Whose city is it anyway?

Jockin Arputham suggests how people living in slum environments can escape the cycle of poverty and disease.

Poor people in the cities of developing countries live in slums and squatter settlements where such basic amenities as water, sanitation and electricity are absent or inadequate. Their homes are mainly tiny, ramshackle, unfit for human habitation – and prey to the elements. All this has direct implications for public health, promoting illness and disease.

Poor people pay more for essential services than their better-off counterparts. If a slum family has diarrhoea and has to frequent pay-and-use toilets, it can literally see the day’s earnings go down the drain. Women in slums often have to buy water at unaffordable rates, or spend long hours collecting it. Electricity is often provided by middlemen charging several times as much as the public utility. All these expenditures for public goods – to which everyone should be entitled – erode the living standards of families already barely able to make ends meet. And when people are ill and cannot work, their incomes are affected and poverty increases. If the main breadwinner dies, the family plummets into economic crisis.

Whose city is it anyway? Political and bureaucratic elites – and the middle classes – depend upon the labour of the urban poor, but see them and their homes as a blight on the landscape, an eyesore to be removed.

Demolition and insecurity
The poor work as refuse collectors, construction labourers, handcart pullers, vegetable vendors, factory workers, domestic servants and so on. They provide goods and services at rates that most of the city’s people can afford.

But when it comes to their housing, the city turns its back on them. Planning does not provide enough affordable land. In Mumbai, 55 per cent of the population lives in slums, occupying only about 8 per cent of the habitable land. Slums are demolished, and slum-dwellers live in deep insecurity. Demolition achieves little, people simply shift from one part of the city to another. Do the policy makers who fail to recognize this really believe that people will go back to their villages or small towns when they have come to the cities for opportunities that do not exist at home?

Demolition causes the poor to spend on rebuilding their homes, driving them further into poverty. It also affects their incomes. Poor families work in their houses to generate income, but the insecurity prevents them from investing in their tiny businesses, and from improving their conditions of existence.

Herdinand de Soto describes how poor people in the South are unable to mortgage their homes for loans for small business because they do not have clear title to their land. He argues that the capital of the poor exceeds all aid given by the World Bank and other international agencies – but remains unproductive. Attempts to alleviate the poverty of slums and squatter settlements in the South are formulated and implemented by privileged external agents, experts and consultants, international financial institutions, multilateral and bilateral aid agencies and governments at all levels.

A small group of decision makers decides the course of action and there is little consultation with, and barely any participation of, the majority of people affected. Lip service is paid to the concept of people’s participation, but grassroots democracy hardly exists in practice. In particular, entrenched patriarchal values keep women confined to domesticity and do not permit them to enter the public world of government and administration.

Reversing trends
How can we reverse these trends? Firstly, by building the capacities of poor people’s organizations so that their voice is heard where it matters; secondly, by mobilizing women to enable them to participate actively in public life; and thirdly, by forming strategic alliances with external agencies such as non-governmental organizations (NGOs), governments, mainstream institutions and international agencies.

Policies and programmes will not succeed unless the poor, particularly women, participate in designing and implementing those that affect them. The policies and programmes of the key actors must be influenced to become pro-poor. Roles and relationships must be realigned so that community-based organizations have a much larger say in governance. Only by strengthening such grassroots organizations can political parties and governments be held accountable for their deeds.

City development plans must keep in mind the needs of the poor. Tenure should be secure. There should be no demolition without resettlement. Land and infrastructure should be provided to the poor at affordable rates.

We must create space for hope by building inclusive cities. This will only happen when the urban poor become authors of their own destinies rather than characters in somebody else’s manuscript

Jockin Arputham , a slum-dweller, is President of India’s National Slum Dwellers Federation – a people’s organization made up of pavement-dwellers and slum-dwellers from more than 30 towns and cities in India. He is a Magsaysay awardee 2000 for international understanding.


This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Answering poor health | Tackling water poverty | Everything connects | Up the gross natural product | Stopping AIDS | Whose city is it anyway?| Nutrition | At a glance: Poverty | Competition | World Bank Special: ‘Double burden’ | It’s not just, pollution | Smoke and fires | Breaking the cycle of poison | Pharmacies for life | Viewpoint: Change – or decay | The environment: why we must not give up | World Atlas of Coral Reefs | GTOS: An eyeglass on our planet

Complementary articles in other issues:
John Chilton: Dry or drowning? (Fresh water) 1998
Harsha Batra: The planet does not belong to grown-ups only (UNEP 25) 1997
James D. Wolfensohn: Crucibles of development (Human settlements) 1996
Rachel Chatterjee: Designing sustainable solutions (Human settlements) 1996
B.H. Holomisa: Healing past scars (Human settlements) 1996