TACOMA, Washington — India struggles with high levels of poverty, especially in urban areas. In 2019 alone, nearly 81 million people, or 25% of the country’s urban population, faced urban poverty. At the same time, the urban population is rising and will hit 50% within the next 10 years. One result of this urbanization is that the population living within slums has increased. This, in turn, increases urban poverty in India. Often not by choice, people end up having to live in these environments simply because they cannot afford to live elsewhere or because living closer to work makes it worthwhile.
Living Conditions in Indian Slums
Unfortunately, living in slums comes along with poor living conditions. Lack of sanitation, lack of clean water, cramped housing and crumbling infrastructure can make health outcomes worse. One study found that rates of diabetes and hypertension were higher in slums due to inadequate living conditions and poverty. Healthcare can also be difficult to come by for the impoverished populations in India. High levels of chronic disease overwhelm the healthcare system and make it difficult for impoverished and remote communities to access it. Low access to insurance can also make healthcare too expensive, even if there are openings.
Additionally, there is a lack of access to safe and clean drinking water. A lack of sanitation and other water infrastructure means that more than 50% of India’s population does not have access to safe water. Moreover, water is contaminated by chemicals such as arsenic in 1.96 million households. Two-thirds of districts in India have depleted groundwater. This can have wide-ranging consequences. Lost wages from spending time collecting water, high rates of school dropouts and adverse health outcomes can affect children and adults alike.
Because of these issues, the NGO Gram Vikas is working across the eastern portion of the country to build sustainable communities. The organization is also working toward reducing urban poverty in India. Gram Vikas is in its fifth decade of operation and has set out goals to alleviate poverty by 2030.
These goals are organized under seven key pillars: Water, Livelihoods, Sanitation & Hygiene, Habitat & Technologies, Village Institutions, Education and Disaster Response. Gram Vikas is hoping to both deepen its relationships with villages it already works with, as well as grow to support villages.
Urban Development Action in Neighborhoods
Gram Vikas is specifically working with local communities in a state in Eastern India called Odisha. In response to the Cyclone Fani of 2019, Gram Vikas developed the Urban Development Action in Neighborhoods (UDAN) program.
The Cyclonic storm Fani was one of India’s largest storms in the last 20 years. Around 28 million people lived in the path of the storm, which caused untold destruction to infrastructure, and forced millions to shelter or evacuate. Additionally, at least 33 people died, and more than 300 were injured during the storm. The UDAN project targeted 714 families in order to help build up human capital and economic development. One of the focuses of the program is to support job training programs, reducing urban poverty in India in the long run.
Job training is critical to making sure that people can live the best lives they can. Moreover, job training can vastly improve the incomes of workers. In an interview with The Borgen Project, Pratap Panda, a thematic manager for Gram Vikas said, “The daily labor wage is $3.50 to $5.00, whereas as a semi-skilled mason, the wages are $8.50 to $11.00 per day.” The project also focuses on helping women start their own businesses.
In the past, developmental organizations have had trouble financing women’s programs. Furthermore, these programs would often shut down due to a lack of stable access to banking. However, Panda and his team have been able to facilitate connections between these support groups and financial institutions. According to Panda, revenue from women’s work often goes entirely toward supporting their families, helping to reduce urban poverty in India.
Effects of the Pandemic
The project is scheduled to last until May of 2021. The program has also changed since its inception, specifically after the onset of the pandemic. As a result of COVID-19, Odisha’s economy took a rather serious hit. This is because the national government’s nationwide lockdown prevented day laborers from working. One study that examined the effects of India’s lockdown estimated that it could decrease the nation’s GDP by anywhere from 10% to 35%.
The COVID-19 crisis across India is widespread. In the informal sector, where a lot of workers in urbanized areas are employed, close to 400 million people are in danger of suffering further economic damages. Additionally, nearly 19 million people lost their jobs from April to September, increasing urban poverty in India. On the local level, the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately affected families, especially families with laborers as their key source of income. According to Panda, “The primary assessment revealed a total of 574 families were stranded with no daily income.”
In response to this economic crisis, the organization increased its commitments to the region by providing emergency aid to struggling families. Panda explained that “Gram Vikas extended its Disaster Response strategy and supported the 574 families with 30-days ration (with baby-food) along with hand sanitizer.”
Urban Poverty During COVID-19
The UDAN program has been quite successful at reducing urban poverty in India. It has created a stable base on which the region can develop. Thus far, the program has worked with 11 women’s self-help groups, comprising 110 women, to promote access to finance and assist in starting businesses. These businesses include fisheries and poultry farming. Additionally, UDAN has trained 20 men and women as masons in order to raise their wages. Finally, all of the families the program has worked with now have access to a water system to improve hygiene and sanitation.
The pandemic’s socio-economic consequences have severely impacted vulnerable groups in developing countries. In India specifically, urban poverty has been on the rise. Thankfully, non-governmental organizations like Gram Vikas are vital to reverse these challenges and lead the country to sustainable development. Hopefully, Gram Vikas can aid India in not only recovering from COVID-19 but also reduce urban poverty in the long run.
– Thomas Gill