This guest post is from Prachee Sinha, an M.A. Candidate in Sustainable International Development at the Heller School. Ms. Sinha is currently doing her practicum in Lucknow, India.
In this first piece of what I hope to be a series of human and development stories from India, I will sketch an outline of the urban poverty scene. From the next piece onwards I will report directly from the field and bring you specific stories.
What picture does the word “India” evoke in our minds? We think of a land of 1.2 billion, mostly poor people that also contributes significantly to the global list of billionaires – a land of spirituality and traditions that is at the same time a modern democracy and the second fastest growing economy in the world. We think of the ghats of Banaras, the majestic Himalayas, the beaches of Goa and the temples of Puri. We think of the IT professionals, of the American anxiety of being ‘Bangalored’, of the emergent superpower on the high table of G-20. We believe this narrative persistently sold to us for last two decades – the idea of India Shining.
This narrative, though true, is one-sided. It washes the poor, the marginalized and displaced out of our minds – the people for whom the euphoria around India Shining has turned into India’s forgotten people. These are the hapless people who make up the sprawling, and appalling, slum habitat of the Indian cities. When heads are counted, they number no less than two thirds of the population of the United States. They live a wretched life, work in informal sectors, many times are migrants, and often do not exist in official records. They are the invisible millions who are slogging away everyday keeping the cities clean, building the infrastructure, while living the life of pariahs.
India is replete with paradoxes. Despite its phenomenal economic growth during the last two or three decades, India remains a land of widespread poverty, illiteracy and ill-health. One ought not to miss the parallel narrative of India as home to world’s largest number of poor, disadvantaged and marginalized people. A staggering 665 million (nearly 2 out of every 3 Indians) still defecate in the open. 76% of Indians live on less than $2 a day, and 42% are below the absolute poverty line of less than $1.25 a day. Currently almost 30% of Indians live in urban areas, a figure that is likely to go up to 40% in next two decades. 160 million Indians live in urban slums, which is 55% of the total urban population of India.
This paradox makes India a fascinating place for development work and research. So, when the opportunity arose, I chose to return to India for my second year Practicum. I am currently working in the North Indian city of Lucknow, interning at WaterAid on the issue of Right to Water and Sanitation for the urban poor. During the practicum, I will investigate the role of governance in improving service delivery and removing barriers to the availability of water and sanitation in the case of the slum-dwelling urban poor of Lucknow.
Lucknow is the capital of the most populous state in India, Uttar Pradesh. Located in the Hindi heartland and with population of 3.5 million, Lucknow is known for its rich cultural heritage. Half of the population, however, lives in slums. Two fifths of the entire population lacks access to sanitation facilities. One third of the population gets only a small fraction of the water needed for a healthy living. Government figures acknowledge the existence of 797 slums in the city of Lucknow alone.
The living conditions in these slums are extremely difficult, to say the least. Vast majority of the slum dwellers do not have access to adequate water, sanitation and other basic services. There are two kinds of slums, legal and illegal, legality being defined on the basis of having or not having titles to the land on which they exist. Life is hard enough in the legal slums; it is even tougher in the illegal ones. A typical illegal slum looks like a maze of small temporary huts mostly located along the river Gomti that bisects the city, along the sewage canals or on abandoned industrial or government land. There is mud, slush and stagnant water all around, some times near the water source, or next to homes. Mosquitoes and flies are everywhere, causing diseases which break the backs of the already indebted slum dwellers. The famous Indian monsoons are extremely hard with not a dry patch in sight, with water entering homes and children wading through the filth and scum.
There are problems galore and there are no simple solutions. One is not here to spring a miracle. One is here to learn from the people who would not survive without the resilience and creativity they possess. And one is here to, hopefully, contribute a little, help a little.
Let me start constructing, then, in little pieces, the parallel narrative of India. As the photograph above testifies, it is not going to be a pretty story. But, I guess, it is going to be a story of the never-say-die spirit of Indian slum dwellers in face of unimaginable hardships and injustice. It is a story that needs to be told by bigger voices than mine, so that these forgotten people do not remain forgotten.