TDR – Contents and Discontents

December 22nd, 2010

The front-page news of the Times of India dated 11th December 2010 stated: “TDR is useless” according to law and urban development minister Mr. S. Suresh Kumar. Since the past few weeks, the issue of TDR (Transferable Development Rights) has been in the news as elected representatives and citizen groups are increasingly questioning the applicability of TDR for Bangalore. Protests have also been lodged against the coercive and surreptitious tactics used by the BBMP to ‘inform’ citizens about acquisition of their properties for road widening and award of TDR. “We wake up one morning and find these red markings on the walls of our premises saying 1.3 mtrs, 1.7 mtrs, 2 mtrs, etc. We do not know what is happening. Only later, through our friends and neighbours, it becomes clear to us that these red markings are indicative of the proposed width for road widening and that our properties have been marked for acquisition,” explained one of the residents protesting against the proposed road widening at Banaswadi on 28th November 2010. Earlier, in a similar manner, traders and residents in areas such as Rajajinagar and CMH Road found one morning that their properties would be acquired for the metro rail project. “It is like we are being governed by a Chinese regime of some sorts where the government notifies you one fine morning that it is building a mega infrastructure project and our properties will be acquired irrespective of our opinions and protestations,” explained Arijit (name changed to protect identity), a tenant trader at MKK Road. In response to people’s protests that they were being forced to accept TDR, Dr. A. Ravindra, advisor to Chief Minister for Urban Affairs, recently announced that TDR is optional and that BBMP cannot force people to accept TDR.

Why has TDR in Bangalore not gained the kind of currency and purchase that it has in cities such as Mumbai and Hyderabad? Are the problems solely related to the policy and its implementation? This article reviews people’s discontents with TDR and the recommendations that have been put forth by a Committee which was set up to analyze the problems with the TDR policy in Bangalore.

TDR – contents and discontents: The concept of TDR has been borrowed from American cities where TDR was introduced to save farmlands and heritage buildings from the massive transformations and developmental activity that was taking place in the wake of urbanization of big cities. The farmlands and heritage buildings would have been demolished or assimilated into the frenetic pace of building activity had governments of that time not offered the incentive of development rights to owners of such properties. The concept of TDR thus de-links development rights from the physical property and allows recipients to either use TDR on other land parcels that they own or trade these development rights with other individuals or builders who may require it to build extra units. TDR allows for what is known as vertical growth because you can use the development rights despite existing floor space restrictions and build extra units. However, you cannot violate the building codes and the existing zonal restrictions when you apply TDR i.e., you cannot build in excess of the floor space restrictions that have been laid down for each zone in the city. Despite this, a great deal of confusion continues to prevail among citizens whether TDR allows you to legalize existing illegal constructions or building code violations. Such ambiguities in the TDR policy and its application are causing uncertainties among citizens.

A second uncertainty which citizens are confronted with is about how to sell and thereby monetize the development rights awarded to them. Mr. Katta Subramaniam Swamy has proposed that TDR exchange centres be established in each area where citizen can sell the development rights to interested parties so that there is both transparency and guidance in the sales process. Three issues arise in connection with the sales of the development rights:

  1. First, it is unclear whether citizens have to pay a tax and undergo some kind of registration process for the TDR they have been awarded. This issue was peripherally raised by Mr. Padmanabha Reddy, one of the leaders of the opposition in the BBMP council, in the meeting organized by residents of Banaswadi area on 28th November 2010 to protest against road widening in their area. Logically, TDR can be equated with capital gains that accrue to individuals by virtue of owing assets. Hence, it is likely that recipients of TDR will have to declare this compensation in their tax returns and also go through a registration process to be able to sell their development rights certificate (DRCs). The details of the process are still unclear.
  2. Second, there is lack of clarity about the monetary/price value of the TDRs. As part of the compensation package under road widening, people are being awarded about 1.5 times the amount of FSI (Floor Space Index also known as Floor Area Ratio (FAR)) as compensation to the area they surrender. Thus, hypothetically, if you surrender about 100 square feet of your property, you will be eligible to build about 150 square feet under your TDR compensation package. Currently, residents and property owners are equating the value of TDR with the values of real estate in the areas where the TDR has been generated and where it will likely be used. Thus, if the value of properties on Bannerghatta Road is between Rs. 3,000 to Rs. 5,000 per square feet, the price of the TDR generated from this area is assumed to be the same. The sale prices of TDR may, however, not fetch similar amounts/values because TDR generated in Bannerghatta Road and sold to an owner or builder in K R Market is likely to fetch prices depending on the building restrictions in K R Market (where lesser restrictions allows for greater use of TDR and more intense building activity) and the overall demand for and supply of development rights in Bangalore, among other factors. Currently, people can sell TDRs in any zone they want to, unlike in cities in Mumbai where TDR generated in one area can only be used in areas that lie to the north of the originating plot. What we can infer from this issue is that the values of TDR will largely be contingent on the demand for TDR and the pace of building and real estate activity in the city.
  3. Following from the above, the third and most crucial issue arises: is there really a demand for development rights in Bangalore? The answer to this question tilts increasingly towards the negative because primarily, FSI in Bangalore is generally high unlike cities in Mumbai where the demand for TDR is greater because of the low FSI restrictions of 1 and 1.5. Secondly, development rights in Bangalore are awarded to individuals who are mostly owners of 30×40 sites and the volume of TDR awarded to each individual is fairly low. Therefore, a builder wanting to purchase TDR has to bargain with about hundreds of individuals who have been given small amounts of TDR in order to generate a voluminous amount of development rights that s/he can use in his/her building project. This process of bargaining is highly uncertain because people can either buy in or pull out of the process at any time depending on how the property markets are behaving and the values that real estate are fetching at a given point in time. From here, we can deduce also that TDR pushes up the costs of land acquisition for a builder and these high costs are transferred to future buyers.

To TDR or Not To TDR: In the light of the above uncertainties and criticisms, a Core Committee was established to study the problems with the current TDR policy and to come up with recommendations. The Committee clearly recognizes that a great deal of uncertainty about TDR prevails because citizens do not perceive a market for these development rights. It has therefore been suggested that existing zonal restrictions be reviewed thoroughly and that FAR be reduced in order to increase the demand for development rights. This implies that for a new policy to be made to work, new regulations and restrictions will have to be implemented. Consequently, this will only create new illegalities because tall buildings, which were built earlier at a time when the floor height restrictions were lower, will now come under the scanner of the new planners and regulators.

Secondly, the TDR committee has recommended that the BBMP use the instrument of bridge finance and buy back the TDR that it issues. This recommendation raises a few interesting paradoxes. Firstly, TDR is issued because municipalities and local governments are strapped for cash, and because they cannot give monetary compensations, they award development rights. If the BBMP is already reeling under financial deficits, how can it be expected to buy back the very TDR that it issues? To resolve this deficit issue, the bridge finance mechanism has been recommended. However, bridge financing, where the municipality borrows from capital markets or from state and central government agencies, comes with its own share of conditionalities and regulations which municipalities must adhere to. In some cases, local governments have to collateralize their assets in order to access bridge finances in the first place. Thus, the bridge finance recommendation is analogous to forcing the river to flow through new blocks and channels, opines urban theorist Dr. Solomon Benjamin. Moreover, the recommendation that the BBMP buys back the very TDR it issues and create TDR banks explicitly implies that the municipality will actually be tailoring and shaping Bangalore’s property markets to emerge in a certain way, thereby enhancing the possibilities of rises in land values and prices in the near future. This is a clear indication that governments are acting in particular ways, either on their own or under pressure from certain quarters of the state, to create property markets and raise real estate values.

