Slums point to two major flaws in India's policy making.
First, the absence of affordable housing and easy rental of premises have together provided convenient justifications for the formation of slums.
Second, existing laws have allowed protection of people who squat on public land, even on pavements along city roads. This underscores the clout of vested interests behind the protection of slum-dwellers.
Unscrupulous politicians can use (and have used) slum-dwellers to change the demographic profile of an area, and thus ensure his or her own re-election.
But the census numbers show that if politicians can be smart, slum-dwellers can become smarter. They can promote their own interests, even frustrate the plans of existing elected representatives and policymakers. Just consider the data available from the Office of the Registrar General & Census Commissioner.
While slum population went up by 25% between 2001 and 2011, slum households went up by 37%.
This means that families split up into smaller units to claim benefits that would not be possible to a single larger family. For instance, in states like Maharashtra, where the highest power subsidy is given to families consuming less than 300 units per month, it makes sense for a family to break up into two and thus consume 600 units and yet benefit from the concessional power tariff.
Employees of power distribution companies collude with slum-dwellers to make this possible.
But the numbers become even more interesting when one looks at data relating to the scheduled caste (SC) members in slums. This group increased by an even higher 38%, compared to the national average of 25%. Leaders of SC groups probably discovered that, using the slum route, they could grab a disproportionate share of the electoral seats in a city.
Obviously, the numbers of slum dwellers backed by a strong leader provided one level of protection. The other level of protection came from the fact that any municipal officer who chose to raze slum-dwellings of SC dwellers could be hauled up for atrocity against SC members. Their leaders would be able to show that while slum dwellings of non-SC members were not being touched, those of SC dwellers had been singled out for demolition. Leaders of SC groups had learned a clever way to turn the tables on existing local politicians.
This would be true of some minority religious groups as well, as suggested by strong anecdotal data. Unfortunately the census does not give out this figure. Even here, you are bound to find huge doses of appeasement, protection and calculated exploitation.
The Scheduled tribe (ST) population in slums grew even faster at 52%. But while their rate of growth was the highest, ST members do not as yet pose a significant threat to the existing political order. This is because while SCs comprise over 20% of the slum population (according to the 2011 census), STs account for just 3.4%. It will be some time before ST leaders can begin to challenge the existing order of local and SC leaders.
While this may be scintillating politics, it does not bode well for honest, tax-paying dwellers, who have paid for their houses, their property taxes, their water and their electricity. It allows unscrupulous leaders with no stake in a city to marginalise local populations and emerge as elected representatives from that area, even though, in reality, they represent only those who have squatted on lands that do not belong to them.
This is where the courts and the election commission must step in. Measures need to be taken quickly to ensure that local populations do not get marginalised, and that public lands (and pavements) are not encroached upon with impunity. If that is not done, elections will lose relevance. And the concept of democracy will become a farce.