Posts Tagged ‘Politics’

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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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 ( 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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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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Low-Income Housing in Indian Cities – Some Considerations for Policy

April 16th, 2008

Housing has been one of the most pressing policy issues since the rise and growth of cities. With increasing urbanization, the provision and availability of housing has taken on the proportions of a crisis. Daily we witness both, widespread and large-scale construction of buildings, townships and apartment complexes in the suburbs, urban fringes and peri-urban areas in Indian cities. There has been a boom in the housing and real estate market with the rise in the pay scales of middle-income groups and the ease of availability of loans and financial instruments to purchase houses since the mid-1990s. A house is now no longer only a personal asset, but also a form of investment which gives returns. While middle-income housing has received a tremendous boost, it is important to pay attention to the conditions of low-income/affordable housing for the poor that has taken a beating with the boom in the construction and real estate industry.

In Indian cities, the state is usually seen as the provider of low-income and affordable housing. The Delhi Development Authority (DDA), the Bangalore Development Authority (BDA), the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority and the Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) in Delhi, Bangalore and Mumbai respectively are the state agencies that have constructed and/or facilitated the construction of low-income group housing (along with middle-income and high-income group housing). Some of these agencies, such as the BDA and DDA, have also been responsible for confirming land tenures for poor groups, albeit a highly contested procedure, thereby securing occupants’ right to housing and secure land tenure.  In Mumbai, private initiatives towards developing low-cost/affordable housing depend on state subsidies and/or incentives. The Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) model in Mumbai was one of the first innovations to enable private developers to develop slum housing in return for development rights in high-value real estate areas in the city, a model that is now coming under increasing criticism for various reasons.

As mentioned above, the house is now not only an asset, but also a source for earning revenues for the middle-income and high-income groups. These groups invest in purchasing houses, which they then rent/lease to tenants on an eleven-month leave and license agreement.  In the context of slums, the house is not merely a unit for habitation, but is often the economic space where production and manufacturing are carried out. This is clearly evident in the case of slums such as Dharavi and Kurla in Mumbai and Shahadra and Vishwasnager in Delhi, where the family produces leather items, garments, sophisticated electronic equipments, and other consumer goods within the space of the house. These consumer goods are then integrated into the goods produced by large corporations and are also sold in shopping malls. In several slums across cities in India, small shops are attached to the house. These shops are extensions of the house and are developed through multiple tenancy systems (which are usually seen as illegal). In the case of dilapidated buildings in Mumbai, also known as the ‘rent-control buildings’ owing to the freeze on rental rates imposed by the Rent Control Act (RCA) of 1940, the building not only houses the tenants, but the tenants and the landlords have themselves rented spaces within the building to sub-tenants who either reside in the houses and/or engage in providing services such as tailoring, photocopying and manufacture of goods. When we discuss low-income/affordable housing in the context of the poor, we need to bear in mind the fact that the house is simultaneously an economic space for the poor. At the same time, ‘poor’ is not a singular, homogenous category. Floating income levels among the poor, owing to either the seasonal nature of the occupations and/or the nature and structure of the economy itself, makes the category ‘poor’ difficult to define in terms of purely income-level criteria. Individuals and groups keep moving along different scales in the continuum of poverty (though not necessarily consistently). Among the poor are individuals and groups that suffer from chronic poverty and live under precarious circumstances. At the same time, there are slumlords and local leaders who are a powerful and wealthier lot among the poor and who have been criticized for their exploitative roles. Poverty then needs to be viewed as a dynamic that responds to the structure of the economy at any given point in time.

Apart from the house being an economic space that is connected to and simultaneously competes with the larger global spaces of production, distribution and consumption, the nature of the property and the land also define the individual’s and the group’s relationship with law and the state. This dynamic is crucial to take note of in any policy considerations of low-income housing for migrant populations and especially so in the case of multiple forms of tenancies, which complicate ownership of the property, making it difficult to pin down a single owner of the property. This relationship between the occupant/s, the property, law, the state and the market shapes the nature of claims that poor groups can make on the system and also shapes their subject positions. These subject positions keep shifting depending on the shifts in the economy. Housing, then, also needs to be viewed in the larger context of the nature and the structure of the economy at any given point in time. Today, the demand for luxury housing in Mumbai and Bangalore among the upper income groups requires parallel land acquisition policies and laws which in turn invariably infringe on the claims of the poor to housing and land. Subsequently, housing need, demand and supply can be understood by paying close attention to the structure of the economy and the dynamics of politics within cities and nations and across the globe. This is because housing is linked with land, which is a contestable terrain for different groups operating in the realm of the state, market and citizenry. Property and land produce relationships between the citizen subject, law, the state, various market forces and civil society groups. The agency of law, acting to enforce the rule of law, can often negatively impact the housing and livelihood claims of the urban poor and low-income groups. Consequently, zoning regulations, land acquisition laws and property titling procedures, while attempting to enforce rule of law, can impinge on the development of low-income housing by poor groups.

