May 03, 2005

Patriotic and worthy

I did this review of Rob Neuwirth's recent book, Shadow Cities, for Time Out Mumbai. It appeared in the issue dated April 22-May 5 2005. I hope to do a longer review somewhere else.


SHADOW CITIES: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World
Robert Neuwirth, Routledge, New York, 2005.

As Rob Neuwirth acknowledges in this book, he was "big in Bombay" -- something of a star when he was here two years ago. Which other journalist deliberately chooses a home in a slum -- Neuwirth objects to the word, but he'll indulge my use of it here -- and then writes about his experience? More: he also lived in slums in three other great cities around the world. Who ever did that?

You can read this book as a voyeur, to peer into homes of people who live in what we think are dreadful conditions. If you do that, you'll ooh and aah: at flying toilets; the fan that threatens but never quite manages to decapitate; water pipes that need mouth-to-mouth treatment ... ooh, aah, do these things really happen?

They do. But you can more usefully read Shadow Cities as an examination of attitudes and policies towards squatters, both in the four cities Neuwirth lived in and historically, in several great Western cities. Do that, and you may start wondering 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."

Which, of course, is the issue. It's the truth that Bombay's Shobhaa Des and Vilasrao Deshmukhs must come to terms with when they call for these homes to be torn down. 100,000 homes destroyed, half a million humans left homeless last December and January. Where's the morality?

Yet think what might change in those numbers, those attitudes, if more of us recognized what Neuwirth does in this book: that these are people. And these people building homes for themselves is a process that's "sensible, patriotic and worthy of a true citizen."

"Patriotic"? You're spluttering, I know. Illegal encroachers, and they're "patriotic"? What's the man been smoking?

Whatever it is, it's humane, practical stuff. But you don't need to smoke it yourself to understand what slums are really about and how cities must approach them. Instead, read this work of hard-nosed yet graceful journalism.

Excerpts from an interview with Neuwirth:

Q: How did this project change you?

A: [It] removed some ideological blinders: previously I had tended to romanticize the idea of squatters. But the reality is harsh. There is no good reason for people in Rio or Nairobi or Mumbai or Istanbul to have to live with no water or no sewers or no sanitation. Squatter or not, the cities are simply not serving the mass of poor people.

Q: Will attitudes towards squatters -- among the middle-class, the media, the authorities -- ever change?

A: Middle-class attitudes are hard to change. It remains strange to me that in India middle-class people will hire squatters as drivers or cleaners or child care workers or security personnel or laborers, but at the same time will worry about criminality and bad morals in squatter communities. ... When squatters stop voting for outsiders and start voting for themselves, thus claiming a place in the doings of government, it will [force] reporters and middle-class people to pay a different kind of attention to their communities.

Q: You write of squalid hutments in London and New York just a century ago. Some readers will react by saying "Yeah, and because they took firm action in those cities, look at them now! Let's keep up the demolitions!" How would you respond?

A: Ah, but they do have slums. New York has thousands of homeless people. The homeless used to erect shacks in all sorts of out of the way places. Many little communities were demolished in the 1980s and 1990s. For homeless families, the city spent millions of dollars renovating apartments. ...

The point is to work with the squatters. No one wants to live in a tiny wooden structure on the pavement. No one wants to live without water or sanitation. If the cities make minimal investments, the squatters will do the rest.

New York, S.F., London, Paris: these cities developed because they were able to be economic engines for their people and not because they pushed out squatters. As long as Mumbai remains a center of economic growth, where people can get jobs and make money, the city will grow.


Anurag said...

Thanks for this post, Dilip. I didn't know about Rob or the work he has done. Will be interesting to read it.

I didn't comment on it there, but your post about boys being boys was great. Younger humans are more forgiving, aren't they?

Sourin Rao said...

I had previously read Neuwirth's interview in rediff as well. Seems like an interesting writer, who researches his material well. This is without having read his book and going by his interview alone.

I do not know the minute details about "A day in the life of a squatter", but there is no doubt in my mind that these slums are a breeding ground for criminals, vote banks for our ministers who have vested interests in keeping the squatters the way the are and yes cheap labor for the teeming middle class of the cities.

Maybe the solution could be a better resolve by everyone, the corporators, MLA's, NGO's and the citizens forum to be involved with the issues of the squatters, to proactively better their lives by providing them with better amenities and a better standard of living. Or else this will be a perpetual issue that will continue to haunt us forever.

Anonymous said...

hey dzousa,

i hope you saw the rebuttal from Yazad Jal on your stupid/dumb column on poverty.

in case you didnt, then take a look:

This is what real freedom means - Government getting out of the way of ordinary people.

Communist fools like you are efficient in spreading poverty equally to all. It is an open market that really helps people get out of poverty. hope you dimwitted idiot get this fact.

