Urban Agriculture Helps Combat Hunger in India’s Slums

By Catherine Ward

In 2010, nearly 830 million people around the world lived in slums, up from 777 million in the year 2000, according to the United Nations.

Back street of an Indian slum. (Photo credit: http://shabanaadam.wordpress.com/)

The New York Times describes Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum, as a “cliché of Indian misery,” with approximately 1 million slum dwellers living on 8 percent of the land in the western city of Mumbai. Although Dharavi lacks sufficient infrastructure to provide sewerage, water, electricity, or housing for residents, this dense community in the heart of India’s financial capital has a thriving informal economy with an annual economic output of up to US$1 billion.

Writing in Foreign Policy, Charles Kenny of the Center for Global Development observes that “slum dwellers may be at the bottom of the urban heap, but most are better off than their rural counterparts.” Urban centers, both in India and around the world, offer economic opportunities that rural areas do not. For this reason, some migrants voluntarily move to slums in hopes of learning new skills, setting up businesses, and sending their children to school.

India has a massive population of 1.2 billion, second only to China, and is home to an estimated 93 million slum dwellers. According to WaterAid, the country’s slum population has doubled in the past two decades. Slum communities can be hotspots for hunger, with an estimated 36 percent of slum children in Mumbai malnourished, reports the website Urb.im.

One important way to mitigate hunger in Indian cities is by enabling the urban poor to grow their own food on local land. Urban farming is a growing trend within middle-class Indian communities, some of whom practice rooftop gardening and community farming. Although densely populated slums pose challenges for urban agriculture, non-developed land (i.e., dumping grounds) can sometimes be converted into open space for gardening. Such was the case with a former dump site in Mumbai’s Ambedkar Nagar slum, which is now a community garden.

Pockets of slum dwellers throughout India practice urban agriculture in an effort to increase community food security. In the city of Cuttack, slum dwellers rely on organic farming to grow the vegetables needed to meet their dietary requirements, and are even able to sell the surplus to local markets. Local fruit and vegetable production in and around urban Delhi allow poor communities to access cheap, healthy food, which would otherwise be too expensive.

Although slums can be politically contentious, Charles Kenny claims that, “all things considered, slum growth is a force for good. It could be an even stronger driver of development if leaders stopped treating slums as a problem to be cleared and started treating them as a population to be serviced, providing access to reliable land titles, security, paved roads, water and sewer lines, schools, and clinics.”

Numerous organizations, including Solidarités International and the Norwegian Refugee Council, believe that urban agriculture—which is credited with producing 15 to 20 percent of the world’s food in 2011—can bring new life to deteriorating slums and serve as a driving force for community development.

Do you know of any projects that use urban agriculture as a means to combat hunger in slums? Please share your comments below.

Catherine Ward is a former research intern with the Worldwatch Institute’s Food and Agriculture Program.

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