for the passing through of vehicles, ambulances or fire brigades. Although nowadays power supply sometimes is provided, water supply remains very problematic. In many lanes the open sewers run immediately next to the houses. Municipal services like organized garbage collection are non-existing. That way often large amount of garbage is accumulated in very short time.

Most slum dwellers are engaged in irregular ways of employment. They often work as streets vendors, day laborers, rickshaw drivers, drug dealers, prostitutes, or even sell their own organs for transplantation.

According a report of the United Nations worldwide a billion people, one out of six, are living in slums. If the trend goes on by 2020 this number could be even doubled. Especially in Asia and Africa the migration to the cities continues uninterrupted.

In India slum dwellers have an average day income of 100 – 250 Rupees per day. Converted one to three Euro. Most of the slum dwellers cannot afford own housing with this money. In many cases the wife and kids of the slum dwellers still live in their village, and families will be reunited only when enough of money is saved. There are no rules of employment and there is no social security. Kids are not sent to school because they have to work too and that way contribute to the family income. Because of the lack of social security often also the parents and grandparents depend on this small income. Once migrated to the city a return to the city becomes impossible. It would mean a too huge loss of status for the whole family.

Nowadays often in the metropolitan cities slums even raise the interest of investors. This evolution proves that in metropolitan cities not only the affordable space for new real estate decreases rapidly, but that even in the slums the space for new migrants decreases significantly.

Where initially industrialisation was one of the main reasons for the forming of slums, many major cities in the past years have suffered massive de-industrialisation. In some cities the employment rate in the industrial sector decreased by twenty to forty percent. Nevertheless the growth of population in the cities continues further. In this process the slum dwellers always remained capable to find some sources for their income in order to survive. This contradiction between de-industrialisation and the further increase of urbanisation nevertheless has forced more people into this limited amount of survival niches. In the metropolitan cities of India for example there are far more rag pickers and rickshaw drivers than there are software developers or call center workers.

Good novels that deal with the problematic life of slum dwellers are: ‘A fine balance’ by Rohin Mistry and ‘Untouchable’ by Mulk Raj Anand.



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