Housing Humanity, Building Locality
Today, housing for the poor, and especially for the urban poor, is intimately connected to processes that characterize the modern world: overcrowded megacities; complicated forms of taxation, credit and debt that exclude the poor and advantage the rich; legal structures that have evolved over the last three centuries to turn housing into property, which can be bought, sold and exchanged without regard to equity; political and governance systems that have made housing a pawn in high-order corruption, criminalization and political warfare. In many cities housing is a literal battlefield — from Gaza to Baghdad, from Harare to Beijing. So to create solutions to the housing problems of the urban poor requires us to negotiate an intricate web of social arrangements that connect politics, finance, crime, architecture, engineering and real estate.
But this was not always so. In the long story of the search for secure habitation, and as societies juggled between hunting and gathering, animal husbandry, farming, trade, conquest and other strategies for socio-economic organization, housing was not generally a matter of law, private property or speculative commoditization. Rather, housing was part of more informal processes in which human communities allocated their collective spatial resources. In some cases, hunters and gatherers simply cleared land and built settlements with quasi-private shelter for families or other kinship units; in the case of nomadic communities, houses were temporary, and located along pastoral and seasonal routes. And in the case of peasant communities, although housing tended to be more elaborate and durable, it was nevertheless rarely associated with cash, taxation or legal documentation, except at the level of whole communities or groups (such as castes or clans in India).
These observations are relevant not just for historians and students of human evolution and cultural development. Many of these forms of housing and community are with us still, throughout the developing world. In India, my own country, hill- and forest-dwelling groups still struggle to maintain their ways of life and material environments in the face of agriculture, big dams, commercial forestry and police repression. Similar struggles are happening in Southeast Asia, Latin America and Africa, which have inspired the rise of activist movements and networks linking indigenous groups across the world. In fact diverse social groups — from Brazil to Ireland, Italy to Malaysia — face the destruction not only of their habitats and livelihoods but also their communities; anthropologists are carefully studying how housing forms and structures reflect and enact core values about life and death, gender and reproduction, man and the cosmos, animals and humans, and other fundamental matters that give meaning to human communities.
These anthropological studies are not invitations to nostalgia, but rather living testament to the ways in which housing, habitation and home are deeply related ideas. Whenever and wherever human beings find forms in which to build shelter, they are not only seeking protection from the elements, safety from predators, and privacy from the gaze of strangers; they are also marking the very meaning of their humanity in the materials of grass and thatch, bamboo and stone, mud and brick, wood and clay. The range of housing forms in human history, and around the world today, underscores the intimate connections between family life, design, cosmology and the social imagination. These connections do not require wealth, stability or security to achieve their force; even homes created amidst chaos, in the face of ecological disaster or political holocaust, never cease to carry a trace of the need to expand the meaning of humanity. Philosophers like Martin Heidegger and Emmanuel Lévinas have recognized the importance of ideas such as “dwelling” and “habitation” in the struggle to craft humanity, but they have not always been sufficiently literal in their theories. In my own earlier work, I have argued that the local is not merely an inert canvas upon which the moving space of globalization is painted, but is itself is a constant and laborious work in progress, so that the production of locality is a fundamental and never-completed site of human action. 1
In fact, it is not only in the housing forms of the Shona or the Kwazulu — or the Inuit or the Maori or the Navajo — that we can see humans reaching toward material ways of organizing their most intimate possessions, relations, and resources in this constant work of producing locality. We see this also in the humblest of slum dwellings. In the favelas of Brazil, as the anthropologist James Holston has shown, slum dwellers choose and arrange the materials of their housing with highly specific aesthetics, which reflect more than the mechanical or instrumental use of whatever is at hand. 2 Pavement dwellers in India arrange their meager possessions in a manner that amplifies their claims to family life, social respectability and personal dignity. We know that residents of the townships of South Africa persist in the struggle to make their homes places of order, both real and aspirational, where small businesses, domestic life, and the entertainment of guests can happen with regularity and respectability.
