“They (the government officials) make properly documented ‘ineligible’, find faults, and even undocumented ‘eligible’. We have to prove our eligibility. They make us realize the value of housing”, explained my interlocutor in India’s Mumbai.
We live in an urban world. A recent United Nations report notes that 7 out of 10 urbanites are from developing countries, mostly Asian, making it an ‘Asian urban Century’.[i] However, almost three-fifths of the world’s slum population will be from Asian cities in the coming years. We notice these slums everywhere, from Harare to Beijing, Rio to Mexico, Cairo to Durban, Sao Paulo to Kuala Lumpur, Dhaka to Mumbai. ‘Slums,’ the catch-all term of urban informality globally, locally called jhōpaḍapaṭṭī, acquires over 8% of Mumbai’s land and houses up to half of the city’s 22 million population. Forces of aesthetic cultures, capitalist dispossession, ethnic violence, environmental loss, climate risks, amongst others, have positioned slums at the centre of academic and popular discussion. They are the ambiguous sites of burgeoning inequality and deprivation, yet also of hope for equitable futures.
This essay describes certain promises and perils of documents in the lives of the slum poor in India’s metropolis, Mumbai. Essays in this Issue of Shuddhashar centralize the roles and powers of documents (and the lack of ‘proper’ documents). In parallel, this essay highlights two short stories to show how the power of documents shapes subaltern lives. With it, my idea is not to reproduce insights from political theories or popular discussion, but to dissect the dichotomous dis/possession of documents around which urban poor’s lives are organised. While the state institutions are required to protect and care about its documented population, I alternatively show how becoming documented is a continuous process that engenders bi-fold effects: conditional inclusion and widespread precarity. In doing so, I locate certain paradoxes of the documents and institutional processes of making populations legible where possession of documents, like their absolute lack, might also have dispossessive effects.
My focus is on Mumbai’s resettlement programs. The questions of slum habitability have defined its governance. The city’s Slum Act sees ‘slum areas’ as sources of danger to health, culture, and morale. In the post-colonial decades, slums were mostly cleared (1950-60s), improved (1970-80s), and now rehabilitated (1990s). In the era of neoliberal capitalism, the Slum Act renders slum areas an entity that could be cleared and redeveloped.[ii]
Across these socio-political changes, what has remained central is the question of slum dwellers’ ‘legibility’ – of having and being able to present ‘acceptable’ documents – to urbanity. The legibility of slum dwellers is conditional to the city’s poor-exclusive cut-off date’ (presently January 1, 2000) verified through voter-id card, ration card, land receipts, amongst other documents. Legibility allows access to basic amenities and state-led services. In short, it is the power of the documents that makes the poor’s stay legible. Simultaneously, it is the power of documents that make the poor’s demand of services relevant, their negotiation for entitlements fruitful, and their political subjecthood worthy. However, unlike the western socio-political vocabulary of social and political citizenship and urban rights, the urban poor in southern metropolises remain subjects of governance. The Slum Resettlement Scheme (SRS) is a new policy that guarantees the evicted poor the right to legibility, inclusion, and participation in urban rehousing. Below, I document two uneven histories of such processes.
The Transit Camps
Mumbai introduced the World Bank-supported massive infrastructure development projects during the 2000s. The project included suburban railway and highway expansion. It promised an efficient and sustainable transport system and to enhance the quality of urban life. The city government reworked the SRS and empanelled an urban NGO to undertake massive resettlements. These projects made Mumbai the city with maximum internal displacement, as over 200,000 people were displaced. Only over half of these displaced people were resettled. Others were disqualified, as ‘undocumented’. Some migrated elsewhere, others pushed to peripheries, yet others were reabsorbed in informal and even illegal city spaces like slums. These undocumented lives are untraceable and forgotten in the triumphant brutality of city-remaking.
However, despite the earlier spate of uncompensated and violent slum eviction, a new hope of inclusion, participation, and urban belonging emerged. The communities, with support from NGOs, conducted community surveys, cadastral, and resource mapping and formalized their stay through identity and housing documents. Academic and public scholarship has widely praised the state-market-civil society alliance. Scholars rightly imagined this phenomenon – in Mumbai and globally – as a deepening of democratic values for the otherwise invisible poor.[iii]
I wish to briefly share a missing and forgotten story of how these developments compromised with the promises of documents that guaranteed legibility and inclusion. The state institutions and the NGO (called SPARC) undertook massive resettlements. SPARC or the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centers was the leading organization in urban resettlements in Indian cities, and a partner with global alliances like the Shack Dwellers International. The organization also temporarily shifted the slum poor from the citywide project sites to what is called the ‘Transit camps’. Two of the camps were in Kokari Agar (F-North ward) and Mandala (M-East ward). These urban camps became institutional sites of experiments that made urban populations governable. In Kokari Agar, as my research shows, the NGO transferred the evicted families and randomly allocated ‘transit’ single-room (10×10 feet) with shared utilities and perilous living conditions.[iv] During the years of stay in the transit camps, the NGO workers with community leaders disciplined the resettlement subjects to maintain basic services, start community-based savings, pay maintenance charges, amongst other everyday responsibilities. New neoliberal community, of atomized families delinked and re-formed from erstwhile subaltern community, performed these practices in order to seek formal housing. Although the NGO and dominant academic literature claims these resettlement practices involved wilful participation, I found that the making of resettlement subjects was a mix of coercion, conflict, helplessness, and compromise, based on the hierarchy of documents, status, and practices of becoming ideal participants.
