Urban poverty is a recent problem emerging worldwide and is more complex than rural poverty in two respects. First, the urban poor lack homogeneity. Secondly, the urban poor are
more prone to air-borne and water-borne diseases. Water pollution in slums and squatter settlements is mainly due to the solid wastes dumped in river banks where there is a dense population of the poor. This phenomenon is more apparent in South Asia and the Caribbean region. Currently, world urban population is growing at the rate of 1.78 percent per year, which is double the growth of world population. Furthermore, world slum population is growing by 2 percent annually and this trend is more apparent in South Asia. By the year 2030, world urban population is expected to equal rural population.
Despite several area specific studies on the urban poor in Nepal, a consolidated, cross-sectional and one-time database study is lacking. As a result, this is limiting the scope of formulating national urban poverty alleviation programs by both governmental and non-governmental organizations. Some area specific studies have dealt with slums/squatter settlements, street children, poor women engaged in commercial sex, and porters/unskilled transport workers.
Studies show that the level of unemployment correlates negatively with the level of affluence in urban territories. Therefore, employment for the poor and welfare programs are a must in the urban sector in Nepal. Moreover, services sector has been emerging as the major economic base of the urban areas in many developing economies. Consequently, development programs targeting the urban poor cannot have tangible effects without focusing on the urban service sector. Specifically talking about the urban poor in Kathmandu, studies reveal that they, especially women and youths, need more tangible programs so that they can have access to resources and welfare activities. Only a limited number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are found involved in infrastructural development in slum settlements.
MAKING EFFECTIVE POLICIES/STRATEGIES
Identification of the poor is a difficult problem in the urban areas because of the wide variation of economic activities that have different labor productivity and wages. In the context of Nepal, however, women working as wage laborers in manufacturing industries, women involved in risky works such as sex trade, street children, people living in slums and squatter settlement, informal commercial vendors, rag pickers, and internally-displaced low-income people constitute a big chunk of the urban poor in Nepal.
Urban poverty is likely to increase in Nepal in the foreseeable future due to rapid urbanization. The Department of Urban Development and Building Construction need an ‘integrated poor community development program’ besides engaging in sectoral physical planning. NGOs and community based organizations can contribute to comprehensive urban poor community development programs if one were to go by the experiences of South Africa. Provision of revolving fund among women saving and credit groups should be established to expand the urban poverty reduction campaigns in Nepal.
The national development policy should adequately articulate the problem of urban poverty before this becomes very difficult and costly to address. The resettlement of the highly-dense slums/squatter settlement would be too costly and cumbersome if it prolongs. The government should be aware of the tenure issue of the squatter communities and control the unplanned growth of these settlements. A separate slum and squatter policy is essential. NGO sector can work as a catalyst for the resettlement and launch some welfare programs among the relocated people during the transition.
Understanding the dynamics of urban poverty and the squatter communities in Nepal is urgent now. The limited research on urban poverty has revealed the knowledge gap in this regard. This gap needs to be narrowed down through studies on social composition in slums/squatter settlements, the income/expenditure flow structures as well as potential welfare programs to children and elderly in order to entail better utilization of the allocated resources for poverty alleviation.
CHANGING URBAN ECONOMY & LIVELIHOOD OF POOR
The income/employment structure of the urban poor – specifically those living in slums and squatter settlements – have been changing rapidly. This sort of volatility coupled with globalization has caused vulnerability among the poor. Most importantly, by mid-2000, majority of the slum/squatter dwellers were working in carpet and garment industries that are mostly located in the urban areas. However, because of the phase-out of multi-fibre arrangement that eliminated the export quotas that Nepal was enjoying until Dec 31, 2004, the export of apparel and textiles was exposed to competition resulting in closure of many industries and retrenchment of employment. Efforts are necessary to transfer the bulk of this urban labor to hotels, restaurants, resorts, travel/trekking and air services.
The problem of urban poverty stems from poor governance. Global experiences show that urban poor have to be recognized as valuable citizens and their knowledge and experience used for good governance that ultimately leads to sustainable development of any modern city.
A three-pronged approach – human infrastructure development, physical infrastructure development, and access to economic resources – besides some welfare programs, specifically targeting women, children, and elderly, is essential to address the problem of urban poverty in Nepal. The physical infrastructure development efforts must take into consideration this segment’s housing, hygiene, water and sanitation issues. The human infrastructure development requires skill upgradation of the urban poor, including formal schooling of children, and adult education/training pertinent to the growing sectors of the economy, primarily the service sector. The service sector is getting enlarged and the potential service sectors for the expansion are tourism, hotel, and transportation activities while high-value cropping – organic products – in urban/peri-urban areas are other potential areas.
Global experiences show that urban poor have to be recognized as valuable citizens and their knowledge and experience used for good governance that ultimately leads to sustainable development of any modern city.
In Nepal, agricultural activities in urban peripheries, especially in the fertile valleys in hills and mountains, provide scope for employment generation of the urban poor. Furthermore, fuller exploitation of the Tarai’s rich and fertile alluvial soils for large-scale agricultural operations deserve emphasis.
River banks seem to be the areas that highly attract the squatter communities and are therefore highly crowded with poor families. For decades, this problem has been overlooked. The settlements were allowed to grow without any attention to improving their living conditions. Here are two options to the government/municipalities: Either improve the housing in slums/squatter settlements or resettle them in alternative locations. NGOs can facilitate the relocation of these slums/squatter settlements because it is a long process that requires humanitarian support from many organizations. NGOs’ support is also essential in addressing the problems of unemployed, high-school dropout youths, and dependent family members of the slums and squatter communities. Instead of dealing with such communities arbitrarily, slums and squatters should be viewed, mapped, studied and prioritized for their betterment and upgrade of the city as a whole.