In this paper, we will explain how land and housing are closely linked with the economies that the poor spur as well as participate in the city. Access to housing is important for the poor to fulfill their claims to the city and the economy. As we explicate this proposition, we will also evaluate some of the existing legal and institutional arrangements that either facilitate or come in the way of developing low-income housing. We will also draw from experiences in Indian cities where the poor have developed housing for themselves through occupation and migration and a recent experience in Mumbai where design intervention was planned to facilitate in-situ community self-development housing. As we do so, we will elaborate on areas where policy-makers need to pay close attention when making policy interventions.

House as Economic Space and as means of Consolidation of Claims to Economy and City: As mentioned above, housing is a function of the nature and structure of the economy at different points in time. For e.g. when industrialization started to take place in the mid-nineteenth century (then) Bombay, rich and influential traders shifted to owning mills. Job opportunities were created in the city and there was an increase in the number of migrants coming to the city from interior, drought-affected parts of Maharashtra state for employment. Given the shortage of housing stock, private landlords developed agricultural lands surrounding the mills and constructed what are popularly known as ‘chawls’. ‘Chawls are one room tenements with a common corridor and toilet facilities. (CRIT: 2007, 31) Mill owners housed the workers in these chawls. Thus, in nineteenth century Bombay, housing developed in response to the nature and demands of the industrial economy that was establishing itself in the city. In the 1990s, there was a decline in the industrial economy but the service sector was growing. Housing now had to respond to the changing socio-economic landscape of the city. There was a rise in the pay scales of middle-income groups coupled with the availability of financial products such as credit and debit cards, housing loans, personal loans, etc. which made it easier for the middle and high-income groups to own property. This was also a period when many non-resident Indians (NRIs) started to come back to the country and/or began to invest their capital in real estate in the major first-tier and upcoming second-tier Indian cities. Consequently, luxury apartment complexes and townships were constructed to cater to the demands of the new desires and lavish lifestyles. Artist villages and bungalows were constructed on agricultural lands on the peripheries of Mumbai city to serve high-income groups who wanted to live away from the city. (CRIT: 2007)

Under the new service economy in Indian cities, there has been an increasing demand for drivers, servants, cleaners, security guards and other forms of subsidiary low-income labour. It is often argued that low-income/affordable housing needs to be created for this class of labour. Townships include servants’ quarters to house maidservants and drivers and these are seen as forms of housing developed for the poor conceived as subsidiary labour. This form of housing however does not account for the mobility of the poor groups on the continuum of poverty and designates them to fixed positions on the scale of poverty. The poor are then simply viewed as subsidiary labour rather than as individuals and groups that can spur and engage in productive forms of economies in the city. Let us take the case of Azadnager, a slum in west Bangalore, where migrants have developed housing in the slum and have participated in the clustering economies of the locality. Clustering economies are often viewed as the phenomena of developing and under-developing countries and are perceived as unproductive/economically unfeasible. However, these clustering economies are closely connected with the circuits of global production, consumption and exchange. To give an example, Vishwasnager slum in East Delhi was involved in producing copper cabling wire, which is currently an integral part of reaching cable television to consumers across India.  Azadnager’s geographical proximity with K. R. Market – the central market area in Bangalore city – and various production clusters dispersed around West Bangalore has helped to fuel a number of enterprises within Azadnager. There are home-based enterprises of women rolling incense and tobacco sticks, economies of ragpickers some of who have moved from picking and sorting trash to developing their own enterprises of itinerant trading, and development of autorickshaw transport, which is an important form of public transport in the city. Azadnager comprises of various poor groups ranging from the chronically poor to lower-income and middle-income groups among the poor. Given the nature of the clustering economies in Azadnager, poor groups have had opportunities to move from chronic poverty to lower and middle-income scales. Thus, some of the ragpickers have moved to trading in secondhand electronic items over a period of time through various ethnic and political linkages, availability of diverse forms of finance and availability of physical space to carry out their trades; women rolling incense sticks and tobacco cigarettes have been able to invest surpluses from their trades into real estate, thus spurring rental housing in Azadnager for incoming migrants. Here it is important to note that among poor groups, trade and income surpluses are usually invested in housing and such housing may be developed through multiple forms of tenancies.  Housing in Azadnager has thus developed with the mobility of different groups to different income scales. Individuals and groups have invested trade surpluses in land and developed both housing and spaces for carrying out economic activities within Azadnager. (Benajmin and Bhuvaneswari: 2001) The case of Azadnager, and the experiences from other slums in cities across India, demonstrates that for poor groups, housing is a means for consolidating their position in the city and participating in the economy. This is unlike the way in which housing is conceived in the current service economy in terms of servants’ quarters and schemes for rehabilitating/resettling slum dwellers that takes a shortsighted view of the poor as subsidiary labour.