The deep significance of housing lies thus in its intimate connection to dwelling, dignity and the cultural design of physical intimacy; housing provides the link between kinship, reproduction and shelter. It is where even the poorest of humans can connect shelter with their humanity. It is on this foundation that the struggle for secure housing today must be placed.
Insecurity and Bare Citizenship
The predicament of the urban poor today requires us to step back from the relatively recent frameworks of public policy and urban studies and to consider poverty from a more fundamental viewpoint. Contemporary understandings of poverty and the poor are closely connected with the emergence of demography, development studies, and 20th-century applications of census techniques; one result is that poverty has come to be seen largely as a result of failed policies, and the poor, especially in cities, have come to be viewed as an impersonal mass, a statistical aberration, a disease of numbers. Thus in the past couple of centuries, the age-old condition of poverty has moved conceptually from the space of ethics to the space of technology and public policy.
Before this great transformation, however, poverty was not understood as a statistical or political fact; in many pre-modern societies, the fact of poverty did not in itself disqualify an individual (or a group) from possessing the moral power to contest those in authority, and to claim charity and generosity from those more fortunate. In the great religious traditions, poverty was often associated with purity and asceticism, with virtue and even power. So we have here a paradox. Before the liberal presumption of equality — the quality of all before the law and the state — the poor may have lacked in political voice and suffered political exploitation. But their humanity was not in question. With the triumph of liberal democratic ideals in the West — and with the spread of the concept of “the people” as a global fact that has united liberal, socialist and fascist polities in the 20th century — poverty has increasingly become an outgrowth of measurement, and the poor have increasingly become what we might call “bare citizens.”
Here I am recalling the work of the contemporary philosopher Giorgio Agamben, who argues for the distinction between bare life (zoe) and political life (bios). Agamben develops this distinction in his discussion of the prisoners now being held by the U.S. military at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base; the prisoners, or “detainees,” have been placed in a state of exception, reduced to the condition of “bare life.” 3 And Agamben in turn is building upon an earlier idea; in her 1951 classic The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt articulated the powerful concept of “naked life.” Reflecting upon the experience of prisoners in the Nazi death camps and also upon the status of mid 20th-century political refugees, Arendt argued that both groups had in effect lost all rights in the context of sovereign powers; they had become naked.
I would argue that large masses of the urban poor have been pushed into this state of bare citizenship. They have become to a pathetic extent invisible in the eyes of the law, stripped of rights and privileges — and as such similar in status to refugees, war prisoners and illegal aliens. If this seems an extreme characterization, I would draw your attention to the alarming frequency and scale of slum evictions and demolitions throughout the world. And I would also draw broader attention to a whole range of gross violations of human rights that have largely escaped the notice of activists, politicians, and human rights experts, beyond those who specialize in the problems of the urban poor.
Let me begin with India, which promotes itself as the world’s largest democracy, which proudly advertises its massive growth rates, which aggressively competes with China for leadership in Asia, and which is now both a massive market for globally produced consumer goods and a formidable player in international high-tech and software industries. Even more to the point, India is now a favored target of multinational real estate developers, speculators and architects, who are busily constructing offices, shopping malls and apartment buildings for the growing ranks of the middle and upper classes. To be sure, because of India’s reputation for bureaucratic corruption and infrastructural deficiencies, global interests have been somewhat ambivalent; but the real obstacle to the opening of India’s markets to diverse global investment is the ubiquitous presence of India’s poor, who are perceived as a blight on urban landscapes, a drain on public resources, a clog in the infrastructure and a drag on efficiency. Each of these perceptions is highly contestable, and taken together they constitute an anti-poor sentiment and mentality that amounts to a quasi-racist ideology.