I am really not sure if you are naive enuf not to understand this basic thing or if you have been "ordered" by the powers-that-be to act like this. i cant help but think how you buy cars when you dont have a full time job!(remember? u were choosing between Honda and Ford sometiem back?).. is it from the money that someone gives you to push their agenda forward?

And if you are sitting and eating on your father's money, then why cant you donate all that to the poor people you see in Mumbai? surely making poor people eat will be better than buying a car for yourself isnt it?

when u think buying a car is more important than feeding the poor, then what is wrong in other people having a different priority than to help the poor? after all, even you do not do what you recommend to others!

Anonymous said...


First things first: "enough" is spelled "enuf". Second, please learn how to use periods, apostrophes, and other English-writing conventions.

Secondly, you claim that Dilip is a fool. If he is a fool, why do you read his column? You have read his column so carefully that you know that he was debating whether to purchase a Honda or a Ford.

You are the fool - you read Dilip's column religiously even though you consider him a communist fool!

Finally, a question:

Did the "open market program" of NAFTA get Mexicans out of poverty? Did Argentina's dollarization and free market policies help the country?

No. Both countries are suffering from severe economic crises. How do you explain that?


Again, you make no sense. Like anonymous, you should take a class on writing. In California there are lots of good publicly-funded universities (paid in TAX money) and you could take a course on rhetoric to improve your fledgling skills.

You are wrong in your assumptions.

The United States is not a free market economy. It is an economy that is heavily controlled by the government.

All of the successful sectors of the US economy are successful due to massive governmental investment (by the way the government gets its money through TAXES). The successful areas of the US economy include agriculture, defense, and universities (among other sectors). All three get massive governmental funding. I challenge you to find me a successful sub economy in the world that does not receive governmental funding.

Also, the US is not a free market because the government bails out companies that are struggling financially (so called corporate welfare). When the airline companies declare bankruptcy (USAir, for example), Uncle Sam bails them out.

If David Ricardo or Adam Smith saw people like you and anomyous speaking about the "free market" they would turn in their graves. Their version of capitalism was far different than the one that is touted by people like you. I encourage you to read Adam Smith.

Last thing: the last time the industrial economies used real "free market" policies (i.e. no tariffs, no governmental investments, etc.) disaster ensued (i.e. the Great Depression of the 1930s).

Larry Darrell

Suhail said...

Well said Larry and well said Tanuj!

Anon, if your IQ is > doorknob, then you should know that Dilip has already commented on Yazad's post waaaay back. I am not even linking to it; coz apparently you are smart enough to read websites. So go figure it out before you spit your vitriol here. And don't taint Yazad by shooting frm his shoulders. He is MUCH MORE civilised in his conversation than you can ever hope to be. I don't think if Yazad would like to be associated with you.

Sriram, frankly I didn't had any problems in (silently) disagreeing with your views; but two things force me to reply to you today:

a) I think this is the second time you are saying that taxation is theft(!!). The first time was somewhere in Dilip's Dandi post(Correct me if I am wrong). Pray, if you care to please tell me who will light up the highways and who will feed the army on borders(& if I am not wrong you are not against keeping an army. Right?). I really mean it. If you logically present even a rough outline in favour of zero taxes, I will be the first person to bow to thee. I am not saying all our taxes are put to proper use; but zero taxes ? That sure beats even a naive like me.

b) I have failed to understand your logic in some of your past comments where you tried to link driving/buying cars with some XYZ topic Dilip had blogged. I say XYZ because the post didn't really matter. Your comparsion with cars was a stretch. And sometimes I am confused, whether you are accusing Dilip of supporting free markets, or accusing him of not doing so. But all that doesn't bother me. If at all, it should bother Dilip. I just left it as something out of grasp of my mental faculties. Aah ! Now you'll ask why I kept silent then, and why am I replying now? Here you go:
i) Just because I am a regular reader, I am not obliged to reply to each and every comment everyone else makes(though the onus of replying to readers would be that much more had it been my blog). I am replying to you today, because you are pointing a finger to all readers here when you make statements like

"people in these pages seem to find logic incomprehensible. They prefer winnie-the-pooh-poohing.."

"..If you stick to logic, the only responses you will get are (a) no reply.."

