Understanding slum dwellers: Part 3 – Capabilities and Informality

By: Surili Sheth, Analyst

 These observations led me on a journey to investigate service delivery in Indian slums, and more broadly, to recognize that understanding slums is about much more than about understanding the physical shelters in which slum dwellers live. The informal systems that regulate multiple aspects of their lives – such as financial services, incentives for home improvement (renting and owning property in the slum), water provision, electrical connections, infrastructure and connectivity, solid and liquid sanitation, and safety – highly affected people’s capabilities in being able to access tools to improve each of these dimensions, and hence, in their abilities to invest in themselves and their community.

The issue of needing to address different facets of community and informal life in order to assess poverty can be characterized theoretically to the capabilities approach, created by Nobel-winning economist Amartya Sen. The approach theorizes that deprivation, or poverty, should be measured not by a lack of income or utility– but rather by the lack of real capabilities that a person possesses. The emphasis is placed not only on how human beings actually function but also on their having the capability, which is a practical choice based on freedom, materials, socioeconomic standing, and a variety of other factors, to function in important ways if they want to. Having these sorts of “capabilities” enables people to “lead the lives they wish to live”.

Though slum dwellers technically live in a certain country, in a certain state, in a certain locality and under the laws and regulations of those various jurisdictions, their real capabilities often do not intersect at all with these formal systems of order. Slums (see twelve definitions of a slum here) are informal – and the economic, social, institutional, even law enforcement systems within them in them are informal. People move around a lot, so the informal systems are ones that are function efficiently at the community level even in a constant state of flux.

Examples of how informal systems and processes can differ frastically from formal ones are shown in the tables below.

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In a slum, the capabilities that residents have affect level of informality, and informality, in turn, affects the capabilities that slum dwellers possess. This approach has interesting, and I think, meaningful, implications for how policymakers view people in slums and the importance of participatory planning. It ties together why inclusive development should include and understanding of all three aspects of slums described in Part 1. The capabilities people possess – the tools slum dwellers have to be able to live the lives they want to – affect their livelihoods and levels of poverty, their abilities to contribute to different markets and economies, and the place they and their community hold within the larger context of the society they live within.

Some questions policymakers can ask when addressing slum settlements in their localities are:

·         Who builds the slum housing structures? How? Where do they get materials and technical assistance?

·         Who owns the land? Who actually leases slum homes, who buys or rents them, through what process, and for how long?

·         How do people access and save money? Where do they and send their money?

·         Where do people work? What technical, economic, and social capacities do they have?

·         How much do they move around, within the slum and outside of it? How long do people stay in the same home? What kinds of homes do people stay in (those that they are renting? From whom? Those that they own?)

·         How is the infrastructure (paths, garbage, toilets, electricity, water) for the community built and maintained? What is the process, and who is in charge of each step of it? Who maintains it?

·         Who is in charge of security in the slum? Who resolves disputes?

·         How is the community organized – to whom do people go when they have problems? Where do their loyalties and trust lie?

·         What do people value most about their lives in the slum?

Obtaining answers to these questions can help policymakers to ascertain how a particular slum functions, its level of informality, how the systems and capacities of the people in it can be incorporated into a development policy to integrate the slum into the city efficiently, and what tools people need to improve their quality of life so that they can invest more permanently in themselves and their communities. I argue, then, that inclusive slum policy addresses slum development through this lens, enabling policymakers to assess where the public and private sectors can fit into a strategy that realistically and efficiently addresses the needs of the slum dwellers and the society they live in – to increase their productivity and quality of life, become an accessible market for formal industries, and create more assets (improving and maintaining their own housing, etc.) to contribute to their locality, state, and country.


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