Slums of Hope (Part II)

By: Janet Kirkton

[In Part I of this two-part series, published on December 17th, Master of Natural Resources (MNR) student Janet Kirkton discussed the definition of the word “slum,” along with the hope and despair inherent in both the word and the living conditions in these informal settlements.  In Part II, Janet calls attention to increasing migration from rural lands to urban centers, as well as the opportunities and challenges these migrants face.]


A recent survey by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), Delhi, and released by NGO Lokniti, “State of Indian Farmers: A Report”, conducted in 274 villages spread over 137 districts of 18 Indian states, has found that most Indian farmers are dissatisfied with their condition and would like to shift to cities, if opportunities arise.  

Of Indian farmers, 60% are considered small or marginal farmers (<5 acres) and 14% are landless.  Based upon my experience in India, I believe these are the farmers who are the most likely to migrate to an urban slum.  Being landless, the challenges experienced by rural farmers—especially due to poverty and the inability to conduct long-term planning are similar to that observed in slums.  While the slum population in India exceeded 93 million in 2013, it has more than doubled in the past two decades.  According to WaterAid, slums are also hotspots for extreme hunger, and it is estimated that 36% of children in Mumbai alone are malnourished (Ward, 2013).

Although slums pose challenges for urban agriculture, non-developed land can sometimes be converted into open space for farming – as can rooftops, and other small spaces.  Urban agriculture is a growing trend In Indian cities which could enable the urban poor to increase their own food security, but also generate additional revenue. The following images demonstrate some of the methods currently being used in farms within an urban environment. Quite frankly, any recycled container could be used to grow vegetables.  Understanding that plastic is a valued commodity to generate revenue, these are generally abundant and free for individuals to use.

Many migrant farmers are dissatisfied with farming in general, so leveraging their skills in an urban environment might create new, and more prosperous opportunities for them.  This is especially true among the upper and middle class who are interested in growing their own organic vegetables.  Companies such as Khetify, Mumbai-based i-Kheti, and Bengaluru-based Living Greens, which have sprung up in the past few years, say they are gaining traction.  Khetify cofounder Kaustubh Khare said “urban farming is cost-efficient and sustainable in the long term.  An urban farm could be set up through modular boxes on floor space or through vertical farms on walls,” he said.  Currently, most clients are individuals, and the rest are businesses with rapid industry growth expected.

Towards improving personal and community food security, urban farming within slums is a growing trend in many developing countries.  One such example is called “sack farming” and is being successfully implemented in Central Kenya (Gathigah, 2013).  “I grow seedlings in sacks filled with soil. I usually grow vegetables like kale, spinach, sweet peppers, and spring onions,” Atieno says.  A single mother of 6, she provides for her family using this technique.

According to Map Kibera Trust, a non-governmental organization that seeks to improve the participation of Kiberan residents in policy processes by providing them with information, sack farming increases weekly household income by at least five dollars and can produce two or three meals per week.  Kiama Njoroge, an agricultural extension officer in Central Kenya, says that sack farming is healthy and costs little since the materials are readily available and the low-labor way of producing wholesome foods is simple. “Foods grown in a sack are also free of chemicals,” he tells IPS.

Courtney Gallaher is an assistant professor at Michigan State University researching food systems and sustainable agriculture. Her research on urban agriculture in Kibera reveals that “most households in Kibera spend 50 to 75 percent of their total income on food. Sack farming can generate about 20 to 30 dollars in revenue per month for farmers that sell some of their vegetables, excluding water expenses.”

It is estimated that within the next 20 years, more than 225 million more slum dwellers will impact India’s urban centers.  This will put massive pressure on an already insufficient infrastructure unless proactive and directive action is taken immediately.  Towards this end, India has established a multi-pronged strategy to address slum issues directly, to include:

  1. Provide housing for all
  2. Accelerate the rate of job creation
  3. Impart relevant skills to the urban poor
  4. Facilitate self-employment opportunities for the urban poor
  5. Provide basic services to the urban poor, especially through rehabilitation of slums
  6. Ensure the financial inclusion of the urban poor

Interestingly, three of these strategies can be influenced by the advancement of an agenda supportive of urban agriculture.  With opportunities to improve food security and generate revenue via urban farming, farmers considering a move to an urban center could have more reason to hope than those without an immediate plan.  Given the severity of the challenge, it will take all interested stakeholders to make this type of initiative successful.  I for one, look forward to doing my part to support Indian farmers – both rural and urban alike.


Janet Kirkton is a graduate student in Virginia Tech’s Master of Natural Resources program.  As Caterpillar’s Dredging Industry Steward and a Director for the Western Dredging Association (WEDA), she is keenly focused on creating innovative water-based and natural infrastructure solutions.  As conveyed in this blog and others she has written, she has a special passion to support farmers in India.  She expects to receive her degree in December 2019.

The Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability thanks Brandon for permission to use his accompanying photos, and the following photographers for sharing their work through the Creative Commons License: ND Strupler, Unitarian Universalist Service CommitteeUnitarian Universalist Service Committee, and Inf-Lite Teacher.