From the above, a third and crucial issue arises which the TDR committee has failed to address i.e., there is no mention of what becomes of tenants who are living on properties that are acquired for road widening. In Mumbai, TDR is a coercive instrument where not only are owners shortchanged but, simultaneously, there is no consideration for tenants who have been living or carrying out trades on the acquired properties and who may not be able to afford to purchase their own properties. Instruments such as TDR suggest that governments and policy-makers are imagining property markets as made up only of owners; there is no space for tenants in their imaginations and policies. Similarly, if the BBMP creates a TDR bank and consequently pushes the prices of land values in Bangalore, it is tenants who will perhaps be hurt much more than owners.

Finally, it is heartening to note that the TDR committee recognizes and endorses citizens’ views that there must be alternatives to road widening. The Committee has proposed a list of alternatives to road widening such as putting grade separators, improving public transportation, among others, to resolve the compounding problem of vehicular traffic and congestion across the city.

We are still left with the question therefore, whether this city needs TDR or not. In the wake of increasing protests not only from citizens, but also from elected representatives, the verdict appears seems almost clear – no TDR. It remains to be seen how policy makers will respond to this negative demand …

An abridged version of this research piece is published on www.citizenmatters.in

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House, home …

July 9th, 2009

House, in a city where this possession is prized, valued and loved

House – personal or matter of policy?

Home – personal or matter of policy?

The next time around, I am taken to Rehnuma’s ghar, her home. But this is not Rehnuma’s house. It is rented. Her brothers and father are building a house next to the rented jhonpada/hutment. I ask Rehnuma – when did you start the construction.

Yesterday, she says.

When will the house be completed?

Tomorrow, she answers.

So soon? I ask astonished.

Yes, no brick and cement to be used. This land is disputed. Demolitions have happened here. So, we are afraid to build something pucca/concrete.  When the house is done tomorrow, we will take our belongings and go there.

Meanwhile, her mother complains that the road outside the house is a mess – hamaare neta ko bol dege ki us mein mitti daal dein.

I ask Rehnuma where the toilets are.

Jungle mein jaate hai. Yeh badi mushkil hai. We have to go to the jungles – that is a big problem.

We move on. I am told that most people build their homes with bamboo poles and tin sheets – easy to build and dismantle. Most  people have a little stilt outside their houses to prevent the rain water from coming inside.

And then we were passing Wadala yesterday, in the BEST bus. At one point, we came across a stretch which was a deep pool of water. The driver stopped the bus. A minute later, the passengers stood up to see what is going on. Then, one of them shouted – drive on! The driver pressed the accelerator and strode ahead. As we moved on, we splashed all the water into the houses which were built on the pavements. Some had water inside their homes. We added more. Residents of the houses came out on the street and yelled abuses at the bus driver. But we had crossed the stretch …

Each day, I move across the city and watch how people have built their houses – someone else’s doors and windows help in making privacy for someone else. Door numbers and house numbers. Some poster of a Congress Neta or a MNS flag adorning some balconies. A ladder connecting the top and bottom floors. The top floor like a bunk – you squeeze to get inside. Some houses on footpaths. Some on hills. Some along railway tracks. And the concrete houses that have been built in the suburbs and edges of the city – some people doubling their homes as shops and trading spaces. Some running beauty parlours inside. Some have reorganized the space and adorned it with beautiful things. And it amazes me to no end how each house is a reflection of the family’s dreams and aspirations, is a source of their politics and consciousness, is their place in the city. And I wonder …

House – personal or matter of policy?

Home – personal or matter of policy?

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City, Nights and Fear

June 30th, 2009

9 o’clock

10 o’clock

11 o’clock

Night,

dark,

inside their homes – the peoples

but, this is Mumbai, does not sleep – the city that does not sleep.

Someone asked me the other day – but you said that people do not sleep here in Mumbai. Look around, everyone seems to be asleep – and he smiled. I thought to myself, maybe it is the weekend and so everyone is sitting tight in their homes.

Then, returning back home at 11:15 PM at night, sitting in the cab, I looked around. A sense of fear had also gripped me – how will I return home? When will I return home? When will I snuggle up in my bed and feel safe. How can this happen to me in Mumbai – the city whose prodigy I am. Fear, that feeling of lack of safety, was creeping up my neck.

Sitting in the taxi, I asked the driver – no public on the streets?

He said – Sunday nah? Little public out at night.

But, I prodded further, even the bus services into the city have reduced at night. What is th deal?

The buses kya? They run empty at nights and so, the BEST has decided to reduce them. But yes, the streets are empty at nights these days, after the bamb-kaand.

Bamb-kaand? You mean 26/11?

Yes. After that, people have reduced going out at nights. A sense of fear has gripped people. We taxi drivers, our income was mainly from the fares we got at night. Now, that has reduced drastically. All the shareef, good character people don’t come out at nights. It is only the badmaash, the bad characters, that come out at night. Plus, so much naaka-bandi, police watch. Who will come out? Which shareef person will come out?

Just a while before the driver was drawing a distinction between the shareef and the badmaash, I had watched a bunch of well-dressed prostitutes and one of their clients in the classic white kurta and pyjama, laughing and making jokes around the corner of a hotel at Grant Road. And I had thought about respectability. Now, I think of the shareef, the badmaash, and the night and the city – transformation, perhaps it is happening at these subtle levels.

Then, I watched the city last night as we rode past one end to the other. Are the streets really silent? Is this what the bamb-kaand has done? Penetrated into the fabric of the city and spread fear …

We halted at a signal around the corner of one of the posh Western suburbs. There she was – no fear – just dexteriously weaving the flowers through the thread and making garlands, perhaps readying herself for the clientele in the morning who may want to offer the flowers to their gods and goddesses, allaying a fear of a different kind (that between the devotee and the devout). She weaved away quickly, without care. Is she afraid, I thought to myself?

Then we passed the roads. There they were, those people, those people we call slum dwellers. Three hutments jutting out from the walls, just onto to the streets. They had also called it a night, lying down in their beds, drawing their sheets onto themselves. There they were, stepping into the world of dreams and nightmares and desires and hopes and aspirations – some had their TV sets on, some just oblivious of the roadside traffic and preparing to go off to sleep. Are they afraid?

Then, we went pass the highway, those big roads that have been created to facilitate the movement of cars (and traffic). On the highway, covered under blue plastic sheets, supported by a few poles, they were also going off to sleep. Perhaps they were construction workers who had settled into a little space on the footpath and called it a night. Perhaps they were contract sweepers, spending their last few days in the city before the rain lashes vehemently. They were almost calling it a night, drifting off (or just about to …) … Are they afraid?

