Understanding Slum Dwellers: Part 2 – Observations of an Indian Slum

By: Surili Sheth, Analyst

I first began to build an understanding of slums while working for an NGO, called Manav Sadhna, in Ahmedabad, India. The NGO primarily works on education, nutrition, and community-building projects with one of the largest slum populations in the city – the Tekro slum, which houses a population of more than 150,000 (unofficial estimates) in approximately 2-3 square kilometers.

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[Tekro means “hill” –  the slum is located on top of a heap of trash. This is one of its many entrances.]


In the process of working with children at the NGO and in the Tekro slum every day, I began asking some simple questions – what did they do when they went home from school/the NGO? How long had them and their families lived in the Tekro? How many times had the children moved in their lives? What did they plan to do in the future? What did they want to do? I made some simple observations – I saw what the slum looked like, watched what people were doing, and listened to what they talked about when I went to their homes.

Community. The answers to these questions – from the children, their parents, NGO staff, and from my observations when I visited their homes, were far more complex than I imagined. When they went home, the ten-year-olds I worked with at the NGO had many tasks. These included collecting water for their families, cooking dinner, fixing leaks in their (and their neighbors’) tin roofs during monsoon, helping their mothers sew, working at their father’s road-side carts, and babysitting their younger siblings. When time permitted, they played or did some homework. Most of them had been moving around for most of their lives and had families and homes in villages and other slums around the city. However, many families also had ties from generations within the slum, which has been around for more than 40 years.

Most slum dwellers knew everything about their neighbors, and had a strong sense of community. The slum habitation patterns were organized by caste and region from which the residents had migrated –they were day-laborers from around Gujarat and artisans and migrants from Rajasthan who specialized in pottery. Walking from one alley to an adjacent one often entailed a complete change in clothing, language, and mannerisms of the people that lived there. Loyalties within each micro-community ran deep, and crimes, both petty and large, occurred generally without any police interference – they were settled within the community. The slum dwellers’ livelihoods centered in the economies existing in and around the slum – some were rickshaw drivers, some had shops that sold tobacco to the other slum dwellers, and still others were rag/waste-pickers (scavengers). Many of the children simply looked bewildered, or amused, when I asked them about their futures. They generally gave me an entertained or confused look, followed a nonchalant “I don’t know”, “get married”, or “work with my dad at his shop.”

Manav Sadhna had established community and health centers in the middle of the slum, providing many services to the slum community – including medical camps, education, pre-school nutrition centers, women’s savings groups, and a place for community celebrations.

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[Pre-school nutrition center, or Anganwadi, run by Manav Sadhna from inside a slum home, in partnership with government program.]


Door-to-door visits were conducted by the NGO staff members (using a hand-drawn map of the slum and chalk to mark the homes that were visited) to raise awareness about malaria and TB, alcoholism, individual medical issues, and community-related challenges on an ongoing basis. However, while impacting many is very individualized ways, the NGO did not necessarily cover the residents of the entire slum in a scaled or uniform manner, so major social and physical infrastructural changes often only happened when the local government or a local politician decided to make a certain portion of the slum a place to upgrade as part of his or her agenda (generally to attract a vote bank).

Physical infrastructure.

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[The “Gutter Ganga”]


The entire Tekro community was surrounded by a river of sewage, satirically referred to as the “Gutter Ganga” by residents and NGO staff.

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[Alleys in the Tekro]


While street lights and paved paths existed in some parts of the slum, many paths were unpaved or semi-paved and had open or over-flowing gutters.

Water was generally procured through public taps, which had running water coming out of them for only one to two hours in the morning and evening. One tap often served more than fifty households, causing daily fights to break out in long lines that formed in front of the taps. Some households opted to procure their own illegal water connections instead of facing the lines, and many also obtained their own illegal connections to the electricity grid. Recently, a government initiative had installed meters for subsidized electricity in many parts of the Tekro slum, but residents complained that they had to pay too much for their electricity (some were still stealing from the grid).

Parts of the slum were entirely comprised of dirt paths, litter, animal carcasses, and people living beneath tarps. These were the poorest portions of the settlement, often comprised of elderly people without family support, those employed in “low-caste” or “impure” work (e.g. collecting waste, making leather or selling meat, etc.), or those with no employed workers in the household who sometimes sustained by begging.

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[A poorer section of the slum]


Other portions of the slum had people living in homes with plastered walls, tin roofs, fans, tiles, household toilets, TVs, and electricity meters. These were generally the households that had multiple employed family members and had made improvements to their homes over time.

These observations illuminated a lot I hadn’t thought about – and led to more questions. They showed that the lives led by the children I worked with and their families were lived in highly transient phases. Slum dwellers had many responsibilities in their homes and communities; because of a lack of large-scale and widespread service provision, they were almost always involved in some part of the informal economy (e.g. building parts of their own homes, repairing overflowing gutters near their homes, selling products to other people in the slum, running a small-scale compost center where rag/waste-pickers turned in their days’ collections, etc.), even if they were also part of the formal economy (e.g. as servants, day laborers, construction workers, rickshaw drivers, etc.). Many sent money back to their families in their ancestral rural villages. Their living situation and quality of life was highly correlated to their bonds with their neighbors, their standing in the slum community (which often meant that families spent large amounts of money on cultural activities or events associated with their reputation, such as religious festivals, marriages, and funerals, as well as on medical bills from private doctors), and their family’s ties with local authorities.

The idea of investing in themselves for the future or in permanent situations (their homes, lives, etc.) did not seem to be of the highest priority – investing in how to keep their lives going in the most current context, in a reputable way (within the community) was the priority of primacy. Families often took off to their villages for months at a time (often pulling their children out of school for long periods of time), or moved to different areas of the city for new jobs, packing up and leaving their Tekro homes for new ones as rapidly as they had moved in.

1 thought on “Understanding Slum Dwellers: Part 2 – Observations of an Indian Slum

  1. Pingback: Surili Sheth – Understanding Slum Dwellers: Part 1 – “Slum Dweller”

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