David Harvey published his piece Right to the City in the New Left Review Issue of September-October 2008. Briefly, he describes the capitalist process and how the city has been the space for investing surplus capital. Specifically, this is done through the constant construction boom, be it housing or infrastructure creation. Harvey is suggesting that the global crises which has affected cities across the world (also because these cities were deeply implicated in the conditions that produced the crisis) is now offering an opportunity for the marginalized “classes” of the world to come together and take control of the “surpluses” which are generated at the expense of the cities. He proposes that if the marginalized people across the world were to unite, they could probably demand a human right to the city which goes beyond merely accessing individual urban resources. The right to the city involves re-creating ourselves in the process of re-creating our cities, in consonance with the higher values of equality and social justice.
The above is a very, very brief summary of Harvey’s article, as I read it. I have been thinking about this article for a while, especially Harvey’s ideas and his use of certain concepts like capital, labour, finance capital and markets, to arrive at some of the conclusions in the article and for elaborating some of the arguments that he is making against private property. Let me try to dissect this article bit by bit and present some of my ideas which have emerged from the fieldwork that I have been conducting in Bangalore and Mumbai and partially in Delhi.
I think that we are living in a time of change. This change often appears to be very sweeping, almost wiping off the ground beneath our feet (ground being both physical and symbolic). We are also living in a time where we are bombarded with information and as Prem Chandavarkar recently pointed out in a forum, we are unable to attend to all this information at once. We are somehow more inclined to attend to urgencies and crises. We are also living in a time when the change is brought about because of crises such that change and crises seem interchangeable. Hence, I suggest that the challenge before us is to attend to the change and crises in their most minute details.
The city is also no longer the same entity which we used think of fondly. I remember, not so long ago, when I was this wandering researcher in Mumbai who wrote about the city and its everyday life with a sense of passion and romance. And then came the construction boom, which Harvey refers to in his article, and we saw old built structures being razed to the ground, the mill lands converted into luxury apartments, and the springing up of shopping malls. It seemed like everything old about the city was rapidly being wiped off and the city was becoming this alien entity, or, as Harvey puts it, the space where surpluses of capital were being generated.
In this frenzied pace of change, the poor were being pushed out of the city, to its edges, almost being invisibilized. When thinking about the urban poor and the city, we either tend to veer towards the ‘social justice’ angle or we think of the poor as ‘illegal encroachers’ who occupy urban spaces and are then, under the restructuring of the city, given individual houses for free.
I want to suggest that in this frenzied and often violent pace of change (and crises), we pay attention to the way in which people are trying to access the city. When I say “accessing the city”, I mean establishing physical presence in the city, consolidating presence, and developing belongingness (to put it very crudely). Very often, as Asef Bayat has explained in the case of the urban poor in Iran, the urban poor access physical space in the city and other urban services, in very quiet, ordinary and subtle ways. Harvey’s idea of the revolution as a means of instituting “justice” emerges from a fixation with a city of the past and from an assumption of the “marginalized” and the “urban poor” as a homogenous, composite and harmonious community.
Let me bring here some of what I heard, saw, read and narrated to me during my fieldwork in Bombay in June-July this year. Certainly, in many areas that I visited, slum rehabilitation projects undertaken by the slum rehabilitation authority (SRA) and private builders were rampant. Just right then, many potential slum resettlement and housing projects were being rapidly stalled because of the excess of slum TDR in the property markets. To explain briefly, many builders look to buying Transfer of Development Right (TDR) certificates because it allows them to construct more floor space than is otherwise allowed by the regulations. TDR has been scarce and therefore highly valuable. In Bombay’s property markets this year, the market was over-flooded with slum TDR certificates which are sold by builders who provide “free housing” to the slum dwellers in lieu of excess TDR given to them by the government. I was struck by this development because it forced me to think about how value around land is created and how this value is never constant, even though it may appear fixed for a certain period of time. This incident provoked me to delve deeper and understand the social, political, cultural and economic relations that develop around land and property. These relations are emerging from time to time, sometimes deeply entrenched in power, sometimes radically transformed under moments of crises but always evolving because existing people are consolidating their positions and new entrants are coming in, changing the relations and the equations on the bases of which these relations were created.
