The unintended city
GOATS grazing on the Maidan. A herd of cows on Ho Chi Minh Sarani, taking a quiet route across the central city. But herds of buffaloes on Shakespeare Sarani and Camac Street have difficulty with office car traffic; everything is slowed down.
A cart overloaded with hay swaying along Bondel Road, pursued by the hornblasts of an impatient bus. Laundry in a rickshaw being brought across Chittaranjan Avenue at midday: the rickshaw-walla all but gets run over by a State bus.
A thela-walla is stopped by the police for taking a load on a major road at a non-permitted hour, even though the road is clear of traffic; but a wedding of the wealthy on Gariahat Road in the middle of Friday evening rush-hour is permitted to back up traffic for miles around.
Extended debate in government, industry and the press takes place on the merits of a ‘sons of the soil’ policy in industry, education and – by extension – in terms of the right to migrate freely within the country. The migrant poor do not have a part to play in the debate, despite their vital stake in the outcome.
People sleep, eat and live next to and above cattle in khatals, shed structures within bustees. Social planners consider this relationship to be ‘curious’, abnormal, and a health hazard, and propose to move the khatals out to the edges of the city to resolve health and inner-city space problem.
Cows tethered outside a gracious bungalow on Mandeville Gardens, earlier daily visitors, now a permanent feature, an inner-city source of milk fresher than the local government milk scheme stall can provide.
The herd of goats returning home from the Maidan at 11 a.m., the end of their permitted grazing time, crossing Lower Circular Road, having great difficulty with the business car traffic. A jam is the inevitable result.
If Calcutta isn’t actually a village (which some of its admiring visitors say is one of its strengths – the warm human feeling of an overgrown village), it certainly has many rural aspects to it. The above are only some of the most visible aspects and they also include some of the more common conflicts that the city’s rural world has with the urban.
In fact, perhaps a majority of Calcutta citizens have strong rural connections of one type or another – from the rural migrant with the only and real home in the village, to the middle class bhadralok family which yearns for its ancestral country home and life. But it is particularly the poor who are rural (and who, for many reasons to be discussed below, live distinctly rural lives well within the city), and because they are poor they tend to lose in the conflicts with the urban city and citizen.
To a certain extent, of course, co-existence certainly occurs – cars and cattle do manage to use Camac Street, somehow – but the city as it is being developed is very definitely for the car, the urban world, and this is happening at great cost to the rural and poor. The city is something which is run by urban people for a rather abstract and nebulous ‘urban’ populace’. The fact that the ruling urban elite is increasingly a small minority is disregarded, as is the fact that the rural and poor form an increasingly large part of the population to the point where urban ‘development’ only serves often to put the poor at greater disadvantage and to make them the ‘parasites’ that the urban elite insists on calling them.
There is little or no genuine attempt to accept the poor and disadvantaged as part of the city development process – to accept them as equal and integral citizens, to develop the city also according to their needs as a society different from the urban, to develop ways through which their disadvantage might be reduced. Quite the opposite; not only are they exploited but their lifestyles and livelihoods are often made illegal, and then even the ‘illegality’ is exploited.
And, yet, and this is not understood sufficiently, the poor as a group are an absolutely indispensable part of the city and of society as it is presently structured. The middle class and the wealthy, and the economy more generally, could not survive without them and their services. The urban city is totally dependent on them – as dependent and perhaps more so than they are on it. But the city is not made for the poor; it has evolved not to reduce dependency but to take advantage of it; it is not made so as to enable the poor to improve their condition but rather to serve the wealthy and to allow them to enjoy and increase their advantage.
That a city should be urban may sound quite self-evident, but it is becoming increasingly a questionable fact as to how ‘urban’ the cities of developing countries in fact are. A great deal of evidence suggests that a new type of city is emerging, in many ways a rural city. And from another point of view, the majority of its people are involved in service and small industry, making this very different from the heavy-industry based cities of the West which evolved under very different conditions.