Usually, I wouldn't take offense to such swagger made wide out in the open, but today for some reason I take strong offense to that. If you have any disagreements, pls air them rather than making personal attacks on juntaa (irony being you accuse Anon of the same).
And btw, I may or may not reply to you on this comment. I too have a day job, you know(assuming you reply, coz you too have the same rights). Peace!
Coming back to the real discussion:

chappan, no doubt slums are a breeding ground for criminals. But so are upper middle-class 2BHKs, & rich palatial bungalows. Tell me who is a bigger criminal amongst these: a thug frm slum, a Sunil More who lives in police quarters, a constable who takes 100 Rs bribe for issuing clearance certificate for my passport, a Pawar/Thakre who dines with Enron and ends up putting the state coffers in doldrums, a Congress minister who was found with cash stacked under his bed, a Laloo, a customs officer who is caught with so much cash that sleuths need to get two counting machines to flip through the crores, the (middle-class)prof frm Pune who installed secret cameras to leer on the girls to whom he had rented rooms, Salman Khan who crushes 5 people under his Pajero, the doc(sic) from M.P. who under the guise of running a clinic was running a porn racket, the dean of Agra mental hospital who issued fake certificates in favour of husbands to certify their wives as mad, so that they could get divorce from them, or the military officer who fakes tapes of false killings in Siachen to get two more medals under his proud surname. Please tell me, who is a bigger criminal/cheat/rogue? In most cases the bigger the crime, the higher the amount of money involved, the better-off the criminal is.

It's just that the rich quickly buy their way out so they don't remain in public eye for long.

Don't get me wrong, I am not saying we should not attack one problem, until all the others are solved. That is if a rich criminal is allowed to go scott free, so should all others be. No. That would be asking for doomsdom. I just detest the loose usage of the term; "slums are breeding ground for criminals". As if they are some lower life forms, worthy to be spit at. I have stayed 22 years in a lower middle-class locality in Bombay which was a stone's throw from slums. My weekly route to market used to be through these slums. I believe if you get *real* numbers, you'll find more criminals in pukka homes than in slums.

Most of the times you'll see slum-dwellers fighting with their neighbours for petty issues, like water, occupying empty space, fight between kids escalating to elders etc. Ofcourse there are criminals too. But again their percentages are same - or, I'll go on a limb here, even less - when compared to other sections of society. Why do we not use that term "breeding ground" for criminals from other classes. Food for thought?

I do agree with your solution though of a collective resolve of better education for children and such stuff. Just how best that can be done, is the BIG question.

I hope this looong post made some sense, though I now gather that it had nothing to do with a certain Mr. Neuwirth :| My apologies Dilip.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Anurag, thanks for picking up on precisely the point I wanted to make in that previous post. Boys will indeed be boys, and that's the way they should be.

Chappan, it amazes me that you read my review, even conclude that Neuwirth is "an interesting writer", then immediately pronounce that these slums are a breeding ground for criminals. Have you set foot in one? In some ways, I think Neuwirth wrote his book precisely for people like you.

Anonymous, I'm flattered! I had no idea that I had written about choosing between Honda and Ford. I went back searching and finally found it in something I wrote nearly nine years ago. And that choice between the two makes happened nearly 21 years ago. Thanks so much for reading what I write, and I'm glad it is clearly so memorable to you that you can quote it on demand.

Sriram, I am still catching up with the email that came in for that article: some 150 messages and counting. But I promise you a message full of all the winnie-the-pooh-poohing you ever wanted, even though I have no clue what that means. Besides which, I have no use for wiggle room.

Suhail, get your !@&!@# facts right, got that? It wasn't a Pajero, it was a LandCruiser. Can't even keep this stuff straight, and you think you know something about XYZ, eh?

Anonymous said...

hey Larry Darrell,

first understand that this is not an english exam for me 2 write things in perfect english - it is nt even my Mother tongue...the fact that u wrote abt this speaks volumes abt ur intellectual ability and ur ability to look at silly things..

hey dsouza,

yea, i do read some of ur old articles from rediff just to find out if all ur crying is real - alas, after reading quite a bit of ur articles, i came to the conslusion that u r either a very naive guy or a perfect hypocrite. i think the second one is correct considering that u studied in bits and all.

and a good example of ur stupidity is ur cribbing about Indian defense spending. you fool! first be aware that, as a % of gdp, India spends very little money when compared to all major nations of the world. being 7th largest and second most populus, we are just spending less than 3 % of our income on defense.

the reason for education and poverty in India being pathetic is NOT the defense spending, but it is the lack of proper checks and balances on how money alloted for education and poverty reduction gets spent.

even historically, being reasonably strong has meant sustained growth in all other areas (inc. education, poverty reduction etc.) - readup about the history of Maurya, Chola, Vijayanagara empires.

and I am sure u will be a supporter of that naxalite sandeep pandey and his commie friends for that wasteful "peace march"...

BTW, did u know that the peace march was very efficient? they just alloted Rs. 1 lakh for petrol for two vehicles for Delhi to Pak-border travel. the distance is less than 500 kms and for 2 vehicles, you cannot spend more than Rs. 5000 on petrol... wow man! 5% efficiency...

Is this how all you "secularists" get money for your Honda cars? way to go man.

and did u know that ur favourite organization - AID - funded this waste march? they cud hav spent this money on some developmental activities man! dont u agree?

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