Those of us who do not believe in the idea of eradicating slums as a solution for post-modern cities are often seen as crazies who are getting away with romanticizing the slum without having any ‘solutions’ on offer. However, globally the tide is turning away from evictions and relocations as strategies to capture occupied lands and satisfy the land requirements for upscale real estate. Housing is increasingly being seen as a right and forced eviction of residents as a clear violation of human rights. This, along with rising costs, formed the pillars of the widespread protests in Brazil against the preparations for the upcoming football World Cup and Olympics.
But because governments can no longer bring on the bulldozer without undue bad press (unfortunately in India, I think the English press is hopelessly bourgeoise, with little empathy for the poor), they often resort of subtle forms of bullying. For instance, in Vila Autodrome, a favella in Rio de Janeiro that has recently won a major battle to prevent eviction, residents were being put under undue pressure from government employees to waive their current leases and vacate their homes. The story of this favella’s pursuit of their right to culturally adequate housing involves considerable community organization through the tool of resident assemblies, alongside legal battles and advocacy. More importantly, the struggle included the creation of a Plano Popular by the community that listed the city’s violations of their rights, but also addressed what support they needed to upgrade and retrofit their community to make it safer and more liveable.
The plan was supported and informed by architects and planners in the city’s universities and this really struck me. I teach in SPA, one of the premier educational institutes in the city of Delhi and perhaps in all of India, and I have not heard of any such initiative to reach out to and partner with the city’s low-income communities to help them achieve a better standard of life. I do not intend to criticize my alma mater in particular, it’s just that we in India seem to not have a professional culture of reaching out and delving into the problem. Rather, we tend to theorize and shun the real issues and echo the most politically correct sentiments of the time- slum free India, sanitize the city, relocation and the like.
A DDA official recently told me that the government is now aiming to redevelop slums, often relocating them within 500 metres of their current location. Though he did not say so, we know that slum dwellers are to be offered high rise apartment living in place of their current low-rise high-density existence (my Hindu piece on this, read here). It’s not rocket science to know that this is only a form of gentrification and high-rises will rapidly become middle class homes, while the poor go back to the slum (squatting on untenable flood-prone land or renting in an existing slum, fueling more unsafe vertical additions). Clearly, this is not a solution.
The need is therefore, to find a way to retrofit/reshape irregular housing to make it safer. So we might need to widen a street to put in a sewer line, or find off-the-grid technological solutions for water supply and sewerage, or train masons in communities to build better, etc. Furthermore, we need more engagement of a diverse set of actors to crack this problem of housing the urban poor. And an open mind.
We need community enablers, we need policymakers and planners, and we need bridge groups who can take ideas and solutions to the community and bring feedback to the planning table. There is plenty of energy out there to make this happen, if governments would be more open to the idea, if educational institutions wouldn’t shy away from engagement and if we were all not so hopelessly taken in by the idea of a perfectly ‘planned’, sanitized, slum free city.
In a related rant, I often wonder, after having been through the Commonwealth Games debacle would the middle and elite classes in Delhi be enthused if India were to bid to host the Olympics in or around the city? Or would we also take to the streets to ensure that grand development and infrastructure must not come in at the cost of the poor? I live in hope!
I’d like to acknowledge the contribution of MIT-based researcher Caleb Harper to this post, whose sharp insights helped me put a lot of what I knew in perspective. Thanks Caleb!
Improved citizenship is a must to provide good governance: Synthesizing Patrick Heller’s talk @ CPR, India
When I set out to work this morning, I didn’t know I would end up hearing Patrick Heller speak at the Centre for Policy Research. I’m glad I did attend his talk, though, for it informs a critical area of my research on Gurgaon’s housing scenario. Patrick is a professor of sociology and international studies at Brown University and works in the area of democratic deepening, institutional design and participatory forms of governance. The aspect of citizenship and the relationship between civil society and government that he spoke of today is one that has tremendous potential to make or mar cities as places to live in and is certainly a very weak area for Indian cities, a stumbling block- indeed, one of many.
