The writer is a freelance contributor.
In the year 2000, the Asia and the Pacific region accounted for less than 30 percent of the world output, which rose to almost 40 percent by 2014, according to the IMF’s 2015 report ‘Asia and Pacific’s Outlook: Still Leading Global Growth’. Asian cities have become engines of growth and are playing an important role in driving their economies towards higher productivity.
Urban areas in the Asia-Pacific region are home to half of the world’s 20 megacities, accounting for 42 percent of the population and 80 percent of the region’s GDP.
In urban areas, a large part of the urban population lives in slums. Slums are human settlements, mostly in urban peripheries, where the poor, the labouring class and marginalised communities live. According to the UN-Habitat’s report, ‘The Challenge of Slums: Global Report on Human Settlements 2003’, slum dwellers make up close to 924 million people or 31.6 per cent of the world’s urban population. South Asia hosts the second largest number of slums after Sub-Saharan Africa.
With almost a billion people living in slums, the locus of poverty is moving to the cities, a process known as the ‘urbanisation of poverty’. According to the Economic Survey of Pakistan, 2010-11, Pakistan’s total urban population is about 37 per cent and on the rise at an annual rate of 3.97. The total slum population of Pakistan was estimated to be 47 percent of its total urban population in 2007.
Islamabad, though a well-planned city of over a million residents, has attracted a significantly large number of economic, environmental and social migrants during the past 15 years, giving rise to slum areas, even within its highly developed neighborhoods. Lahore, the second largest city of Pakistan, had a population of 5.1 million in 1998, which according to most estimates, has almost doubled since then. According to the Lahore Development Authority (LDA), almost 30 percent of all legal and on-record localities in Lahore fall in the category of slums.
In India a total of 33,510 slums were estimated to exist in its urban areas. About 41 percent of these were registered and 59 percent unregistered. According to the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) in 2013, an estimated 8.8 million households in India live in urban slums; about 5.6 million in notified and 3.2 million in non-notified slums, with an estimated population of 65 million. Delhi alone has the highest number of people, almost 50 percent, living in slums. These slums are located in ecologically vulnerable areas such as flood-plains, on or near open drains and sewerage lines and landfills.
Bangladesh has 5.3 million slums dwellers, living in nearly 2,100 slums, out of its total population of about 146.10 million people. Dhaka is home to almost two million slum inhabitants. Bangladesh has maintained the most extensive data on slums and conducted two censuses and many surveys on slum dwellers to understand their problems.
Contemporary economic growth strategies and the resulting urbanisation patterns have led to the depletion and deterioration of natural resources, thus reducing the net positive impact and giving rise to new risks and challenges, such as human-induced climate change and issues related to inter-generational equity, gender parity and social justice.
Women constitute 49 percent of the population in South Asia and are disproportionately underprivileged in terms of Human Development Indicators (HDI), such as education and skills, health, employment opportunities, wages, labor force participation, opportunities in leadership, access to financial resources and services, mobility and legal protection etc.
Women’s marginalisation becomes evident in the slum areas where the various socio-environmental factors reduce their chances of empowerment. The uneven and unsustainable urban densities and congestion are resulting in an increased rate of environmental degradation and increased risks in the face of climate-induced disasters such as urban flooding, storms and heatwaves.
Women are traditionally not documented in the labour market, especially those who work in the slums and contribute to the informal economy. Their socio-economic status is not improving, even though the national economy has been on the up.
The Global Gender Gap Index 2015 report, further testifies this, by ranking Pakistan 144th – second-to-last in the world on the overall index – India on 108th and Bangladesh on the 64th position.
According to Arshed Rafiq of LEAD Pakistan, “The maternal mortality rate is the highest in [the] South Asian region. …women’s participation in [the] labour force and in leadership roles remain marginal. Gender mainstreaming of social norms, laws and institutions is not even visible at a distant horizon. Economic risk management instruments are non-existent. On the other hand, violence against women is on the rise in urban areas, and environmental conditions are negatively affecting their health and physical well-being.”
Rafiq further says, “The majority of South Asian cities remain characterized by high levels of poverty and lack of basic services, bad housing conditions, and generally poor livability for many of their inhabitants. For the five most populous countries in the region – India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and Nepal, in that order – the number of urban dwellers below the national poverty line ranges from about one in eight in Pakistan to more than one in four in Afghanistan, according to a World Bank report.”
LEAD Pakistan’s project, ‘The Effects of Environmental Degradation on Women in Slums in South Asian Cities’, plans to undertake research on the issue. This will include investigating the effects of environmental degradation on women in slums in Lahore, Islamabad, Delhi, and Dhaka.
Given their increased vulnerability to urban climate and environmental challenges, women merit special attention in the state’s economic, environmental, health and education policy affairs. Efforts need to be made to ascertain the ways in which environmental shocks and stressors impact women’s economic contribution and, in turn, their empowerment. This can potentially involve exercises that help quantify women’s contribution to the informal economy. The information gathered can be subsequently used to inform policy.
Improved quality of life in slums, in particular for vulnerable groups – especially women – can help the government achieve global goals, such as the SDG 5, which targets female empowerment, and SDG 11, which targets inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable cities. Achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development goals will help boost economic growth and employment in slums, and contribute to the cause of women’s empowerment.
The UN issued the ‘zero draft’ of the New Urban Agenda, a document which aims to guide global urbanisation policy for the next 20 years. It will be adopted at the Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, also known as Habitat III, scheduled to take place in Quito, Ecuador from October 17-20, 2016. The Habitat III conference will be attended by the UN member states, and will serve as a critical means to eradicate poverty, promote inclusive growth and achieve sustainable development.
UN Secretary-general Ban Ki-moon rightly says that “The battle for sustainable development will be won or lost in [the] cities”. In this context, it is extremely important to realise cities as a means for achieving a sustainable planet.
It is the foremost responsibility of every country to dedicate resources to upgrade slum economies, tackle their environmental issues and focus on women’s empowerment. That is the only way to achieve inclusive and equitable economic growth, especially in South Asia.