Public goods, location choice and the voting decisions of the urban poor

India is under-urbanized relative to her income level, leading to widespread expectations of large-scale rural-to-urban migration in coming years. An old and new literature posits that cities underpin long-term economic dynamism, through the spatial concentration of skills and ideas. This project aims to highlight the constraints placed on such dynamism by low-quality infrastructure in a large Indian city, and to identify some of the contributing factors. To accomplish this, we make use of detailed survey data on the quality of social services available to Delhi slum-dwellers. We focus on slums because they are often the point of entry for rural-to-urban migrants. Failure to solve problems for slum-dwellers is not only an issue of human deprivation, but an impediment to India’s continued growth and stability. Our analysis draws upon two surveys that we conducted in 2010: one of a sample of over 5000 households across Delhi slums, the other of 250 heads and members of Delhi Resident Welfare Associations. We find evidence of low-quality public good provision, with slum-dwellers reporting significant discontent about access to water and sanitation, but, interestingly, not about education and healthcare. Additionally, slum-dwellers often do not access the government transfers to which they are entitled. Further, when they do access services, they tend not to receive the entirety of their legally entitled benefits. For example, in the pension program, a substantial fraction of those apparently eligible for pensions do not receive them. In the food subsidy system, there are shortfalls between entitlements and actual receipts of grain. Lastly, slum-dwellers rarely report receiving help from NGOs. The low level of provision cannot be explained by lack of resources or disagreement among slum-dwellers about needs, as most agree about the most problematic issues. Further, voter registration is high among slum-dwellers and over 80% claim to have voted in the last election. Another possibility is that legislators do not effectively deliver goods and services to their constituencies because most voters do not approach them with their problems. There is mixed support for this; a significant minority of households report approaching elected officials with varied outcomes. However, of voters who have approached politicians about any issue, most say that the politician listens, says he will help and then does nothing. Partly, the low level of provision of public goods and services results from poor access to information. For instance, private schools and private hospitals in Delhi are obliged to serve a certain number of poor people for free; however, the surveys show that almost no one knows this. Slum-dwellers either do not know about or drastically underestimate the size of the funds for local level development projects that ward councilors control. Thus, while slum-dwellers state an eagerness to hold representatives accountable for their performance, they are unable to discern what these politicians have the power to do. Surprisingly, politicians respond to the lack of voter knowledge with apathy rather than by seeking to use the resources at their disposal to curry electoral favor.

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