The evicted poor live in resettlement camps after transit camps and share mixed responses. Formal housing is generally seen as beneficial against widespread slum informality or homelessness. There are examples where the collectives of evicted poor have successfully negotiated locations of resettlements. Others continue to mobilize their resettlement documents to pressure the state agencies and forge new alliances with political parties for services and infrastructures. However, numerous resettlement camps are also located in peripheral, unserved, and even polluted urban geographies. The relocated residents now complain of abandonments and injustices. Over 40% of the resettled families have abandoned resettlement living.[v] Many suffer from diseases owing to environmental hazards, and economic constraints owing to peripherality. For many resettled families, the hope of urban belonging, citizenship, and entitlement seems to fade away. Resettlement sites are becoming the ruins of redevelopment upon which urban modernity realized its dreams of becoming world-class. New subaltern lives emerge at these sites, as these camp-like sites continue to transform in spatially, socially, and politically new directions.
The remnants of urban redevelopments are still visible in M-East Transit Camp that was established by the SPARC in coordination with state institutions during early 2000s. Transit Camp was built on a No-Development Zone marshy land. The camp area is splintered from the surrounding urban area with a transport project, a medical incinerator, a hazardous waste recycling industry, and swampy mangroves. Here, thousands of families that were promised resettlements are languishing as ‘bare citizens’ for over 2 decades.[vi] When I visited my interlocutors last year, they shared violent stories of abandonment from the NGO (SPARC) and the government departments involved in resettlements. Now, the municipal authority has disconnected water, electricity supplies, and waste disposals; conducts regular demolition; and threatens eviction. The residents also depend on urban mafia and gangs for basic needs and are subject to political manipulation in local elections for their formal housing.
Over thousands of families live in perpetual precarity. Many do not wish to voice their marginalization, as doing so might expose their covert informal and even illegal ways to manage basic necessities, even if their everyday stay resembles camp-like situations. They hope for inclusion in resettlement in the future. However, the mediating NGO has made its exit from the camp, and the state institutions involved in resettlements gradually disqualify the camp-residents based on insufficient documents. Ironically, camp-residents were shifted to the transit camp owing to the possession of documents that had once qualified them for resettlements. Those remaining in the camp speak about how documents are subject to state-led manipulation and delegitimization. We here see how documents have ambiguous effects on the socio-political lives of the urban poor. Patience is painful, and the waiting is almost never-ending. Having documents, and becoming legible, thus, does not guarantee proper urban inclusion. It, rather, restructures lives that are sometimes graduated as informal living, and at other times minimal and degenerative. Also, as we see below, sometimes legible urban lives are paradoxically exposed to life-constraining situations.
The Resettlement Camps
Resettlement practices have transformed. NGOs have been unpanelled, and the state institutions now undertake authoritarian resettlements. Slum-dwellers with graduated documentary proof, and a stronger spatial belonging, for example, to international projects (like the Airport expansion or Mumbai Metro) have better negotiation potential. However, most of the affected poor from the city’s numerous projects (pipeline, drainage, footpath widening, Mithi riverbed expansion), coordinated by over six parastatal organizations, find themselves in resettlement camps in M-West administrative ward. For decades, authorities have demarcated this administrative ward for ‘low human activity’ owing to petroleum refineries, heavily polluting industries, and thermal power plant. These industries emit over 21 types of volatile organic compounds, heavy elements, pollutants, vapour emission, and nuisance smell above national and international limits. Recently, environmental authorities also deemed the ward ‘critically polluted’ and ‘unfit for human inhabitation’. Nevertheless, M-Ward has become a Mumbai’s new resettlement ward (after M-East) with over 200,000 tenements, which currently house over 60,000 evicted poor in its townships since 2016.
