Slums in India and South Africa: From Hopelessness to Innovation


A recent academic study on the conditions that slum-dwellers live in, in the area of Cape Town, showed that the biggest negative to come out of the interviews conducted with these people was the sense of hopelessness and fatalism that they had succumbed to. Although the study was limited to certain slums in Cape Town, hopelessness and low self-esteem is a general feeling that is an inherent part of the daily lives of those who live in slums.

This means that there are approximately 828 million people, the estimated population of slum-dwellers all over the world, who have lost faith in themselves and who are searching for a sense of purpose, while they struggle to make end meets and survive the unhealthy conditions that they live in.

Two countries that are deeply affected by the pressing issue of slums are two of the so-called “BRICS”; India and South Africa. The root causes of the problem are various and vary from country to country but mainly they center on the grave conditions of poverty present in rural areas that drive many to move to the urban areas of these countries in search of employment. Those who move to big cities go with the hope that, there, they will be able to build the foundations for a better future. Unfortunately, it isn’t long before their dreams are buried under threats of eviction, no security, poverty, disease, lack of appropriate sanitation.

But is that all that is left for slum-dwellers, an old story that is unlikely to change but rather continue in its dim future? No, slum-dwellers are survivors and, recently, some of them have used their misfortunes as an occasion to get creative and regain the hope that many have lost.

Once reserved to people of color, slums in South Africa (also known as “townships” or “shanty towns”) were an important issue that Mandela and the ANC promised would they would address in the post-apartheid era. However, many people feel they have been disappointment by promises that have not been kept, as half a million continues to live in desperate living situations with little electricity, no security and terrible sanitation .

It is evident that life has drastically changed for people of color after apartheid, but many feel that daily life has seen little or no change and important problems such as the situation of townships remain neglected. And while the situation is not addressed properly, diseases spread, crime grows as an attractive alternative for earning “fast cash” in light of unemployment.

The government recently recognized the need to provide housing and established a Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) that has provided 3 million homes to South Africans after apartheid. Progress is being made with initiatives such as the large scale delivery project of solar water heaters and one of the largest Clean Development Mechanism projects in Africa, organized by NGOs, the government and the local electricity utility, Eskom, but there is still a lot of work to do.

In fact, where the government is unwilling or unable to help, slum-dwellers have become increasingly creative and developed methods to better their life conditions, such as an informal market of electricity to share connections between homes that have electricity and homes that do not.

India, the third biggest economy in Asia, is another country in which slum-dwellers have become extremely resourceful in order to make a living in the slums. The nation holds 17% of the world’s slum-dwellers, which account to approximately 110 million people . Approximately one of six Indian city residents lives in an urban slum with unfit sanitary conditions.

However, while in South Africa the slums were a creation made during apartheid, the slums in India are a consequence of India’s extremely populated cities and a grave urban housing shortage that is estimated at nearly 19 million households.

It is the slums of India where its inhabitants find themselves in need of creating new jobs, as there are none. In fact, recently some of these slum-dwellers are becoming social entrepreneurs to make up for the government failure of developing policies to address the issue of the flood of people coming into major cities such as Mumbai and Dehli.

The residents have developed various projects to resolve the scarcity of energy, water and health in the slums. For example, in the slum of Dharavi, that has been used as a recycling spot, has given people the chance to save, fix and sell items such as electronics and toys. The work is tiresome and sometimes dangerous, but it can profit from 3 to 5 dollars, a considerable sum for the average slum-dweller.

Another project has been that of providing solar energy in the slum households instead of kerosene, which is both dangerous and pricey. The company Pollinate Energy is providing solar energy to many of these homes as well as providing training to locals and “micro-entrepreneurs” dedicated to the cause.


As far as the issue of water goes, local Indian company Sarvajal has created a “Water ATM” that provides treated water 24 hours a day at a low cost, while other companies such as Unilever are offering water-filters as a cheaper alternative to boiling water on a kerosene stove.

It is evident that the root problems of the slum dwellers (unemployment, poverty, lack of appropriate sanitation and so on) require a multi-sectoral approach that involves various departments at both a governmental and local level.

Social innovation and micro-finance will not solve the poverty of India, nor the lack of housing and urbanization, nor will it finally bring change to the townships in South Africa that were promised change after apartheid. However, initiatives like the aforementioned ones such as the Water ATM, where local communities, governments and companies work together, are small but certain steps to give them the sense of purpose they feel they have lost.

Chiara Romano Bosch.


One thought on “Slums in India and South Africa: From Hopelessness to Innovation

  1. 882 million people live in slums, ok…..not all of those are part of the “who have lost faith in themselves and who are searching for a sense of purpose”…..and, to my limited, there are plenty of gradations in forms of slums. There are plenty of Indians, for example, who choose to live in a “slum” “despite” having a “proper” job. Are they lost? Fuck no, they have chosen to live where they live (that then depends too on the definition of a “slum”). That is not to say that the situation in certain slums is downright horrendous (by Western standards, or “Africa’s Belt of Misery”). …..its not the message that is in any way not worthy of sharing, its the way its conveyed thats a little….yeah, off……curious about your reaction….p.s. India’s dwellers of the countryside often have to deal with “worse” conditions than that of dwellers of (certain) slums

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