And then, just a little ahead, three-four men and women, playing hide-and-seek in the bushes by the side of the highway, perhaps some kind of a foreplay. They seemed happy, playful. Are they afraid?

Fear – what of?

Fear – of what?

Fear … and the city sleeps at night …

Fear … and we sleep to prepare for another day to come …

Fear …

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Global City, or the City an Enigma?

June 26th, 2009

I stepped out of Lokmanya Tilak terminus this afternoon, expecting to hail a cab from the taxi stand, get into one and start the ride to my destination. It was raining. Cab drivers were at the platform, asking passengers if they wanted taxis. I refused to pay heed to any of them, knowing that they would ask for the sun and the moon as fares. I stepped out of the platform and the station. In the face of the rain, I walked here and there, asking for taxis to take me where I wanted to go. Around, I heard cabbies charging passengers Rs. 500 for rides to Borivali and passengers agreeing to the fares. So, what’s going on? No cabbie at the taxi stand is willing to come along with me to my destination. Is it because it is relatively less far as compared with other fares? I then caught hold of the havaldaar mama (the famous lower level cop) and told him that I was unable to find a cab and I did not know where to go. He asssured me that he will get me one in a minute or two. I was not sure whether to believe him or not. Choosing the latter option, I continued with my search. Eventually, one cabbie came forth and asked me where I wanted to go. He agreed to ferry me to my destination on the condition that I pay him a flat rate and not go by the meter.

Why? If not by meter how else do you expect me to come with you?

Madam, it has been raining since morning. I am afraid that there will be water clog in the direction where you want to go. There is a lot of traffic. If you agree to pay me Rs. —, I take you where you want to go.

I agreed, despite my reservations, because it was not worth standing in the face of the rains with luggage and parcels. We began our journey, and as it often happens to me in Mumbai, I started talking to the cabbie. He wasn’t the chattering types. So I had to think of questions or topics for a conversation.It was not easy, but some things he said were very insightful.

What is this bridge they are making here, I asked, pointing to an under construction structure outside the Lokmanya Tilak terminus?

That? That is the new link road connecting Kurla East and West sides with Santacruz and Chembur.

So, I heard that they are revamping the Lokmanya Tilak terminus station?

Yes, they are expanding.

How? By adding more railway lines?

No. They are going to demolish the ticket counters where they are now and shift them to the rear side. Some work has been done and it is looking very posh.

Yes, they were clearing out some of the slums and extending the station.

Slums? Clearing? No. That does not happen.

A little while later:

How is the traffic in the city?

It has increased.

Increased? But they are making all these flyovers and expanding the roads?

That only increases the traffic.

So, has your business been affected because of the new private taxi services?

No, it is still the same. Local person will travel by local taxis. Moreover, these private taxis are expensive. They have to pay the driver and they get very little in their hands at the end of the day.

A more little while later:

Bombay has changed a lot.

Changed? Hahaha! No, it is still the same.

But all the development is now happening around Malad side.

That is true, but South Mumbai still remains South Mumbai.

Some more while later:

Do you have to pay to stand for fares at the newly developed Santacruz domestic airport?

Yes, but we had to do that earlier too. Even at Lokmanya Tilak terminus, we have to pay 10 rupees to park.

For a moment, I was a bit puzzled when I heard this piece of information. Are the parking rates still the same at the domestic airport and the revamped train terminus?  When you hail a cab from the domestic airport and even from some of the train junctions, the fares are twice/thrice the usual rates. Earlier, cab drivers used to levy these fares on the grounds that they have to pay halting charges to the airport authorities (or perhaps the cops and security guards) and hence, the fares had jumped up. I tried to connect the bits of information that had come through in the conversation – the belief about the posh-ness of the upcoming railway station and the levying of the higher fares. It struck me then that people at all levels are participating in the imagination of the global city which is materializing through infrastructure improvements. Perhaps the posh-ness of the revamped airport and railway stations had caused the cabbies to believe that they could levy higher fares, thus cashing in on the infrastructure improvements in their own ways. That the aspiration of the global city or the Shanghai/Singapore etc imagination prevails at all levels is not a new insight. Even my Arjun bhai, the hawker who I used to talk to outside the VT Railway station four years ago, would tell me how computerized railway passes were now a sign of modernity. In my last visit to Mumbai, my TC was complaining how issuing of tickets has become slow and cumbersome because the old punch-and-pop system has been replaced by a dot matrix printing machine which slowly spews out a card like ticket – the card ticket now being a sign of the revamped city!

Why this change at the cost of efficiency? I asked my TC.

Because we want to build a Shanghai or whatever international city out of our Mumbai, he said.

It is amazing how the aspiration is shared among people at all levels even when the global city is materialized at costs which might seem/are unjust and unfair. Yet, the imagination and aspiration prevails. People participate in it when it happens and label it in their own ways.

As I once again step into the city, trying to unravel it, to understand it and therefore myself (who has been lost), I tell myself,

… the city will be an enigma. Our every attempt to know and control it makes it known and yet,  unknown in other ways and facets.

The city, an enigma …

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Social Media and Mobilization

June 21st, 2009

Discussion by Dina Mehta and Peter Griffin

Held at the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS) on 17th June, 2009

Iran Elections and the Twitter Revolution …

Memes – how and why do some memes become popular on Twitter?

FaceBook – privacy, community, locality, socializing???

Blogs – once, we thought they would revolutionize the world, but how are blogs now placed vis-à-vis twitter and facebook?

Many questions abound concerning the phenomenon called “social media”, particularly in the wake of the protests taking place in Iran and how information has reached out to the world about what is going on in the country. The panel discussion on social media organized by the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS) on 19th June, 2009, aimed to understand how mobilizations take place through social media and how memes are engineered and spread across communities. We brought down Dina Mehta and Peter Griffin from Mumbai to share their experiences.

Dina and Peter set up the tsunami help blog in December 2004 (http://tsunamihelp.blogspot.com) which for the first time showcased the importance of social media tools in coordinating local efforts and disseminating information in the region. What caused them to become involved through this medium? Both Dina and Peter used discussion forums and emails during the formative years of the Internet in India. “The sheer miracle of chat”, as Peter puts it, also allowed them to connect with people. When the tsunami struck, they became nodes through which action was mobilized and information was spread. It still remains to be explored how nodes develop in different circumstances, how spaces of conversations develop and what causes some individuals to enter the space of social media and inhabit them in significant ways, to the extent of becoming nodes for coordination and mobilization.

