Intergenerational Indignity of Urban Poor

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Today we have a guest post from experienced development worker, Meena Shivdas, who writes about global urban poverty and the plight faced by youth.

When world leaders, governments, academics and activists look back on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), they will have to take a deep breath and pause upon encountering the indignity of urban poverty. The largest and fastest-developing cities across the globe are in Africa, Asia and Latin America. With the poor of its cities inhabiting shanty towns, slums and makeshift shelters- including abandoned sewer pipes. While their presence fuels growth, generations of the urban poor inhabit the underbelly of metropolises without basic services to meet health, water and sanitation needs. On the constant look-out to make ends meet, their daily struggles with finding work in informal settings leaves them vulnerable to labour contractors, money lenders, slumlords and local goons.

In booming cities like Mumbai and Jakarta, street children have become part of the city’s nerve centres and are the face of intergenerational urban poverty. They sell books, flowers, bottled water, toys and balloons as they weave their way through heavy traffic. Often with younger brothers and sisters in tow, they also beg at traffic intersections. Born into grinding poverty, their matter-of-fact eyes take in the expanding skyline, the fast moving cars and the river of humanity as it pours out of metro stations and bus terminals during rush hours. As they march to the tune of their gang-masters, street children are trapped into a future where they are seen as an available pool of cheap labour for industries and households and a potential vote bank for the political class.

The UN MDGs Report 2013 says that the proportion of slum dwellers in cities and metropolises of the developing world has declined and that between 2000 and 2010, over 200 million slum dwellers benefited from improved water sources, sanitation facilities, durable housing or sufficient living space. The reality though is that increasing pressures for re-developing urban space has squeezed out the urban poor to peripheries. Families are forced to constantly move making it more difficult to measure the extent of urban poverty.

While the UN asserts that measuring poverty continues to be a barrier to effective policy-making, one can’t help but think that indicators such as the poverty line can itself become a fault line given the realities of urban poverty. Unplanned urbanisation and the will of the poor to move and employ various tactics to let themselves be counted or not counted depending on circumstances, makes measurement exercises self-limiting. For instance, if a family is making moonshine, they are less likely to want to figure on official statistics, but if a poor single mother working as a domestic help is struggling to send her children to the local school, she is more likely to raise her hand and be counted.

Poverty measurements and its links to policy-making aside, street children will continue to face intergenerational indignity till they get off the hamster wheel that is urban poverty.

Meena Shivdas is a gender and development specialist based in London; in a previous avatar she was a journalist and columnist. She can be contacted via, or LinkedIn

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