Yet, planners and policy-makers still draw their lessons from those cities, criticize the new cities and try to remake them in those terms. In fact, what is demanded is a new view of cities and a reappraisal of what development should be, for whom and how. The failure of formal development suggests that the theories and assumptions of the essentially urban planners are inadequate; this essay suggests that it is the rural-minded poor who are creating the new cities and that it is with them that the real experience and lessons of development lie – certainly in terms of development that is relevant to their lives. It is the thesis of this essay that the poor are evolving within the existing city-village situation, a society, a hybrid rural-urban society with appropriate social structures and institutions which allows them to be part of both city and village. It argues that this formation of a hybrid society is a process which is currently taking place, shaped by the two forces of rejection and affinity: rejection as exclusion and exploitation by the urban centre, and the affinity of strong ancestral traditions and of familiar associations such as language and caste maintained through direct linkage.
The hybrid society has specific inherent value for the poor allowing them to develop more as they wish to meet the demands of city-life; and as a result new hybrid values are being evolved which offer flexibility and security, both of which are vital in an emerging situation. It is definitely not being suggested that this is a conscious, deliberate movement; rather, it is a gradual and often unintended evolution of a new society, a synthesis of the ordinary things people are doing over generations. At the same time, it is argued that it is certainly not intended by the wealthier urban city that this should happen for its interests are that there should always be ‘the poor’; so it is for these two reasons that the emerging city of the poor has been termed ‘the unintended city’.
I attempt here to set down some tentative thoughts on this notion.
The poor in cities are the same people as the poor in villages, with the same backgrounds and a very similar present existence of disadvantage and exploitation. The profiters and profiteers are the same people. The differences in the two situations lie in the relationships to land and to the means of production.
It is necessary to try to identify the differences – for they are significant – as well as the continuities, and to act on them; but an important backdrop to this understanding must surely be that the poor, the lumpen proletariat, are not limited to city or village; they stretch throughout society. The often-quoted ‘80 per cent’ figure – the proportion of the Indian population who live in the villages and on whom therefore the emphasis of development should lie – is too simple an analysis. It misses the essential point that there is an intimate connection between these poor and those in cities, that in fact they are in many cases literally the same people. As processes of centralization gather momentum, and whether or not they are to be resisted, the future of development lies very much in this link between village and city, perhaps more so than in either one of the two.
The now classic dichotomy between ‘urban’ and ‘rural’ is, in terms of development, I feel, extremely damaging. Its origin is innocent enough: the inability of planners – who are invariably urban and middle class because of the only available education and set of planning values – to comprehend other more fluid realities has led us to state easily understandable differences rather than to accept continuities. But, for the growing number of the migrant poor the two are inseparably linked; and therefore urban and rural development are also inseparably linked. It is the intention of the research to work in the continuum.
Apoint which needs to be registered is that the rural migrant poor are not flooding the cities and staying there permanently. In many cities, including Calcutta, the rate of permanent migration has reduced greatly in the past decade because it is very much a function of the health of the urban economy. The poor, stretching as they do from village to city, are well-informed by their information networks. The flood that does take place is on a regular annual basis, at the onset of the disaster season or when the poor are deprived of food by hoarders; this is clearly a function of the rural economy, which the poor know only too well. Most of the poor return to their villages after the disaster. This is the emergence of a new type of temporary city, the result of new needs and new settlement values. If we are planning for development, a sensitive response to this new situation is demanded.
Lastly, an attitude towards development: it was mentioned above that the poor are an integral and essential part of society. But, it was also added, ‘as it is presently structured’. I do not accept the view that the poor must always remain poor, or even that there always will be ‘the poor’. The viewpoint that the poor (those who are poor now) are somehow fixed, unchanging, and incapable of change, is prevalent among the middle class, and very common even among social workers and planners – the self-styled ‘agents of liberation’. This must be replaced by an attitude which not only accepts the possibility of change and development but also translates the theory and ideal into principled action. Our re-education is required; we need urgently to learn how to translate, for we do not seem to know at present how to move from ideal to practice. There is a tendency to believe that the right ideals are enough, that development will naturally follow. This is not so; development cannot occur if dependence remains.
