Transforming narratives: unravelling India’s transition in slum definitions

GS Paper I

News Excerpt:

The changing conceptualisation of slums influenced government policies and approaches, with varied perspectives, from considering slums as an epidemic needing eradication to later viewing them as objects of technocratic solutions.

About the news:

  • Narayanan, Nipesh, ‘The Making of Slums: An Analysis of Indian Parliamentary Debates from 1953 to 2014’.
    • It examines the changing narratives around slums by analysing discussions and debates in the Rajya Sabha between 1953 and 2014.
    • The author emphasises the dynamic nature of slum definitions and how the role of urban disparity as a causal factor was largely ignored.
    • The five decades scrutinised are divided into four eras -

Evolution of discourses:

  • The first era between the 1950s and 1960s saw slums as an aftermath of the formation of the new country, focusing on spatial constraints and health issues rather than urban disparities.
    • The introduction of the Slum Areas Act of 1956 made government intervention plausible after an area was officially notified as a slum.
    • The slum became a legal entity, and the rights of slum dwellers were ignored due to arguments around health and sanitisation, as well as aesthetic considerations.
  • In the second era, between the early 1970s and mid-1980s, the narrative around slums shifted from being seen as a space that needed eradication to a necessary evil that had to be developed.
    • Limitations to funding large pieces of land to shift residents pushed the government to think of a different method to deal with slums, with town planning emerging as a governance tool.
  • In the third era, between the mid-1980s and late 1990s, the perspective of slums changed again.
    • In 1985, the National Commission on Urbanisation published its first report, which portrayed cities as economic engines of the States.
    • Funding for cities and urban spaces, including slums, was now seen as assets and investments for the economic growth of the State.
    • Housing policies underwent significant changes, adopting a broader approach encompassing land, finance, and infrastructure issues.
    • The first two National Housing Policies were introduced during this period, and in 1996, the National Slum Development Programme was launched, bringing back targeted funding from the union government towards slum redevelopment.
  • In the fourth era, the need for a comprehensive understanding of slums based on data was finally fulfilled with the launch of the 2001 Census.
    • The author clarifies that between the 2000s and 2014, with the help of the Census, the definitions of slums broadened, leading to many targeted schemes.
    • Slums transitioned from being social concerns to technical, economic objects, focusing on implementation efficacy and economic development.
    • The causes of slum formation were complex and ambiguous, with factors such as lack of proper urban planning, growing population due to urbanisation, land pressure, and rising prices making affordable housing difficult.
    • Housing policies focused on upgradation strategies and legal rights rather than the complete eradication of slums.


The study highlights the necessity for questioning state categories to understand slum construction beyond numerical statistics and critically explores the risks associated with utilising slums as a driving force for anti-poverty measures. The study of historical analysis provides valuable insights into government attitudes and policies regarding slums, which are crucial for comprehending urban dynamics and socio-economic disparities.

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