In India, over 65M people live in urban slums or informal settlements with poor housing quality, inadequate access to safe water and sanitation, overcrowding and insecure residential status. The immediate impact of COVID-19 and the associated lockdown has demonstrated the vulnerability of the urban poor. With rising issues of climate change and the possibility of frequent COVID-19-like pandemics in the World, the urban poor are particularly vulnerable.

The unfortunate reality, however, is for people living on the margins - crisis is already the norm. For instance, Tuberculosis kills more people in India annually than the total number of deaths caused by COVID globally; with well-documented links between TB and inadequate housing & poorly planned built environment. To mitigate mortality due to not just COVID but also associated health linked mortality, the crisis at hand gives us the opportunity to take a long term view to improve the way we see, understand and address living (& health) conditions in informal settlements; and make this a turning point for people living in precarious urban environments.

There is an urgent need for innovations and experiments to make leapfrog improvements in living conditions and food/financial security for the urban poor; and alleviate the negative impact of COVID and make low-income communities more resilient to future crises.

We are looking for leaders, innovators, risk-takers, technical experts, early teams and collaboratives with transformative solutions that can radically improve the lives of the urban poor living in urban slums.

Mapping & Data

The informal status of many deprived settlements often undermines both the collection of data and the implementation of policies & distribution of welfare. Data already collected is not usually disaggregated by slum and non-slum, or it is simply not collected. A geospatial view of the data will also enable more effective planning of scarce resources. State governments and civil society organisations would benefit from innovative solutions such as:
A - Technology for surveying and developing accurate maps, combined with community engagement methods/partnerships to enable acceptance of the maps and household data
B - Tools, frameworks, analytical methods to map/analyze and create new ways of looking at settlements
C - New ways of visualising and imagination of existing urban data (migration patterns, income distributions, spatial geographies of vulnerability etc) to include population living in informal settlements in urban planning

Shelter & access to quality housing

Informal housing has proliferated in India due to the persistent shortage of formal low-income housing. 40% of people in urban areas/slums live informally and there is an urgent need to increase the supply of low-income housing. The typology of spaces occupied by migrants especially varies from temporary shelters near construction sites to group rental housing and other highly compressed living spaces. A 2012 National Sample Survey report showed 50% of slum households live in one room tenements. Many urban slum residents are insecure and lack legal documentation for their residences. Formalizing and strengthening the rights of urban informal settlers and access to good quality, affordable housing options are critical steps.
A - Secure tenure for households including rental arrangements
B - Financing access to decent housing & home improvements for the informally employed and those with informal property documents
C - Retrofitting measures to improve liveability in existing settlements
D - Shelter solutions and rehabilitation for the urban homeless
E - Low-cost rental and transitional accommodation models to match the flux and transient nature of migrant populations

Access to basic amenities

Infrastructure such as water supply and public toilets in informal settlements is limited and often severely stretched. Compared to the recommended one toilet seat per 50 people, in reality the ratio can be as high as 2,500 people per toilet seat. Municipal water supply is typically available only for a few hours per day. In cities like Delhi and Pune, over 90% of households in informal settlements use community toilets. In Delhi, only 17% of informal settlement residents had a tap water connection in their house. Access to safe water and measures to ensure civic hygiene, waste treatment and segregation as well as sewage treatment can go a long way in maintaining the health and hygiene of informal occupants.
A - Interventions that can improve the availability and quality of basic services provided by the Government (water, sanitation, drainage, roads)
B - Interventions to improve services including decentralised sewage infrastructure, clean drinking water plants, last-mile water pipe networks
C - Systems and measures to enforce civic hygiene

Identity, access to welfare & financial inclusion

Notification or provision of basic services (individual toilets etc) happens at a settlement level but the benefits are awarded at a household level. Ability to receive the benefits is dependent on access to formal documentation (identity proof, electricity bills, municipal surveys, rent agreements) for being on Government “beneficiary lists” with defined criteria. Many often do not have identity cards that place them as residents in the city. They typically live in new settlements that are less than five to 10 years old and may have been evicted multiple times. Transactions for informal housing (sale, transfer, rent/lease) are not recorded in government registers. This also makes informal settlements places where instruments of policy, regulation and even welfare are difficult to reach.
A - Addressing solutions for households including using GIS mapping and self-enumeration towards compliance for financial instruments
B - Ways to deliver social protection & welfare - spatial targeting, formal and informal worker associations, technological innovations etc.
C - Access to formal proofs of identification and residence at location

Idea abstracts working on allied topics to the above, solutions at the intersection of housing<>health, design interventions to improve liveability & public health that have the potential to impact urban poor living in informal settlements are welcome.

