Slums as self-confrontation

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

Linked with Centre for the Study of Developing Societies CSDS, with Mumbai pavement dwellers finally get their homes, with Rethinking resettlement in Mumbai, with Women in Slums, an UN study, with 6 tough boys from Mumbai-slum locality, but also with Baghdad 2025, The Pentagon Solution to a Planet of Slums … ok, it’s 3 years ago, till then much water run under the bridge. Or not?

Published on Down to Earth, by Ashis Nandy, 14 April 2010.

Many 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 …

… Even by conservative estimates, one-fourth 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. (full text).

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

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