I have a long-term engagement in this ward (Since 2017).[vii] It is here that we see crises of neoliberal welfarism. The state is legally bound to provide formal housing for the evicted and eligible poor. But such housing is in a polluted urban fringe. And the urban poor that are ‘legible’ (with documentary proof of being urban) and ‘eligible’ (for so-called slum rehabilitation) are subjected to housing in M-West ward. Technically, these evicted poor have two options: reject the official relocation offer or abandon their right to resettlement as well as the right to squat in Mumbai. This means losing the documentary proof of being ‘slum poor’ that they have earned through decades of struggles and toils in the city. Official slum clearance, partial demolition, months of rainy weather, scarce dwelling space, and dilapidating basic infrastructures are just a few of the challenges. Subaltern lives depend on these discursive details as they wait and negotiate for urban formality. As shared by my interlocutors, one of their resettlement documents mentioned: “if it is found that the documents submitted and information given by you for obtaining alternate accommodation are false/fabricated/fraudulent and of misguiding nature, your aforesaid allotted alternate tenement shall stand cancelled/removed and the necessary legal action as deemed fit as per the law will be initiated against you at your risk and cost”. Thus, a quest for urban formality came with the rule of accepting minimal housing conditions.
A deadly living unfolds here. The Diplomat reports Jyoti’s story.[viii] She was relocated to Mahul in June 2017. Within a year of staying here, she fell ill and was admitted to the nearest government hospital that is almost 11-kilometres away. She was under critical care for over a week. Barely after a few days of her discharge, she started vomiting blood. She died in May 2018. Jyoti is not alone. Over 300 disease-related deaths have occurred in this resettlement camp within the last few years. Thousands suffer from respiratory, pulmonary, cardiac, and numerous other diseases. It has been almost 5 years now. Thousands of families are living a phase of transitoriness within the urban society. They vacillate across the centres of economy, connectedness and care, and peripheries of unemployment, abandonment, and violence. We, again, witness a paradox of legibility. Arguably, the state institutions have abandoned their responsibility of protection and care for documented urban populations. Housing and hope contradict each other in redeveloping Mumbai.[ix] We see similar instances from other neoliberal, post-socialist and post-colonial states where the authorities have subjected its populations to life-compromising environments.[x]
However, despair is not the end of urban change. Recently, the residents of resettlement camps in M-West ward began resistive association with a grassroots movement, the Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan (GBGBA).[xi] The Collective built on the official record of pollution, toxicity, and uninhabitability. They initiated new uses of documentation to record deaths, diseases, unemployment, school dropouts, etc., to argue for alternative housing. Here, the official truth is reconciled and partly subverted by forceful demand making. After 3 years of negotiation, over 800 families have been finally moved. Thousands of others still suffer, despite being the subjects of state rule and being legible to live ordinary lives. For them, it has been almost a decade of becoming documented, a process that had promised legibility and citizenship rights. However, such processes are yet incomplete and remain subject to constant change. A formal urban belonging for the masses of the urban poor is yet to be achieved.
As we connect the transit and resettlement events spread across over two decades, we can see that the state interventions are contested across sites, and people continue to negotiate proper inclusion. Such negotiations, however, have uneven effects. For a decade of being an urban practitioner, I have witnessed that the urban scholarship has devoted much attention to the institutional politics of inclusion, formal housing, and urban belonging. Antagonistically, as this essay also discusses, such measures have widely under-emphasised the grounded realities and multiple violences that institutional interventions entail. Cities, globally, are becoming increasingly unequal, undemocratic, and violent for majority of their residents, including the poor and racialized populations. In this light, we need to reposition discussion on inclusion, legibility, and hope of (un)homing that the cities entail. We must also revisit the community history, locate these social transformations from the perspective of the people, and address the violence of city-making. It is through these processes that we can decipher violence – systemic and epistemological – and imagine just futures.
[i] UN-HABITAT. (2012) State of the World’s Cities 2012-2012. unhabitat.org/prosperity-of-cities-state-of-the-worlds-cities-20122013
[ii] Indorewala, H., Wagh, S., Ramakrishnan, U. and Nandlaskar, O. (2017). City Resume Mumbai. Avialable at, mdl.donau-uni.ac.at/binucom/pluginfile.php/402/mod_page/content/19/KRVIA_1_V1.pdf
[iii] Appadurai, A. (2019). Deep Democracy: Urban Governmentality and the Horizon of Politics, Available at journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2455747119863891
[v] Research finding from my collaborative research project.
[vii] Detail discussion in my upcoming academic article in the journal Political Geography.
[viii] Dying Young in Mumbai’s Slum Rehabilitation Camp. Avialable at thediplomat.com/2018/05/dying-young-in-mumbais-slum-rehabilitation-camp/
[x] Millions suffering in deadly pollution ‘sacrifice zones’, warns UN expert
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