I regard the poor, the citizen of the unintended city, as one group. This is not to suggest that the poor are all the same, for there are clearly many different situations; but it is to suggest that the poor are a group which are in the historic process of becoming conscious of themselves. This does not seem to be occurring on a class basis, perhaps because the poor, at least in the Indian cities of today, already have strong caste and class divisions. Rather, it is a uniting process, the emergence of a new citizen and a new society.
Before we go any further, the use of the term ‘unintended’ needs to be defined. First, it refers to dependence, the often unintended result of planning and social work programmes and policies as opposed to direct exploitation. Secondly, the fact that independence and self-determination by the poor is against the interests of exploiters and of the ruling elite, i.e., those with vested interests, and is in that sense not intended. Thirdly, the gradual, unconscious and unintended emergence of a society and city of the poor.
The relationship of the unintended city to the urban city is limited. It is for the most part only economic, and at that an exploitative, dependent link. The city uses and exploits the poor, and they in turn use the city to their ends; indeed they use it in ways that the urban middle class consider ‘abuse’, with no apparent loyalty, respect, or civic sense. There is considerable conflict and antagonism between the rural-minded poor and the urban-minded wealthier, and there is a growing gap between them. The growth of the relationship is only in terms of numbers – the number of poor who are in the city and, equally, the number who are exploited more and more.
Let us look at this relationship of the unintended city to the urban city. The most important link is in terms of employment and labour. A city’s main meaning and attraction for the poor is that income appears to be possible in a wide variety of ways. Regular employment is only one possibility: others, equally attractive incomewise for those who have little choice, are menial work, hauling freight on thelas or one’s fellow-citizens in rickshaws, beggary, two or three casual jobs at once, or hawking on the streets. But, because the primary and usually the only product of the poor is labour, and because there are usually more workers than work available, the price is set by the employers and the poor are exploited in being paid less than they deserve for their labour. This is simple direct exploitation.
Yet, the city could not be what it is without the labour of the poor; the middle class could not be at its standard of living without cheap labour services. The poor are an integral part of the system, whether or not they are rural; they are part of the economic mechanics. In reality then the city is as dependent on them as they are on it.
Their contribution lies in other areas too. Individually, and as a community collectively, they pay a very substantial amount in taxation if indirect taxation is taken into account. The important point is not the amount itself but rather the amount relative to the services they receive in return from society. In fact they pay more for the extremely minimal services they receive than do the wealthy for their extensive access to policing, sanitation, water (and garbage collection in some cities). From another point of view, one study has calculated that in Calcutta, in public housing(much of which is technically for the poor but which in reality ultimately goes to the middle-income), perhaps one half of the cost of subsidy is paid for by taxes on families making less than Rs 140 per month (1967 figures).
Moreover, the so-called informal sector, mostly unskilled labour, makes up fully one-third of the working population in Calcutta. It provides services to the formal sector which are often irreplaceable, or replaceable only at great additional cost. It manufactures a wide variety of commodities which find their way into the market only through middlemen (with both the middleman’s mark-up and brand name attached) such as garments and footwear. In short, the contribution of the poor to society and the economy is most often hidden, unrecognized, and all too often disguised and unrecognizable.
A more evident service is provided by hawkers; despite the heavy criticism in the press, hawkers’ stalls are very popular because of the reduced prices they offer. These few examples go to show that the sum total contribution of the poor to the city is varied and substantial, and in many cases actually essential to the city as it has evolved. They may be taken for granted, but they are nevertheless integral. But, as the poor begin to realize their role, as there is growing awareness and politicization, they come progressively more into a position of real power, capable of withdrawing their services or demanding and receiving more for them.
Another relationship is residential, or more accurately in terms of shelter or the lack of it. Again, the poor are dependent and exploited. Because they are as yet dependent on the job market, their central housing need is to be near a maximum number of job opportunities, and for many this means central-city location. Excluded by the land market system from any possibility of owning land, to gain this location they have to pay a very high price, often paying more rent in bustees in terms of area per person than the wealthy do for their homes, and this is of course not to speak of the relative quality of the two environments or the municipal services received. It should not be surprising, therefore, that many are forced to live on the streets or to squat illegally on private or public land.
