The slum is not only a manifestation of mismanaged urban planning in the countries of the South. The existence of slums worldwide is also a sign that the slum is a crucial element of contemporary urbanisation. This article will attempt to define this phenomenon and understand its causes. Adequate policy responses are then suggested. Without finding appropriate solutions to the housing problems of a majority of urban dwellers, public and private decision makers will not be able to meet the challenges of sustainable development.

The primary causes of slum development are urbanisation, migration of the population from rural to urban areas, lack of proper affordable residences in the urban areas, unhygienic living conditions of the people in these slums. The slums are mostly built in low lying areas next to water bodies and drainages. These also pose as a health hazard for its occupants. The lack of sanitation facilities like proper toilets and bathrooms leads to unhealthy habits like open defecation, washing of clothes in the polluted river water, breathing in the stale, unclean air.

The secondary factors like education facilities, basic government services like policing, security etc are non-prevalent in the slum areas. As the slums are an illegal settlement on government land, the people have no life security and may be asked to evacuate at any time. Even the houses they live in are small compact and tightly packed. The settlement is very rudimentary and haphazard without any proper planning. These being situated in low lying areas are the first to be affected during natural disasters like floods and rains. The government has taken several measures to uplift the pitiful living conditions of the slum dwellers.

The report also contains case studies, both Indian and foreign, for further explanation on the life in squatter settlements. The case study in India is based on Dharavi, Asia’s biggest slum. The financial capital of India known as Mumbai is home to estimated 6.5 million slum people.

Nearly half of Mumbai’s Population lives in small shacks surrounded by open sewers. Nearly 55% of Mumbai’s population lives in Slum areas. Despite of Government efforts to build new houses and other basic infrastructure, most of the people living in slum areas do not have electricity, water supply and cooking gas.

The second case study is on Sao Paulo, in Brazil. A home to one of the biggest slums in the world called Favelas. Slums world‐ over share some common characteristics including a higher incidence of violent crime due to lack of attention from local law enforcement, a higher incidence of disease due to poor sanitation and access to healthcare facilities, the dominance of the informal economy and political bosses, and a higher incidence of child labour, prostitution, and substance abuse. Clearly, the culture of a nation or region plays a large role in determining the degree to which these factors shape the slum. The development of slums appears to be an entirely organic phenomenon which occurs when poorer countries that have under‐developed

urban management, governance structures and poor infrastructure undergo rapid industrialisation and urbanisation and fail to minimise the disparity of prosperity between the urban and rural population.


One of India’s biggest challenges today is coping with the wave of urbanization unleashed by economic liberalization. An estimated 160 million people have moved to the cities in the last two decades, and another 230 million are projected to move there within the next 20 years.

Unfortunately, as any visitor to India can see for themselves, its major metros and tier‐II cities are clearly finding it difficult to cope with the inflow of people. It is no surprise that India’s famously poor infrastructure is critically over‐strained. In response, the ill‐equipped urban systems and the informal housing that are the slums have expanded exponentially in the last few decades without proper access to basic services such as sanitation, healthcare, education, and law and order. While they are often teeming with entrepreneurial activity, they are nevertheless an inefficient use of the city’s human resources and land. In order to truly unleash the productive potential of this dynamic urban population, India will need to build scalable urban systems capable of housing, caring for, employing and integrating large and increasing numbers of new inhabitants. India is not alone in this challenge of course; Mexico, Brazil and Africa have some of the largest slums in the world. It is unclear that there are simple solutions to the problem of slums given their extraordinary organic growth rates– 70% of the world’s population is expected to live in urban centers by 2050 – and solving slums requires a rethink of the design of cities and their borders as well as of the role of rural areas. The challenge is incorporating all of these factors and still being able to provide safe and sounds residences to the abundant inflow of people, with proper planning and without the compromise on the use of the resources of the state.

In this article we will be running through the problems faced by the government due to slum and squatter settlements. The appalling living conditions of these illegal settlements, the health problems caused, the issues faced by the people living there and ways of rectifying this situation in the best possible manner.


“Slums are litmus tests for innate cultural strengths and weaknesses. Those peoples whose cultures can harbor extensive slum life without decomposing will be, relatively speaking, the future’s winners. Those whose cultures cannot will be the future’s victims.” – Robert D. Kaplan, The Coming Anarchy, 1994

A slum is a heavily populated informal urban settlement characterized by substandard housing and squalor. While slums differ in size and other characteristics from country to country, most lack reliable sanitation services, supply of clean water, reliable electricity, timely law enforcement and other basic services. Slum residences very from shanty houses to professionally built dwellings that because of poor quality design or construction have deteriorated into slums.

