The poignancy of an abandoned home: Voyeurism and research in Tangtou #ShenzhenDiaries
There are moments during fieldwork when you feel like a voyeur, part guilty and part fascinated by intimate details revealed before you. That’s how I felt in Tangtou, where we unexpectedly found an entire block of vacant homes that had been locked up in 2008 unlocked and available to us for exploration.
Built as resettlement housing for villagers displaced by a water reservoir project in the late ’50s and subsequently found to be unsafe in the ’90s, families were finally asked to vacate in 2008 (facts from Mary Ann’s post on Tangtou dated 23rd May 2016).
On the day that we visited, surveyors from the district administration were measuring the homes in preparation for redevelopment of the area. The homes stood open for us and I felt a bit like what an archaeologist might during an excavation. Time had stood still for these spaces that were once lived in and used. A beautifully painted facade. A child’s jacket, broken study table and English language alphabet chart. A kitchen slab where utensils had been left behind and a living room where posters were still on the wall and papers strewn across the floor. All these conjured up vivid images of how hurriedly families might have gathered their possessions when the eviction orders came in.
Our understanding of the redevelopment process in Shenzhen’s urban villages was to grow over the next few days, but that afternoon in Tangtou we began to grasp the rudiments. That residents were compensated basis the built-up space they had at the time of eviction. That these compensations could be several times the size of the originally occupied space and were usually hugely profitable for villagers but migrants, who lived as renters got nothing. In Tangtou that day though, where waste pickers sorted thermocol and plastic along its main spine even as we walked in and out of the homes, it was hard to visualize a swank apartment block going up where we stood.
It is hard not to make comparisons to slum redevelopment models in India, especially the SRA model and its various spin-offs, where the developer is permitted to use the redeveloped parcel of land to build for sale commercial apartments while taking the responsibility of rehabilitating eligible slum dwellers on site, in a prescribed ratio. The idea is to leverage the value of the land occupied by slums (illegally, as is often emphasized in government documentation while hardly ever bringing up the failure of the State to provide affordable housing ) to improve living conditions as well as create more housing stock.
Like in Shenzhen, cross-subsidy driven redevelopment schemes in India like the SRA impose eligibility criteria that leave out some residents, usually renters, though the proportion of the ineligible varies by location and may not be as high. Activists have often pointed out that these schemes sanitize the city, but accentuate inequalities by turning families onto the streets. As you can imagine, the cut-off date as well as the documentation that households have to produce for eligibility are hotly contested.
Second, while in-situ rehabilitation does not displace poor households, the replacement of low-rise housing with high-rise apartments has been traumatic for slum households in Indian cities, whose income sources are diverse, home-based occupations are common and for whom the street is the focal point for interaction. The scheme has provisions for community consultation, but the design of redevelopment housing has hardly taken community needs into account.
In Tangtou, the narrow and deep row houses had double height spaces that residents had configured the spaces creatively to meet their specific needs (apparently the width was counted by the number tiles in traditional homes, more the width the higher the family’s status, while depth remained standard). I wondered how residents would alter their lifestyle in their new standard issue apartments. Would they miss the flexibility their older homes offered them?
Through the week in Shenzhen, we discussed redevelopment several times, and the concern over the issue of rights and citizenship was expressed in many forms, not only by activists and planners but even by village residents. In this short trip, we weren’t able to get a first had sense of how migrants felt about being sidelined, but one expert we spoke to pointed out that the self-perception of migrants as outsiders was perhaps the biggest barrier to building a campaign for more inclusive redevelopment mechanisms. Another similarity with rapidly growing cities in India, where despite democracy and the Constitutional right to mobility, low-income rural migrants have little voice until they remain long enough in the city to become a vote bank, which is often a few decades.
Castles in the air: Delhi govt, don’t put slumdwellers in highrises without consulting them!
A day after I blogged about the opportunity Delhi would miss by not consulting citizens and involving young design to inform the redevelopment of large tracts of government land in the city centre, an article coauthored by my colleague Gregory Randolph and myself has been carried in The Hindu’s op-ed page. The piece, titled ‘Castles in the Air‘ speaks out against the government’s subvertion of due process in a bizarre scheme to relocate thousands of slum-dweller families in 17-story highrises. It underlines that a lack of community consultations and environmental analysis means that the new homes are unsuitable to the lifestyles of the poor who will be forced to sell and return to a slum. In effect, the project is a nightmare and set to fail, a tregedy that can be avoided.
It is, of course, a huge honour for us at mHS to be published in The Hindu and it is fitting that they should have helped us voice our plea for a serious re-think on attitudes towards housing for the urban poor. For those of you from outside India, The Hindu is one of the country’s most respectable daily newspapers and is renowned for calling a spade a spade! As a friend put it, the column we got covered in is usually reserved for opinions on current issues and has carried pieces by eminent people like veteran journbalist P Sainath and Nobel Laureate economist Paul Krugman, no less!
But beyond the thrill of being published, I hope articles like these generate more serious debates on the need for participative planning processes. For there is no argument that these are the cornerstone for inclusive and sustainable urban development. In a rapidly urbanizing world, it is time experts and non-experts alike, indeed all of us living an urban existence, dwell upon these issues that urgently impact our present and our future.