Yet it is also sometimes the case that living on the streets is a conscious decision, a statement of preference in terms of the resources available to them. For, if they are to send money out to their village homes, the need of the poor is to minimize their expenditure in the city and to maximize their savings. This is, of course, not a description of the lives of the destitute; they have no choice. But for those who can and do make such a choice, this is a cultural act, a step in the evolution of the net set of values. For instance, privacy, or material comfort, both so important for the middle class, are not seen in the same way by the poor. Some studies have shown that pavement dwellers find privacy and security on the streets themselves; few outsiders care to look at them or to intrude.
This sort of instance – the viability of the very high densities in bustees is another – adds up to suggest that some (though certainly not all) of the ‘poverty’ so very visible in the city is self-imposed, that poverty is not the simple thing it is often taken to be. Within its conditions there is also considerable success in terms of human relationships. Poverty, therefore, is sometimes the shape of people living lives different to our own. It may also be the gradual evolution of a new set of settlement values that are relevant and appropriate to the lives of the presently poor.
It needs also to be more widely appreciated that the poor do not want to live permanently as they do now. Just as other more fortunate people, they too wish to improve their situation. But their choices and chances of doing so are much fewer. The appearance of their present lives is the result of their making the best of what is available to them. It is important to realize that even in their sometimes apparent and, of course, often real poverty, there is conscious, responsible decision-making. It is just that their priorities are different to those of the urban middle classes.
Moreover, their priorities are in flux, changing all the time. It is in this sense that it is suggested that perhaps within their lives are evolving new settlement values, and with them a new type of settlement. A comparison may be made to a construction site: to the layman the site often looks chaotic, but to the construction worker it has a great deal of order; the building is at one stage just a lot of materials lying around, but gradually, out of the apparent chaos, arises a structure understandable to everyone.
The result of the poor doing things as they want or feel they have to, may not be what the urban middle class likes to see; but we have to ask ourselves whether what offends us is their disadvantage and the injustice of their situation, or whether it is simply their living a life different to our own – even if it is one which offends our sensibilities. If it is the latter, what gives us the right to change – or even to ask them to change – their lives? Serving them and their needs is one thing; demanding or gradually forcing them (intentionally or otherwise) to change their lifestyles to suit standards set by the middle class is another. Certainly, integration is desirable; but why must they become like us? Why not us a bit more like them?
On the other hand, if it is the injustice of their situation which offends us then it is necessary to go deeper, to look at why for instance they are forced to live ‘illegally’, to look at the need and type of security in a life different to ours, and at how they are exploited and dehumanized in their legitimate attempts to gain this security. And, finally, as always, also to look at our own role in these processes.
Just as they are exploited economically, the poor are exploited politically for their votes. Promises made are unfulfilled or the results are short lived. An example is the Calcutta Bustee Improvement Programme of 1971. It was initiated by politicians to avert social and political unrest, and to gain votes; in this it succeeded, but the ‘improvements’ have since in many instances turned into embarrassments for the Metropolitan Development Authority, and health hazards for the recipients at least as severe as the conditions the improvements were meant to relieve. Privies and septic tanks have overflowed, drains and latrines blocked; most maintenance programmes ceased a long time ago due to bureaucratic failure, and conflict in the municipal corporation is responsible. Who are the beneficiaries? The communities were not involved in any way at the time of installation – there was ‘no time’ (before the election?) – and they do not now consider themselves responsible for the failures. They hold government responsible, and for the poor the failure is only another indication that government too, as all other former social institutions, does not exist for them but only uses them, that it belongs to a separate world, the world of the urban wealthy and powerful.
All of these are obvious examples of deliberate exploitation, of disadvantage and dependency. But there are many other indirect ways, the effects of which are as significant and, added to the direct means, work to ensure that the poor remain victims of the system. Unavailability of land, legal prejudices, and inaccessibility to public institutions and services are three of the most important.
