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Negotiating Informality: A Range of Policy Needs and Problem-Solving Strategies in Urban Slums


Soumyadip Chattopadhyay, Arjun Kumar

The intense prevalence of political atmosphere in informal settlements for availing improved resources for crucial developmental outcomes has always been an intriguing topic. To address the rising challenges and concerns of urban slums, The Center for Habitat, Urban and Regional Studies (CHURS) at Impact And Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi organized a #webpolicytalk on “Negotiating Informality: A Range of Policy Needs and Problem-Solving Strategies in Urban Slums” as a part of The state of Cities – #cityconversations on 8th of July, 2021.   

City Conversations - Dr Emily Rains - Negotiating Informality A Range of Policy Needs and Problem-Solving Strategies in Urban Slums

The plight of Slums in India

Dr. Soumyadip Chattopadhyay, Associate Professor, Visva Bharati, Santiniketan; visiting senior fellow at IMPRI and coordinator of the Centre for Habitat, Urban and Regional Studies at IMPRI commenced the session with a statistic quote of 65 million people, roughly 17.4% of India’s population to be slum dwellers.

He spoke how their constant feeling of insecurity, inherent vulnerabilities, problems of encroachment, illegality, and unauthorized settlement to be some of the characteristics, that reserve them to a variety of informal practices in order to gain access to city resources. He views not only poverty to be the core issue of urban slums but also very little improvement on their conditions over the years and thus, stresses the essentiality to understand the nuances of such practices in regards to social and human development.

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The speaker of the session, Dr. Emily Rains, Incoming Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Louisiana State University began her presentation by calling out slum dwellers to be a major challenge in inclusive urbanization and development given their hindrance of disconnect to important resources which are crucial to human development outcomes. She defines slums to be areas where people who perform informal economic activities reside together with insecure housing rights, inadequate municipally provided infrastructure, lack of identity documents that impede them from availing government authorized benefits and etc.

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Underestimating Urban Poverty

She then highlights the problem of severe undercount of the slum dwellers by officials and thus explains a project that she worked on. The aim of the project was to look outside official data sources and try to build their own sample of Indian slums. They used manual analysis of google earth images in the Indian cities of Bangalore, Jaipur, and Patna to locate slum settlements with the help of five parameters based on ground truth verifications. The five parameters were:

1. Highly Crowded

2. Haphazardly arranged

3. No shadows, indicating the presence of low lying and not tall building structures

4. Rooftops of distinct colors

5. Lack of proper roads in and around.

With the help of these parameters, she and her team selected slums using random sampling that preserves the spatial distribution of the slums throughout the city as well as the distribution of these visible characteristics. Further, she used other techniques like household surveys, in-depth structured interviews asking the sampled population of around 200 slum households about their settlement history, policy priorities, local needs, strategies employed to reduce vulnerability in the neighborhoods and etc., in order to understand their policy needs.

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The data she collected helped her realize how the living conditions across these cities improved incrementally along with a wide range of continuums. Meaning, the population that fell at the bottom of the continuum had a greater disconnect to crucial resources and this had an increasing trend as we move across this continuum.

Political Influence in these Spaces

Dr. Rains advocates that urban slum dwellers will be left to politics when they try to negotiate with politicians for improved resources in the absence of being able to self-provision them.

She explains this concept better with three terms namely,

a) Collective: These are political strategies drawn by slum dwellers to negotiate improved resources.

b) Mediated: They are individuals or groups of people or leaders of these groups who approach the politicians for negotiating. 

c) Transactional: These negotiations are often termed as transactional when (mediators) bargain for resources in exchange for votes, leading to the prevalence of vote banks for both parties and local politicians in slums areas.

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Later in her presentation, she argues slum neighborhoods vary or are characterized by two important dimensions that can explain variation in strategies that residents draw on to negotiate reduced informality.

One being their access to formal resources and the other their strength of informal networks, meaning cohesion among the group members.

She sees these two dimensions to affect neighborhood priorities as in what goods or services they are going to prioritize, their political beliefs, and the extent to which the neighbors are encouraging one another to mobilize., which indeed shapes the political strategies they employ.

Neighborhood Characteristics and Political Behaviors

She presents a graph to explain this where on the X-axis, the spectrum to resources neighborhoods have access to is represented and on the Y-axis, the extent to which they are engaging in group-level strategies and individual-level strategies is represented.