This prejudice is rarely articulated outright because of India’s constitutional commitment to the need for alleviating poverty, correcting historical damage to weaker social groups, and moving the poor not only into the electorate but also into equitable forms of wealth-sharing and political participation. The Indian state has substantially failed to fulfill these quasi-socialist aspirations; the current government has been far more successful in encouraging massive liberalization and wealth creation. But the poor cannot be totally ignored; their votes do count in India’s regular elections at all levels, from wards and municipalities to regional legislatures and the national parliament. Much populist lip service is thus paid to the poor, especially at election time; but their power and voice in matters of daily life and security, and in access to resources and opportunities, is negligible. But what is not negligible — what is unquestionable — is the hostile record of the Indian state with regard to its slum dwellers, which is unmatched anywhere.
And there is a deeper and broader issue to consider when we review the worldwide data on evictions and demolitions — on violence against the urban poor as a tactic of state terror. These statistics on insecure housing are in fact less revealing than they seem, for they do not include the large populations of illegal migrants within and across societies, including the many internally displaced persons, refugees and forcibly relocated citizens such as those in the path of the Three Gorges Dam in China. 4
Clearly the problem of inadequate, insecure, temporary, dangerous or unhealthy housing (or no housing at all) extends far beyond the scope of urban planning, architecture or municipal authority. It is a product of today’s unholy mix of warfare, real estate markets, poorly enforced housing laws, runaway technological disruptions and, above all, a wholesale failure to implement human rights laws. In other words, insecure housing is a lens into fundamental crises of the current world system, which make it impossible to guarantee the simplest protections to the most vulnerable populations in locations as different as Sudan, Brazil, South Africa, India and Cambodia. And longstanding “squatter settlements,” in megacities such as Mumbai, Delhi, Mexico City, Harare, Lagos and Bangkok, to name just a few, spotlight an even larger failure in the zone where development and global economic transfers meet humanitarian laws and democratic constitutions. 5 This can be considered a colossal crime against humanity, whose perpetrators cannot be easily identified and prosecuted because they are so varied, so protean and so interconnected with routine procedures of the law and the marketplace.
Given the extraordinary scope of the forces that produce insecure housing or no housing, for so many people, we need to reexamine the basic links between housing, citizenship and dignity. It is easy enough to see that “bare citizenship” makes a mockery of most constitutional documents and governmental claims to honor housing as a basic human right. For if citizenship is seen as an active and dynamic condition and not merely as a passive belonging to a territory, an ethnos or a polity, then the bare citizenship of insecure housing is not merely a deficit; it is inherently unstable, volatile and ephemeral. If you cannot be sure about the walls that separate your intimate sphere from the wider world and about the roof that protects you from the elements, then the physical basis for citizenship — understood as a series of spatial activities — is highly circumscribed.
The relationship between urban space and citizenship is intricate and multilayered. 6 Many cities allocate access to rationed foods, energy and sanitary facilities on the basis of some type of identity card that requires a governmentally recognized address. Lacking such an address, slum dwellers and other bare citizens become relegated to what in Francophone Africa is called a population flottante — a floating population. Employment, too, is affected; most employers like to know where their employees live, for the purposes of monitoring and reliability. The many “toilers” of megacities — i.e., those who labor in casual and seasonal jobs such as scavenging, the physical lifting and moving of goods, emergency infrastructure projects, time-bound construction projects, and so on — depend upon timely information about work opportunities, which in turn depends upon employers having reliable information about where to find job-seekers. 7 For middle-class professionals, the home is the stable basis for their lives as citizens and employees. For the urban poor, this location is unstable and dispersed, which endangers their access not only to jobs but also to essential services from police to sewage to flooding protection. And more: political parties deliver their patronage services in exchange for electoral promises from settlements of squatters; so even this quasi-corrupt participation in political life is threatened by displacement, eviction or demolition. The poor and ill-housed face further indignities with regard to social capital and cultural credibility: They lose the capacity for domestic hospitality, for hosting friends and kinsmen, which further erodes weak social ties and limits the vital social networking that can lead to job opportunities and marriage prospects. 8
In essence, then, secure housing is the bridge between political citizenship and social citizenship; it provides the stability that allows us to engage in the dynamic actions and transactions that constitute citizenship as an ongoing process and not simply a statistical fact. In big cities, the flow of information, the evolution of social relationships, the relocation of places of work and worship, the shifting dynamics of informal markets, the vagaries of weather and seasonality: all of these are inevitably volatile. But these external volatilities become a double nightmare for those whose housing is uncertain and under threat.