As mentioned above, it is more or less impossible at present for the poor to own land anywhere in the city, let alone near the centre of the city or near industries where they need to be. Why they cannot own land is a key question, but it certainly has many effects: the two most important are that they are prevented from ever achieving the form of life ideal for any rural-minded person, of owning land, and secondly, therefore, they are also effectively prevented from establishing a home in the city (accepting rented space for a home is very much an urban idea). This prevention from consolidating and developing loyalties to the city is as much to the cost of the city as it is to them.
Another indirect process of disadvantage occurs through what are really urban laws and regulations preventing them from living their own lifestyles fully. Sometimes their lives are made difficult and sometimes illegal, all because of conflict with the codes of the ruling urban citizens. The use of the word ‘illegal’ here is wrong and immoral; ‘extra-legal’ outside the present law, is really the condition. If the lives of such a large proportion of citizens can be defined as illegal, then it is time to look at how relevant our laws are. The legal system is meant to be a way of ordering human relationships, not a punitive system and a means of oppression.
Thirdly, many so-called public institutions and services are just not in reality available to the poor. In practice they are out of the reach of the poor and rural-minded in one sense or another. Think of banks and hospitals, sanitation and policing, public transport, even parks and streets. The poor really only use them for livelihood, not to avail themselves of the services the institutions are designed to offer. This is because they are designed by and for the urban minded; or there just isn’t enough to also service the poor; or they are too expensive. In short, to serve their purpose in today’s conditions, the system needs to be redesigned. The only exception is the cinema, by definition not a public institution but perhaps, in practice the most public one around where everyone is reduced to a common role of observers of fantasy, something which the poor perhaps need more than anyone else.
The net result of all this exclusion is that other than in the world of fantasy, the poor and rural live in a separate world to the urban city. This is notwithstanding all the talk by government and other well-meaning agencies of ‘integration’ of the ‘marginal’ poor into the ‘mainstream’ of society. On the basis of numbers, one is led to wonder who is in fact marginal, the poor or the elite. But this aside, it should not be surprising if in the face of all this exclusion and disadvantage, out of a sheer necessity for survival, that in the city and world of the poor should emerge new systems of social structures relevant to their particular needs, systems which tend to further separate them from the urban city.
The last area of disadvantage for the poor in a city like Calcutta which needs be discussed is the unintended, the unrealized consequences of what are often well-intentioned programmes by the middle class to alleviate precisely the disadvantages mentioned earlier. Because the process is hidden, it needs to be discussed more fully. There are two areas: planning and social welfare services. The most important is welfare, if for no other reason than that welfare programmes are very widely established in the country and the concept undergirds the national programme of ‘uplift’ of the disadvantaged or garibi hatao and is in fact behind most social work programmes.
Because welfare is a system in which there are givers and receivers, because it is a system in which the givers are the doers and decision-makers and in fact all the real and controlling initiative lies in their hands, it is a system which is liable to encourage further dependency by the receivers, no matter how good the intentions of the programme. The process is formulated backwards: it should be the disadvantaged who should be learning how to make and are actually make the real decisions, not the givers who already know and who should only be serving. This may be a different type of dependence, but it is nevertheless dependence – if anything of a more debilitating type than direct exploitation where the issues are clear. Here it is a dependence on ‘aid’ or ‘help’, hidden and unrealized under the desire for uplift. Few if any of the poor can actually be liberated by welfare; rather, they are led to an attitude of dependence, of relying on someone else to provide for them.
The process occurs in more and less deliberate ways; more obvious is ‘giving’ the poor houses or tenement shelter; less obvious examples are milk and bread distribution, and medical aid. These are clearly areas where the donor (in the form of government or the social work agency, but the problem goes back to the original donors) is responding to what it analyses to be the most urgent need of the communities served. They may well be real needs; but the question – for uplift, for development – lies in where responsibility and power lies.
The important point is that there is now a certain formula for aid; whether the agency analyses the need (which often happens) and to which the poor have no reason to say ‘no’, or whether the community is involved in deciding the services to be provided, the formula is the dictator. Both the agencies and now the communities have been nurtured on the now-very-persuasive indices of welfare – milk, bread, medicines, schools, adult literacy classes, craft classes, etc., and everyone now depends on this formula for ‘development’. But for the poor there is double dependence, they depend on the formula, and they learn to assume that someone – agency, government, whoever – will provide. Development is very unlikely under these conditions.
