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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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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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Memories, experience, the city and change

March 12th, 2008

It was an interesting ride across most parts of the city on that Sunday. Actually, there were multiple rides …

We first traveled from Shanthinagar towards Malleshwaram, that serene part of Bangalore where vegetarians and Kiran Rao’s parents abound. The work for the new airport at Devanahalli is proceeding at a quicker pace. Along our way, we noticed roads being done up, preparations for installing more magic boxes, traffic lights being taken off and the roads being widened – all of this for a smooth transition to the new airport. We noticed that at some places, the widening of the roads was appearing to transform the entire landscape of the area. The boundaries of the golf course were being altered. It seemed like the trees would go in the process of road widening. It is at moments like these when most of feel lament about the city being lost and gone.

Then, that evening, we went to Cubbon Park and it was choc-a-bloc full! All kinds of people were there, with parents, children and family. Cubbon Park somehow seemed to be that experience which I would enjoy in the hanging gardens in Bombay. The park was rife with activity – joyrides, eats, drinks, noise, festivity, play, laughter, cackling, you name it! The atmosphere in Cubbon Park seemed like Bangalore was not gone anywhere, that the city was still very much there!

The two very opposite experiences in a day forces me to think about change and the city. What is it about the city that changes? How does change impact city? What are the details of this change? How do we understand the changes that are taking place in cities? How do we adapt to these changes?

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