As the economy intensifies, poor groups recognize the need to secure their claims to the land. Here, the agency of the local politicians, local leaders in the slum and the city municipal corporation are important in securing the tenures and making available basic infrastructure. This process is stereotypically seen as corrupt and exploitative; the poor are imagined as individuals who have no agency to act on behalf of themselves and are subject to exploitation by politicians and slumlords. However, poor groups mobilize institutions and individuals in order to fulfill their claims to land tenure, housing and basic infrastructure. As Omar Razzaz (1993) puts it:

“One only need examine a squatter settlement in a developing country to realize that property relations, use, and rights are defined through strategies of control, contestation, negotiation, and renegotiation. Such strategies span the spheres of market and nonmarket (sic), legality and illegality, and ultimately all options of exit, voice and loyalty.”  (345)

This mobilization depends on structure of politics within the ruling party and across political parties and the status of the municipality vis-à-vis the state government and other parastatal agencies in the city. Such mobilizations undoubtedly involve corruption and are not always easy to carry out, but it establishes relationships between the poor, the municipality and politicians and forces the municipal corporation and political parties to be responsive to the needs of the poor. These relationships are classically condemned as patron-client relations or what is known among Indian middle-classes as ‘vote-bank politics’. However, Dianne Singerman (1995: 134), in her seminal work on the Sha’abi communities in Cairo points out that designating these relationships as ‘patron-client’ does not allow us to probe the structure of politics, and the networks and agencies that various groups can mobilize in order to access the basic needs of life. Singerman criticizes political scientists and scholars for classifying these relationships and networks as ‘informal’ and not paying enough attention to them because they apparently ‘lack juridical and formal recognition’. In Singerman’s opinion, these networks are not only material, but are embedded in strong ideological orientations which emerge from everyday experiences of the state and its institutions, politics and the market.

