Slums as self-confrontation

The attempt to free cities of slums will only make them invisible  

Published: Thursday 15 April 2010

imageMany see slums as failed parts of cities. They are regarded as parts of a city that do not conform to ruling ideas of an ideal city held by people in other parts of the city. There have been some changes in the way people have looked at slums ever since colonial cities emerged.

At one time, slums were seen as a kind of an invisible city: a place where servants and the poor blue collar workers stayed and one did not have to care for them. The architect-activist Jai Sen had a term for this attitude: in an essay in the journal Seminar he called a slum an Unintended City. There was little or no genuine attempt to accept the poor and disadvantaged as part of the city’s future—to accept them as equal and integral citizens or to re-plan the city according to their needs—Sen wrote.

I think things have changed in the three decades since Sen said this. Slums are not just the unintended city. They are now regarded parts of the city that should not be visible. City authorities in Delhi and Mumbai are planning to cover up slums for the Commonwealth Games. They are an embarrassment, which foreign visitors to the city must not see. A slum is a part of the city that has no business to be there.

Then there is the political-economic perspective on slums: people with low earnings prefer to stay in slums because they are close to their places of work. So the rich and middle classes get their cheap labour—drivers, vegetable vendors, domestic helps—from the slums. This approach has a built-in contradiction. The upper and middle classes do not want to pay their domestic helps at First World rates, but they want slums eliminated as in some First World cities, or in Asian cities pretending to be First-World cities like Singapore and Hong Kong. They will not do what citizens of Singapore and Hong Kong have done to eliminate slums. In Singapore and Hong Kong, too, you have to pay through your nose to get a domestic help or a chauffeur.

There is another way of looking at slums, which is not only more creative but also more compassionate and humanitarian. Slums are parts of the city that constantly reminds us of our moral and social obligations. They are reminders that another India exists. People loathe slums not just because of the poverty they display, not just because the slums embarrass them in front of foreign visitors, but also because the slums look to them like indicators of their backwardness and do not allow them to forget or deny the poverty and the exploitation on which their prosperity is built. They blow up Rs 40,000 for a dinner for four persons at a five-star hotel while people scavenge for food outside the hotel. The slums are reminders of the open wounds of a city.

That reminder is painful. Many do not want such reminders to be there. Slums are not regarded as political issues in many countries. But that is not so in India. Here, elections still reflect some of our real issues. You are always afraid when you see slums: it reminds the middle class they are sitting on a volcano. The fact that our political system has not forgotten the slums makes the wealthy and the middle class nervous. Such anxieties have cultural consequences.

imageIn fact, I would go to the extent of saying that in the West, the more interesting cities have slums. New York has slums; Houston does not, not at least visibly. Los Angeles does not have conspicuous slums, Washington has and it’s a more interesting city because of that. The contradictions of the city are in full display. A society’s creativity depends on the oscillation and dialogue between slums and the rest of the city. New York is an intellectually rich city because it has many things that are going out of fashion in mainstream America, such as street life and street food, street graffiti, street-side artists and musicians. It also has crime, sleaze and drugs. The latter have an effect somewhat similar to that of the activities of the Naxalites or the Maoists: they remind the middle classes and rich sections of a large number of disposable people living at the margins of desperation.

In New York, the capital of global capitalism, more than 40,000 homeless adults live in streets, subways, and under bridges and train tunnels of the city; and 25 per cent of all children live in families with incomes below the official poverty line. New York is New York because it has, to some extent, learnt to live with slums. Many other cities in the West have dismantled slums but not homelessness. Slums highlight such contradictions. If you have disowned parts of yourself and built up an elaborate system of psychological defenses, the contradictions do not vanish. They remain and you feel you are always being held accountable, being accused—by yourself.

Such contradictions sharpen creativity. They impinge on the writers, artists and thinkers. The finest Dalit poetry in India, for example, has come not from writers in rural India where the situation may be more oppressive for the Dalits or from Dalits who have made it, but from writers living at the margins of society. They have lived either in a slum or close to it. This is not an attempt to romanticize slums but to emphasize that the slums are often the only connection the urban middle class has with some of the grim realities of society. The wellknown Bangladeshi economist Mohammad Yunus once said that the only time the country’s rich and the wealthy faced what the poor in the country’s villages had lived with for centuries was when floods came to Dhaka.

Likewise, the slums create a certain awareness, which we can afford to ignore at great risk. If we remove slums, the only people in touch with that reality may well be the Naxals, the Gandhians and some of the muchmaligned, politically-aware NGOs. Town planners in many countries think slums can be replaced with lowcost housing. Low-cost housing has relevance but it is neither foolproof nor offers a long-term solution. Once you give people such houses some of them might sell them to developers for gentrification and, ultimately, the other city encroaches on such projects. People who had some protection in slums, at least had a roof on their heads, lose that protection. Low-cost housing might lead to American-style gentrification in our political economy, too.

Even by conservative estimates, onefourth of India is poor. They cannot be ignored. In our political system, electoral pressures and vote banks matter. And empowerment can be a solution. It is working in the case of the Dalits. It can bring small reliefs such as better sanitation, cleaner water, minimal healthcare and more toilets. Even now, without such facilities, lots of people prefer to stay in slums; they try to make something beautiful out of whatever little they have. Human beings are a resilient species and many prefer to live in a place where such resilience is in full display. The well-known Hindi film director Manmohan Desai used to stay in a locality that could be classified as a glorified slum. So did Vinod Kambli, the famous cricketer. Harlem has even become fashionable; former President Clinton has an office there now. Slums are not infra-human.

Planning cannot eliminate slums. As long as there is large-scale deprivation, as long as our rulers, our media and our urban middle class believe that proletarianization is better than being a farmer, artisan or a tribal, there will be sizeable number of people who will be made available for blue-collar work in our cities. Such people will like to stay close to their places of work. If you upgrade or destroy one slum, others will come up in its place a few hundred feet away. The recent attempts to free Indian cities of slums will merely make the slums less visible. This is not a new project.

Sanjay Gandhi tried it. Jagmohan tried it. I don’t blame them any more in retrospect. The urge to make slums invisible is there in almost every unthinking Indian—not just in the powerful, the foolish and the heartless. The desire to secure services from slums and yet not see them is one of the diseases of our times that is taking an epidemic form.

A sociologist and a clinical psychologist, Ashis Nandy is with the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi

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