Another less obvious example of social work agencies inadvertently introducing dependency are schools and training programmes. It is obviously not that schooling and training are by definition negative processes; it is a question of what they do in practice for the schooled and trained. In short, they should as much as any-thing else be fostering self-reliance and community cohesiveness; but because they are organized, funded, structured and too often even run by the outsider middle class, they foster dependence not independence; and because they introduce values and attitudes which are usually alien to the receivers, they tend to alienate the educated from the majority of uneducated; and, lastly, the skills themselves, if ever achieved, tend to make the receivers dependent on only the urban job market, not on each other, on themselves, on their own communities. What work can an air-conditioner service trainee do other than serve the wealthy urban middle class? Is this what is meant by ‘integration’ or ‘uplift’? Does this lead to development?
There are clearly many answers to this question, and even more questions raised, but the question needs to be asked because it is a matter of whose vital needs the social work programmes are serving. Are they actually ‘helping’ to uplift the poor from their disadvantaged situations or are they really ultimately only contributing to satisfying the needs of the social work system ‘to do something’, assuaging their consciences, and in the meanwhile making the situation worse by making the poor more firmly and fully dependent on the middle class structure? Do the poor really have the opportunity to organize and run schools to produce supplies for their students in the extremely difficult supply situation prevailing today, to question the value of education; or to be truly independent entrepreneurs; in short, to be self-reliant?
These questions need to be asked as drily and objectively as possible. The argument of the essay – in its attempt to analyse the mechanics of the city of the poor – is not against service of this community; this has to be emphasized. It is against dependence of any kind, intentional or unintentional; both are oppressive. It is a matter of how the services are provided. The argument that is being followed is that development is by definition impossible if dependencies are allowed to exist or, worse still, encouraged; and that aid can too easily be an encourager. Development can only occur through the growth of self-reliance. And at present it seems that all the forces are working against the poor in cities from achieving this position of self-respect.
It was suggested above that the poor as receivers are often also unknowing of the real consequences of welfare programmes. This point is very much arguable. There is strong reason to believe that the ‘poor’ are in fact very much aware of the advantages and disadvantages of programmes, if not of the sequences in terms of dependence and self-reliance; and that they simply take advantage of the abundant generosity of social work agencies. Whether this is true or not, they are certainly aware of the limitations of government programmes in bustee improvement.
As mentioned earlier, they hold the government responsible for the failures, and now as the facilities provided anything but facilitate their lives, there is an unhidden preference for things as they were before, however unpalatable they may have been for middle class planners and politicians. The votes won then may be more than lost now; the pain of further disadvantage is much more real than temporary pleasures, and the fact of being used is becoming less and less tolerable. These too are unintended consequences of autocratic, centrally-planned (even if well-intentioned) programmes, and they make their own contribution to the emergence of a separate and unintended city wanting to take care of itself.
The discussion therefore has so far concentrated on the exploitative and possible eroding relationship of the unintended city to the urban city. Very much on the other hand, its relationship to rural areas is dynamic, alive and growing. Whereas exchange with the former is limited to economic and now political spheres, exchange with the rural world exists in all aspects of life, including cultural, social, economic and physical. Most important, there is a constant exchange of people, the raw material of a society. Adaptation to the new conditions of city life is constantly taking place but, equally, traditions are being reinforced as exchange occurs and, gradually, social, economic and cultural networks are being established.
These networks are born of extreme necessity as well as desire. Excluded as they are from urban city social structures, the poor need the security these networks offer. They are also well aware of the advantages their dual citizenship offers them: the networks can secure shelter in the city, arrange a job, take care of relatives, being news, offer solace at time of difficulty. Language and caste often serve as the basis for the networks; they offer discipline and security as well as familiarity. While there are certainly restricting and immoral aspects to those systems, their positive features are not appreciated enough. In the emerging context of the unintended city, these bonds are being transformed into active and useful associations. They are beginning to serve the vital purposes of enabling credit in the city, making job training and sponsorship available, and giving political power shape and meaning.
