The reasons put forward in my last post to be sanguine about our ability to feed our increasing population should not mask the terrible poverty that so many people in the world today live in. Things are certainly improving, but one in eight people in the world are still chronically hungry. 

Many of those chronically hungry will be living in the slums of India. Those that live in slums in Indian cities are people whose everyday existence I cannot begin to comprehend.  What I didn’t realise though is that slum dwellers were largely officially invisible.  Until recently, those who live in slums in India were not recognised in the census data or by certain state governments.  According to the Times of India:

“In the case of some states like Rajasthan, Gujarat and Bihar, the entire slum population of several lakhs [100,000s] remains unrecognized by the state governments. For the first time, the census data on slums identified slum dwellers as the people living in compact areas with a population of at least 300, in unhygienic environment with inadequate infrastructure and lacking proper sanitary and drinking water facilities. Earlier, only people in areas notified or recognized as slums by state or local authorities were counted.”

And what information has come to light in this new data?  Not surprisingly, the number of slums in India has been officially raised:

“With the new method, several states such as Haryana, Delhi, Assam, Jammu & Kashmir and Jharkhand have identified more slum dwellers in such areas than in the notified or recognized slums. In fact, the number of towns having slums has gone up from 1,743 in 2001 to 2,613 in 2011, out of a total of 4,041 towns in India.”

What is more interesting, and potentially surprising, is the comparison between the slum population and urban population.

“The proportion of slum population to urban population has fallen slightly with the slum population growing at a slower pace than urban areas as a whole. There also isn’t any difference in the household size of urban areas and slums any more, about 4.7, with slums showing a higher reduction in family size.”

Alongside with a declining family size, there are signs of improvement in the life of the Indian slum population:

“The literacy rate in slums too has gone up to 78% compared to the overall urban literacy of over 84%. The jump in female literacy in slums (from 63% to 72%) is higher than the increase in male literacy from 80% to 84%. However, literacy rate is lower than 70% in slums in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, Arunachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir.

Interestingly, the work participation rate in slums is just slightly higher (36%) compared to the urban rate of 35%. However, the work participation of women in slums is almost two percentage points higher than in the urban population. But more than two out of five women workers living in slums are marginal workers, who do not have employment throughout the year.”

What is also interesting is that the terrible sex imbalance in Indian society is not nearly as pronounced in the slums and in these poor areas, the imbalance is actually improving!

“India’s slums have a far better child sex ratio of 922 girls per 1,000 boys than the non-slum urban population, for which the figure is 902. Also, this figure has shown a marginal improvement in the last decade for the slum population from 921 in 2001, but has worsened slightly for the non-slum urban population from 903.

Even in terms of the overall sex ratio, India’s slum population has seen a dramatic improvement compared to the rest of the urban population. The slum population sex ratio jumped from 887 women for every 1,000 men in 2001 to 928 in 2011, a significant improvement compared to the jump in sex ratio for the rest of the urban population sex ratio from 904 in 2001 to 929 in 2011.”

Perhaps it is not that surprising, since it is the better-off areas of India that have the worse sex-ratio imbalance. This is due to better access to ultrasound technology and abortion facilities that allow parents to choose to kill their girl children.  Obviously these facilities are not available to most of those living in the slums, to the relief of those girls living there! (Of course, girls in the UK are not so lucky…)

Marcus Roberts is a Senior Researcher at the Maxim Institute in Auckland, New Zealand, and was co-editor of the former MercatorNet blog, Demography is Destiny. Marcus has a background in the law, both...