Patriotic and worthy

Urban history


Patriotic and worthy

ONE way you can read Shadow Cities is as a voyeur: use it to peer into the lives of people who live in what we more genteel folk think are dreadful conditions. Do that, and you'll find plenty of images to gape at in wonder: flying toilets; the fan that threatens to but never quite does decapitate; pipes that need oral resuscitation... do such things really happen?

Oh yes they do, and Shadow Cities offers other opportunities to gape as well. But it is more useful by far as an examination of attitudes and policies towards squatters, in the four cities Robert Neuwirth lived in while researching it, and historically, in several famous Western cities. Look at it that way, and you may wonder with Neuwirth "about the morality of a world that denies people jobs in their home areas and denies them homes in the areas where they have gone to get jobs".

And that's the issue, isn't it? In Mumbai earlier this year, an elected government tore down nearly 1,00,000 city homes, leaving nearly half a million citizens homeless. All on the grounds that these homes were "illegal". Funny, the jobs this city generates — the jobs that, as an engine of vibrant economic growth, it will naturally generate — are in no sense illegal. But when affordable rental housing is essentially nonexistent, where must the people who fill those jobs live? Answer: Where they can. Often, in slums.

And yet, when they do that, the Shobhaa Des and Vilasrao Deshmukhs — indeed, all of us — climb the moral sand dune of "legality". We use that to deny them homes, or smash their homes. Where's the morality? Why does it seem to me like perversity and nothing else?

Neuwirth got a MacArthur grant to do something few journalists would. For months at a time, he "embedded" himself in slums — he objects to the word, but he'll indulge my use of it here — in Rio, Nairobi, Mumbai and Istanbul. The result is this work of hard-nosed, yet compassionate and thoughtful journalism.

In his time in Mumbai, living in one room in a Goregaon slum, Neuwirth became something of a star. Local journalists interviewed him with an odd air of wonder: for them "it was important", he realised, "to have face time with a strange nonsquatter who had become a squatter". And with this air of wonder, or perhaps even without it, they would often not even listen to him or pay attention to his experiences. There was the time he told a reporter who interviewed him that "of course, there was some crime in squatter communities", but not in the ones he had lived in. Besides, he felt safe in his Goregaon home, where he "never saw any crime".

In print, the reporter had him saying: "There is high crime in slums, certainly".

"I felt", writes Neuwirth, like I was entering a twilight zone where journalists had no compunction about bending the facts to fit the mould they thought their editors or readers wanted". Because that is what we all — journalists, editors, film stars, Deshmukhs, Des — want to believe. That slums are writhing with crime, their residents filthy, their very existence illegal. Think like that, and destroying half a million lives becomes just one of those things you need to do to "beautify" the city, turn it into another Shanghai, make it "more liveable".

More liveable for whom? Not for those half million unfortunates, clearly. Yet, think what might change in these numbers, these attitudes, if more of us recognised what Neuwirth does in this book: that they might be squatters, yes, but these also are people. And these people building homes for themselves — which is what squatters do — is a process that's "sensible, patriotic and worthy of a true citizen".

"Patriotic"? "Citizen"? You're spluttering, I know. Illegal encroachers, and they're "patriotic"? Tax-evaders, and they are "true citizens"? What's the man been smoking?

Whatever it is, it's humane, practical stuff. But you don't need to smoke it yourself. Read Neuwirth to understand what slums are really about and what cities must do to tackle them; to understand what a monstrous exercise in futility, above all, destroying their homes amounts to. Futility, because such destruction, such attitude, is the sure way to perpetuate poverty and slums. To me, this futility is the unstated message of this book.

And correction: they do pay taxes. In Mumbai, something called octroi forms well over half of municipal revenue, and it's paid by every single one of its citizens every time they buy anything at all: pin to vegetables to a Skoda Superb. Yes, every citizen. Even the "illegal" ones. So maybe it's time we started thinking of them as Neuwirth does: as people.

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