It is all to easy for those who belong to the urban city and who have the advantages of all sorts of ‘secular’ institutions to see only the evils of caste and language groups and to dismiss them out of hand. For the poor, they are institutions in which they can put personal trust and obligation since they belong to the members themselves – as any association. Banks for instance are essentially an urban tradition, with little meaning for the rural-minded, and it is for this reason that they do not take full advantage of banks but prefer their own organisations. The failure is not theirs; it is of the banks, who to succeed – in generating savings or in making credit widely available to the ‘small man’ – must change their practices to meet the attitudes and expectations of these ‘other citizens’. But, more generally, it is the remoteness of urban institutions which reinforces their feeling that their villages are their real home, and that the city bustee (meaning ‘settlement’) or pavement is just a temporary home away from home, although they may have been in the city for ten or even twenty years, and longer.
The existence of the poor in the city then demands of them a very high degree of initiative, adaptability and tolerance, ingenuity, and pragmatic cooperation. Trade, caste and languages associations are essential as references, as organizers of these energies and resources. Marginality and tradition also tend to make the poor turn to relatives and friends; the result is a closely knit relationship with their villages and with a rural world within the city, and few ties are established with the city other than in jobs.
One particular instance of this is that in some cities joint families have tended to flourish in the unintended city, rather than break down as has been the theory and expectation of many urban social scientists. The use of these relationships with relatives and friends – leaning on them for material and other security – has been termed the use of ‘social capital’, and this is a very significant form of capital for the disadvantaged. Their only problem is that whereas the wealthy can readily translate reputation and name into credit with banks or other urban institutions, the privilege is not extended to the poor. Again, they have to turn to their own institutions in the unintended city.
It has often been suggested by experts that the settlements of the poor in cities – bustees in Calcutta, the equivalent exists in every city of the Third World – offer a secure base within which the rural-minded can become urban-minded and so move some of the way along to becoming an urban citizen, a part of the city. ‘Resting stages’, ‘way-stations’, are common names in development planning literature. Some kind of road comes to mind, a road that leads from the village to the city. But the revealing things about these experts’ road is that it does not seem to lead back; it seems to be a one-way road.
But, commonsense tells us that roads go two ways. This essay suggests that the names reveal more of the same urban-centred thinking discussed earlier. The hidden implication is that the poor should move along the road from village to city, that urban is somehow preferable (for whom?) to rural, that ‘they’ should become like us. This thinking is unfortunate and prejudicial, and serves very little purpose in terms of development. If anything, it works against development, because it does not even describe or understand reality. Because migrants come to the city does not mean that they want to live there permanently; and even if they do they cannot, because they are rejected and kept marginal by the urban city. All evidence suggests that the poor realize the road is two-way and that they use it both ways.
Moreover, the evidence strongly suggests that they have come to the end of their road. They have reached the end partly because the road stops there now, meaning that they are prevented from coming into the city as full citizens; partly because the road stops there now, meaning that they are prevented from coming into the city as full citizens; partly because they have found it a good place to stop, giving them two-way access into the city to make a living and out to the village to live again. And, partly, perhaps, because they are realizing that more road-building, through using their sweat, is to the real advantage of the wealthy and only marginally to their own.
So the poor have stopped there, and are now beginning to shape out of the chaos at the end of a road which leads nowhere, a new settlement which is suited to their needs. To shape it they often have to act outside the law – as squatters have to. But they are being helped in their efforts by various groups – political parties, social agencies, even government – and in going outside the law and succeeding, they are showing the irrelevance of the law and of other formal institutions which are meant to help people to live but which now have become so obsolete as only to hinder. They are, in short, participating in the evolution of a relevant urban culture: in many ways the development of the unintended city suggests that it is the beginning of the city of the future in India.