Slums form and grow in many different parts of the world for many different reasons. Some causes include rapid rural-to-urban migration, economic stagnation and depression, high unemployment, poverty, informal economy, poor planning, politics, natural disasters, and social conflicts.

Most of the people who live in slums are extremely poor, and many are treated as second class citizens by their society. Health problems tend to be very high, as a result of improper sanitation and lack of access to basic health care. Malnutrition is another serious problem in many places, as is crime, which can make them very dangerous for their inhabitants.

Many people view slums as the ultimate symbol of inequality, and in some regions, such areas have formed in some very unexpected locations, sometimes neighboring the homes of the wealthy. Organizations that campaign against them argue that no human being should be forced to live in such poor conditions, and that as a basic act of humanity, cities need to provide livable low cost housing and regulate construction.

Unfortunately, the solution is seldom this simple. The world’s population is rapidly growing, putting immense pressure on available resources, and as developing countries become more developed, this pressure is likely to grow. Although it is somewhat disheartening to think about, gross inequality seems to go hand in hand with growing societies.


Democracy provides free mobility to its people. Part of the freedom of India’s democratic population is the apparent liberty to pursue their dreams anywhere in the country and India’s aspiring population is dynamic and determined to do so. The great slums of India are predominantly created when large numbers of individuals or families move to the urban centres of their dreams, usually in search of better economic prospects. Mumbai has been the number one choice of generations of Indians for decades. These urban centres are not geared to, nor governed in a manner that can accommodate (or reject) such an influx of people. As a result, the incoming migrants find accommodation in unorganised dwellings. India’s slums have received global attention not just from the global NGOs but also in popular culture through movies like Slumdog Millionaire,which portray them as centres of unmitigated squalor and despair. However poor this quality of life may seem from the outside, from a migrant slum‐dweller’s perspective, living there is an entirely rational decision based on three basic factors:

  1. A Higher and More Stable Income. The productive employment opportunity in the urban centre will likely generate a higher and more consistent personal disposable income than in the place of origin – likely a rural, farming centre (e.g. being a chauffeur in Mumbai is a more lucrative and sustainable job proposition than being a labourer at a farm, typically a small plot in an un‐electrified village with erratic water availability.

  1. Social Mobility for the Next Generation. Raising children in an urban environment creates a higher “option value” for the next generation. Typically, cities offers a wider choice of education and employment opportunities, and while no parent wishes their child to grow up in a slum, the chances that the child could rise to a middle class life provides a strong incentive to migrate to one from the countryside. This contrasts to a child growing up in a village dominated by a sub‐scale farm with poor education and employment opportunities, who is unlikely to ever have the same social mobility opportunity.

  1. No Other Option. Unfortunately, slums are the only way to inhabit the city for the vast majority of migrants. With little available low‐cost housing of decent quality near the city centre, a rural migrant would need to go well outside even the suburbs and outskirts of the city to be able to afford real estate. Given the poor transport linkages to the cities, this can create a significant trade‐off for migrant in terms of the occupations that are available and their earnings potential. As a result, most are willing to compromise and make the trade‐off to slum housing in the city to be closer to the place of work.

The coalescing of this process over decades, with successive waves of migrants and no exodus of the previous waves leads to slums growing in scale and scope (see inset on the phases in slum development). Over time, informal economies develop in these slums as they form their own social practices and codes in the absence of any effective oversight from the local government. The larger slums often become a zone for small‐scale industries by illegally diverting public resources (water, electricity) to meet their requirements. These slums also provide bluecollar

labour for construction, manufacturing, and other trades.

Clearly, India’s slums are far from their popular stereotypes as only centres of disease and want. Indeed, an overwhelming number of people in these slums have left their homes in the countryside in the pursuit of opportunities in urban India because of their strong aspirations. Ironically, it is the informal economy which traps many of these slum‐dwellers into the vicious cycle of poverty.

Without real options for their children to secure competitive standards of schooling and with the overwhelming number of slum‐dwellers not trained for the better jobs, social mobility for this class, though inspiring when it occurs, is still limited. Further, continuing urbanisation and slum growth through fresh arrivals from the countryside increases competition for limited resources and, opportunities further reducing both liveability and individual chances for mobility. The very presence of slums ultimately risks creating a different class of urban citizens who only rarely mix with the other ‘classes’ other than as employees. While India’s slums today are full of ambitious hard workers, lack of opportunity can quickly institutionalise poverty and create an unbridgeable gap between poor and rich. Although global technological innovation and India’s growth provides its slum dwellers with access to some of the modern consumables such as motorcycles, televisions, and mobile phones, their ability to shape their own destiny remains limited – and the productive potential of the young migrants eager to work is under‐utilised. However, having established viability and survived attempts to dismantle the slum, India’s largest slums like Dharavi, are now in phase VI, continuous growth through adaptation. This makes them an organic entity that has demonstrated its Darwinian survival status.

