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The fugitive humanity of city spaces


The emergence of a significant middle class – who demand increasing space for their accommodation – means that the urban poor are everywhere being constricted to a decreasing proportion of land. In these city spaces they exist as a ‘fugitive humanity’, writes Jeremy Seabrook.

The following article is a presentation prepared for 'Megaslumming: The future of urban shantytowns', a book launch and public discussion which took place on Wednesday 24th February 2010 at the Human Rights Action Centre, Amnesty International, London.

The word slum has come in for much criticism recently, and rightly so. It is a concept borrowed from the streets of 19th century Britain; the word assumes that the same serene improvement to urban landscapes witnessed in this country will eventually extend to the places of savage destitution which are to be found all over the 'developing world'. (This is another foolish term - all societies are developing; we should beware of the determinist implications of the word 'developed').

Poverty, like the sites in which it is to be found, is not static. Constantly mutating, evolving, new privations are created out of the very ways in which old ones are supposed to have been answered. Indeed, it is the dynamic, protean nature of urban poverty that makes it difficult to capture. This leads many observers, when they confront the world's spreading cities, into apocalyptic denunciations of terminal and lawless urban ruin. Mike Davis's splendid polemic, Planet of Slums, is perhaps the best known – and by far the best written – of these prophets of the evils of an incontinent urbanization. This is part of a long tradition, which goes back at least to the sulphurous evocations of Engels. Much of the United Nations' work on urbanization falls into this pattern, although naturally, it is couched in more prudent and diplomatic terms than the denunciations of Engels. The UN has, for at least thirty years, consistently overestimated projections of urban populations; in the 1980s it foresaw cities of 25 million or more inhabitants, while its recent Challenge of Slums report anticipated a doubling of slum populations within a couple of decades.

On the other hand – and they have plenty of examples to show for it – there are those who see the development of communities out of what, a mere 20 years ago, looked like the most despairing of human settlements; whereby the peaceable and ambitious urban poor reconstruct their huts and shanties out of their own resources, both material and human, and their labour as cycle-rickshaw drivers, maidservants, artisans, labourers and recyclers of city garbage. In the early 1990s, Dhaka in Bangladesh consisted of hundreds of thousands of self-built huts clustered around polluted ponds. These have mostly been eradicated, the ponds filled in, and the self-built huts of bamboo are being replaced by high-rise buildings, many of them for the expanding middle class. But the poor have not diminished in number, neither has the flow of migrants to Dhaka decreased, nor has there been a decline in the rate of increase from within the existing population.

So what has happened in those cities where 'improvements' are highly conspicuous, and what is likely to happen in cities where informal housing appears to be growing beyond the control of government and state agencies, where the only response of authority still lies in the bulldozer and paramilitary forces to clear those they see as encroachers and trespassers?

The most obvious consequence of globalization for the urban poor has been the emergence of a significant middle class – often cited as one of the surest indicators of 'development' – who demand more and more space for their accommodation, particularly in capital and large provincial cities. One result of this has been a real-estate boom in most cities with land being taken over, not only for government servants but by a wealthy private sector which builds hotels, airports, roads and amenities for tourists and transnational business, along with the delights which such wealthy transients demand for their sojourn in the capital - such as parks, golf-courses, shopping malls, bars and night-clubs, and all the economic activities which these summon into existence.

Almost everywhere in the world, then, evictions on a vast scale are being conducted. Wherever people had set up their fragile settlements, often in precarious sites - on hillsides liable to landslips, on low-lying land prone to flooding, close to polluting industries, rubbish-dumps and the terrain vague beneath flyovers, bridges and canals - these are required by a busy and all-encompassing market in land for more urgent purposes. This means that the urban poor are everywhere being constricted. As land is colonized they are removed from the insecure sites where they had gained a brief lodging. There is, in most cities, not only legal appropriation of space, but even within poor communities there are enormous networks of unauthorised construction, the replacement of single-storey huts by jerry-built, chaotic and unplanned brick or concrete buildings, four or five-storeys high, out of which local politicians, illegal promoters and builders and slum mafias and gangs each make a considerable profit, contributing yet further to an expanding middle class, which will rush to cleanse its money in high rise apartments with names like Lave View, Mayfair or Berkeley Towers.

A further result of this process is that the urban poor, whose numbers appear to be diminishing by virtue of the decreasing proportion of land they occupy, are being absorbed into new, often illegal tenements. This has the advantage not only of making them vanish, but also of driving them deeper into the arms of the market economy, since they are now no longer able to build their own homes but must instead pay rent to proprietors of doubtful ownership: slumlords and strongmen manipulated by ruling parties and dominant interests.

The facts are well known. In Mumbai, 60 percent of the population is now squeezed onto about six percent of the city land; in Kolkata, a latecomer to the building boom, over half the people live on less than 20 percent of the city area, about the same as the figures for Dhaka.

This is how 'world-class' cities are made. Economic growth places more and more pressure on the urban poor, and these make their way into buildings which are often less than a metre apart on all four sides, where electricity has to be burned all day long, fans and coolers work overtime to keep down the heat magnified by the concrete, while on the ground floor, factories and manufacturing units, metal workshops, garment factories, garages and repair-shops produce infernal noise, dust and pollution. Since the buildings are not legal, their occupants enjoy no greater security than when they lived in the sprawling huts and hovels created out of bamboo, industrial detritus, cement bags, corrugated metal and polythene. But the city has been 'landscaped'. High-rises and roads, malls and monuments now dominate the scene and poor people have been rendered invisible, which lends even greater credibility to government statistics that poverty has been reduced to a residual problem in the country.