Human Waste and Waste Humans
Fortunately, we face the manifold problems of insecure housing armed with serious ideas and strategies based on hope. Here I wish to refer, briefly, to the ideas and possibilities that have occurred to me in the course of years of collaborative advocacy-based research with several organizations, especially Shack/Slum Dwellers International (SDI), an NGO based in Cape Town, and its Mumbai-based partners, in particular SPARC, the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres; the National Slum Dweller’s Federation (NSDF); and Mahila Milan, a decentralized collective of women’s groups.
In recent decades this alliance of community-based activists has captured the attention of city, regional and federal governments worldwide, and also collaborated creatively with multinational funding agencies, private local donors and like-minded activists at every level. It has helped to catalyze fragmented slum communities to share experiences and develop cross-national learning strategies; to balance resistance to demolitions and evictions with reasoned collaborations with the state; to increase their capacity to build their own finances and expand construction and housing-design skills; and to extend their clout with local politicians and administrators without falling prey to corrupt politicians. At the same time, SDI and its affiliates have worked to resist efforts by local governments to push slum dwellers out of increasingly valuable real estate, which is coveted by global developers, speculators, and their hired architects and planners, and they have developed local strategies for securing housing rights in such volatile cities as Mumbai, Nairobi and Phnom Penh.
The recent struggles over urban development and real estate exploitation in the famous mega-slum of Dharavi highlight the complexities of resisting the forces of global capital and housing speculation. 9 Here in this massive squatter city, Shack/Slum Dwellers International and its Indian partners have joined with other community-based organizations in a remarkable struggle to resist the displacement of about one million residents, and have succeeded in halting at least temporarily a powerful consortium of state and city forces and local and global housing moguls, who want to seize control of the land, which is valued at about $1,500/square foot, for the price of about $150/square foot, and to do so with little planning for where the displaced people might be re-settled or re-employed. In New York or London or Paris, this kind of land grab — involving the potential destitution of hundreds of thousands of people, and the devastation of hundreds of businesses and numerous occupational, linguistic and religious communities, some of whom have lived in this part of Mumbai before the rest of the city even existed — would have incited a social revolution.
The struggle over Dharavi has special significance because it is estimated that approximately 50 percent of Mumbai’s population of 15 million is composed of slum, squatter or informal shanty communities, which exist in the shadow of the office towers, shopping malls and flyover highways of a metropolis that aspires to be India’s equivalent of Shanghai. 10 Constructed over the span of almost a century, the settlement today has an array of housing types, alleys and pathways, spaces for work, leisure and worship, all created in the absence of full municipal recognition, or legal security, or good infrastructure for sanitation, water and power. I would argue that here we see in action the ideas about dwelling-through-building and building-through-dwelling articulated by Heidegger and Lévinas with regard the metaphysics of human life — the value of being at home in the world, and of resisting the “enframing” of exploitative technologies.
To be sure, contemporary Dharavi is a far cry from the images of peasant homes in the German countryside that Heidegger used to exemplify the metaphysics of dwelling. Dharavi, which occupies about 0.67 square miles, is located on the marshy lowlands that settlers from many parts of India made habitable by infilling with garbage and non-perishable waste. Here, as in similar settlements around the globe, living in trash has become the basis of scavenging and recycling economies — in essence, the imaginative reuse of the waste materials of middle-class consumption and the byproducts of industries from leather and glass to paper and clay. Dharavi thus fits into a global network of cities of disposal, such as Payatas in Manila, and Victoria Island in Lagos. And though these communities face many daily hazards, the hardest burden of all is that they have come to be regarded as themselves disposable, degradable and recyclable.
