Claims and Space – Thoughts from the Feet

Bombay – 400 001.

Clean footpaths,
Spic and span,
Bombay – 400 001.

No hindrances,
Bombay – 400 001.

But vendors operate,
With their plastic thelas,
Wrapping up the bright blue plastic,
And running away with their wares when the municipality van comes around,
Bombay – 400 001.

“Three to four times a day,
the van comes,
these days.
Have to watch out
And then …
Bhag bhag bhag, abe bhag, gaadi aa gayi”
Bombay – 400 001.

“Is that not ruthless?
Three to four times a day?
What do they get by denying people the right to earn a decent living?”
Bombay – 400 001.

“Traditionally, citizenship has always been linked with property,
And more so in the recent times,
When you are a valid citizen only if you are own property,
And all those encroaching space are violators of the law,”
Bombay – 400 001.

“Wow, this area is all quiet, all empty,
and what time of the evening is it?
Only 7 PM?
The vendors would shut down at 9 and go back to their homes!”
Bombay – 400 001.

“But I remember,
When I was working here,
A decade ago,
There used to be these hutments on the footpath,
And we would come down in the afternoons,
And during the slack evening hours,
To watch TV,
Because the pavement dwellers were the only ones who had a public television!”
Bombay – 400 001.

And we walked,
“Hey, look there!
The TV is still there,
Exactly there!
Just where it used to be,
Ten years ago!”
Bombay – 400 001.

And then as we walked further,
“And look there,
Can you see the squatters?
Their shanty homes still there,
In that walled little compound,
They used to be there when I was working in this area,”
Bombay – 400 001.

Hidden, yet evident
Those shanty hutments!
How people access the city?
How people make their claims,
On space,
To determine their livelihoods?
Political society – civil society …
Yakka yakka do!
Bombay – 400 001.

So what happens when a space is cleaned of its numerous claimants,
And clear owners of property are established?
Are the contests completely removed?
Does the space become irreversible?
Does clear, titled ownership reign supreme?
Bombay – 400 001.

8 thoughts on “Claims and Space – Thoughts from the Feet”

  1. Excellent post. Reminds me of a book I read – Life, Liberty and Livelihood by Parth Shah and Naveen Mandva about the tough life of street sellers.

  2. Dear Gaurav,

    Thanks for the comment. I have not read Parth and Naveen’s work on livelihood. But the question that I was trying to raise through this post was that how are the many different ways through which people hold on to the spaces that they claim? How is it that hawkers in Fort area are under attack while the pavement dwellers and the hidden but evident shanties have remained there for a decade or even longer?

    The other thought that I have been having is that De Soto suggests that clear titles should be given to the street vendors but the question is that not everyone among the “urban poor” (which you would know is a not at all a homogeneous category) can afford property and all occupied spaces are not equal. A visit to the slum makes it evident that those who have houses/dwellings near the main roads are the older and much better off occupants and have stronger political connections and bargaining powers. People living in the interiors or the newly occupied areas live in different conditions than others around and their networks also differ.

    The question is that on the one hand, there is a move to evict “the poor” (for lack of a better term now) by the builder lobbies in Bombay, by various higher levels of authorities and by many different interests. And the attempt is to create clear ownership and title deeds. But is this establishment of a property regime irreversible? What happens when a space is locked and converted into property with clear ownership and legal documents? Does it mean that the propertied space becomes contests-free and that this space is now permanently fixed?

    Just some random thoughts …

  3. Zainab, from the little that I have seen of your posts here and elsewhere, I am getting the sense that often you use the word ‘space’ but you actually mean ‘place’. At least, it seems as if you dont make a clear distinction between the two. It is not an easy distinction to make through a simple listing of attributes. But perhaps you will find this website useful
    Other than this, for a quick read – Doreen Massey’s ‘Power geometry and progressive sense of place’ – and Harvey’s from space to place and back both published in Bird et al 1993 Mapping the futures; and Escobar’s Culture sits in places – are important basic readings. Escobar’s essay is interesting because it does an exhaustive review of different takes on place to talk about the role of ‘place’ in subaltern struggles against corporate capital.

  4. How is it that hawkers in Fort area are under attack while the pavement dwellers and the hidden but evident shanties have remained there for a decade or even longer?

    Maybe because hawkers are way short of the critical mass necessary to be electorally important? They are in numbers which are too small to profitably pander to.

