understanding urban slum poverty and the access gap

“To me, the poor are like Bonsai trees. When you plant the best seed of the tallest tree in a six-inch deep flower pot, you get a perfect replica of the tallest tree, but it is only inches tall. There is nothing wrong with the seed you planted; only the soil-base you provided was inadequate.”

– Muhammad Yunus, Founder of Grameen Bank

What’s the Problem
Living in a Slum
Everyday Challenges
Growing Urbanisation


The problem is a lack of access to basic products and services for poor families in India’s urban slums

There are currently 65 million people living in urban slums in India, and this number is rapidly growing. Conditions in these slums are often unfit for people to live in. Universally accepted, basic needs, are simply missing.


Who are the people living in slums in India?

People living in slum communities are just like anyone else – striving for opportunity and a regular income to look after their families. They are mostly rural migrants who find themselves in a new environment with no identity documentation, and no access to social entitlements, housing or financial services, all of which means they are trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty. Typically manual labourers or artisans from other regions in India, they live on less than $2 a day, barely enough to feed themselves.

The slums they live in are mostly temporary dwellings made from tarpaulin, bamboo and other materials that are set up on vacant plots of land. Slum communities range in size between four and 1000 households, and are often located near construction sites, along railway tracks, behind large buildings and around the city’s fringe.

The data below – taken from thousands of surveys done across cities in which we operate – represents the average demographic of the slum communities in which we work.


What is life like for a family living in a slum in India?

Life in a slum comes with many challenges that families face everyday. These challenges have both immediate and long term impacts on quality of life.


Toxic Kerosene

There are nearly 400 million people in India living in energy poverty, and the vast majority of these people rely on kerosene for lighting. Use of kerosene has direct adverse effects relating to a person’s health, safety and general well-being.

When kerosene is burnt, it releases particulate matter, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide and various nitrogen oxides. Exposure to these pollutants has a multitude of detrimental effects on a person’s health, primarily an increase in the risk of respiratory infections (source). In addition, families using kerosene lamps risk being burnt by the open flame, as well as fires in their home that can destroy what little property they have.

The light from a kerosene lamp is very weak, meaning people cannot work and children cannot study after the sun goes down. A typical kerosene lamp delivers between 1 and 6 lux of light. In contrast, typical western standards suggest a minimum of 300 lux for tasks such as reading (source).

Kerosene also emits carbon which contributes to climate change. For every litre of kerosene burnt, around 2.5kg of carbon dioxide is produced (source). Around 8% of carbon emitted by kerosene is in the form of black carbon, which is much more potent than ordinary CO2. It is estimated that 1kg of black carbon in the atmosphere for a month contributes as much warming as 700kg of CO2 in the atmosphere for 100 years! (source).


Dirty Drinking Water

India has the highest number of people in the world without access to safe water. The country has 75.8 million people (that’s three times the population of Australia!) without access to clean water (source). India already experiences chronic water shortages and drought, and demands for drinking water are expected to increase as the population continues to grow and the effects of climate change become more deeply felt.

As a result, families living in slums are often forced to collect water from open ponds and rivers, which is contaminated with sewage and chemicals. The alternative is to spend their valuable financial resources to buy clean water from tankers: poor Indians spend on average US$0.72 to buy water every day (source). This is nearly 20% of their typical daily income (source).

Drinking dirty water is highly dangerous to health. Contaminated water can cause many types of diarrheal diseases, including cholera, typhoid and dysentery. The World Bank estimates that 21% of communicable diseases in India are related to unsafe water. Diarrheal diseases alone in India cause more than 1,600 deaths every single day (source). This problem is exacerbated by poor hygiene practices and a lack of access to toilets.


Smokey Cookstoves

An estimated 700 million people in India still rely on solid fuels and traditional cookstoves for domestic cooking (source).

These traditional technologies and practices cause indoor air pollution due to emission of harmful substances such as carbon monoxide, particulates, benzene and formaldehyde at levels up to 100 times higher than the recommended limits set by WHO (source).

Inhalation of these toxic fumes causes severe and deadly health problems such as child pneumonia, lung cancer, acute lower respiratory infections and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (source). Exposure to smoke also causes cataracts, and is the leading cause of blindness in developing countries (source).

In small and poorly ventilated tents that comprise many slum communities, these effects are compounded, and are felt most by women and young children. Indeed, indoor air pollution is the second largest cause of premature death in women and young children in India (source). The pollution that these people inhale daily in their homes is equivalent to smoking two packets of cigarettes every day (source).

In addition to the health impacts, inefficient cookstoves and practices entails that women (and often children) spend up to 8 hours per day on collecting wood and preparing food (source). This means a loss of productive time, which could be better spent on income generation, education or other activities, and puts women and children at risk when they need to leave the safety of their communities to search for wood and other fuels.

As if all of this wasn’t bad enough, inefficient traditional cookstoves also place pressure on natural resources and contribute to climate change.

These are just some of the issues facing our communities every day, and we are continuing to identify more of these that we can directly provide solutions to with our model.


What is the outlook for urban population growth in India?

India has one of the highest rural to urban ratios in the world, and is set for an urbanisation boom. There are already 53 cities in India with populations of more than 1 million people (source).

In a phenomenon known as economic migration, rural citizens are moving into urban areas seeking work opportunities and a better life. By 2030, according to the UN, 250 million more Indians will move into cities, bringing the urban population to some 600 million (source). Many of these people will end up in slums, which act as a gateway into the cities for economic migrants who cannot afford other accommodation.

This problem is not limited to India. Nearly two thirds of the world’s population are expected to reside in urban areas by 2030, and one third is expected to live in an urban slum.

With the problem growing this rapidly, it’s critical we find solutions now.