Making Over Slumbai

When I first heard of the Mumbai Project, a series of articles tracking the progress of various urban projects in the city in the Hindustan Times – one of India's main papers – I was pleasantly surprised to hear of citizen engagement in the city's development. Launched in 2007 and revisited these past two weeks, the feature follows issues like airport redevelopment, transport projects governance and other facets of “Mumbai’s makeover.”

It turned out, however, that the articles exclusively summarize the perspective of the upper classes, who demand that their streets are smooth, their airports efficient and their city "world class." Never mind that that the majority of Mumbai's residents – 55% of whom live in slums – would be calling for a toilet, clean water and a secure place to live, if given such a platform. This exercise in citizen engagement unflinchingly makes clear who counts as a citizen, whom the city's "makeover" is intended to serve — and who is in the way.

This bias is unambiguous in the December 22 feature, which examined why reconstruction of pavements had not proceeded apace: “The reason? It’s more like 5 lakh reasons – that’s how many encroachers are currently hogging your pedestrian space across the city… With nearly 5 lakh encroachers, including hawkers, having made the city’s footpaths their permanent home, pedestrians are left with no space to walk on.” The header states that, "Encroachments by hawkers, squatters continue to plague pedestrians.” Clearly, the important question for an investigative piece on this subject is why pedestrians are troubled, not why so many people lack proper homes or spaces from which to sell goods conveniently to those same passers-by. The article quotes a municipal engineer as saying, "We had a huge demand for better footpaths from...citizens.” It is clear that those families forced to squat on the pavements do not fall under this definition of "citizen."

In "Tug-of-War Clogs Loo Project" on December 16, the series highlighted stalls in a state project to construct public toilets due to conflict over whether corporate or community-based interests would build and manage the toilet blocks. While the state handed the project to community-based organizations, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) wants private firms to construct the 227 toilet blocks. The article focused exclusively on this agency's misguided aim of building "five-star toilets" at the expense of community-managed ones. R.A. Rajeev, Additional Municipal Commissioner at the BMC, is quoted as saying: "We do not want to present the city as ‘Slumbai’. We need to construct toilets in a manner that reflects the changing culture of the city." Considering that most of the city's population continue to live in slums, and that these are the people who most need public toilets, this statement is laughable. The fact that community-constructed and managed toilets are more sustainable, more affordable and better managed has been demonstrated in India. The article also neglects to mention the fact that Mumbai's regional development agency has separately embarked on a community-based sanitation scheme in partnership with one of the pioneers of community-managed toilet construction, based in Mumbai. In fact, they didn't interview a single community organization or anyone lacking a toilet.

On December 22, the series examined the progress of a project to revamp the city’s drainage system to reduce flooding. The header was: "Slums still crowd areas around city's 150-year old drains, and unmapped utilities snake underground, delaying ambitious plans for flood-free monsoons." Slum dwellers would probably like more than anyone for the city to address its flooding problems, which can prove fatally dangerous. Slum residents – who often inhabit low-lying and flood-prone areas, have structures that are least resistant to rain and flooding and have little money to rebuild their homes – are most vulnerable to flooding. This article paints slum dwellers as obstacles to the goal of flood reduction, instead of portraying them as citizens who would also benefit from the project and presenting slum improvement and flood reduction as two sides of the same development coin.

The tone of the Mumbai Project highlights the frequency with which infrastructural and beautification projects are formulated in a way that pins city development against the shelter and livelihoods of the poor. Poor people who live in cities in the developing world often carve out space for themselves to live and work in the crevices of the urban infrastructure – along railway tracks, near airport runways, near sewage drains, on city pavements – because these are available spaces to set up shelter in the absence of formal housing options or vacant land while remaining close to the central city. When infrastructural projects emerge, these communities thus seem to "get in the way."

Mumbai does need infrastructural improvement – for everyone's sake – but this should be part of an approach that understands infrastructural upgrading and housing options for poor people as part and parcel of the same mission.

Otherwise, a perspective that portrays the poor as obstacles to development leads to demolition for the purpose of transforming the city to fit the needs and aesthetics of the upper classes. In some cases this is feasible with pure force, and in other cases, as with those slum dwellers who can prove themselves eligible for resettlement under certain policies, eviction takes place under a defined procedure and people are relocated elsewhere. Although Mumbai is relatively progressive for resettling those who fall in the second category, and this could theoretically be a win-win solution if proper accommodation in serviced and well-connected locations is available, most resettlement sites are peripheral and threaten to become "vertical slums." In the end, this is still a way of clearing populations who are "in the way" out of central urban space in order to reshape the city for its high-end users.

(Images from the Hindustan Times and Beaten Paths).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for raising a very important issue here. I believe the profile of a city like Mumbai would benefit most from addressing the basic needs first. This is a long term and complex approach, but a very interesting one. It is a goal that would be remarkable to reach.