    What happens when a space is locked and converted into property with clear ownership and legal documents? Does it mean that the propertied space becomes contests-free and that this space is now permanently fixed?

    I am not sure I understand this question. It will become “contests free” and “permanently fixed” in the sense that there will be one clear owner for each space according to the title. But it will not become contests-free in the sense that no one else will desire to own it.

    At least owners will theoretically have legal recourse if they are being forcibly evicted or harassed. But given Bombay’s overloaded and creaky courts, as well as morally malleable legal enforcement system, I don’t know how far it will improve things. Still, it will be better than the status quo.

  5. […] The other thought that I have been having is that De Soto suggests that clear titles should be given to the street vendors[…]

    desoto has sold bad ideas. But when did he sell this recipe for blood bath ? Clear titles for street vendors ??!!

  6. Dear Gaurav,

    I think it would be pretty one dimensional and also somewhat short sighted to suggest that because the hawkers are not electorally important/they don’t have a critical mass/are not a significant vote bank and therefore they are being moved. I met someone the other day who mentioned to me that of the 7,000 hawkers in ‘A’ ward in Mumbai, only 2,000 are remaining now.

    Why is it that the hawkers are being evicted? John Cross’s work on the street vendors in Mexico is very insightful because Cross highlights across a time span of how hawkers were able to retain their space in certain regimes and in certain other times, they were forcibly moved out. Thus, when Mexico signed the NAFTA agreement, it was found that the street vendors in Mexico City were systematically targetted and were attempted to be removed. Further, when the mayoral regime changed and there was a change in the local municipal system, the street vendors were evicted in that time and when the mayor was moved out, they were able to reclaim their vending spaces.

    Currently in Bombay, the entire municipal administration is under the control of the state government which makes it difficult for those hawkers who may not have a strong enough lobby to reach out to and influence the state government. It is also likely that the hawkers are moving out of the A ward under pressure and going elsewhere. I have no idea of this movement pattern so far, so can’t say anything substantially.

    The other day, someone who was talking to me also mentioned how hawkers are a floating population and especially the women, who you may not even notice because they come at some odd hours in the morning and go away after 3-4 hours of vending.

    What I am intrigued by is the ways by which different groups of hawkers, big/small, based on sectarian/regional/ethnic lines, etc. organize themselves and on many occasions, there are splits and divides even within this organization. Thus, the other day, I was chatting with a woman hawker who now has an established stall in a posh market area in the main city area and she was genuinely working for the welfare of other women hawkers in other parts of the city. But when a man came and sat close to her stall and began selling samosas on the street, she got hold of some of the main guys in the area and said how they should move this samosa selling street vendor because it affects her food stall. Property ownership, ways by which people access land for various purposes and access the same piece of land at different times in the day and claim it on various grounds, I find all this critical to understand before one comes up with any one solution/conclusion. Currently, the advocacy of hawker stalls and plazas is equally problematic because it means that only certain hawkers will have access to the space in the plazas and perhaps the ones to lose out most will be the women hawkers who vend for only a few hours in the day.

    This brings me to the second comment/thought which I have been struggling to articulate properly is whether the practice of clearing out a piece of land off all its claimants and then enabling individuals to buy shares in them by means of land titles/deeds/ownership documents – does this practice of ownership make that piece of land forever inaccessible to anyone other than the owner? While we may think that the legal document is some safeguard against the law, the state can tomorrow come and take away the land under the eminent domain principle and the land acquisition laws. How then does the legal document protect you forever?

    Right now, across Mumbai, all I notice is the construction of large residential projects and malls and all of these are parcels of land which have been attained through various forms of politics and graft. Do those people who had claims over the land and had to move out/chose to move out, do those people give up their claims over that material piece of land forever? And does that land now become locked via ownership? Can that land ever be reclaimed tomorrow?

  7. Anant hi,

    Sorry, I was referring from (perhaps erroneously) De Soto’s book called “The Other Path” where the clear titling “solution” was suggested with reference to 3 trades/occupations in Lima – “informal” street vending, “informal” private transport” and “informal” housing.

  8. Zainab, I browsed through this book a long time ago so I cannot recall. But my guess would be that Desoto recommends clear title as crucial for housing on the ground that this will result in greater access to credit and leads to a proliferation of wealth producing activities. This is not just about housing, in general the extreme degree of bureaucratic control whether it be on trade or transport or housing – the license raj if you will which leaves most people to operate ‘illegally’ and in the process facilitates rent extraction by government officials – inspector raj if you will and of course local exploitation by powerful people.

