According to the UN 2018 Revision of World Urbanization Prospects, Delhi, the second largest city in the world by population is predicted to overtake Tokyo to become the most populous city in the world by 2028 [1]. The capital city of India is receiving an unprecedented number of poor migrants, mostly from the neighbouring states. A major challenge facing the city administrators is the inadequate affordable housing infrastructure which in turn contributes to the growing slum-population. With about half of Delhi’s population living in slums, it is imperative that the government takes steps to address this burgeoning crisis, before it is too late.  This article seeks to examine briefly the past and future of Delhi’s urban poor in the context of the several policy changes that are taking place all around the world.

A brief history of Delhi’s demographic changes

Delhi witnessed the implementation of two ‘Master Plans of Delhi’ (MPD) first, in September 1962 and a second, in August 1990, both aimed at a “comprehensive planned development of the capital city” [2] The model city of Delhi envisaged in the plans – “prosperous, hygienic and orderly”, could only be realised with the help of the labour of numerous working poor who had migrated to the city in search of employment opportunities and with the hope for better standards of living [3].

Unfortunately, these migrants were not a part of the master plan because a growth in the migrant population was unanticipated by the planners of the city. The “simultaneous mushrooming of an unplanned Delhi [3] was inevitable, with numerous slums coming up at various locations of the capital. The criminalisation of the working poor who lived in them resulted directly from the processes of displacement written into the Master Plan.3 In the late 1980s, India started to undergo economic liberalisation, which gave rise to a number of fundamental policy changes, along with the birth of India’s “new middle classes,” comprised of educated people from all castes, occupying managerial or white collar jobs.  Slowly, the success of government regulations and policies came to be measured against the benefits accrued by the new middle class from these as opposed to the benefits for a larger common good [4].

In 1990-91, a “three-pronged strategy” was adopted by the Delhi local government to deal with squatter settlements, including the up gradation, relocation, and environmental improvement of urban slums categorised into different statuses respectively [6] However, this strategy was used as a legal tool for the brutal displacement of these informal settlements. Upper-middle class imaginations of a clean and green Delhi have combined with commercial capital, and the State to deny the poor their rights to the environment and the city [3] The Indian middle class seemed to be replicating what Neil Smith described as the reaction of the American upper middle classes “against the (self-perceived) ‘theft’ of the city by variously defined ‘others’…occasionally vicious reaction against minorities, the working class, homeless people…” [5] Between 1998 and the present, over one million slum dwellers in Delhi have been displaced. This period has witnessed an overwhelming increase in the number of slum demolitions [7]. The combined number of slum clusters demolished by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) and Delhi Development Authority (DDA) over the five years leading from 1995 to 1999 became more than tenfold in the next five years (2000-2004)[7]. This hike is an outcome of the judiciary’s increasing role in demanding slum clearance [5]. The reality strikes one hard to know that while eviction from unauthorised occupation always involves elaborate legal and technical processes, eviction of the slum dwellers from public lands calls for the barest of procedures, and peremptory demolition has been established as a practice. The priorities emerging over time as to how ‘public land’ is to be put to use for “constitutionally useful purposes” are a testimony to the fact that the needs of the urban poor are being increasingly de-prioritised [8].

Deplorable conditions in urban slums

While it is noted above the attempts to “clean up” the city by means of demolitions and displacements to serve commercial and corporate interests and beautify the city by the standards of aesthetics held by a certain class of people, the intention is not to undermine the daily struggle of the slum dwellers, even if they are allowed to continue in their settlements. The clusters of hundreds of shanties housing families of four to seven members often lack a regular supply of electricity, water, facilities for removal of garbage, sanitation, built roads and proper ventilation. With monthly incomes ranging between $70- $210 a month, the slum residents struggle to make ends meet on a daily basis. The government health facilities in the slums are often absent and if present are in a poor condition. Private health care is becoming extremely expensive and is increasingly difficult for the poor to afford [9].