So, what is social media? Dina says she does not like the term. But, since it is used so commonly, she follows the tide. For Dina and Peter, social media is a set of tools which can be mobilized for various purposes – call to action, response to crisis, persuading people to support a cause, among many other things. What is curious though is that the use of social media becomes more marked and prominent during moments of crisis. This led one audience member to ask whether social media is mirroring some of the behaviours of mainstream media. Dina pointed out that social media does not exist in opposition to mainstream media – both complement each other. What makes social media more powerful during moments of crisis are some of the following factors:

1. Powerful search functions;

2. Tools for aggregating content which helps in picking up the noise;

3. Hash (#) tags which make it easy to search and to connect and contribute to ongoing conversations and mobilizations.

These help to amplify what is going on. Dina also referred to the simplicity of social media tools which enables diverse individuals to participate in their own ways. She cited the recent example of showing solidarity with the Iranian revolutionaries by adding the colour green to one’s twitter image. “I only had to click whether I wanted to show support in this way and a program automatically applied the green colour to my twitter image without my having to do anything. I don’t have to write code to participate in this medium. I can be anyone,” she added.

What is also unique is that unlike newspapers and early television, interactions via social media tend to be two-way. For instance, blogs have made it possible for individuals to become publishers of their own materials whether it is diary like entries or filter blogging. Moreover, in the case of the protests following the rigging of Iran elections, people used their mobile phones to capture images and make videos and post these on the Internet for others to see.

Individuals from the audience raised questions about how they and their organizations could use social media tools effectively to raise funds and to communicate their causes/issues to other people. To this, both Dina and Peter suggested that it is important to find the spaces where conversations about issues are already taking place and to participate in them. They also stated that credibility is built over time through acts of giving to different communities that develop around various issues. Dina also emphasized the need to recognize target audiences, what are the mediums they use regularly and accordingly to develop strategies concerning the use of social media. If the outreach group is more tuned into radio, it is more effective to reach out to them in this way. Dina mentioned that a powerful medium in today’s times is the mobile phone which is often neglected because of the publicity that the Internet tends to receive. She said that in South East Asian countries, people have better mobile phone connectivity and often, political activism has taken place by spreading messages through mobile phones. One of the participants questioned whether it is feasible to move from an existing yahoogroup and start a discussion group to which another audience member responded that it is preferable to stay with existing mediums used rather than to switch. Also, discussion forums require more participation and if the goal is only to send out announcements, a yahoogroup serves the purpose.

The issue of arm-chair activism was also raised – whether social media is in fact leading people to participate in issues only through clicking ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Peter stated that this is true, but the ease of transmitting information on to others enhances the possibility of moving beyond arm-chair activism. “For instance, I am concerned about eve teasing and harassment of women in public spaces, but I may not have the time to participate in an ‘intervention’ or gathering on a particular day. However, I forward the email/invitation my friends who are concerned similarly and they may choose to participate on-site,” he said.

The lack of connectivity to the internet and therefore to social media was referred to in the discussions. An audience member pointed out that according to a recent study, only 10% of the people in India are connected to the internet. Peter immediately remarked that the figure of 10% translated into 10 million people which is still a large number that can be reached out to. Similarly, it was pointed out that English is still the predominant language of the web and therefore social media can be exclusive. In this respect, the issues are developing technologies for facilitating the use of scripts, the extent to which the masses use languages other than English on the internet and also whether people in fact use the internet and other communication technologies as a means to learn English. Anivar Aravind, a participant, drew our attention to a twitter community of 800 people who tweet regularly in Malayalam.

The discussion brought out some interesting nuances to social media which users and novices may not have thought about. Questions still remain about the efficacy of social media, the nature and characteristics of communities that are formed around use of social media, distinctions between networks and communities, etc. Irrespective, over time, these questions will be answered as usage increases and trends are studied in all their complex aspects.

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Right to the City? – Rethinking Urbanization, Urban Restructuring, Change and How the City is Accessed Physically and Symbolically …

October 30th, 2008

David Harvey published his piece “Right to the City” in the New Left Review Issue of September-October 2008. Briefly, he describes the capitalist process and how the city has been the space for investing surplus capital. Specifically, this is done through the constant construction boom, be it housing or infrastructure creation. Harvey is suggesting that the global crises which has affected cities across the world (also because these cities were deeply implicated in the conditions that produced the crisis) is now offering an opportunity for the marginalized “classes” of the world to come together and take control of the “surpluses” which are generated at the expense of the cities. He proposes that if the marginalized people across the world were to unite, they could probably demand a human right to the city which goes beyond merely accessing individual urban resources. The right to the city involves re-creating ourselves in the process of re-creating our cities, in consonance with the higher values of equality and social justice.

 

The above is a very, very brief summary of Harvey’s article, as I read it. I have been thinking about this article for a while, especially Harvey’s ideas and his use of certain concepts like capital, labour, finance capital and markets, to arrive at some of the conclusions in the article and for elaborating some of the arguments that he is making against private property. Let me try to dissect this article bit by bit and present some of my ideas which have emerged from the fieldwork that I have been conducting in Bangalore and Mumbai and partially in Delhi.

 

I think that we are living in a time of change. This change often appears to be very sweeping, almost wiping off the ground beneath our feet (ground being both physical and symbolic). We are also living in a time where we are bombarded with information and as Prem Chandavarkar recently pointed out in a forum, we are unable to attend to all this information at once. We are somehow more inclined to attend to urgencies and crises. We are also living in a time when the change is brought about because of crises such that change and crises seem interchangeable. Hence, I suggest that the challenge before us is to attend to the change and crises in their most minute details.

 

The city is also no longer the same entity which we used think of fondly. I remember, not so long ago, when I was this wandering researcher in Mumbai who wrote about the city and its everyday life with a sense of passion and romance. And then came the construction boom, which Harvey refers to in his article, and we saw old built structures being razed to the ground, the mill lands converted into luxury apartments, and the springing up of shopping malls. It seemed like everything old about the city was rapidly being wiped off and the city was becoming this alien entity, or, as Harvey puts it, the space where surpluses of capital were being generated.

 

In this frenzied pace of change, the poor were being pushed out of the city, to its edges, almost being invisibilized. When thinking about the urban poor and the city, we either tend to veer towards the ‘social justice’ angle or we think of the poor as ‘illegal encroachers’ who occupy urban spaces and are then, under the restructuring of the city, given individual houses for free.

 

I want to suggest that in this frenzied and often violent pace of change (and crises), we pay attention to the way in which people are trying to access the city. When I say “accessing the city”, I mean establishing physical presence in the city, consolidating presence, and developing belongingness (to put it very crudely). Very often, as Asef Bayat has explained in the case of the urban poor in Iran, the urban poor access physical space in the city and other urban services, in very quiet, ordinary and subtle ways. Harvey’s idea of the revolution as a means of instituting “justice” emerges from a fixation with a city of the past and from an assumption of the “marginalized” and the “urban poor” as a homogenous, composite and harmonious community.

 

Let me bring here some of what I heard, saw, read and narrated to me during my fieldwork in Bombay in June-July this year. Certainly, in many areas that I visited, slum rehabilitation projects undertaken by the slum rehabilitation authority (SRA) and private builders were rampant. Just right then, many potential slum resettlement and housing projects were being rapidly stalled because of the excess of slum TDR in the property markets. To explain briefly, many builders look to buying Transfer of Development Right (TDR) certificates because it allows them to construct more floor space than is otherwise allowed by the regulations. TDR has been scarce and therefore highly valuable. In Bombay’s property markets this year, the market was over-flooded with slum TDR certificates which are sold by builders who provide “free housing” to the slum dwellers in lieu of excess TDR given to them by the government. I was struck by this development because it forced me to think about how value around land is created and how this value is never constant, even though it may appear fixed for a certain period of time. This incident provoked me to delve deeper and understand the social, political, cultural and economic relations that develop around land and property. These relations are emerging from time to time, sometimes deeply entrenched in power, sometimes radically transformed under moments of crises but always evolving because existing people are consolidating their positions and new entrants are coming in, changing the relations and the equations on the bases of which these relations were created.