Models for slum rehabilitation and resettlement, while aiming to provide the poor with housing, often fail to account for the house as the economic space for the poor. When slum dwellers are rehabilitated, their economic claims are overlooked and they are usually compensated for housing and not for the loss of livelihood. For e.g., a large roads infrastructure project was being executed in Mumbai under the aegis of a multilateral development bank (MDB). Persons and families whose houses were in the way of developing the roads were known as ‘Project Affected Persons’ (PAPs) and as per the policy of the MDB, the PAPs were to be rehabilitated in other parts of the city and provided with houses in keeping with Maharashtra state’s re-housing policy. Several PAPs in the eastern suburbs of the city were running shops attached to their homes and some of them were traders carrying out trades in their houses. When the PAPs were to be rehabilitated, they were only provided with housing. No compensation was awarded for loss of livelihood. The traders and shopkeepers subsequently protested against this.  In many cases, awarding compensation for loss of livelihood is not sufficient because economies are strongly rooted in locations. Clustering economies depend on and develop as a result of the economies existing in proximity. Moving any one of these economies from their locations impacts the larger economy.  Therefore, when slum dwellers are moved for rehabilitation and resettlement, their economic bases are destroyed and when they are moved to new locations, they have to start all over again, which may not be an easy task to achieve. Moreover, in the slums, individuals and families live in varying plot sizes. From a developmentalist perspective, it may appear horrifying that large families live in small plots. Interventions are planned accordingly to provide housing as per certain standards and regulations. Invariably, these standards come in the way of the economies developed by the slum dwellers. In Mumbai city, slum rehabilitation schemes mandate builders and developers to provide the inhabitants with houses measuring 225 square feet. Housing in slums is horizontal whereas housing developed under these rehabilitation schemes is vertical, thereby often deficient in terms of sunlight and ventilation. Slum rehabilitation policies must emphasize in-situ development rather than rehabilitate slum dwellers at urban fringes and develop middle and high-income housing on the land where the slum was previously located. Slum redevelopment can be undertaken by private contractors/builders and by slum dwellers themselves. Under the 1976 Societies Act, slum dwellers can undertake redevelopment themselves, without involving the builder as the agent of development, if more than 70% of the tenants of the housing colony come together and register as a society. In a novel design intervention, the design studio of the Collective Research Initiatives Trust (CRIT), a Mumbai-based collective of architects, teachers, students, activists and practitioners, participated in one such community self development project in Mumbai.  CRIT believes that the self-development model can save tenants’ societies several rupees, which then can be used to form a community corpus. This corpus can in turn support the tenant’s monthly outgoing, which for new developments in Mumbai can be prohibitive for urban poor communities. CRIT participated in the Betwala Chawl community self-development housing project. Betwala chawl is located in Central Mumbai. Squatters have been living in this area for more than 75 years and have been engaged in producing high quality wooden cane furniture and crafts. CRIT’s design model demonstrated that the surplus space from redevelopment can help tenants gain additional floor space for the use of the communities, thereby challenging the regulation that slum dwellers are entitled to houses measuring only 225 square feet under the slum rehabilitation-builder model of ‘free housing’.  Architecturally, CRIT’s design plans modulated the built structure to achieve a comprehensible urban form to carve out as large an open space as possible, with a perimeter building typology that defied the vertical building structures perpetuated by builders under the rehabilitation projects. CRIT attempted to tweak the building byelaws and existing policies in order to maximize programmatic space for low-income user groups. At the same time, CRIT was aware that urban housing policies, while addressing the issue of shelter, fail to connect housing to the fundamental right to work and ability of the poor to participate in the urban economies. It’s design plans attempted to account for this paradigmatic shift from an organized smoke stack economy into an informal, often home-based economy that has not yet been reflected in mainstream planning practices and housing policies. CRIT’s design intervention suggests that there can be more than one model for developing low-income housing apart from the state slum redevelopment and housing models. Policy makers, planners and architects therefore need to explore models that secure the poor with housing without impacting their claims to economy and right to work.

Law, Regulations and Development of Low-Income Housing: Legal regulations concerning land use, land acquisition and construction of buildings have varying effects on the development of low-income housing. As mentioned above, in Mumbai, the SRA-mandated model of slum redevelopment brought into force in the mid-1990s, drove several large and medium-level builders to undertake slum redevelopment projects because of the availability of development rights in lucrative parts of the city. Housing developed under such rehabilitation schemes have been of poor quality, causing inconveniences such as lack of electricity and water infrastructure to the rehoused groups. Those at the receiving end of such schemes and laws, Omar Razzaz (1993) suggests, then attempt to “re-redefine” the regulations to suit their conditions. Razzaz did not suggest this in a negative sense, but to indicate that there is a clear distinction between property rights and property claims in that a property right is an enforcement of relations between a person holding something of value with others by law, and when such property enforcements are brought into being, they are likely to impact different groups in different terms, producing winners and losers.  (341, 342) It is therefore useful to pay attention to the implementation of legal regulations on the ground, their impact on different groups and how these groups respond to the implementation.