Strategies for transforming India’s slums

The history of urbanisation is full of examples of cities which started off by being the hosts (willingly or not) to the economically weaker section of the population who were ultimately graduated from poor living conditions to a combination of affordable housing and basic civic amenities. The solution ultimately lies in better nations, not just better cities, which are scalable and capable of not only absorbing the inflow of people (from within or without), but in fact are economic magnets in attracting the best talent from the country. Five insights provide the basis of the solution.

Firstly, slums are a logical response to urbanisation and the relative lack of opportunity outside of major urban centres in predominantly poor countries. They are facilitated by the right to migrate. So, they are a structural phenomenon.

Secondly, slums become a system of living perpetuated by economics, politics and societal factors. Therefore, it makes sense to see them as a part of the system of a country and also the global system of trade and distribution of wealth.

Thirdly, people accept and adapt to their circumstances without (external) triggers to encourage them to do otherwise. In this sense, slums are adaptive organisms.

Fourthly, slum dwellers can improve the slum to a large extent if mobilised to do so. Therefore, they can also be developed as one would any organisational entity through the application of techniques of change management.

Finally, slum dwellers cannot transform their slum (into a non‐slum) without the support of the environment around them. They lack the critical human and financial resources to make a clean break from their situation. Their transformation requires external impetus and resources. In the absence of this external intervention, they can become disenfranchised rather than citizens in‐waiting and have the potential to develop a culture, set of values and behaviours that can threaten the on‐slum environment they live in.

“People accept and adapt to their circumstances without (external) triggers to encourage them to do otherwise … slums are adaptive organisms”

Therefore, ultimately, a comprehensive and long‐term solution to the problem of India’s slums cannot be about the slums themselves. A viable solution would have to take a holistic view dealing with India’s larger macro challenges and recognise the critical role which cities will have to play if India is to successfully transition into a middle‐income country. Such a solution and would include the following strategies:

  1. Industrial Revolution and Continued Development. While it was the industrial revolution which led to a wave of rapid urbanisation in the West and gave rise to slums,without the industrial revolution, the West would not have been able to afford to develop housing and infrastructure required for its growing populations. The solution to slums is not to reverse industrialisation or to try and contain urbanisation, but indeed to press forward with it more aggressively so that businesses can afford to provide jobs to slum‐dwellers and pay them a proper wage.

  1. Knowledge and Freedom Advantage. India is not fully leveraging its “freedom advantage” (see our previous paper on China which highlights the strong link between a society’s freedom and its development potential) which should in theory allow for people to strive to realise their aspirations. In particular, India needs to create an open knowledge economy where the slum‐dwellers are empowered to solve their own problems and have the access to financing to do so. This requires scaled charities and NGOs that can apply global bestpractices to tackling India’s urban issues and also raise the necessary financing.


  1. Slum Architecture. Lesson from other cities indicate that slums are best solved when housing is horizontal not vertical. In order to assimilate slum‐dwellers into urban life instead of further ostracizing them, India cannot just bulldoze the slums and pile up the people into apartment blocks. A real solution would involve building high‐quality, low‐cost, multi‐storey, diverse formats in the current areas such that these become integrated with the rest of the city (as we see in London or Paris). This needs the best brains in India and the world to come in and design the solutions. The slum is merely the platform for an urban re‐invention.

  1. Sustainable Continuous Dynamic Infrastructure Provisioning. The government needs to create a framework for gradual and continuous upgrading of slum infrastructure through innovative public‐private models and by leveraging the many dynamic charities and NGOs in India. Such a model would see the slum‐dwellers become the driving force of, rather than bystanders to, the improvement of their living conditions by empowering them to identify the solution and then finance and implement it.

  1. Rural ReVisioning and Investment. India cannot solve its slum problem by focusing on the cities alone. Any city which develops the systems to accommodate more people and create economic opportunities will attract a disproportionate number of migrants putting it under further strain unless opportunities in rural areas are sufficiently attractive relative to those in the city. Therefore a comprehensive solution would necessarily have to involve improved infrastructure, schools, employment opportunities and the overall quality of life in India’s small towns and rural centres. India’s countryside has all the potential of a Switzerland (Kashmir and the Himalayas), the Caribbean (the many beaches along its long coast), an African safari (the many wildlife sanctuaries and forests), and a Gulf desert trek (Rajasthan’s deserts and palaces) – however, the

country has barely begun to exploit this potential.



