Malathy Madathilezham has conducted a tour among communities of the urban poor. Here is a case study on urban poverty – the health, housing and livelihood problems of the urban poor.
The Moragaon community, located in Juhu, which initially developed as a community largely dependent on fishing and fishing related activities for their livelihood has grown both in number and diversity. There are about 400 households currently in this community which comprises of the Kolis and migrants, including Christian migrants. This has resulted in conflict within the community, more so because of the increased land value and also increased commercial interest on this particular stretch. During the visits to Moragaon for an assignment, I was able to build up a rapport with a Koli family which gave me certain insights on urban poverty.
The first time I had the opportunity to interact with them was during the initial visit to conduct a pilot survey of the community. The family was generally friendly and open about answering all my questions. The living conditions were not as dismal as many others in the same place, but their ‘home’ consisted of a single room of about 120 sq. ft. which had all of their belongings neatly arranged in it.The structure was made of brick and the roof was of tin. They told me that they had renovated the earlier structure about ten years back and after that could not afford any further modifications. This is where they slept, cooked and washed. The lane outside was barely a metre and half, covered.
While dealing with the urban poor, housing is one of the major concerns. With the increased urbanization, there is increased cost of housing in terms of land, construction etc. Thus the poor are left with no options but to convert unused, unsafe kind of land to meet the need of shelter.
The responsibility of managing the household falls on the shoulders of Laxmi Mangelga. She used to sell fish till last year when she had to stop because of chronic health problems. She did not disclose the exact problem. In spite of this, she now works as a domestic help in the residential complex nearby and earns about Rs 3000-4000 per month. The husband, Asok Mangela, works in a boat and draws a salary of Rs 3,500. I asked him about what he did during the off-season time, he said there is nothing to do during those times and he prefers to rest. There may be some maintenance work which crops up which he undertakes. So basically during those two three months, Laxmi is the sole earning member.
Here it can be seen that health and livelihood are the other main concerns of the urban poor who are mostly engaged in informal work which denies them the benefits of formal work such as insurance. In addition in this family, the burden of income falls on the woman which makes this family even more vulnerable to the traps of poverty.
Laxmi said that she had to collect water from the common tap some distance away as they could neither afford a common nor a single connection as normally done in the community. She said that she was recently only able to get a valid gas connection for cooking. They did have a direct electricity connection, but complained about high bills in spite of using only one CFL lamp and a fan. They had to use the public toilet that was built for the community which neither had direct water connection nor electricity. She also complained that the toilets were poorly maintained.
Services to urban poor residing in such ‘slums’ or ‘gaothans’ are given the least priority by the authorities concerned. One of the reasons that is often given by officials is the non payment of user charges. With the advent of neo liberal policies, the thrust is towards reducing expenses and increasing revenue.Thus most of the common taps in Mumbai are becoming dysfunctional and there is a rise of water mafias in most of such settlements. This actually means that the urban poor have to pay more than they would have for government services. In addition even the amount of water that the urban poor have access to is much less than the required per capital consumption and they also lack the space to store water in case of shortages.
Whenever I have gone to their house I have found Asok in a semi-inebriated condition and Laxmi in charge of the situation even though she looked resigned and exhausted. They have three children; 2 daughters, Devi and Bhanumati and Hiren who is about 4. Devi is the eldest one, 12 years old and Bhanumati is 9 years old. Laxmi told that even though both of them were illiterate they want their children to study. She added sadly told me that they were sending both of them to an English medium school nearby till last year but because of her health problem and financial constraints, they had to put them in the municipal school. She said that hopefully by next year they would be able to put them back into the English medium school. Hiren is to join school next year. I asked her whether she would want her daughters to work when they grew up. She said that is the reason that she wanted her daughters to get a good education so that they could get a stable job and marry good men who would be responsible and also have a stable job. She also wanted her son to study and get a stable government job. When I got an opportunity to talk to the children, I asked them about what they wanted to do when they grew up. Devi, who seemed to be wise beyond her years, said that she wanted to be teacher while Bhanumati said that she wanted to be an athlete. Hiren, like most boys his age, wanted to become a bus driver.
