Friday, March 27, 2009

'rashomon' in Mumbai

In India, which like to call itself the world's largest democracy, a group of squatters were arrested on Wednesday in the Bandra neighborhood of Mumbai, and charged with rioting and unlawful assembly. The activists' accounts and press accounts differ, in that the press doesn't report police violence or the extent of the injuries they inflicted:

--from an article in
Activists associated with [Social activist Medha] Patkar alleged that a group of around 500 people were on their way to meet the suburban collector in Bandra when they were arrested without reason. "We had a peaceful meeting with officials at the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority today regarding alleged corruption in the Slum Rehabilitation scheme. When on our way to the collector's office for an appointment we were arrested," said Simpreet Singh, an activist with National Alliance for Peoples' Movement.

--from a letter circulated to activists:
About 300 slum dwellers, along with activists Medha Patkar, Simpreet Singh,
were arrested in Mumbai today evening. More than a thousand slum evictees were
protesting in front of the Maharashtra Housing Area Development Authority
(MHADA) building. They were protesting against atrocities and corruption by the
builders in the name of slum rehabilitation. After a dialogue with the MHADA,
Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) and Mantralaya officials, the
representatives were about to go and meet the collector at 3 p.m. when the
police suddenly lathi-charged without any announcement or warning and began arrest....The arrested women, more than 200 in number, were brutally
lathi-charged and many women were molested and succumbed to injuries on the
skull, legs and arms. When reports last came, the injured were being taken to
hospital in batches.

[thanks, Richard, for sending this my way]

Thursday, March 26, 2009

squatting in the states

Law Professor Eduardo M. Peñalver offers a sensible take on squatting in the U.S., in an essay published in Slate.
On the supply side, local governments should penalize owners who stockpile vacant housing, perhaps by imposing increased property tax rates on properties left vacant, and by moving aggressively to seize vacant properties when the owners fall behind on paying those taxes. On the demand side, governments should expand homesteading programs that permit and help low-income people to take over vacant housing—but only after it finds its way into city hands.
These are noble proposals and I hope people move forward with them.

There are some pragmatic difficulties, though. In the 80s, a number of community groups fought to get New York City to pass anti-warehousing legislation that would have denied rent increases and pushed other penalties geared to preventing owners from deliberately holding apartments and buildings vacant during a housing crisis. We couldn't even get the bill to a public hearing. That's because the real estate lobby is highly organized and fights fanatically against these kinds of efforts. The industry essentially argued that any attempt to penalize warehousing of vacant units was an attack on property rights. The tax penalty Peñalver proposes may also be a difficult fight, as property tax legislation often has to be authorized at the state level.

Still, I would love to see cities hard hit by both vacancy and foreclosure move in this direction. Laws against warehousing and programs to encourage urban homesteading make sense.


Chennai, India (the former Madras) did something notable in its planning for a new urban development scheme. It consulted with informal workers. Nithya Raman, from the Centre for Development Finance, explains all in an op-ed from Express India:

Workers asked that evictions of slum-dwellers immediately cease, and that funds allocated for the urban poor be used to provide infrastructure, services and tenure in existing slum settlements rather than to construct alternative housing on the outskirts of the city. They asked for the government to prioritise the needs of pedestrians, cyclists, and users of public transport over the needs of automobile and motorcycle owners. They also asked that the government designate spaces for them to work within the city, such as spaces in markets and on roadsides for street-vendors, and to provide them services like drinking water, toilets, and crèches in these work spaces. If such projects are included in the new city development plan, it will already mark a significant departure from the city’s traditional planning priorities.

However, a number of the things that they suggested had absolutely nothing to do with infrastructure or city development as conceived by the JNNURM, and yet, were central to workers’ vision of a better city.Workers asked for access to finance and social security benefits and better quality, better-paid jobs. They wanted medical insurance, well functioning welfare boards, and provisions for retirement benefits. They wanted access to low-interest loans, so that they could avoid usurious moneylenders. They wanted the police to stop harassing them at their workplaces. They also wanted the push towards privatising municipal services to end, because privatisation meant a decrease in the availability of formal sector, decently paid work.

