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Why is Poverty a Problem in India?

Riya Sen


For several decades after India gained independence, the government prioritized poverty eradication over all other goals. At that time the policies around this goal were directed towards rural India. India was mainly about villages where poverty was substantial. Millions of villagers lacked basic essentials like food to eat and suffered from malnutrition and hunger.

But the concentrated efforts of the government on rural poverty did not stop urbanization in India. In 1951 urban population accounted for 17.29% of the population which jumped to 31.16% by the 2010 census. Within the same timeframe urban population increased in numbers from 62 million to 377 million which is almost six times. 

One of the major reasons for such an overwhelming increase in urban population is due to an exodus of many villagers to cities in search of better jobs and money. Such a phenomenon is referred to as the urbanization of poverty.
In this article, we will understand what is meant by urban poverty, the reasons behind it, what is the scene of urban poverty in India, and what are some of the solutions to urban poverty being implemented in our country.

What is Meant by Poverty?

The traditional way of categorizing poverty by researchers and socialists has given classified poverty into two classes:

  • Absolute poverty – Absolute poverty is based on basic conditions that need to be met for a healthy existence from a physical point of view.
  • Relative poverty  – The idea of relative property is based on the fact that criteria of human subsistence stand the same for everyone irrespective of circumstances and context.

As per the above two definitions, people who are below these universally established thresholds are living in poverty conditions. This definition is independent of the country’s culture or its economic, technological, human, and other advancements.

What is Urban Poverty?

The term “urban poverty” is used to define the set of social and economical hardships that are present in industrialized cities.

  • These difficulties are a result of a combination of processes for instance increase of individualism, social fragmentation, implementation of comfortable and quality living standards, dualization of the labor market (translating into social dualization), and a few others.
  • The primary characteristic of urban poverty is that it occurs in industrialized cities.
  • People who are considered to be living in urban poverty conditions have substandard living states and incomes. Urban poverty is also marked with deficient provision of basic amenities and low quality of life.
  • Urban poverty poses challenges for relieving misery, reducing exploitation, and creating humane conditions of living, working, and growth for disadvantaged people.

Urban Poverty in India

Urban poverty in India has reached a staggering scale of 30% with 81 million people living in urban regions having incomes below the poverty line.

  • Rural poverty is still higher than urban poverty in India at the national level but the gap between the two is closing fast with urbanization predicted to reach a whopping 50% by 2030.
  • Eradication of poverty in India became the key objective in the fifth five-year plan (1974 – 1979.)
  • The World Bank has predicted that India along with countries like Indonesia, China, Nigeria, and the United States will witness tremendous growth in urban population by 2050.
  • More and more people are moving from rural to urban centers which are indicative of ineffective economic reforms in small and medium towns. These reforms have not been able to provide enough jobs in the rural and semi rural sectors of India. In the 21st century, a large number of rural to urban migration occurred in Mumbai.
  • Mumbai has 12.5 million people, making it the largest metropolis in India and its population rose by 3.1% as per the 2011 census. Delhi has shown a 4.1% and Kolkata a 2% increase in their population as per 2011 census.
  • The nature of urban poverty in India poses unique challenges for water, housing, health, sanitization, social security, education, and livelihood. The vulnerable groups (like children, women, elderly) have their own special needs.
  • The slum population is on the rise and the slum dwellers have no access to basic services. Most of them do not have proper access to water, sanitization, and other basic necessities. The slum dwellers have no social security cover and they are constantly threatened by eviction, confiscation of goods, and removal. 
  • Around 54 percent of those who live in slums do not have toilets and the public toilet facilities are not maintained hence rendered unusable.

Solutions to Urban Poverty in India

The governments of most countries have realized the need to enhance their response to urban poverty and participated in a series of UN Global conferences.

  • The habitat agenda (first held in Vancouver in 1976) focuses on human shelter, housing, and urban agenda. The conference held in 1996 introduced new themes of urbanization and sustainable urban development due to spiraling urban decay and degradation.
  • India is a signatory to the Habitat agenda and participated in the 2001 meeting, Istanbul+5. The meeting helped to review and appraise the Habitat agenda and its worldwide implementation.
  • MUDPA (Ministry of Urban Development and Poverty Alleviation) is the union ministry dealing with urban poverty in India. It has two departments DUD (Department of Urban Development) and DUEPA (Department for Urban Employment and Poverty Alleviation). DUD deals with urban policy, water supply, land, transport, sanitization, and local self-government. DUEPA handles employment, housing, and poverty eradication.
  • The government has taken many measures towards providing solutions to urban poverty in India in its three-pronged approach:
    1. Enhancing income and productive employment of the poor.
    2. Improving general health and welfare.
    3. Improving the state of the poor neighborhood with better infrastructure.
  • SJSRY (Swarna Jayanti Shahari Rojgar Yojna) is the main urban anti-poverty program of the union ministry which integrates all the above approaches along with many previous schemes.

Enhance the Lives of Urban Poor by Supporting NGOs

There are many NGOs that are working towards providing basic services to the urban poor like healthcare, education, and livelihoods. Apnalaya is an NGO that is striving to understand the complexities involved with the urban poor and help them with empathy. Apnalaya believes in taking value-driven decisions to empower the urban poor by creating a psychologically safe environment.

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