Apart from material inadequacies, there exists among the residents of the slums, a perpetual fear of eviction and demolition. They constantly live in anticipation of the next demolition drive and often feel that their survival is dependent upon the mercy of the municipality authorities and politicians. Most residents are employed in the informal sector which contributes to precarity and a sense of insecurity.[10]

Similar patterns around the world

Cities are perceived to be the epitome of modernity and progress. However, the existence of spaces like slums not only portray a true case of economic dualism, but also are a reflection of the existing caste, class and racial inequalities in a society in the way the slum populations are tactfully segregated from the remaining populations who are economically better off. Unfortunately, this hostility of urban spaces towards the urban poor or the homeless is almost ubiquitous in the world today in some form or the other. While physically displacing the poor from their settlements is one way to do so, some of the wealthier countries are more familiar with what is popular by the name of ‘defensive design’ or ‘disciplinary architecture’ whose aim is to separate ‘undesirables’ from city residents deemed more deserving by the virtue of their design [10]. Racism is at the root of many of the urban designs, and modern cities bear the legacy of that discrimination. Some examples can illustrate this better. “Throughout the postwar era, vibrant black neighbourhoods had highways torn through them, noxious facilities sited within them, and economic investment and mortgage lending directed away from them”.11 It has been argued by some that the scarcity of public transit in certain neighbourhoods in the San Francisco Bay Area is an intentional tactic to keep affluent communities more segregated [11]. Water sprinklers to bus-shelter seats that pivot forward, from ubiquitous protrusions on window ledges “and loud muzak to hard tubular rests, from metal park benches with solid dividers to forests of pointed cement bollards under bridges”, urban spaces are aggressively rejecting soft, human bodies [12].

Future of urban spaces

It remains to be seen how governments of metropolitan cities meet the expanding needs of the growing populations, while also respecting their basic human rights and dignity. New Delhi’s poor have seen a ray of hope with the new ‘Mohalla clinics’ or primary health centres opened up by the state government in every neighbourhood, offering medical treatment free of cost, especially benefiting the poor in the city. The government has also taken steps to substantially improve the quality of education provided by the government schools, again a benefit for the poor. Electricity has been made considerably cheaper and water up to a certain quantity is supplied free of cost to all citizens. Defensive urban designs and relocation of slums are only ways of hiding inequalities and urban poverty from staring into our faces on a daily basis. The best way to stop this from happening is to look for solutions to the problems rather than the symptoms. “The space between who is considered an expert and who is typically on the margins of conversations about public space needs to be collapsed” [11]. Who constitutes the “public” is a question that demands serious reflection from planners and governments. The economically better-off urban citizens have a role to play in urging their governments to utilise inclusionary planning instruments to make policies that are just and equitable to make urban spaces welcoming and inclusive towards all sections of the city, especially the urban poor.

Jayasurya KALAKKAL


[1] UN Population Division, 2018. 2018 Revision of World Urbanization Prospects, s.l.: United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

[2] Chakrabarti, P., 2001. Delhi’s Ongoing Debate on Informal Settlements and Work Places –Some Issues of Environmental Jurisprudence. Brussels, Network-Association of European Researchers on Urbanisation in theSouth (N-AERUS) and European Science Foundation (ESF).

[3] Baviskar, A., 2003. Between violence and desire: space, power, and identity in the making of metropolitan Delhi. International Social Science Journal, 55(175), pp. 89-98.


[5] Ramanathan, U., 2006. Illegality and the urban poor. Economic and political weekly, 41(29), pp. 3193-3197.

[6] Dupont, V. (2008). Slum Demolitions in Delhi since the 1990s : An Appraisal. Economic and Political Weekly, 79-87.

[7] Ghertner, D. A., 2008. An analysis of new legal discourse behind Delhi’s slum demolitions. Economic and Political Weekly, 43(20), pp. 57-66.

[8] Ramanathan, U. (2005). Demolition Drive. Economic and Political Weekly, 40(27), 2908-2912.

[9] Sethi, V., 2016. Life in a slum: Ugly face of India, New Delhi: Times of India.

[10]Web Urbanist, 2015. Hostile Urbanism: 22 Intentionally Inhospitable Examples of Defensive Design. [Online]

Available at: https://weburbanist.com/2018/01/01/hostile-urbanism-22-intentionally-inhospitable-examples-of-defensive-design/
[Accessed 22 September 2018].

[11]  Budds, D., 2016. How Urban Design perpetuates Racial Inequality- And What can we do about it?. [Online]

Available at: https://www.fastcompany.com/3061873/how-urban-design-perpetuates-racial-inequality-and-what-we-can-do-about-it
[Accessed 23 September 2018].

[12] Andreou, A., 2014. Anti-homeless spikes: ‘Sleeping rough opened my eyes to the city’s barbed cruelty. [Online] [Accessed 23 September 2018].

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