Workers also demanded changes in the government’s urban development policies that would give more power to citizens. They asked that the government provide complete information to city residents about all urban infrastructure projects. They also demanded that projects be approved through a genuinely consultative process, and that the final approvals for urban infrastructure projects should rest with local ward sabhas or gram sabhas. Why was this so central to their demands? Because urban infrastructure projects inevitably require government land, and result in the displacement of poor slum dwellers who squat on that land.

An end to evictions and the start of truly consultative planning to avoid displacement. Reasonable and prudent demands. I look forward to hearing what the Chennai government has to say.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

catch 22

Twelve thousand of Fiji's squatters are caught in legal limbo. Their families were recruited to come to Fiji from Melanesia back in the 1860s to work on the cotton and sugar plantations. Denied citizenship, they stayed and intermarried, essentially becoming Fijian, just not in a legal sense. Now one tiny impoverished community of 30 people faces a forced conundrum: accept eviction, or pay 13,000 Australian dollars each to buy their land. Another 30 immigrant squatter communities are at risk. The Australian Broadcasting Company has details.

Monday, March 16, 2009

tin town

Temporary relocation areas. Transit camps. Government shacks. These names all mean the same thing: shantytowns that were officially built to 'temporarily' house residents from squatter camps and inner-city slums until formal housing is provided for them. But, says South Africa's Business Day newspaper, these communities are no longer temporary. Now, they are government-created slums.

Business Day looks at Blikkiesdorp (tin town), a relatively orderly relocation area that was constructed last year, and nearby Tsunami, already run down and decrepit more than 4 years after it was built. And it mentions one temporary relocation area, the inappropriately named Happy Valley, that was erected more than 12 years ago and has now become a vast and permanent squatter settlement.

"In most cases, these camps are far from the cities where people live, work and school," says the organizing group Abahlali baseMjondolo. "People are taken there against their will with no guarantees about the conditions there, how long they will be kept there and where, if anywhere, they will be taken next."

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

the wrong approach

Thailand's Fine Arts Department has alleged that squatters are destroying forest and encroaching on ancient ruins in the Sukhothai historical park, the Bangkok Post reports.

"Through the Provincial Electricity Authority these villagers now have electrical supplies, making their illegal settlement nearly complete," Anandha Chuchoti, a department official, told the paper.

I have great sympathy with officials trying to preserve Thailand's cultural and religious heritage. The problem here, however, is that authorities have to stop demonizing squatters and start working with them, so that they will police the park boundaries and stop illegal encroachments. The solution is not demonizing squatters. It is working in partnership with them to make them full citizens.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

rape and cite soleil

The Guardian offers a vivid video report on the evil of rape in Cite Soleil and other shantytowns of Port au Prince, Haiti.

I certainly don't want to diminish the horror of this story. Unfortunately, though, the segment does traffick in the idea that sexual violence is the everyday reality of the 'slums' without unpacking some of the assumptions behind that assertion. Two examples:

1. While The Guardian reports the shocking stat that, during carnival, 15 women are raped each day, it doesn't distinguish whether those rapes are restricted to Cite Soleil and other shantytowns, or whether that's a city-wide number.

And 2. The video presents jerky hand-held images of men, women and kids standing in the darkness while UN soldiers with guns pass by. The reporter suggests that these lurkers are dangerous men on streetcorners. But the reality is that, on hot and steamy evenings, people in shantytowns often do leave their huts to get some air. In The Guardian's video footage, they seem to be gathered around a kiosk. It might be selling sodas or beer or calls on a mobile phone. While the extreme darkness--much of Cite Soleil has no electricity--makes it seem threatening, this may be no different from folks in any city hanging out in front of a barbershop or a corner store.

The reporter does point out that, in Haiti, the military, the police and various political gangs have all used rape as a tactic of subjugation. As Myriam Merlet, head of the government's Ministry of Women puts it, "Women have been raped every time there's political turmoil."

That's the ugly reality. It's beyond the so-called 'slums.' Women are victimized continually, in every segment of society.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

'move or be removed'

Awful words from Liberian Information Minister Laurence Bropleh. The government in Monrovia is determined to flex its muscle, reports The Liberian Journal, and will be going after squatters in the capital city.

The government tried this last year, and rescinded the eviction plan after strong squatter resistance. Why try again? Why not take a more broad-minded view of why squatters are there and what they offer the city?