    In Peru at a certain point of time, in a certain place – some areas of Lima city to be specific, de soto’s arguments were all important and represented greater degree of freedom for actors in the informal sector. Think about it – if you were in a joint family and your bank asks for collateral to give you a loan so that you can start your own enterprise, you would consider dividing up the family holding into parts on which each one will have exclusive ownership.

    It is when he moves from this to theorizing it that desoto starts talking poppycock. Theoretically, the answer to the question you are raising – what happens when boundaries are fixed is simple. The piece of land whose boundaries are fixed but encoded in a title deed that is recognized by law – begins to live a double life. One as a piece of land on which you live, or work of play – ‘use value’ and the other as something that can be exchanged for something equivalent through the common currency of money – ‘exchange value’.

    The point here is not that people without clear titles do not exchange land for money. Close studies of urban slums in different cities have documented dozens of ways in which these exchanges are done. If you look for it you will find notarized documents for sale of lands worth hundreds of thousands. No registration fee, no question of getting a no encumbrance certificates, no nothing. You could mortgage, you could give it in dowry. You could get it for free or for doing small favors like eves dropping on trouble makers and reporting to the slum leaders…or a widow could get it for free because the local pehelwan was told by his ustad that he should always look out for women who are vulnerable. And the woman’s right to use that land and even mortgage it to a neighbor remains unchallenged so long as the pehelwan’s influence remains intact.

    These local, complicated, ethicomoral frameworks some times work for some people and at other times they can be quite oppressive for some – imagine a young unemployed male who wants to buy an autorickshaw but cannot get credit because while he has a house to live in, the monetary value of that house is entangled in local transactions (which some times may even involve governmental sanctions – such as family books and pattas and so on). No bank will accept it as a collateral and the local neighborhood simply cannot raise the kind of finance that he needs. But on the whole, one could argue that it should remain that way. I am using the pronoun ‘he’ deliberately here – although there is a complex and contentious gender dynamic to this.

    The flip side of this though is that when there is a legally recognizable title, land in its life as exchange value can symbolically travel through space. It becomes possible to speculate on it and thus it travels through time too. (Land is a peculiar creature right ? It does not do anything by itself. But it accrues rent by virtue of its location amidst other things. A sewer filled ditch that nobody but the poorest had any use for may suddenly become worth crores because a new multiplex cinema has come up in its vicinity.)

    De soto’s argument is simply that titling, legally enforceable rights and entitlements such as registration of businesses (for vendors or for transport operators) etc., unleashes forces that can generate wealth through better access to credit and expanded possibilities for the entreprenuership of the poor.

    This entrepreneuership of the poor is not a new discovery by de soto.
    John Turner, the British architect best known as the advocate of aided self help housing solution worked in Lima in the early 60s- the same city in Peru where Desoto is based. In simple terms, he argued that the poor are very creative in solving their problems. Governments should not attempt what they are not good at. Let the poor build their own homes. Just give them an enabling environment – critical inputs such as loans and technical and administrative assistance at different stages of housebuilding and providing public infrastructures- …

    This recipe was picked up by international development agencies and also many national governments (you will see evidence of it in many slums in India). These governments took this advice for their own reasons. Aided self help is not necessarily a panacea for the housing problem. But while it lasted it was talked about as one by everyone. It is the same with this titling business. There is much talk about it.

    On the ground, I dont believe that this is going to be so simple. Not only do we now have evidence from many Latin American countries that the story is much more complex. Clear titling leads an explosion of transactions that are not easy to even track. And of course there is the issue that Gaurav pointed out – titling is no guarantee that there will be no contestation. Gaurav seems to think that this is only because our courts are not effective.

    The truth is that titles by themselves do not protect physical boundaries. If that were so there would be no need for guard dogs, watchmen and electric fences. Boundaries of property must always be policed. But that is not what De soto is claiming. What he is saying is that the title simply provides a set of rules that do not depend on local moral, economic political sensibilities and hence it becomes possible for it to become collateral for loans from formal financial institutions.

    And on that last point – we dont need to exercise ourselves. Here is an IMF economist doing it for us. :)

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