The newspapers also at that time reported how the government of Maharashtra was offering higher TDR to builders who would rehabilitate slum dwellers residing on and around the Santacruz domestic airport land. I surveyed some of the slums in these areas and saw that slum dwellers residing in different parts of the area had formed cooperative societies by mobilizing an old law/rule which allows slum dwellers to negotiate with builders and also undertake self-development if they form cooperative societies. Does one capture this move in terms of “social movements” or “collective action” which is what Harvey would be prone to do? I argue that the language of “social movements” and “collective action” cannot be applied to this situation because despite the formation of cooperative societies, not all the slum dwellers were on equal par with each other. They had come together at a moment, whether their move had emerged from emergency or precaution or calculated action. If a builder were to come tomorrow and start negotiating with the individual cooperatives, there would likely emerge elements from within and from outside who would want to stake all kinds of claims over the land parcels. Thus, in a meeting where an organization was educating some of the slum dwellers about how to negotiate their re-housing terms with the builders, some of the women started mentioning how those residents who had established their dwellings after 1995 and after 2000 were using the re-housing opportunity to obtain documents that would help them consolidate their claims over the land. These women also spoke of the trust and mistrust that developed during the various phases of negotiations with the builders that produced strange forms of alliances and opposition between people of the same area. This shows how individuals and groups are plugging into crises to consolidate their claims in ways that are not apparent to those of us who theorize about their lives and actions.
I hold strong reservations against Harvey’s central idea of the “human right to the city”. I argue that this notion of a right closes/fails to recognize the multiple avenues and mediums by which people try to negotiate their access to the city. It is presumed that by granting a right, you streamline people’s access to the city. But the city is not a controllable entity. It is an evolving space. And this space evolves through the mobilization of graft and of circuitries of power, politics and the state that may not appear legitimate and righteous to those of us observing from the outside. Let me narrate here the final case to illustrate my point. I refer to “housing rights” which are supposed to ensure that the poor and the marginalized get secure and dignified housing space and access to land. Much has been written about the rehabilitation and resettlement of slum dwellers under the road development projects in Mumbai. The rehabilitation process and the quality of housing provided to the former slum dwellers have been criticized. What I found interesting in one of my visits to one such rehabilitation housing colonies was how people were using the space within the house and in the open areas within the colony to carry out various kinds of economic and commercial activities. In this case, slum dwellers were given a house, in a sense a clear “property” but that awarding of property – bounded, legal space – did not prevent the way in which the space was reconfigured by individuals and some groups. Some of the women in this colony began squatting on the streets to sell vegetables; they were reported against for violation of property regulations. The new leaders from the community, some of them “transformed” in interesting ways from their older avatars, began to negotiate with the municipality to let the women retain their access to the space and continue with their livelihoods. The language of housing rights is couched in two assumptions: one of a bounded, legal space which will guarantee security and second, the housing right imagines the house in terms of ownership and not in terms of tenancies. Land accessed in various ways by individual and groups is viewed as “insecure” – certainly, it is an insecure process, but if the avenues through which these persons can negotiate their multiple claims over the land are widened/kept open, then that insecurity can turn into a resource for the city.
I therefore contend that instead of conceptualizing access to the city in terms of rights, we think of how those spaces through which people develop belongingness towards the city and ownership of the city be examined. This can prove to be a resource to conceptualize urbanity and contemporary cities. The ghost of restructuring in Chinese cities, which is now being excavated and demystified, is daunting our imagination of what is going on in our cities. But what is really going on in our cities is much more than what meets the eye (or the mind’s eye). It is time to think of the city anew, not in terms of a city of some harmonious past which Harvey seems to romanticize!
[Apologies in advance for sounding diadactic!]