Patience, Risk and Hope
The efforts to save Dharavi for those who have struggled to make it habitable — for the settlers who have transformed a landscape of waste into a landscape of dwelling — illuminate the remarkable diversity, the rich cultural histories, the complex contributions to the urban economy, and the capacity for internal governance that now characterize such cities of disposal. In recent years nothing less than a genuine social movement has emerged in Dharavi, marked by community-organized censuses, peaceful public marches, strong collaborations between local NGOs and local communities, and most remarkably, considerable cooperation among political parties who are usually at each other’s throats. I have even witnessed, in the office of the National Slum Dweller’s Federation, an informal meeting between representatives of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Communist Party, and the ruling Congress Party, who gathered to negotiate resistance strategies with Jockin Arputham, the head of both the NSDF and the SDI.
Here a practical history of communities built on linking building-with-dwelling, in the harsh conditions of bare citizenship and in the material context of cities of disposal, tells us that human waste need not imply wasted humans. Indeed, as the residents of Dharavi mobilize to resist the argument of their superfluity — the sustained campaign to convert their painstakingly achieved settlements into commoditized real estate — they also make it impossible for the state and the market to treat them as disposable. Yet such efforts to resist eviction, commodification and demolition are not always successful; often they do not even register for a wider global public. All such campaigns to claim permanence in the face of the temporary and dignity in the face of disposability — to claim full citizenship — are thus exercises in nurturing what I call “the capacity to aspire” — a navigational capacity through which the poor can redefine the terms of trade between recognition and redistribution, and through confrontation and negotiation with political and economic powers show their ability to construct collective hope. Such efforts themselves build upon strategies that have been nurtured for decades by community-based housing activists. One strategy, especially relevant to the politics of hope, is to be found in how these communities oppose the politics of catastrophe, exception and emergency with their own politics, which is frequently the politics of patience — or more accurately, the politics of waiting.
When the unhoused or underhoused millions in Mumbai — or Delhi or Calcutta or Capetown or Johannesburg or Durban — mobilize to demand better housing, they know they will endure an unknown period of waiting: waiting for policymakers to agree on a plan, for funders to shake up the complacency of local and national governments, for builders and contractors to construct new housing, for their own turn at the head of the queue. In most cases, families and communities must prepare to wait years, even decades. Which in turn requires them to learn to regard their own temporary dwellings as parts of a temporary condition which is sure to change. Such patience, such waiting, is always heroic; especially when the threat of rapacious real estate development as well as state-sponsored demolition creates an atmosphere of uncertainty. But here is the difference between hoping and dreaming; hoping for change in this context requires a serious dialogue between the pressures of catastrophe and the discipline of patience. Politically organized hope thus produces in bare citizens the internal resources to see themselves as active participants in the arduous process of waiting; it converts the passive “waiting for” into the active “waiting to”: waiting to make the next move in the queue and ultimately to claim the full rights of citizenship.
There is yet another strategy important to this politics of hope: precedent setting, which has become a carefully refined strategy of Shack/Slum Dwellers International and its Indian network; as the name suggests, it is the persistent effort to persuade various entities with power over slum residents — governments, funders, housing agencies, bankers, architects, etc. — to engage in collaborative exercises that will establish useful precedents. A precedent might involve asking a slum resident to give a speech at a major political rally; giving a contract for constructing a community toilet to a local slum organization rather than to an outsider; arranging for a mayor, housing bureaucrat, or police official to participate in public events or processes organized by slum dwellers; designing an unconventional loan to a savings group within a slum community. In these cases — and myriad others — the setting of a precedent does not require any traditional legal or administrative machinery or process. Rather, it requires the creation of an ethos of trust and joint risk-taking, in which slum dwellers and various powerful individuals and agencies learn how to share and distribute risk where mutual interests are concerned. Given that slum dwellers are bare citizens, such precedent-setting actions are critical resources in their efforts to enter the space and master the culture of legal and bureaucratic processes; and as the roster of precedents grows, and the effects are multiplied, there also develops a social infrastructure that fortifies the politics of hope, and eases the period of waiting.