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5-points researchers may consider while conducting large scale surveys in slums

Metro cities are cosmopolitan in nature. The population in the cosmopolitan cities are generally heterogeneous which constitutes migrated people from different parts of the country. Especially in developing countries, the migration of labor is an important phenomenon of the urbanization process. These cities have changing trends in terms of demography and development. Sizable proportion of the population in most Indian cities lives in slum areas, especially in Mumbai and Delhi in India. According to Census 2011 figures, approximately 37% and 11% of the total population dwell in slums in the cities of Mumbai and Delhi respectively. The increasing slum population have witnessed an indication of worsening living conditions and increasing poverty in cities in India. Disparities in health condition of the population between cities and among different groups of the population in the same city are increasing. This has led to increased need of attention for specific interventions to urban slum areas. And with these enhanced attention by the government, foundations, donors, NGOs and corporate, several studies are also being carried out in the slum populations.

The article seeks to describe challenges faced while conducting research in metro cities, with special mention of my Mumbai experience. This article aims to help researchers who are contemplating of conducting large scale research among slum dwellers. This article is a reflection of our research experience on community based survey for a communicable disease in Mumbai. The study was conducted in slums of 15 wards of Mumbai covering the slum areas. Broadly the article focuses on the issues of identifying the location and boundary and seasonal habitation pattern, seasonal challenges in collecting data, instability in the habitat, problems faced in conducting research on communicable disease, getting correct information from the respondents, non-response rate, expectation of community from the survey, survey fatigue due to large number of surveys happening in the slums.

1. Locating Maps

Location identification as well as identifying their boundary is paramount before conducting a large scale study among slum dwellers. Usually for surveys of these nature, maps are procured from NSSO (UFS maps or the Urban Frame Survey maps), Census (CEB maps or the Census Enumeration Block maps), and other government offices. Sampling frame for our study was slums in 15 wards for Mumbai. Almost all the maps we procured from an agency were poorly drafted with recurring issues like – incorrect directions, untraceable landmarks and improper use of designated symbols for classifying the buildings/structures. Most of times, instructions etc are hand written and the hand writing on the maps were illegible. Many areas were redeveloped. Ideally one Primary Sampling Unit (PSU) / cluster map should consist of around 160-200 households, but there were many that had around 1000 HHs.

Now in order to identify the slums within those maps, list of slums was procured from the office of another government agency, which were matched with the cluster maps. We experienced, although aome areas were marked as slums as per the list but when actually visited, some of those areas were very well developed and clean. On the other hand some slums which are newly developed did not feature in the list. Since the list is not updated on a regular basis, these lists may not represent the entire slum dwellers of a city. As researchers, we have no control over this and we will have to live with it perhaps.

2. Seasonal habitations

Availability or non-availability of the target respondents are very much dependent on the season when the data collection is planned in India. This is more concerning when we plan a study in Mumbai, considering a huge migrated population. So, if the survey is planned for the month of April/May/June, we need to be careful. Owing to the summer vacations in the schools, most of families originally from northern part of the country, would go to their native places. The families left, may not be a complete representation of the population. The rainy season that follows summer, poses it’s own challenges in Mumbai due to frequent cancellation of local trains and water logging here and there. Therefore, if possible one should plan for data collection between October and March.

Since, most of the times, all the members of the household go out for work, we often find a substantial number of locked houses. Moreover, as most of these people work in informal settings, to meet with these people the survey team needs to be very flexible for timing, ie. Plan for late evening, as in the early morning too, the respondents are extremely busy in their daily household chores like washing utensils, fetching and storing water, preparing breakfast and lunch for the members etc. In order to take time and elicit good response provision of small gift in our budget can be made if it is possible.

3. Attrition of Research Investigators

Researchers need to be cognizant of high attrition of the field team workers. It is not at all easy conducting a study on communicable disease where we run the risk getting infected. I have personally experienced half of the team members dropping out in just 3 days of field work. The biggest reason being the difficulty in reaching, locating, moving in slums areas. Mumbai also known as the city of dreams, has several opportunities. Also, knowing the nature of project, which are generally short term, the team members do not did not have the motivation to perform. Therefore, it may be a good idea to train 50% more people than planned.

4. Survey Fatigue

Due to the increased development focus on the urban slums, the studies conducted amongst the slum dwellers have also increased. And with these surveys, they do not get any direct tangible benefits. As a result, they have started getting cynical about these studies. We have also seen, sometimes, some of our field team members, make some false commitments in order to seek their time, which goes unfulfilled. These false promises may be catastrophic for that study and for future studies as well.

5. Perceived Health Hazard in case of communicable diseases

If field people are engaged in the field work for any communicable disease, there are high chances that they will be very reluctant in participating in the study. This is quite natural, especially if the study area is a slum. A possible solution to this could be by engaging a senior medical doctor, practicing in that field, who takes several sessions with the field workers on the actual and perceived risks.


Careful planning can help researchers execute the field work within the planned time line and budgets. Though, some of the solutions suggested above like training additional people, offering gifts, engaging senior medical consultants etc, apparently seems be cost enhancing, but in actual terms, all of these gets compensated if the field work completes on time without major hassles. To conclude, as the scenario is significantly changing in cities, many new issues can arise, which can be resolved then, but some of the issues as indicated above can be thought upon before conducting a survey.

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