There is always a strong temptation to use the world ‘dehumanised’ when describing the conditions of the poor, and it is justified given the massive rejection and exploitation that they suffer. The disadvantage is real enough; but it is equally a fact that far from being dehumanised, the lives the poor lead are vividly human. It would seem in fact that in development the forces of rejection work together with those of affinity, not against each other. On the one hand it is often precisely in the struggle for overcoming handicaps that people and societies develop; and on the other the vast background of their traditions gives the poor not only security and sustenance but also the dignity to deal with rejection and disadvantage in a human way.
This is not to condone the perpetuation of this advantage; it is to emphasise that human experience is the path to development. Their dignity is a quality which the middle class too often cannot recognize in the face of poverty; and now as social workers we even presume to ‘produce’ dignity in the poor. Materially they may be poor, but in terms of culture and tradition their sources are rich. We need to understand what we call their ‘poverty’. But in any case our objective is surely not to look for a path to development. This essay suggests it is staring us in the face, if only we care to open our eyes to their reality: an emerging society based on continuity and tradition. These foundations do not contradict modernization; on the contrary they are essential components of development. Their development and change is different to ours, and we need to learn to respect their experience and their wealth.
Most of the issues discussed in this essay were contained in the conflicts outlined at the very beginning. The fresh delivery of milk is just one, albeit perhaps trivial, example of the services offered by the rural city which are enjoyed by the urban centre. But these services require the Maidan and other inner-city areas for grazing, Camac Street for movement, hay for fodder. They require in-city khatals. To propose that the khatals be ‘moved out’ (who is going to do the real moving?) to the city edge makes sense because it releases some in-city land and possibly reduces health hazards; but if fresh milk is still to be delivered, then the matter is not just one of moving the khatals, it is one of redesigning the entire supply system. Unless that is satisfactorily done the move will make little sense from any viewpoint, let alone from that of the cowherds.
And what will happen to the ‘released’ land? Will it still be available to the poor, or is to be ‘released’ for the use of the urban wealthy? The proposal rejects not only their lifestyle but runs the real danger of making nonsense of their lifework; it does this by preferring a centralized autocratic planning process. It is again an example of planners making decisions for people of another world, with the real benefits and problems of the decisions left unstated.
In this view of things, people themselves have the most important resources for development; their own energies and creative intelligence and intent. It is these which must be the basis for development programmes. They are more important than any government funds, expert skills, or social agency’s efforts. If their value is to be recognized, then people must be fully and centrally involved in policy, programme, and project. The point ultimately is that people must become the subjects of the verb of development, not the objects. The doers, not the done-for. This more broadly applies to the rest of us as much as to the poor; but it applies especially to them for it is too often assumed that they are incapable and that they must be ‘planned for’, ‘serviced’, developed; in short, ‘done-for’. That they are capable has been shown from both a number of documented programmes of self-help and, or more significantly, the emergence and reality of the unintended city. There is a great deal to be learned from it, for it is development in action.
The poor are not in a fixed situation: if their progress is slow, it is because they have huge obstacles to overcome. Perhaps the most important lesson is that planning and development are very ordinary processes, (not ‘special’ so they can only be done by experts), and that every person can and must have an opportunity to take part. Another lesson is that in reality, every person does take part – in his or her own way.
This is basic to a good environment, and raises the necessity of planners to reappraise the role of planning, to re-examine where the crux of responsibility ought to lie, and to develop new techniques to suit. If it is accepted that responsibility lies with the people, then it may also become evident that the emerging city must be a different one, decentralized, multicentred, differentiated, and that planning needs to be alive to the lives and needs of smaller groups, that formal institutions – of health, of education of credit, of power – need to be fundamentally restructured so that real opportunities of self-help be come in reality available to all people. If their latent powers are allowed and encouraged to develop, the new citizens may well show the way to a more viable future.
Development, for all its various meanings for different people, has one simple demand: the growth of self-reliance – the awareness of self as a viable part of society, pride in one’s traditions, the self-respect to act responsibly. If this is accepted then it will become possible to see the strengths of the unintended city, and its powerful potential as a major vehicle for the poor to develop their situations.
* Reproduced from ‘Life and Living’, Seminar 200, April 1976.