 

The newspapers also at that time reported how the government of Maharashtra was offering higher TDR to builders who would rehabilitate slum dwellers residing on and around the Santacruz domestic airport land. I surveyed some of the slums in these areas and saw that slum dwellers residing in different parts of the area had formed cooperative societies by mobilizing an old law/rule which allows slum dwellers to negotiate with builders and also undertake self-development if they form cooperative societies. Does one capture this move in terms of “social movements” or “collective action” which is what Harvey would be prone to do? I argue that the language of “social movements” and “collective action” cannot be applied to this situation because despite the formation of cooperative societies, not all the slum dwellers were on equal par with each other. They had come together at a moment, whether their move had emerged from emergency or precaution or calculated action. If a builder were to come tomorrow and start negotiating with the individual cooperatives, there would likely emerge elements from within and from outside who would want to stake all kinds of claims over the land parcels. Thus, in a meeting where an organization was educating some of the slum dwellers about how to negotiate their re-housing terms with the builders, some of the women started mentioning how those residents who had established their dwellings after 1995 and after 2000 were using the re-housing opportunity to obtain documents that would help them consolidate their claims over the land. These women also spoke of the trust and mistrust that developed during the various phases of negotiations with the builders that produced strange forms of alliances and opposition between people of the same area. This shows how individuals and groups are plugging into crises to consolidate their claims in ways that are not apparent to those of us who theorize about their lives and actions.

 

I hold strong reservations against Harvey’s central idea of the “human right to the city”. I argue that this notion of a right closes/fails to recognize the multiple avenues and mediums by which people try to negotiate their access to the city. It is presumed that by granting a right, you streamline people’s access to the city. But the city is not a controllable entity. It is an evolving space. And this space evolves through the mobilization of graft and of circuitries of power, politics and the state that may not appear legitimate and righteous to those of us observing from the outside. Let me narrate here the final case to illustrate my point. I refer to “housing rights” which are supposed to ensure that the poor and the marginalized get secure and dignified housing space and access to land. Much has been written about the rehabilitation and resettlement of slum dwellers under the road development projects in Mumbai. The rehabilitation process and the quality of housing provided to the former slum dwellers have been criticized. What I found interesting in one of my visits to one such rehabilitation housing colonies was how people were using the space within the house and in the open areas within the colony to carry out various kinds of economic and commercial activities. In this case, slum dwellers were given a house, in a sense a clear “property” but that awarding of property – bounded, legal space – did not prevent the way in which the space was reconfigured by individuals and some groups. Some of the women in this colony began squatting on the streets to sell vegetables; they were reported against for violation of property regulations. The new leaders from the community, some of them “transformed” in interesting ways from their older avatars, began to negotiate with the municipality to let the women retain their access to the space and continue with their livelihoods. The language of housing rights is couched in two assumptions: one of a bounded, legal space which will guarantee security and second, the housing right imagines the house in terms of ownership and not in terms of tenancies. Land accessed in various ways by individual and groups is viewed as “insecure” – certainly, it is an insecure process, but if the avenues through which these persons can negotiate their multiple claims over the land are widened/kept open, then that insecurity can turn into a resource for the city.

 

I therefore contend that instead of conceptualizing access to the city in terms of rights, we think of how those spaces through which people develop belongingness towards the city and ownership of the city be examined. This can prove to be a resource to conceptualize urbanity and contemporary cities. The ghost of restructuring in Chinese cities, which is now being excavated and demystified, is daunting our imagination of what is going on in our cities. But what is really going on in our cities is much more than what meets the eye (or the mind’s eye). It is time to think of the city anew, not in terms of a city of some harmonious past which Harvey seems to romanticize!

 

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Random Thoughts From the Fingers

July 27th, 2008

It’s a Sunday today. I sit down, or let’s say, I laze around, thinking about what time means. At a time when I am caught up with deadlines, I see time going away and it is a feeling of pleasure to let the time slip away. It is that feeling of wicked pleasure where I tell myself,

‘To hell, I don’t want to be a slave to time!’

And as I think about time, I am swept into a feeling of timelessness because I count the primary asset that I hold – my friendships. Let’s talk a little bit more about this timelessness and friendship puzzle.

So here I was, on a Sunday, weeping about my vulnerabilities, and P popped up on chat. It was a Sunday where I had gripped myself in this paranoid belief that if I do not finish what I have been superficially trying to finish writing, I won’t be able to face the world. At a time when I should be holding my time carefully in order to work out my Ph.D. systematically, I let that time go. I let myself go with the time in the hope and expectation that when things are to happen, they will certainly happen. But all these certainties are so uncertain. And all these thoughts, though profound, require a great deal of practice to make life profoundly real.

So time slips away. And P appears on chat and I suddenly feel swept by timelessness. I feel like the beggar who is seeking succour. And who appears to provide me with not just succour, but a feeling of hope! It is a friendship that developed from nowhere and that can lead to anywhere.

Nowhere-anywhere-somewhere …

Living in a city where you do not know whether you really belong here because we are all in search of our respective homes, friendships can mean a lot. Sometimes, these very friendships are burdens to bear. Sometimes, these very friendships are anchors that enable us – to hold ourselves, to realize ourselves and to hold on when the going is tough. Sometimes, these very friendships are a bitch and sometimes, we are bitches. But when I think of my life, I find that these friendships are what I have fallen back on from time to time. Each one is special, and each one is different. Each one enriches my life in particular ways.

On those days when my heart is heavy or when everything seems so cloudy that I cannot navigate any further, it is these friendships which come to my rescue. And at a time when I am trying to define my life somewhat, I believe that what is needed is more friendships because these are my ultimate resort, my greatest investments that will see me in good stead.

This morning, when I was caught in the grips of mundane time and worrying time (also known as future), what transported me into timelessness was that chat with P. I was reminded once again that there is abundance in the world – I am only required to seek it.

[Random thoughts on a Sunday …]

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In the midst of blasts and fireworks across cities …

July 26th, 2008

(I write in the spirit of my words and in submission of myself to my vulnerabilities and to the present …)

One blast here,

One there,

One everywhere.

Today here,

Tomorrow there.

One blast here

And one blast there.

So that is what we, in various parts of the world, have been hearing about in the last two days. And yet, the indifference on my skin remains. It only thickens. But I remain sensitive to more mundane issues that concern me/bother me/sit on my mind/nag me. And what is sitting on my mind as of now, is that beautiful feeling of vulnerability and the thought of what it means to be vulnerable in the city. The feeling of vulnerability is beautiful as of now because I write in the solitude of music, my words and my difficult and vulnerable self, shut off from the noise of the blasts and of the noise of the crowds that existed in my space a while ago.