An important factor in the development of low-income housing concerns land, which as mentioned in the introduction, is a contested terrain between the state, market and citizenry. Property is a dynamic entity in that its value keeps shifting over time. Thus, when a railway line is constructed around a certain piece of property, its value, which was initially nil/low, now rises in response to the creation of the infrastructure and the expectation of people flocking to the area to purchase houses and to set up commerce and industries. (Razzaz: 1973, 345, 346) With the growth of financial markets worldwide, there has been an increased investment in real estate. In fact, Joe Studwell (2007) in his work on the south-east Asian business tycoons points out that the tycoons often invested their idling millions into vast tracts of real estate so that these would reap benefits in future in case of rise in property prices. This, in part, saved the tycoons and their establishments from the south-east Asian financial crisis which otherwise wiped off the savings of the middle-income and poorer classes. There has also been an increase in construction conglomerates that are now involved in frenetic construction of townships and luxury apartments in major cities and islands across the world. In India, builders such as Hiranandanis, Rahejas, DLF, etc. have several resources at their disposal and play an important role in influencing the state’s land use and land acquisition policies. The portfolio of urban development and land is usually under the control of Chief Ministers across states in India, thereby making land a highly politicized domain. Large builders can usually bribe senior bureaucrats to pass contracts and legitimize land acquisition in contrast with small and medium-level builders who may not have similar resources.  When big builders largely dominate the market to the extent of eliminating small and medium-level builders, there is a clear impact on development of low-income housing (though, as we have seen in the previous section, it is not merely builders who help to create low-income housing and that poor groups themselves create low-income and spur rental housing). This also creates unfair competition in the land and property markets and often impacts poor groups leading to massive evictions, as was seen in Bangalore when the information technology industry was developing and infrastructure for the industry was being developed by the state government and other para-statal agencies. This may lead one to suggest that regularizing land titles can enforce security of tenure. But as Razzaz (1993, 349) suggests, legalization of tenures does not invariably bring security of tenure. “… a tenant in Cairo in a rent-controlled apartment might have more security of tenure than a first-time home buyer risking to default on his or her mortgage payments.” Quoting Doebele, Razzaz (1993, 349) points out that  “Security of tenure is not so much a legal category as much as the perception of the occupant of his security in relation to the investment contemplated.” This holds true in the case of Land Acquisition Acts (LAA) where the state can acquire land in the name of public interest. Under this LAA, state governments can acquire land as long as they can prove that such acquisition is in the general welfare of the public. Here, legal title is no guarantee that the state will not acquire the land under LAA. In one case, namely the New Rivera Co-op Housing (1996) 1 SCC 731, the Supreme Court passed a judgment stating that if the land is acquired for a public purpose activity, then it does not matter if such acquisition has been made at the expense of people’s right to shelter and livelihood.  Land acquisition acts for purposes of establishing industry (on agricultural lands) such as the Karnataka Industrial Areas Development Act (KIADA) can be even more draconian in that the land acquired is directly transferred to the company and those dispossessed of their lands have no option other than to accept the compensation awarded by the government.  Currently, agricultural lands located on urban peripheries are under the watchful eyes of industries as well as large builders to establish software parks, Special Economic Zones (SEZs) as well as townships and luxury apartments. This further infringes on low-income housing because earlier, slum rehabilitation housing was constructed by moving the slum dwellers from central city areas to the fringes of the city and now as urban fringes are gaining in property values for both industrial and housing purposes, there is a danger that the rehoused groups will be moved farther away.

Conclusion: In this paper, we have seen:

1.    That housing in the case of the urban poor is closely linked with their participation in urban economies; and
2.    That legal and institutional mechanisms such as land-use regulations and building bye-laws can invariably infringe on low-income housing, especially in a market which is mainly dominated by big builders.

Clearly then, there are various complexities to which policymakers need to pay close attention. Firstly, low-income housing projects need to bear in mind the claims of the urban poor to the economy via land. Consequently, in-situ slum redevelopment and housing is beneficial to poor groups because it preserves their economies and strengthens their claims on the city administration to provide them with basic infrastructure. In Indian cities, in-situ rehabilitation is highly contested especially when the slum is located on a high-value real estate location. In this case then, powerful builder conglomerates employ muscle power to displace the slum dwellers.  Housing policies such as the slum rehabilitation policies in Indian cities disrupt the economies of the poor thereby not only destroying their entrepreneurial drive, but also making it difficult for them to re-establish their economies in the new rehabilitated settlements. Policy therefore needs to view housing in the context of the urban economies that the poor spur and participate in.

Secondly, the Right to Information (RTI) Act, particularly the clause on Duty to Publish needs to be made mandatory on para-statal agencies that contract slum rehabilitation projects by awarding development rights to the builder to build commercial housing in other (usually lucrative) parts of the city. These agencies must provide up-to-date information on where the builder/s has used the development rights and to what extent. This can go some way towards preventing malpractices in the rehabilitation projects and forces builders to be transparent in their utilization of development rights. However, public agencies and builders do not wish to make this information public because this information is highly political in nature. In the past, an active citizen in Mumbai attempted to bring out this information by filing RTI applications with a para-statal agency in Mumbai. In response to his application, the agency responded by blatantly stating that it will not provide him with this information. This indicates that rehabilitation schemes are tainted with corruption and malpractices. In fact, the Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA), which is responsible for slum rehabilitation in Mumbai was recently closed down under charges of gross corruption and hand-in-glove practices with builders. Civil society groups working with squatters as well as citizens groups can use this information to hold both the state and market accountable.

