A Range of Informality—and Precarity—Across India’s Cities and Slums

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India is undergoing massive development and urbanization, driving a large portion of the population into slums. The people who live in these slums face an array of challenges and are particularly vulnerable to economic downturns. To better understand—and respond to—this vulnerability, this article introduces a framework for understanding why slum residents are particularly vulnerable to economic downturns and examines why these downturns are more severe in some slums than others. The article centers on evidence from Patna, the capital of Bihar, and explores why, compared to other cities, Patna's slum residents are poorer and even more susceptible to economic downturns than those in other slums.

The authors suggest three dimensions of informality that must be examined. Firstly, slum residents often lack formal documentation, particularly those that establish residential status. Secondly, their jobs are typically informal, lacking contracts, healthcare, old-age benefits, fixed tenure, or the right to notice before dismissal. Lastly, their home ownership is informal, lacking legal titles, even when these homes are bought or sold.

Informality and vulnerability to downward shocks, however, vary substantially across these three dimensions, with some residents experiencing extreme deprivation in one or more of these dimensions, while others are in somewhat more stable conditions. At the lower end of the continuum, residents are engaged in more dangerous, less stable, and lower-prestige occupations, live in makeshift shelters, and lack any legal rights to their homes or access to essential municipal services. Notably, slums in Patna cluster towards the lower end of the continuum, indicating worse conditions and deeper economic challenges compared to those in Bengaluru and Jaipur.

While lack of documentation, informality, and lack of access to services is endemic to slums everywhere, in looking at Patna, the authors found two additional factors. The first is state policy. The researchers found a near-complete absence of a property rights regime. While satellite images of Patna reveal vast tracts of slum-like conditions, the Census of India reports that less than 5% of Patna’s residents live in slums—a clear mismatch between reality and official estimates. Scholars estimate that over 90% of Patna remains unplanned and that up to two-thirds of the population resides in slums in these unplanned areas.

A second factor is Patna’s slum dwellers' much lower integration into institutional networks such as political parties, community leaders, NGOs, or local officials, making them dependent on precarious, discretionary supports. As a result, the slums in Patna are generally more economically disadvantaged and less mobile. During the pandemic-induced economic downturn, these issues intensified, leading to a more severe impact on the slums in Patna.

These findings challenge the misconception that recent migrants comprise the majority of slum dwellers and that the primary challenge is dealing with their influx. The problem is not ongoing movement into slums but the inability to move out. Vulnerability, institutional disconnections and incremental, discretionary access to crucial resources severely inhibit prospects for upward mobility and protections against downward mobility in developing-country slums (Rains & Krishna, 2020). These conditions are even more severe in places like Patna, where slum residents live with higher levels of informality and persistent, lower levels of support. The findings underscore the importance of targeted, city-based assistance not only during the pandemic but in other times of economic stress, as well.

Methods and Results

Data for this article are drawn primarily from household surveys that one or more of the researchers had conducted in slum neighborhoods starting in 2011 (Krishna, 2013). In 2016, they conducted further work, surveying 2,155 households in 43 various slums in Patna (a mid-sized, capital city in northeast India), which were randomly selected from a list compiled after examining satellite surveys, stratified by location in the city and infrastructure quality, and supplemented with three additional slums, as suggested by local partners. In each neighborhood, researchers conducted focus group surveys, examining slum histories, amenities, and an estimate of the number of households in the settlement, which were followed by household surveys, alternating between surveys with men and women. To compare Patna to other cities, the authors examined original surveys and focus group data that they had collected in Bengaluru and Jaipur between 2015 and 2017, using nearly identical survey instruments and similar satellite-based identification.

To understand the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the authors conducted follow-up surveys in 2020, repeating structured phone interviews with three members of the previously surveyed slum settlements in Patna and Bengaluru. In Patna, the authors followed up these surveys with detailed, open-ended interviews with a selection of respondents, using a developed interview protocol that involved asking respondents to describe the impacts of the second wave of the pandemic and to compare their experiences between waves.

Policy Implications

The article proposes two tangible policy solutions to address these issues. First, slum policy should recognize that people have lived in slums for longer than data may present and, recognizing this reality, focus on removing multiple barriers which raise uncertainty and amplify risks, hindering the development of a solid lower-middle class.

Secondly, livelihoods for slum residents need to be stabilized by progressively getting more formalized. This will require transitioning in calibrated steps from informal employment to secure conditions—with workplace protections, old-age supports, healthcare benefits, and tenure protection—to reduce vulnerability and foster a more stable and upwardly mobile urban workforce.



Anirudh Krishna (Duke University), Sujeet Kumar (Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, India), Emily Rains (Louisiana State University)

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Economic Governance, Governance, Economics, Economic Development, India