So we (i.e. me and myself and my difficult self and my vulnerable self) write about vulnerability in a city. As there is no ‘city’ in the sense that we each make our own city and carve our own niches that we eventually call ourselves and city, so also there is no one universal feeling of vulnerability. Let me lay out some of the many vulnerable feelings that I feel from time to time these days:

a). Being woman in a live-in relationship with my boyfriend and a strange battle that has been going on between my mind, my boyfriend and his family;

b). Being somewhat unemployed and attempting to work through meaningful relationships rather than work for money only (and that darn inflation);

c). Taking the courageous risk of getting a house for myself in this city in the middle of my unemployment, an act that I am experiencing as a leap of faith, sometimes a great feeling and sometimes a scary feeling;

d). The destiny of being Muslim at a time when bombs burst in Bangalore and Ahmedabad and who knows where else …;

e). Figuring out the law and rules and regulations concerning various things and various relationships in a city whose language, both spoken and unspoken, I am still figuring out (what if I make mistakes …);

Now, this list might seem little, but then, it is a little too much on some days when I am unable to resist anymore. But hey, hey, this blog post is not about me. It is some kind of a random effort on my part to meander a little here, a little there and get to somewhere …

So, there are these vulnerabilities and on some days, when I feel vulnerable, it is terrible and on some days, that feeling of vulnerability is like the feeling of a warm chocolate melting in my mouth and sweetening my frizzy hair and the skin I wear on my person.

So what does one do when one is vulnerable? And that too vulnerable in a city? Well, well, it is not like I am “alone” here in this city. Despite being well connected, it is that feeling of not knowing the spoken and unspoken language of this city, that makes me feel vulnerable. And what happens when I feel vulnerable? I seek out people! And here is the story of one person that I have sought out in perhaps one of those subtle moments of vulnerability. This post is my account of that person, that person who is one more stranger in the city that I have tried reach myself out to, to hold her hand when she did not mean to extend one, and to express to her that in that moment of losing myself, when I found her, I found myself, that she helped me to hold myself together without even ever meaning to reach out me. I sought her, I reached out to her, and she did what she was expected to do – she responded!!!

So her name is V. She is my hair stylist. Now well, would it not be true for us, somewhat stylist urbane women, to reach out to our beauty parlours when we are dying with all those mad thoughts in our heads and don’t know where to go! Well, I was not in a mad state when I happened to meet V. I was very much sane, saner than what I am now.

I want a hair cut.

She smiles.

I want a hair cut.

She continues to smile.

Err, I need a haircut, where do I sit?

I am busy today.

So I will come in the afternoon.

I am busy then too.

So I will come tomorrow.

I don’t come to the parlour on Thursdays.

So when do I come?

Hang on, I will remove my diary,

and she removes her diary and asks if Friday is okay.

Tis’ okay, but I need a short haircut.

Open your hair. Hmmm … you need it cut in a way that you are able to leave it open. When you tie your hair, you look old.

Uh, well …

Okay, come on Friday, wash your hair before coming.

True her word and true to my time, I landed at the appointed hour and V began the snip trip across my hair. And we spoke. We spoke about my boyfriends and she spoke about how she lived at Bonga, the village which lies at the border of (now) Kolkatta and Bangladesh. I wonder whether the location of her home, along a border, is as coincidental as her present gender state which also lies at the border of male and female. But this was not a poetic coincidence for V alone, because, as I discovered in my conversations with her later, we each navigate the gender border without necessarily having to be in a phsyical state of being transgender. As V mentioned to me towards the end of the snip trip,

There is nothing male and female. It’s all there, at different times in our very lives …

On leaving her parlour after the first snip trip aka hair cut, I asked myself about borders. And then, in the midst of those blasts and fireworks in Bangalore yesterday and Ahmedabad today, I realized that we have all traveled the borders of life and death; we have all been at the border of chance, of fate, of destiny and of luck. And we continue to be …

On my next snip trip, when the vulnerabilities were gripping me and I was on the border of sanity and insanity, I went off to V’s and announced:

This time, I want a crop cut, like those soldiers who have just about enough hair on their heads.

No, you can’t have that. You will look funny. Let me see. We give you some other look.

Okay, then you decide,

I said, handing over my hair and some parts of myself to V in a manner of trusting her. So how many times is it that we can trust strangers in the city? But then, V was someone who I somehow liked a lot, and could hand myself over to. I could not hand myself over in the same way to the agent who was just trying to sell me a house which was built in violation of the city’s bye-laws …

So, I liked that house but it was all violated property V. How could I get it?

Yeah, I have landed into a similar situation. You know that builder took my token money and then, I figured that he had no sanctions. And guess what, he was a Hindu, believing in Lakshmi! He said, ‘Ma, I will never cheat you!’ So I said okay. Then, we had to go through a meandering procedure where I had to register myself as part landholder and we created a document which even the sub-registrar’s office had no mention of in the rule book. But then, we made a new rule and the sub-registrar said, ‘Well, we do it we do it!’

I listened to V and at that time, when the vulnerabilities of getting a place called house/apartment/home were high with all the accompanying vulnerabilities of not knowing the law, the rules, of the possibility of being ‘cheated’ and of managing all this headache of getting a place in midst of not fully knowing the spoken and the unspoken language of this city … aaaaaarrrrrrrrrrggggggggggghhhhhhhhhh. And then, I do not remain the only one who goes through this, I felt as I heard V. What a mad, strange, and bitch that desire is to have a ‘place’!!?!!? V also expressed that bitch of a desire to me when she remembered her days of working at Bandra in Bombay:

Oh, even today, I tell my cousin, don’t remind me of leaving Bombay. I don’t want to remember it at this point in my life when I know I cannot go back and when I cannot any longer hold that regret. You know, when I was working at the saloon in Bandra, the maid there had told me, ‘give me ten thousand rupees, and I will get you a jhopda on the seaface.’ I did not believe her. I said no. She insisted and even said that she would take care of it for me. I said no because who would live among these people? No, no, not me! And ten years later, when I went to the same place, I saw, her jhopda on the seaface was now a full fledged building. Damn me!

So on my next snip trip, V and I chatted less. But I only watched, her untold and undying faith in Lakshmi. She had held on to Lakshmi, and I, without her knowing and without her permission, had held on to her. It felt wonderful. She would take the fragrant smoke in her hand and wrap it around her face. She would start her day and the parlour with this ritual. And then, when her colleague came and removed some cash from her pockets and said that this had come to her today, V calmly said, while holding my hair in her hand,

It’s Friday and it’s Lakshmi. Good sign. Keep it maa.

I don’t have much to say about V at this point in my account. Let’s put it this way that I don’t want to say anything more about her. It would spoil all the warmth that I have nurtured for her in my heart. In a rational’s dictionary, I would be an emotional fool. In my city’s experience, I have just submitted and reached myself out in the comfort of another who has unknowingly helped me find myself.