The compression of the poor makes those areas excluded from development – usually in contaminated land or in low-lying areas – even more wretched than they were when they were unimpeded from extending their habitations horizontally across government-owned but unused land, on private wasteland or land whose ownership was disputed.

In Kolkata, I have recently been working in poor neighbourhoods that have become almost exclusively Muslim as a result of the growing communal separation in the country. The area of Tospia in Kolkata was, until recently, portrayed on city maps as a blank space, marked only by the words ‘liable to inundation‘. Poor people's habitations, trackless and impermanent, have no geography.

They have no history either. They exist for a brief moment, a fugitive humanity; in city spaces, people come from nowhere and subsequently vanish into thin air. Either the site gains official recognition by the city authorities and turns – often slowly and painfully – into a community, or it is razed unceremoniously by police and municipal officials and it’s peope disperse to the four winds.

Part of Topsia consists of a narrow island, about a kilometre in length, between two canals of waste water. Two parallel rows of huts, each overlooking a polluted waterway, are pervaded by a smell so strong that you can taste it. The water rushes through a concrete sluice-gate, a toxic waterfall of industrial effluent and sewage. The huts vary in size, some rising to about 1.5 metres, bamboo and wood frames, walls of woven bamboo, tin, polythene and industrial detritus. Some are tiled, others weighted down against the wind by bricks, old cycle tyres and stones. Most are devoid of amenity and ornament. A large wooden bed provides the only refuge against floodwater, a tin trunk, some folding chairs, plastic water-cans, a few basic utensils, a change of shabby clothing - these amount to the total possessions of a majority of the people.

Here, people are used-up by malnutrition, untreated sickness, exploitative labour, violence and drugs. A young woman wheels a cart bearing a few specked apples; another is selling rotted oranges and blackened bananas. Small stores conspicuously offer biscuits, sweets and cigarettes. There are at least five drug dens.

This is, literally, what they are: a dingy curtain at the door, and inside, on concrete floors, or on a wooden platform built out onto the turbulent water, small groups of mainly young men are sitting. Most are chasing the dragon: they place a pellet of heroin on silver foil, melt it into a brownish liquid by a match held underneath, and inhale the fumes with a cylinder of paper. The quality of the drug cannot be high: each portion costs 40 rupees (less than US $1).

Others are inhaling adhesive or 'solution': a tube of the substance is emptied into a transparent plastic bag, which fills and empties like a lung as they inhale through their mouth, the inside of the bag silvered with their breath. The men are oblivious to everything. The dealer moves in and out of the huts, clutching a growing wad of notes. One young man with a bandaged hand, forefinger in a splint, was injured by one of the druglord's employees when he consumed drugs on credit. Drugs are a pitiless business: youth and energy are wasted in these places, evaporating as swiftly as the fumes of the intoxicants that consume them. After dark the area springs to life, since this is the destination for addicts from all over Kolkata: another world of shadow-people, some of them the sons of wealth, pursues its own particular path of self-destruction.

Topsia offers scenes of degradation reminiscent of descriptions of the foulest places in the cities of early nineteenth-century Britain. People weakened by fever lie on hard wooden bedsteads or thin bedrolls on hard concrete, eyes yellow with jaundice or glittering with fever: malaria is widespread, immune-systems destroyed, tuberculosis is common.

Many carry with them, wrapped for protection in a transparent polythene folder, prescriptions from doctors which they cannot afford, X-rays and scans, images of the growth within, the untreated injury, damaged organs. The mother of one man shows an X-ray of his blind eye: not a visitation of nature, but the consequence of an attack while he was driving a rickshaw. He is now in the same hospital to which his daughter, suffering from rickets, has been admitted. His mother is suffering from malaria, and a son lies on rough bedding, prostrate with jaundice. An elderly man, his spine crushed by a metal pole as he was driving his rickshaw, is dependent upon his elderly wife who buys half-consumed coal from restaurants, cleans it and sells it again for fuel. She earns 20 Rupees a day - about US 40 cents.

Topsia exists in a state of official unknowing. It is not that nobody is aware of what takes place here. The hut-owners who rent their premises for the ruin of youth must pay their dues to the police. Dealers are indebted to their social and political protectors. When a woman informed the local councillor of what was occurring, she was told to mind her own business. When she turned to the police, she was told: 'You have a daughter. If you value her safety you will not interfere.' The misery of the people is a business opportunity to those whose function it is to make and uphold the law.

There are more serious dangers in the neglect of the urban poor. It is not necessarily those who are victims of oppression and despair who will turn into the fundamentalists, terrorists, Maoists or criminals. The danger lies in those who witness their suffering, who observe the pain and grief, and go on to formulate their own doctrines of vengeful salvation, both religious and secular. Do not let it be said that the origin of terror is unknown, even though its perpetrators may not be among the despairing of the world.

There are good reasons why these scenes of desolation should be swept from the map. For here, economic processes are made highly visible, tangible even - processes which remain opaque in more decorous parts of global society. You can see the real economic miracle of globalization, which is that wealth trickles uphill from poor to rich; the cash-flow which lodges so briefly in the skinny hands of poor people and wings its way back to its rightful owners. In Topsia, the suppliers of drugs, the mafias and dealers in black money, the bureaucrats, politicians and owners of the huts remain serene amidst the amoral supremacy of economic laws which prevail over all others, and to which people are, as in the most allegedly primitive societies, the daily human sacrifice.

Jeremy Seabrook is an author and journalist specialising in social, environmental and development issues. He has written over forty published books, and regularly writes for publications including The Guardian and the New Internationalist.

For more information on the event and STWR's publication, please visit www.sharing.org/megaslumming

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