Patrick led us through the three major theories that have informed our understanding of cities in the last few decades during which urbanism has really come to the fore of research in sociology, political sciences and economics. The Global City thinking, a term coined by Saskia Sassen and which proposes that a global city is one which is an important node in the global economic system and attempts to envision the world as an hierarchy of cities, rather than nation states. Unfortunately, as Patrick pointed out, cities across the world have misinterpreted this term liberally, and in their hunger to move up the hierarchy of cities, have taken drastic and often thoughtless measures to simply ape another city without considering its own special position and needs. Hence, Mumbai is to be Shanghai and Delhi is to be London, and so on and so forth…
The Urban Regime thinking focuses on the politics of cities and looks at a city as an entity that has an agenda (usually growth), is supported by a coalition, is reasonably successful in achieving coordination, can mobilize resources and resolve collective problems as well as mediate conflicts. Prototypical of this is the growth machine model adopted by American cities. The real estate developer plays a key role here, and development is seen (in the US, but I could say this of India as well) as the adding of value to land to extract surplus value from it. The obvious criticism of this model is the absence of ‘people’.
That brings in the third construct- Citizenship theory, largely attributed to Lefebvre. Here, the city is viewed as an entity created by and for, governed by people, a democratic entity. Citizenship is a practice, not just a right and the intersections between state and civil society become very critical. In this, the ‘right to the city’ concept seems relevant to my attempt to build the argument that shelter is something every citizen must reasonably expect.
Patrick mesmerized the audience with his presentation of case studies from South Africa and Brazil, where citizenship takes absolutely different forms. It was revealing to learn that, in South Africa, there is deep discontent among urban populations against the African National Congress. The discontent is rooted in the alienation of the ANC from the activist bottom-up roots it had during the struggle against apartheid. While service delivery is efficient, citizens are upset that they are being treated like clients and that there is no participatory governance at all. In fact, ANC leaders have mostly become rich and move out of black neighborhoods. In a sense, they are the new whites. Yet, South Africans vote the ANC in every time because they feel they cannot vote against the party that Nelson Mandel founded and that led them to freedom from apartheid. Strong parallels with the Indian voters allegiance to the Congress in the many decades post Independence and the current sense of intense disillusionment with their politics, even as we struggle to find political alternatives.
On the other end, Brazil has moved away from the growth-obsessed autocratic model of governance to a social city model where both participatory processes as well as devolution of power have taken place. Innovative mechanisms like participatory budgeting and sectoral councils have changed the game, and Brazilian cities are seen to have consistently invested in socially beneficial areas like healthcare reforms, land regularization, social welfare, etc. Participatory budgeting is an example of how moves to strengthen citizenship have captured the nation’s imagination. PB, in which councilors as well as ordinary people paralely decide on municipal budgets, is not formally institutionalized but helps bring in transparency and breaks the deal-making, ‘clientelism’ that we have come to expect from govt-business (elite) decision makers. The changed relationship between politics and civil society is allowing new forms of co-production and making governance accessible to people like never before.
Patrick’s attempt to compare his work in these two nations with India are still in preliminary stages. However, it is clear that the essential issue in India is the lack of political autonomy and incapability of cities to govern themselves. Cities in India are not yet autonomous, usually in poor fiscal health and clearly do not have a sense of where they are going. Civil society is fragmented and the outcome is what Patrick calls “growth cabal”, a situation in which a regime of land-grab operates, with politicians, bureaucrats and the rich colluding to appropriate assets and hijack growth while the citizens are excluded from the process of wealth creation and the benefits that come from it. Moreover, we can all see that citizens in Indian cities continue to be, akin to South Africa, steeped in feudal/caste/class allegiances and have no systems for participation that help them participate in and influence their city in any way. Can South Africa’s experiences and the Brazilian success story teach us lessons on how to go forward? Can Indian cities find ways to involve civil society, strengthen civil society across classes to act as a check and balance? These ideas seem still far away for a nation where even the basic services are not yet available for the majority, but we must premise our future on the idea of citizenship and the ‘right to the city’.