I don’t know where this relationship with V will go. It may stop right here. It may go further or farther. But the warmth that I have experienced in these few encounters with V, I just want to today communicate that warmth and the good spirit to the present which is experiencing bomb blasts. And I remain optimistic and hopeful, that this warmth and good spirit, will enable us to reach out to one another, knowingly and unknowingly.

This remains my journey from vulnerability, to V, to goodwill, and I guess we all traverse these strange and beautiful paths …

To you I remain, the conduit of words and spirit.

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On Freedom

July 9th, 2008

This morning, I was standing at Richmond Circle, waiting for a bus. A man was moving around with a cloth bundle on one arm and one cloth piece in another. I looked at the cloth piece; it was the Kashmiri design. I immediately looked at the man’s nose because Kashmiris have a peculiar nose structure, though not all Kashmiris bear it. The nose structure was not unique, but I was certain that the man was Kashmiri. Immediately, another man came around, again with a cloth bundle on one arm and a piece in the other hand, demonstrating the goods he was carrying. This man was Kashmiri and both the men spoke the language.

On seeing them, the immediate thought, or rather the sight, that came to my mind’s eyes were those pictures that all of us have been seeing in newspapers on the front pages: mobs throwing stones and policemen/security personnel shelling tear gas and the headlines shrieking about the Amarnath Shrine controversy. So here are these Kashmiris again, these bunch of Muslims, who are demanding azaadi … But the idea of azaadi is not practical, right? That is what most people told me when I first returned back from the Valley and passionately spoke about how a group of people cannot be coerced into staying with a nation because of an idea of “national unity and integrity.” But that is a matter of discussion and of words for some other day. Today, I want to explore the notion of freedom. In the last 3-4 weeks, I have been coming across struggles, battles and fights, for freedom in varying forms.

Let me begin with myself then when I have to talk of freedom. It is interesting but I first experienced freedom when I went to Kashmir. Those muted figures of Indian soldiers on the roads, at every furlong, had made me so uncomfortable that when I reached G’s home, I felt like something was wrong and there was an uncomfortable feeling of claustrophobia that was gathering in me, like some form of noxious gas. G later helped me unearth the claustrophobic feeling by exploring it with me: we figured that the discomfort has emerged from the heavy presence of the army, which, even though it had done nothing to me, was still a discomforting factor. At that moment, I suddenly felt like heck, what a free life I live in Mumbai.

On landing in G’s house, I could not help but marvel at that large house with a garden and how there were so many rooms in the house. Rooms in the house? I had only known of kitchen, bathroom, bedroom and living room in that 55 sq. ft. house of ours in Bombay. And in that house of ours in Bombay, I struggled for every inch of private space. When my sister and I had started rebelling for our own space, we figured how we could never be able to afford our own space in Mumbai were we to live on our own. Freedom from home – that was such an elusive thought and yet, an idea that both of us nursed in our conversations at night and dreamt about it in our slumber, only to wake up next morning and find it distant, elusive and yet, so endearing. The rooms on G’s house – I can’t even remember how many there were and many which I had not known of. And here was G, complaining how he had established his space for himself – carved his freedom in those bricks, or rather in that door, which he kept shut always, indicating that people in the house should back off. Freedom – carved in bricks, set in concrete and shut by the door.

And then I land in Bangalore – well I am already here and still nowhere – and I hear of everyday squabbles, skirmishes, fights and battles for freedom – freedom from parents. Nah, I don’t mean to paint a nasty picture of that breed called parents, but what is most interesting in each of the squabbles, skirmishes, fights and battles between parents and children is that despite the squabbles, skirmishes, fights and battles, neither of the parties are perpetually free. What binds the two, parents and children, are a set of reactions where each one is responding from one’s own position of insecurity, of anger and of control. I don’t mean to state that freedom is never possible from parents, but that freedom has many shades where the freedom is not from the parents per se, but from the reactions that have come to define the relationship. I remember that when I first stepped into G’s room, my mind instantly raced back to the terrible battle of freedom that was going on inside me against my parents – I wanted my own space, physically and mentally – and how I hated my parents back then for ‘binding’ me to them. But as those days in Srinagar went by, I had realized that the root of every conflict lay in every home. And over time, as much as I have to feel grateful to my parents for their magnanimity and their understanding and to my teacher Goenkaji and my friends for enabling me to understand patterns of reactions and behavious, I still recognize that I am not free from several of the reactions that continue to define me as a person and the relationship between my parents and me.

Then I move into the streets in Bombay city and into the squatter settlements and in these are some of the subtle struggles for freedom – freedom from control of the state and battles for freedom from conditions of poverty. Within the power structures that shape the everyday life of squatter settlements, there are small and large negotiations taking place between various actors to carve out more space. There are struggles against the government for rights and for existence with dignity. There are struggles to move away from the controls of various groups in power. And there are struggles to increase the power of one over the other in order to attain a freedom that may seem illogical to those of us from the outside, but remains completely meaningful to those within the sphere.

Then I think of the many people in Bangalore, the professionals, who yearn to be free by having a stable job, a high income and an apartment. And yet, is that where freedom lies? I cannot be judgmental about what people perceive as their freedom because even in my maverick ways of living, I see myself as unfree. And in their stability too, people can be very much free!

If I were to stop writing, I’d end with one of things I have been discussing with a close friend for sometime now. In some of the circles that I am part of, there is the understanding that the availability of more choices implies freedom. Thus, because “the market” provides us with many things to choose from, we have the freedom to decide. The question is whether choice and freedom are synonymous? If you are left with options, does that invariably mean that you are free to choose?

I can’t say anything more. But I still think of the two Kashmiris I saw today in Bangalore, with cloth bundle on one arm and the Kashmiri suit piece on display in the other hand. And I still think of freedom and how it means so many different things to so many different people.

[This post is dedicated to Kashmir, my home and to Bombay, the place where my mind has thrived and developed without fear …]

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The Idea and the Practice of a Slum

June 30th, 2008

“Right there, right there!”
“Where? I can’t see the damn station. Where is it?”
“Right there, you walk past that little lane, you will hit the station.”
Grudgingly, I walked through the lane and lo and behold! I was at the platform of Govandi railway station. It just took me a little row of settlements and some open drains running by them to get to that wretched Govandi station (not to forget to mention, passing by some of the children playing around and that sole bhaiyya woman sitting idly).
Did I say wretched? Yes, wretched is the feeling I get when I am at Govandi station. Perhaps in my life, I must have been to Govandi station exactly six times. Of the four of those six times, I have traveled in the east of Govandi, towards the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS). But the last two times, I have actually experienced the wretchedness of Govandi station, when I have had to get off platform number 1 and then go past all the squatter settlements, till I eventually get to the infamously famous Lallubhai Compound.

Wretched, Unpleasant …
Wretched, that wretched Govandi area! Yes, I can feel the skin on me … I can feel the anger and irritation rising in me, a feeling that I have rarely gotten as I have traveled the insides of some of the squatter settlements in Mumbai. It is not the squalor that produces that feeling of unpleasantness in me. Yes, there is squalor and squalor of the worst form that can be seen and experienced. The proximity of the squatter settlements to the city’s only functional garbage dump and to the city’s only abattoir makes the open drains and sewage in these slums the worst of their kind and nothing compared with the reasonably better off sewage facilities in most of the other slums in the city.
Squalor, yes! Squalor! But that is not the cause of the unpleasantness within me. Then, what is it?