Dharavi slum is located in Mumbai (formally Bombay) in India. India‛s and Mumbai’s biggest slum is known as Dharavi. There are a million people crammed into one square mile in Dharavi. At the edge of Dharavi the newest arrivals come to make their homes on waste land next to water pipes in slum areas. They set up home illegally amongst waste on land that is not suitable for habitation. In the wet monsoon season these people have huge problems living on this low lying marginal land. Many of the people here come from many parts of India as a result of the push and pull factors of migration.


Conditions in the slum


In the slum people have to live with many problems. People have to go to the toilet in the street and there are open sewers. Children play amongst sewage waste and doctors deal with 4,000 cases a day of diphtheria and typhoid. Next to the open sewers are water pipes, which can crack and take in sewage. Dharavi slum is based around this water pipe built on an old rubbish tip. The people have not planned this settlement and have no legal rights to the land. There are also toxic wastes in the slum including hugely dangerous heavy metals. Dharavi is made up of 12 different neighbourhoods and there are no maps or road signs. The further you walk into Dharavi from the edge the more permanent and solid the structures become. People live in very small dwellings (e.g.12X12ft), often with many members of their extended families.

Many architects and planners claim this slum could hold the solution to many of the problems of the world‛s largest cities. Water is a big problem for Mumbai’s population; standpipes come on at 5:30am for 2 hours as water is rationed. These standpipes are shared between many people. Rubbish is everywhere and most areas lack sanitation and excrement and rats are found on the street. 500 people share one public latrine. The famous cloth washing area also has problems, despite its social nature sewage water filters into the water used for washing clothes.

The Positives of Dharavi Slum


There are positives; informal shopping areas exist where it is possible to buy anything you might need. There are also mosques catering for people’s religious needs. There is a pottery area of Dharavi slum which has a community centre. It was established by potters from Gujarat 70 years ago and has grown into a settlement of over 10,000 people. It has a village feel despite its high population density and has a central social square. Family life dominates, and there can be as many as 5 people per room. The houses often have no windows, asbestos roofs (which are dangerous if broken) and no planning to fit fire regulations. Rooms within houses have multiple functions, including living, working and sleeping. Many daily chores are done in social spheres because people live close to one another. This helps to generate a sense of community. The buildings in this part of the slum are all of different heights and colours, adding interest and diversity. This is despite the enormous environmental problems with air and land pollution. 85% of people have a job in the slum and work LOCALLY, and some have even managed to become millionaires.

Recycling and waste in Dharavi


Kevin McCloud found that people seemed genuinely happy in the slum. However, toilets are open holes above a river – hardly hygienic. This could lead to Dengue fever, cholera and hepatitis Dharavi has a recycling zone. It is claimed that Dharavi‛s recycling zone could be the way forward to a sustainable future. Everything is recycled from cosmetics and plastics to computer keyboards. 23% of plastic waste gets recycled in the UK, in Mumbai it is 80%. However, it is humans who work to sift the rubbish in the tips where children and women sift through the rubbish for valuable waste. They have to work under the hot sun in appalling conditions. They earn around a £1 a day for their work. At the edge of the tip the rag dealers sort their haul before selling it on to dealers. The quandary is that people have to work in poor conditions to recycle waste. From the tip it arrives in Dharavi where it is processed. It is sorted into wire, electrical products, and plastics. Plastics in India are continuously recycled. People work in dangerous conditions with toxic substances without protective clothing; this could affect people‛s life expectancy. Even dangerous hospital waste is recycled. One private enterprise makes the metal cages inside suitcases, making 700 pieces per day, paid 3 rupees per piece. There are 15,000 one room factories in Dharavi which there are 300 feeding most of Mumbai. Many of the products from Dharavi end up around the world based upon very cheap labour. Many of the people work in very poor working conditions, and includes children. Indeed, Dharavi is trying to do in 20 years what the west did in 200, develop.



The Favelas are densely packed informal settlements made of wood, cardboard, corrugated iron and other makeshift materials. Later they are replaced by concrete block construction. Often only one wall at a time will be built as a family saves up enough money to buy materials for the next wall. Then concrete tiles replace corrugated iron or other makeshift materials on the roof.