The Challenge is entirely conducted in virtual format with 3 phases.

  Phase 1 Phase 2 Phase 3
Timeline: Apr 25 - May 17 May 20 - May 26 June 6
Submission: One pager solution abstract Detailed startup plan Final pitch
Engagement: > Virtual sessions on thematic areas
> Collaborative online spaces
> Virtual sessions on prototyping & design
> Access to Collective of experts
> Final winners invited to our Launchpad
> Access to downstream partners
Note: Submitted idea abstracts will be evaluated on a rolling basis until May 17, 2020. You are encouraged to submit your ideas whenever you are ready so you get more time for the next phase.

The most promising solutions selected as part of the Equal Cities Challenge will:

  • be inducted to N/Core’s Launchpad or Incubation program (3-6 months)
  • receive funding up to Rs. 25 Lakhs (based on the stage of the organisation & completion of set milestones)
  • receive dedicated mentoring and strategic advice from a Collective of experts and N/Core Partners
  • join a community of exceptional leaders and get access to an ecosystem of support


Amita Bhide

Dean - School of Habitat Studies
Tata Institute of Social Sciences

Anindita Mukherjee

Senior Researcher
Centre for Policy Research

Anuj Sharma

Chief Executive Officer
Piramal Sarvajal

Anurag Maloo

Head of Partnerships (Asia)

Bijal Brahmbhatt

Executive Director
Mahila Housing Trust

Dhaval Monani

First Home Realty Solutions

Gautam Bhan

Senior Lead, Academics & Research
Indian Institute of Human Settlements

Hussain Indorewala

Asst. Professor
Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute for Architecture

James Samuel

Senior Director - Disaster Risk Reduction & Response
Habitat for Humanity International

Manikandan KP

Institution Builder
Indian Housing Federation

Marco Ferrario

mHS City Lab

Meera Siva

Lead, Innovations
Habitat for Humanity International

Megha Dutta

Geospatial Media and Communications

Miniya Chatterjee

Sustain Labs Paris

Mukta Naik

Centre for Policy Research

Rajan Samuel

Managing Director
Habitat for Humanity India

Rakhi Mehra

mHS City Lab

Ramchandra Vaidya

Executive Director & CEO
Habitat MicroBuild India Housing Finance Company Private Limited

Satwik Govindarajalu

Head of Growth and EIR

Shikha Srivastava

Head, Urban Habitat and Migration
Tata Trusts

Shishir Dash

Lead, Urban Habitat
Tata Trusts

Shreya Deb

Director, Investments
Omidyar Network India

Swapnil Chaturvedi

Co-founder & CEO


Avni Gupta

Deputy Director (Smart Cities)
Ministry of Housing & Urban Affairs

Samit Ghosh

Ujjivan Financial Services

Shankar Maruwada

Co-Founder & CEO

Shilpa Kumar

Investment Partner
Omidyar Network India

Anyone with a solution can apply. Individuals, teams or organisations with the intent to work on the solution full time. You could be an early explorer or an existing organisation starting a new initiative.

The Challenge is open to Indian Organizations and for individuals solving problems related to Informal Settlements in India with the intention to start an organization in India.
  • Problem understanding
  • Solution clarity
  • Demonstrated problem solving ability
  • Potential for impact (innovation, scale) on urban poor
  • Commitment to work on the solution full-time
Idea stage selection (by May 17)

An idea abstract describing:

  • the problem you are trying to solve
  • your solution to the problem
  • details regarding your team/ organisation

B-plan stage selection (May 27)

At the outset, the B-plan should contain answers to the following questions:

  • What problem are you trying to solve?
  • What is your solution & approach? Why do you think it will work?
  • What stage is your solution at? (concept/ proof of concept/ prototype/ pilot)
  • Who are your customers? How do you reach them or intend to reach them?
  • Are there any other organisations doing similar work?
  • If you have an existing organisation, can you describe its key achievements till now?
  • What is your strategy for the next 3 months, 6 months, 1 year?
  • What is your operational plan for the next 3-6 months? how would you measure your
  • progress?
  • Any additional information you would like to share

The above page has two options:

a) to submit your idea if your idea abstract is ready.
b) to register interest, if you’re still working on the idea and want to receive notifications for the sessions and panel discussions we will be conducting.

The grants will be provided in tranches over a period of time. The amount of each tranche and disbursement schedules will depend on the needs and stage of the organisation and will be linked to completion of agreed milestones.