New Delhi, Jan 5, 2014: Two government agencies — the census office and the National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO) — have come up with two completely different estimates of India's slum population, leaving both policy makers and the aam aadmi puzzled. The difference is so big that it can't be papered over by any technical jugglery. It has again raised suspicions of India's statistical system floundering, especially when it comes to poorer, more vulnerable sections of society.
Here are the facts: earlier this year, the census office put out a figure of 6.5 crore slum dwellers for 2011; the NSSO last week released a report indicating that the urban slum population was just 4.4 crore in 2012. The difference is a whopping 2.1 crore people.
This is all the more confusing because, as reported by TOI earlier, the census slum count itself was being seen as an underestimation because it had not taken into account slums in 3,894 newly defined urban areas called census towns.
In the muddy waters of statistics, this unfortunate discrepancy adds to the disadvantage faced by poorer sections of society, just like the shockingly low definition of poverty by the Planning Commission. Both lead to omitting considerable sections of poorer people out of the ambit of welfare measures.
Pronob Sen, chairman of India's National Statistical Commission is of the view that the NSSO estimate is an undercount. He told TOI that this has happened because it probably used the 2001 Census data to select the urban samples. What he means is that things would have changed in a decade and using the 2001 data to decide where to survey may have led to missing out on existing slums.
Slum definition objective: NSSO
In response to queries by TOI, the NSSO's Survey Design and Research Division candidly pointed out some reasons why there is a difference in the two estimates. The most important reason pointed out by the NSSO is that there is no concrete or objective definition of slums and so, "it is inevitable that survey practices will vary across persons and across agencies".
"The definition of slum is still anchored in subjective concepts such as narrowness, dilapidation, overcrowding, faulty arrangements and design, lack of ventilation, lack of sanitation facilities, etc. The dividing line between 'narrow' and 'non-narrow' will be drawn differently by different survey officials, and the same is true for 'overcrowded', 'dilapidated', 'faulty', and so on," the NSSO says.
Was the NSSO's sampling method faulty? No, it says. In support of this, it said that while counting the 'notified slums', the estimate of about 50 lakh households is "very close" to the census estimate of 56 lakh. In fact, according to the NSSO, it is the "subjectivity of concepts used in the definition of non-notified slums" that has led to the difference.
The NSSO's method of counting slums was supposed to be superior to the census method in several ways. The NSSO took into account smaller slums, with as few as 20 households. After large-scale slum clearance in the past few years, such small slums have persisted and spread. The census counted slums with only a minimum of 60-70 households. (Source: Subodh Varma, TNN)