Multiple housing and climate-related vulnerabilities of informal workers in Indore, India

While informal workers in Indore, India contend with multi-faceted vulnerabilities, recent research shows a gradual transition towards resilience. Guest bloggers Siddharth Agarwal and Kanupriya Kothiwal discuss the findings.

Siddharth Agarwal's picture Kanupriya Kothiwal's picture
Siddharth Agarwal is director and Kanupriya Kothiwal is research associate, both at Urban Health Resource Centre
16 December 2021
A woman crouches on the flor next to a stove to make a meal

Woman in Indore cooking a meal with biomass fuel on a traditional chullah in an informal settlement (Photo: copyright Urban Health Resource Centre)

Drawing on qualitative interviews with informal workers and settlement dwellers in Indore, these vignettes reveal how complex factors including inadequate housing and climate change, influence their health and wellbeing.

The interviews not only highlight vulnerabilities that workers and residents are grappling with, but also show how these groups − with the right support and strategies – can navigate these vulnerabilities and build their own resilience.

Facing multidimensional vulnerability

Neerja, aged 34, lives in a single room that she rents in Indore with her family of five. She sells jewellery, flower garlands and temple merchandise. Her husband is a casual labourer.

Their dwelling has no separate cooking and bathing space. During the summer months, cooking becomes challenging as the room becomes too warm. Smoke fills the room, sometimes forcing her to send her children outside.

During heavy downpours, water leaks from the tin roof and Neerja places vessels to prevent water from filling the room. The toilet is shared by four families. Her two younger children – too small to use the adult toilet − defecate in or outside the room. She disposes of the faeces in a plastic bag in an open plot nearby.

These inadequate single-room dwellings lead to several health and wellbeing risks such as heat stress (particularly for women while cooking); indoor air pollution from biomass fuels brings increased risks of acute respiratory infections while dampness from rainwater entering the rooms can predispose residents to asthma and bronchitis.

Gender-based risks include women drinking less water and eating less to minimise the need of using the shared toilet, as it often has queues. A toilet shared by about 20 people can lead to faeco oral infections and genito-urinary infections. Disposing of children’s faeces in the open poses the risk of contamination of food by flies, which can transmit enteric infections such as typhoid.

An open plot similar to where Neerja disposes her children’s faeces (Photo: copyright Urban Health Resource Centre)

Saving, upgrading and building resilience

Kashi, aged 48, works as an agricultural labourer in a peri-urban farm near her settlement. She also sells vegetables grown on the farm. Kashi saved each month in a community savings group. This gave her access to loans to support her family’s health and wellbeing needs including house improvement.

Before, her husband and family of four had two rooms with a tin roof, without a toilet. For several years, they had to defecate in the open.

Over the past ten years, her husband (who is a mason) has gradually upgraded the house including construction of a toilet connected to a septic tank. Although the walls of the house are unplastered, they now have a separate kitchen and toilet, and a durable roof which protects against heavy rain.

Through many years of saving and tenacity, the trajectory of Kashi’s family illustrates how informal workers and settlement dwellers can build resilience. Loans from savings groups, adequate housing and diversified livelihood strategies all play key roles.

Transitioning towards resilience

Ganpat, age 33, is a factory worker who lived in a single room for eight years after moving to Indore. He saved regularly and was able to buy a small plot of land five years ago.

Here he is gradually constructing a home for his family of four. It has a tin roof and a toilet, although the toilet is yet to be connected to the sewerage system. Ganpat has separated the cooking space by constructing a small partition wall which prevents smoke from filling the room. He had the foresight to build the house on an elevated plinth to prevent rainwater from entering the house.

Ganpat’s case is an example of a family that is moving towards resilience while navigating their present vulnerabilities. Ganpat’s coping mechanisms include constructing an elevated plinth and saving to gradually improve the family house so it can withstand climatic changes more easily.   

Findings from our research shows that many families move from experiencing multiple vulnerabilities to slowly building resilience, while for others some vulnerabilities persist. Nonetheless, this progression towards resilience is helping some households incrementally gain a foothold in the city.

A house in construction with an elevated plinth (Photo: copyright Urban Health Resource Centre)

Call to action: policy implementers and civil society groups

Our research shows the need to support practices that help families build their climate resilience – such as elevating plinths and constructing durable roofs − while also addressing multiple vulnerabilities linked to inadequate shelter, insecure livelihoods, and extreme weather.

Toilets at the household level support women’s dignity and wellbeing, in addition to minimising risks of malnutrition and infectious disease outbreaks.

But there is urgent need for policy implementers and civil society organisations to expand access to social benefits and entitlements, which can help informal workers and settlement dwellers to save money to promote health and enhance access to decent housing.

Most housing in cities such as Indore is built incrementally by informal settlement residents themselves, often using micro-loans (as in the work of Mahila Housing Trust in Ahmedabad). Pro-poor housing policies will need to build on the power of community-led efforts and further support self-build initiatives.

With thanks to Shabnam Verma for her contribution to the study.

This research was funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) using UK aid from the UK government to support global health research. The views expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the NIHR or the UK government.