Laxmi had a bank account in her name and tried to save at least Rs 500 per month. Talking about their monthly expenditure, Laxmi said that they were rarely able to save anything nowadays because major part of the income was spent on food and her medicines. According to her, they spent about Rs 4,000 per month on food. She said it was very difficult with three growing children in the house to compromise on food. In addition they spent about 2000 per month on the girls’ education. As she enumerated their expenses I realized that they actually exceeded the amount they had quoted as their income.
When I asked Asok if he is happy with his current situation he said that he is happy because he has a roof above his head and this is the best they can achieve with the given constraints. But Laxmi said that though there is a limit on how much they can improve their current condition, she would want her daughters to have a better life. She was ready to take on extra hardship for that.
It can be seen that the family has high aspirations and wants to come out of the exisitng situation. They very well understand the importance of nutrition, savings and education in this. This actually is against the concept of the ‘culture of poverty’ which in a way blames the poor themselves for their dismal conditions. One of the problems they face is that of alcoholism in men which pushes back their ability to cope up and increase their incomes. This could also lead to additional expenses in the future due to potential health risks.
Laxmi was more actively involved in the community association than her husband and once the interview had to be cut short since a man from the association had called her to be present in a meeting. I asked about this and she said that in times of need she could always fall back on the community. Thus she wanted to maintain a good relationship with the community and take part actively for the good of the community
Conceptualization of Poverty
While interviewing Laxmi Mangela and her family, there are various perspectives of poverty which can be understood. In terms of the official definition of poverty the family is definitely above the poverty line in terms of income. But let us try to apply the nine point index of urban poverty that Kudumbashree has used in identifying those vulnerable to poverty.A family is treated as a ‘risk family’ if it satisfies at least four out of the nine point.
Conditions Are the conditions are met?
1 No Land /Less than 5 cents of Land Yes
2 No house/Dilapidated House No
3 No sanitary latrines. No
4 No access to safe drinking water within 150 metres Yes
5 Women headed household/ Presence of a widow/ divorcee No
/ abandoned lady / unwed mother
6 No regularly employed person in the family No
7 Socially disadvantaged groups : SC/ST Yes
8 Presence of Mentally or physically challenged person / Yes
Chronically ill member in the family
9 Families without colour TV Yes
Based on this framework, this family can be categorized to be in the risk family category. But analyzing their situation we can realize how even this seemingly broad framework ignores aspects of alcoholism, education, variations in income, occupational risk etc.
According to me, due to Asok’s alcoholism, for all purposes, Laxmi was the head of the household. All the responsibilities were on her shoulder. It was she who had to ensure that she could take care of the current needs and also save for future requirements. In this case she contradicts the general thinking that the poor live a day to day existence and do not plan for the future. The condition was such that in spite of her recurrent and chronic illness she was forced to work to provide for her family. This shows the vulnerability of the family to poverty. The health risk that Laxmi is taking for the good of her family could have a backlash in case she falls so sick that she is not able to work. This would put the family in a dire situation.
In terms of access to amenities, they do have access but it is questionable in terms of the price they have to pay and the quality of these amenities. It is a drain on their limited resources or requires an added effort to obtain (eg : water).
The aspirations part is also interesting to note. There is a resignation and realization that she may not be able to achieve a better standard of living but at the same time she wants her children to live a better life. There is understanding about the importance of education in providing a solution to their current condition. They do not want their children to follow the same livelihood that they are forced to choose because of various constraints. It can be said that they want to prepare their next generation for a better future.
By understanding the situation of poverty in the case of Laxmi Mangela, it can be seen that there are many dimensions to poverty which needs to be examined. This can help not only to understand the problem of poverty but also to tackle the manifestations of poverty.
 Names have been changed
- The harsh lives of the forgotten rural poor | Tobias Jones (guardian.co.uk)
- Where the World’s Poorest People Live (blogs.wsj.com)
- Urban poverty, food security and climate change (terragaia.wordpress.com)