The large-scale improvement in favelas in São Paulo is due to residents’ expectations of remaining where they are. This in turn reflects a change in public policy in the past 20 years, from one of slum removal to one of slum upgrading.

Attempts to tackle the slum housing problem

Over time, a range of attempts have been made to tackle the housing crisis in São Paulo. These include:

  • A federal bank (BNH) which funded urban housing projects and low-interest loans to lower and middle-income home buyers
  • A state-level cooperatives institute (INCOOP) which helped to build housing for state workers such as teachers
  • A state-level development company (CODESPAULO) for housing for low-income families and financing of slum upgrading projects
  • A collaborative private sector/state company scheme (COHAB) to develop housing for limited-income families
  • A municipally managed COHAB for public housing construction, which also funded self-help projects (‘mutiroes’) to upgrade substandard housing.

During the period 1965 to 1982, over 150,000 housing units were built or upgraded, mostly through COHAB. Since the early 1980s, because of cutbacks at federal and state levels, the public housing burden has fallen more heavily on the municipality. Due to its own financial problems the number of housing units built by the municipality each year since the mid-1980s has averaged less than 6,000 a year.

The administration of leftist mayor Luiza Erundina (1989–92) tried to speed up public house building. Here the emphasis was on self-help housing initiatives, known as ‘mutiroes’. The city supplied funding directly to community groups. The latter engaged local families to build new housing or to renovate existing housing. However, the annual house building total only increased to 8,000 during this period.

The new strategy

The election of socialist mayor Marta Suplicy in 2000 marked a change in strategy towards the housing issue:

  • The new administration promised to spend $R3 billion on housing during its term in office.
  • The 1,000 unfinished Cingapura housing units were to be completed.
  • The new strategy would be designed to obtain maximum impact for minimum cost.
  • The concept of the mutiroe (self-help scheme) was resurrected, assisting families in self-construction or upgrading of their own homes.
  • The house unit cost of self-help schemes is between $R11,000 and $R15,000 compared to over $R20,000 for housing units in the Cingapura Project.
  • A flagship scheme to alleviate poverty in favelas is under way in Santo André (Figure 13).

Occupation of buildings by homeless

In July 2003, more than 4,000 homeless people occupied four abandoned high-rise blocks in the centre of São Paulo. Police prevented the occupation of two other buildings. This occupation and others was organised by ‘Movimento Sem Teto do Centro’ (Movement of Roofless in Centre). This organisation is protesting about the poor record of the authorities in tackling the homeless problem. They are also angry about the way street sellers are treated, with the authorities confiscating their goods because they are trading without licenses. For many homeless families and others, street selling is their only source of income.


Brazil has a greater disparity in income levels than most other countries. This impacts on housing and all other aspects of the quality of life. The occupation of buildings by homeless people is an illustration of the social tensions that such a wide income disparity can bring. It can be argued that housing is the biggest problem that São Paulo and Brazil in general has to tackle.


All the strategies described above on their own can transform the slums. However, if implemented together, they could represent a sea change in the way that world’s mass migration and resulting urbanisation is managed. This requires a recognition that the reason why slums in India persist and continue to expand is because of the failure to address fundamental issues of economic opportunity across the country, population growth, urban and rural development and education and skills development. A middle income India will indeed demand world‐class cities and conversely, to reach middle income levels, India needs to create opportunity for the population to be gainfully employed. Given India is already in the midst of a rocky economic cycle at the same time as slums are growing at the edge of every major city, the investment in urban infrastructure can create a highly positive multiplier effect for the economy while addressing a major issue. There is no single point in time or crisis which will tell us that India’s cities have suddenly become “un‐livable”; however if the status quo prevails for the next 20 years, they will get progressively more chaotic and at some stage in the not‐too‐distant future, it will be impossible to harness the economic potential of India’s population without even more radical changes than those outlined above. Addressing this issue is one of the key steps in the regeneration of the India story and will have a highly positive impact on the success of the next government. Indeed, solving the issue is about as difficult as putting a man on the moon, but would have massive collateral benefits for the nation as a whole and would be a true indicator that India is truly ready to play its role on the global stage.

“Solving the issue is about as difficult as putting a man on the moon, but would have massive collateral benefits for the nation as a whole and would be a true indicator that India is truly ready to play its role on the global stage.”


  2. McKinsey, India’s Urban Awakening, 2010
  3. Deccan Herald, “Dharavi SelfCreated Special Economic Zone for the Poor”, 2011
  4. Sussane Wendt(1997), Dissertation for phd, Slum and Squatter settlements in Dhaka
  5. Kevin McCloud, Slumming It

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