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India: Urban Inequities
Country Study > Chapter 5 > Social Systems > Urban Life > Urban Inequities


Major socioeconomic differences are much on display in cities. The fine homes -- often a walled compound with a garden, servants' quarters, and garage -- and gleaming automobiles of the super wealthy stand in stark contrast to the burlap-covered huts of the barefoot poor. Shops filled with elegant silk saris and air-conditioned restaurants cater to the privileged, while ragged dust-covered children with outstretched hands wait outside in hopes of receiving a few coins. The wealthy and the middle class employ servants and workers of various kinds, but jajmani -like ties are essentially lacking, and the rich and the poor live much more separate lives than in villages. At the same time, casual interaction and physical contact among people of all castes is constant, on public streets and in buses, trains, and movie theaters.

As would-be urbanites stream into the cities, they often seek out people from their village, caste, or region who have gone before them and receive enough hospitality to tide them over until they can settle in themselves. They find accommodation wherever they can, even if only on a quiet corner of a sidewalk, or inside a concrete sewer pipe waiting to be laid. Some are fortunate enough to find shelter in decrepit tenements or in open areas where they can throw up flimsy structures of mud, tin sheeting, or burlap. In such slum settlements, a single outhouse may be shared by literally thousands of people, or, more usually, there are no sanitary facilities at all. Ditches are awash in raw sewage, and byways are strewn with the refuse of people and animals with nowhere else to go.

Despite the exterior appearance of chaos, slum life is highly structured, with many economic, religious, caste, and political interests expressed in daily activity. Living conditions are extremely difficult, and slum dwellers fear the constant threat of having their homes bulldozed in municipal "slum clearance" efforts; nonetheless, slum life is animated by a strong sense of joie de vivre.

In many sections of Indian cities, scavenging pigs, often owned by Sweepers, along with stray dogs, help to recycle fecal material. Piles of less noxious vegetal and paper garbage are sorted through by the poorest people, who seek usable or salable bits of things. Cattle and goats, owned by entrepreneurial folk, graze on these piles, turning otherwise useless garbage into valuable milk, dung (used for cooking fuel), and meat. These domestic animals roam even in neighborhoods of fine homes, outside the compound walls that protect the privileged and their gardener-tended rose bushes from needy animals and people.

Finding employment in the urban setting can be extremely challenging, and, whenever possible, networks of relatives and friends are used to help seek jobs. Millions of Indians are unemployed or underemployed. Ingenuity and tenacity are the hallmarks of urban workers, who carry out a remarkable multitude of tasks and sell an incredible variety of foods, trinkets, and services, all under difficult conditions. Many of the urban poor are migrant laborers carrying headloads of bricks and earth up rickety bamboo scaffolding at construction sites, while their small children play about at the edge of excavations or huddle on mounds of gravel in the blazing sun. Nursing mothers must take time out periodically to suckle their babies at the edge of construction sites; such "recesses" are considered reason to pay a woman less for a day's work than a man earns (male construction workers earned about US$1 a day in 1994). Moreover, women are seen as physically weaker by some employers and thus not deserving of equal wages with men.

These construction projects are financed by governments and by business enterprises, which are run by cadres of well-educated, healthy, well-dressed men and, increasingly, women, who occupy positions of power and make decisions affecting many people. India's major cities have long been headquarters for the country's highest socioeconomic groups, people with transnational and international connections whose choices are taking India into new realms of economic development and social change. Among these well-placed people, intercaste marriages raise few eyebrows, as long as marital unions link people of similar upper- or upper-middle-class backgrounds. Such marriages, sometimes even across religious lines, help knit India's most powerful people together.

Increasingly conspicuous in India's cities are the growing ranks of the middle class. In carefully laundered clothes, they emerge from modest and semiprosperous homes to ride buses and motorscooters to their jobs in offices, hospitals, courts, and commercial establishments. Their well-tended children are educated in properly organized schools. Family groups go out together to places of worship, social events, snack shops, and to bazaars bustling with consumers eager to buy the necessities of a comfortable life. Members of the middle class cluster around small stock-market outlets in cities all over the country. Even in Calcutta, notorious for slums and street dwellers, the dominant image is of office workers in pressed white garments riding crowded buses -- or Calcutta's world-class subway line -- to their jobs as office workers and professionals.

For nearly everyone within the highly challenging urban environment, ties to family and kin remain crucial to prosperity. Even in the harshest urban conditions, families show remarkable resilience. Neighborhoods, too, take on importance, and neighbors from various backgrounds develop cooperative ties with one another. Neighborhood solidarity is expressed at such annual Hindu festivals as Ganesh's Birthday (Ganesh Chaturthi) in Bombay and Durga Puja in Calcutta, when neighborhood associations create elaborate images of the deities and take them out in grand processions.

Data as of September 1995

Last Updated: September 1995

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for India was first published in 1995. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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