Cut to Lallubhai Compound, between Govandi and Mankhurd:
Lallubhai Compound, here it is, or should I say there it is. Yeah, there it is, so much of what I was trying to imagine it to be and so much of the reality that I could see and tried to fathom. I was not sure what I should feel when I see the rows of cement buildings that make up this Compound. Housed in these rows of buildings are slum dwellers from various parts of Mumbai City – those whole lived near the railway stations of Kurla terminus, Chembur and Matunga; those who once had dwellings along the pavements of the famous P. D’Mello road near VT station; people from Byculla, Dadar, Parel, you name it – they are all housed here.

“That minister Nawab Malik got us to come here. He said that if we did not move here, we would even lose this house. Hence we came here.”
“We were living near the railway lines. Government decided to expand the railway lines and so, we moved here.”
“It was crazy when we first moved here. Felt like we had come to a village. My family was shunted out of Matunga and then we were made to live in the transit camps in Mankhurd for five long years till we eventually came here. There was initially a hill here. People went up on the hill and jumped off. They could not tolerate the loneliness. Only now, more people have come to live here and there seems to be some development.”

About 1.5 kilometers away from Govandi station is situated Lallubhai Compound, that infamously famous rehabilitation colony. For a moment, I almost think of the chawls in Parel area when I see the built environment here. The same noise, running around, tamashas on the street, shops below the buildings – it’s just so much Parel. And yet, it is not Parel. There is hustle and bustle, lot of activity on the roads, but it seems like Lallubhai can only be a world within its own self (but for now!). Unlike Parel where the self of the chawl is intermingled with the multiple selves of the city that manifest in various forms – the industrial estates, the media offices, the traffic, the locality of Lalbagh – in stark comparison to all of this, Lallubhai is isolated, despite being so close to the row houses just across the bridge which house the wealthier residents of Govandi.

“Lallubhai is a clear instance of the US housing projects for the poor. The poor were evicted from the city areas and placed at the outskirts of the city. Complete ghettoization.”

Could I say that Lallubhai is an instance of ghettoization, another import from the Americas into the urbs prima indis? Undoubtedly, Lallubhai is a ghetto, almost like people are being brought from the city and thrown away into some form of confinement. And yet, I would be condemned and damned if I were to say that people have been confined. Ground floor houses have been converted into shops, beauty parlors, English teaching classes and STD-PCO booths. People go back to the older neighbourhoods for work and for reaching their children to schools. Some of the residents have given up their homes for rent and have begun to live in the nearby squatter settlements or in and around their original places of residence.

I walk around the area. A thriving women’s hawker market has come up on the roads. I am told this is an “illegal” market because it is not certified by the municipality. The drains and rats between the buildings remind you of the house-gully situation in Null Bazaar where the settlers are harassed by the overflowing sewage between two buildings.
There are groups of unemployed boys loafing around the area. I am told that these have become frequent lately.
The rickshaw drivers make their killing each day – five rupees a seat for a one-way ride between Govandi station and Lallubhai. The local autorickshaw fellas seem like another socio-political group emerging in the area, they being camped around the naka which is their adda.
Then there are the various forms of groups and organizations that abound within Lallubhai – the women’s savings group, the hawkers’ federation, National Slum Dwellers’ Federation-Mahila Milan-SPARC – all housed within the same office premises of what is mentioned in bold as the Public Information Center.
There are financial networks woven within the social and political fabric of the area – the grain merchants, the jewellery shops which double up as lending and borrowing institutions, you name it.
There are social and political organizations that I am unaware of but which likely exist – the very networks that existed in the squatter settlements and that formed an important aspect of the everyday practice of a slum.
Isolated – ghettoized – confinement – sorry to disappoint, but the space of Lallubhai is only unfolding with time. The self is emerging …

Rethinking the Idea and Practice of a Slum …

“It’s good that people have been moved into these flats. They will learn to live in a sanitized environment. They will learn to live with dignity and respect.”

“They get more space than what they had in their little slums. This rehabilitation is benefiting the people.”

“It will take a while for the slum dwellers to learn to live here. They are not used to the vertical way of living.”

“The community has to learn to accept one and all. The lepers’ rehabilitation colony in Oshiwara is placed away from the rest of the rehab housing. People don’t want other groups to live around them. The community will have to learn.”

“Now, there are a lot of Muslims coming into this area as tenants. The Maharahstrians are reducing in numbers.”

By now, I have been going to all those areas in the city that I did not ever venture into while I lived here for 25 odd years. There are times when I pass through those unevenly lined row houses and I ask myself – why is this labeled a slum? By what standards are these well furnished houses within this apparently uneven settlement classed as slums?
It would be highly banal on my end to state that the idea of a slum is quite different from its practice. But let me state what I felt as I experienced Lallubhai compound. That visit to Lallubhai has made it clear to me a slum is not merely a physical structure as it might be projected in policy and media. The slum is a network and simultaneously many networks and several circuits – all these networks and circuits connected with the space of the city, with the locality and meshed into numerous scales of statedom and nationdom and globaldom. When people are “rehabilitated” into flats and built structures, some of the circuits and networks are severed but at the same time, other connections become stronger and some connections become even more oppressive than they previously were.
Consistently, I also hear remarks of how the slum dwellers had occupied the lands and have now gotten flats in return for free, that they are now living in sanitized conditions and their lives will improve and that they should learn to live in the flats rather than escape from there. The stories in Lallubhai betray all these notions. While some of the more upwardly mobile among this misleading category of “urban poor” benefit with the receipt of the house, for many other individuals and families, the receipt of the home could not be a greater curse. These have been families that have been in the bottom rung among the poor and that the house in Lallubhai for them is a liability more than an asset. For these groups, the monthly payment of electricity bills and maintenance fees coupled with increased transportation costs and the loss of their jobs or the lack of increase in salaries but rise in expenses, all of these factors lead us to rethink whether the house is truly a marker of improvement in their lives. And then there are several among those who never made it to Lallubhai despite living among the same populations who were to be ‘rehoused’ – the process of rehabilitation and the political dynamics are in no way equal for all – some get the house, some decide to move out, some are deprived, and much more than what I can know and tell … And as for the sanitized living, the more seen, the better – the poor garbage lifting facilities, the overflowing drains between the buildings, the lack of water until water is fought for as an entitlement, and the teeming rats – yes certainly, sanity and sanitation have to be rethought as much as the idea and practice of the slum have to be reconsidered.

Beyond …
That pervasive feeling of wretchedness and disgust continues within me until I reach Govandi station. It persists beyond as I pass Wadala, Chunnabhatti, Sewri, Dockyard and even further, into the passing days … It travels within me and beyond me. I am still thinking what the city is and how the city is continuously accessed, both symbolically and physically, from time to time …

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