The Dawn: Aug 07, 2015

PUNJAB NOTES: Slums: the city of the poor

Mushtaq Soofi 

City ubiquitously stands out as permanent mark of human civilisation -- ancient and modern. Modern world is increasingly being defined by cities, the agglomerations that are irremovable fixtures of our planet. Urbanisation though every day experience is a complex process. Old cities are expanding at a breathtaking pace and new ones are emerging out of wilderness like desert mushrooms which come up suddenly after monsoon showers. The reasons, sociologists and urban planners tell us, are obvious. City attracts non-city dwellers because it promises a way forward; you can have a better future. It has better prospects in terms of job, education, medical service, individual freedom and cultural advancement. City is all about diverse opportunities. It’s where human capital is valued and rewarded most. Creative ideas and skills make city a thriving space that has insatiable lust for anything and everything new, how fleeting and odd it may prove in the long run.

But city is not as homogeneous a phenomenon as it appears to be. It’s a historically evolved social organism that simultaneously reveals and conceals its diverse and contradictory strands, the heterogeneity that makes it what it is. Plato, the great idealist, tired of looking at the heavens in search of ‘Ideas’ when looked at the earth, said: ‘any city, however small, is in fact divided into two, one the city of the poor, the other of the rich’. He grasped very lucidly the reality of the essential feature of city which persists even today. Why city has to be ‘divided into two’? The observation is based on the undeniable fact of abiding division of human beings into two; the poor and the rich. In the historically evolved politico-economic structures the powerless are poor and the powerful are rich. An ideal city for the rich is one that is free from the polluting poor who invariably are a permanent source of unavoidable socio-political contamination. But to the dismay of the rich, city cannot afford to be a completely sanitised zone or a social arboretum where you plant what pleases you without the threat of unwanted wild growth.

In city the rich are rich as long as the poor remain poor. You cannot have the rich without the poor as riches are always measured against poverty. The former are the upper and the latter the lower of the same skewed body. The poor are the city’s hands that produce and the rich are its mouth that devours inordinately large part of what is produced. City’s perennial problem has been that so many hands produce in a painstaking manner and so few mouths consume the bulk of the tangibles and intangibles without caring for others. Now the question arises if city is such a lousy place how does it function and why so many strive to find a foothold there? Edward Glaeser rightly asserts in his book’ Triumph of the City’ that city functions because of proximity that creates unique space and opportunities for innovative interaction and collaborative action accelerating multidimensional development, material and social. All this seems to be historically and empirically true but the point is whether innovative interaction and collaborative action yield equitable dividends to all concerned. We all know that is not the case. That’s why city is perennially ‘divided into two’.

Our cities, especially in Punjab, are egregious examples of such a division. City of the poor is generally called ‘Katchi Abadi’( temporary or non-permanent settlement), which is a squatters’ settlement or a shanty town inhabited by the poor who have no tenured land of their own. The poor build what they call ‘houses’ usually on undeveloped public land. Sprouting of such settlements seen in all our cities seems to be natural in view of the influx of the hapless people from countryside to the urban centres. Another factor responsible for creating slums is the unbridled expansion of city coupled with the greed of the powerful. Agricultural lands in the vicinity of urban areas are bought or appropriated by land developers and city administration to build exorbitantly expensive posh residential colonies. The villages gradually turn into slums because of denial of civic amenities to the old residents. The residents of these villages in fact become strangers in their own area and are perceived by the rich newcomers as intruders. In the 19th century England people saw shops eating up homes. We in 21st century helplessly observe our cities devouring our villages, the rock-bed of our traditional culture.

Dear policymakers, no doubt slums are city’s ‘eyesore’ but think twice before you demolish them at will. One knows you are not rattled by the political consequences of demolition as in your opinion there will be none. But what about your homes; who would dust the rooms, scrub the floors and clean the toilets? You can’t go without food either. Self-driving can give you unbearable headache before you reach your workplace. So let it be said loud and clear; you need the poor of the slums more than they need you. Don’t go into overdrive. The crash could be fatal. What the panjandrum do with the sprawling slums is bound to expose them as little more than a long-nosed Pinocchio. Slums in our wild social jungle are grass; the more you mow it, the more it grows. —

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