Thirdly, there is a need to move beyond the presumption that it is the state and/or the market that can provide low-income housing to the poor and low-income groups. Across cities in India, migrant groups and poor groups residing in slums have created housing on their own. Through his work in Jordan as well as from empirical evidence from across the world, Omar Razzaz (1993: 350, 351) has found that slum dwellers and squatters invest in developing high quality housing because this reduces the chances of demolitions/evictions. This, among other factors, leads Razzaz (1993: 349, 351, 352) to conclude that there is “an assumed casual relationship between legal rights, security of tenure and investment in land.” Therefore, legalization of tenures can be a highly political project. In the urban context in India, the state, particularly the local administration plays a crucial role in legitimating these settlements to protect them in future from evictions/demolitions. This then means that municipal corporation needs to have substantial autonomy from state governments because eventually, the Chief Minister who heads the state government, controls the portfolio of land and urban development.

Finally, there is need for genuine free market in the builder industry i.e., all levels of builders – small, medium and large, must prevail in the economy at any point in time. This helps to ensure that there is potential to develop all forms of housing and not only luxury and high-income housing as we are currently witnessing in Indian cities. There is a need to conceive and develop policies to further this form of market. At the same time, there is a strong need for various groups among the citizenry to be aware of the legalities pertaining to land and to be vigilant to forms of corruption where the builder lobbies attempt to influence the political machinery in their favour.

Bibliography and References:

Benjamin Solomon and R. Bhuvaneswari (May 2001), Democracy, Inclusive Governance and Poverty in Bangalore, Working Paper 26 – Urban Governance, Partnership and Poverty, The University of Birmingham, May 2001.

Collective Research Initiatives Trust (CRIT) (2007),“Housing Typologies in Mumbai”, May 2007. Study also available on Last accessed on 16th November 2007.

Razzaz Omar M. (Nov. 1993), Examining Property Rights and Investment in Informal Settlements: The case of Jordan, Land Economics, Vol. 69, No. 4., pp. 341-355.

Singerman Diane (1995), Avenues of Participation: Family, Politics, and Networks in Urban Quarters of Cairo”, Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Studwell, Joe, (2007) Asian Godfathers: Money and Power in Hong Kong and South-East Asia. Profile Books, London.

Liang Lawrence Land Acquisition: Towards a New Paradigm, a presentation, available on Last accessed on 6th December 2006.

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Of politics and positions

April 11th, 2008

I have been following the construction of the Metro in Bangalore and the various kinds of conflicts that have arisen during the construction process. Almost daily, newspapers report of court cases where people are fighting for their right over private property and are unwilling to give up their land for the construction of the Metro. It seems like this is an interesting phase in the trajectory of Bangalore City.

A week ago, a friend told me about how they have formed a group to protect Nanda Road. Nanda Road, located in Jayanagar, is one of the few green roads in the city. According to the plans, a Metro station will appear right at Nanda Road, thereby destroying the road forever. The group out to save Nanda Road consists of residents of the area. Some of my friends in Bangalore who are not from this city, but who have lived in Jayanagar, have also mentioned how they would be keen to protect Nanda Road since it is one of the only few green roads in the city. It seems like people develop affiliations and emotions with a place even if they are not long-time residents of the city. And the city is vested with these forms of affect.

Last week then, I was discussing the Save Nanda Road initiative with a group of journalists. When I mentioned that this group has been formed around Nanda Road, consisting of residents of Jayanagar, one of the journalists remarked, “Ah, this is a middle-class initiative!” and almost rubbished the initiative. I defended weakly stating how people who are not born in Bangalore, who have lived along the road, have memories of the place and some form of emotional attachment and would be willing to protect the road. But she was convinced that this is a middle-class initiative and implied that it did not deserve to be paid attention to.

That evening, I wondered about how we position ourselves around issues of development and politics in the city. Does a progressive line of thinking have to take an anti-middle class stance on issues? Or does urban politics demand an examination of every unique issue before positions can be taken?

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