With her graphs and projects undertaken, she notices that usually slum dwellers have low political efficacy, given their precarious nature of jobs. However, at a higher level of formality, they express higher confidence in approaching officials for demanding collective goods like water, sanitation and etc. in return for a promise of votes. This occurs because with a given level of formality, areas with stronger informal networks, there is greater neighborhood cohesion, stronger connections to politicians, and more group-level coordination shifting upwards resulting in greater efficacy and confidence.

Slum Networking

Prof Mahalaya Chatterjee, Professor, Centre for Urban Economic Studies, Department of Economics, University of Calcutta points out how in the city of Calcutta, slum networking and politization prevailed for a long time. She then agrees with what Dr. Emily rains about slum dwellers informality being an obstacle in their political efficacy and thus raises a question about the status of the slums Dr. Emily Rains surveyed and questions their need to form such networks to avail resources, while they are supposed to be entitled to the same irrespective of their economic or housing condition.


She concludes her view by bringing a gender lens on how women were the ones who explained the ground-level difficulties with most conviction to authorities.

Typology of Informal Settlements

Dr. Jenia Mukherjee, Assistant Professor, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kharagpur commenced her talk by appreciating Dr. Emily Rains on her methodologies of triangulation and cross-fertilization. She later talks about a report which discussed the tenurial security of slums being different from that of squatters and thus raises a question about ontologies and how to go about differentiating slums, squatters, and Basti given the complex nature of Indian society and its diversity. She concludes her remarks by recommending the political literature of Malini Ranganathan on infrastructural injustice or lack of unequal access to urban utilities to slum dwellers.

Slum Diversity and Adaptation Strategies

Mr. Aravind Unni, Thematic Lead – Urban Poverty, Indo-Global Social Service Society, Delhi commented on Dr. Emily Rains presentation by pointing out the accuracy of identifying slums using the technology of Google Earth Images and throws light on how different parameters exist for different cities given substantial variation in types of policies adopted across different cities in India.

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Finally, he concludes his remarks by giving a perspective of migrants from Bangladesh and other underdeveloped countries to also be people living in these slums who again lack identity documents and housing rights.

Land,Politics and Insecurity in Slums

Dr. Sarani Khatua, Geographer; Former Post-Doctoral Fellow, Centre for Urban Economic Studies, Department of Economics, University of Calcutta questions the safety level of even formal settlements which have all the parameters mentioned above. She observes how global corporatization has played a role in changing the land entitlement acts, for example, the tikka tenancy act’s internal structure has witnessed a drastic change over time. She also talks about how the local leader themselves pushing for informal networks to stay active in political positions since they use slums dwellers to be a source of vote banks.

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She concludes her discourse by asking a question of not only including major capitals of states into count but also smaller towns and cities in and around that have a significant amount of slum population into consideration for research purposes.

Assessing Slum Settlemets

Dr. Emily Rains explained the choosing of her sample cities in order to have a broad range of policy needs for slum households. She argues her work to focus more on the generalized characteristics of slums and it will be rather complicated and difficult to comment on each type of slum present in different localities that have different economic conditions. However, she does consider that aspect to be extremely crucially but to have a zoomed-out view potentially could complicate the process.


She then justifies her process of using google satellite images to categorize slums with visible characteristics as mentioned in the UN indicators and the lack of property documents. However, she does agree for there to be some false positives included in the process of using machine learning to understand slums but could help in having a general idea of the same. She also views the future of work to be laid in smaller towns since they are future urban cities.

She then expresses the ingrained nature of the caste system in these settlements and says how which group gets favorable responses to their needs does depend on the caste or religion they belong to and how to cast advocacy agencies coming in and helping certain neighborhoods increasing in informal network and set off a trajectory in political engagement.

Misconception of slum being temporary issue

She concludes her lecture of how there is this misconception of slums being a temporary issue whereas the study reveals these settlements to be there past multiple generations and have been exposed to very little upward mobility and more of rather constant down shock trends.

Technological Interventions for identifying Slums

Dr. Arjun Kumar, Director at IMPRI posed a question on the use of technology in improving slums or relocating them and asks how the gestation period is a challenge in removing migrant problems.

Dr. Emily concludes by answering how using technology is not new and how GIS is also used in identifying environmentally hazardous areas and how it could be helpful for finding slum areas as well. She looks forward to leveraging the use of technology in looking at changes over time.

Acknowledgment: Nikitha Gopi is a Research Intern at IMPRI

Youtube Video : #CityConversations | E29 | Dr Emily Rains | Negotiating Informality in Urban Slums

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