The surge in cases of coronavirus, particularly in cities of the country, has resulted in several articles expressing concern about difficulties faced by people living in slums. They argue that the deplorable living conditions of squalid settlements do not permit slum dwellers the luxury of social distancing. In view of such a situation, many have suggested better urban management and inclusive urban planning as policies that should be implemented in the post-Covid scenario.

However, a basic question remains unaddressed and unanswered in most such discussions: why do slums exist in the first place and what makes their existence in cities so ‘normal’? The experience of Western countries suggests that the interplay of industrialisation and urbanisation is expected to further development of an economy in the very conventional sense. One key factor driving urbanisation, especially in the early stages of industrialisation, is the migration of people from rural to urban areas. Over the years, economists have postulated theoretical models to explain the phenomenon of rural-urban migration.

They stress on the movement of people from the traditional sector, i.e. the agricultural sector in rural areas, to the modern sector, i.e. the industrial sector in urban areas, in search of better jobs with higher wages. Further extensions of such models take into account the possibility of rural migrants initially employed in the urban informal sector to shift to the urban formal sector. But apart from other criticisms, these models fail to identify the class of people who migrate and the primary reason behind their migration, because more often than not, ruralurban migration is displacement- and distress-driven rather than a voluntary movement of people.

Therefore, viewing this phenomenon from a different perspective might shed some light on this particular limitation of conventional models. It is imperative to understand the historical context of a system that forces the migration of a class of people. British colonial rule imposed commercialisation and mechanisation on the Indian economy, which were the harbingers of capitalism in India. The introduction of machinemade products decimated our traditional handicrafts and allied smallscale production. Simultaneously, initiation of zamindari, mahalwari and ryotwari systems in agriculture reinforced the alienation of actual tillers from their lands by converting lands into private properties of landlords.

Even after the country gained independence, this continued: the advent of Green Revolution mechanized agriculture and the 1991 liberalisation reforms further damaged our indigenous industries. These have resulted in the continuous creation of a class of people who lose their traditional skills as artisans and as tillers. Their dispossession forces them to seek jobs in cities where their traditional skills are rendered useless.

The huge influx of migrants and scarcity of jobs in cities maintain a growing labour force from which some find employment in routine mechanical jobs. The nature of their jobs and the constant existence of a pool of unemployed people make them disposable to their employers and keep their wages low. Most of the people who fail to get wage employment resort to petty and casual selfemployment, often involving family members. Common features between these two groups of workers are the precarious nature of their jobs, lack of security and, above all, appallingly low compensation.

These result in keeping them on the brink of their survival. Concurrently, primary importance accorded to growth of cities has led to increased competition for land and hence high rents for housing. The aforementioned working class of people cannot possibly afford any form of decent housing, since their low-paying jobs have made the possibility of owning a house a distant dream. Consequently, they are forced to live in squalid and clustered settlements with abysmal availability of and accessibility to basic amenities like clean drinking water and latrines within premises.

This is a typical picture of the eyesore of our celebrated cities. In this way, development through increased urbanisation has witnessed the increased formation of slums with the number of people residing in them augmenting over time. Slum dwellers are stuck in a structurally created vicious circle which thwarts their social and economic mobility. This essentially includes subsequent generations of early distress-driven migrants and the continuous stream of migrants to cities. Having to stay put amidst deplorable conditions, they experience an extremely poor physical, social and cultural environment, that is, a very low quality of life in general.

As studies have suggested, these factors play a crucial role in lowering their aspirations through generations. The struggle to meet their basic needs compels them to sell their labour at any price. This price is typically a subsistence wage. The vulnerability of their lives and the desperation to hold on to their jobs have converted this class of people into a docile labour force, which in turn is beneficial to the profit-maximizing capitalistic system. Therefore, continued existence of the marginality of these people serves the interests of this system.

The capitalistic system also ensures that they witness the least social and economic mobility. An essential element of capitalism, privatisation, plays a crucial role in achieving this objective. Introduction of private educational institutions limits access to decent quality of education to the economically well-off. The children growing up in slums are mostly either engaged in economic activities or in household chores. If at all their parents can afford to educate them, they are sent to ill-maintained government schools which suffer from dearth of teachers and high drop-out rates.

This education fails to instil in them the skills requisite for significant economic mobility. Thus, stuck in this system, they too are an addition to the docile labour force. The vulnerability of the working class residing in slums gets transferred through generations, leading to what might be referred to as trans-generational vulnerability. A vicious circle is created, thereby helping the system to maintain a steady pool of exploitable workers. The increasing spread of slums in cities and the plight of their inhabitants have been acknowledged by international organisations as one of the issues accompanying urbanisation in developing countries like India.

In fact, the United Nations World Urbanisation Prospects: the 2018 Revision has suggested a need to “ensure equitable access to housing and services; minimize the number of people living in slums; and preserve a healthy environment within the city and surrounding areas” for sustainable urbanisation. Scholars have also highlighted the need for better urban planning and have recommended affordable housing and provision of basic amenities to make urbanisation in India more inclusive.

Undoubtedly, these are well-intentioned policy prescriptions to ameliorate the challenges faced by slum dwellers. However, without addressing the primary question concerning the formation of slums and their continued existence, these policy suggestions will be incomplete at best, and insincere at worst. Understanding the historical context and connecting the workings of the current system with the existence of slums is imperative and must precede any suggestions made to alleviate the problems associated with slums.

(The writers are Research Scholars at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram)