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Squatter Settlements: Urbanised Spaces?

Squatter Settlements: Urbanised Spaces? Annapurna Shaw This is the Indian edition of the book City Requiem: Gender and the Politics of Poverty published in 2003 by the University of Minnesota Press. Based on 11 months of fieldwork done in Kolkata in 1997, it is a scholarly and well written study of the poor living in the south-eastern fringes of the city and the processes, institutions and politics that keep them so. Using post-structuralist feminist theory and postmodern cultural interpretations, Roy stretches the boundaries of research in poverty studies to come up with fresh and interesting perspectives into the changing character and location of poverty in the metropolitan area, the gendered nature of poverty and the practices of institutions of the state and political parties that perpetuate poverty. The Indian edition has a 50-page introduction written in 2007 to connect the earlier edition, which is based on fieldwork done 10 years ago, to current realities of advancing globalisation and neoliberal policies of the state. With our cities growing larger and larger, their fringes or where the urban and rural meet, have become sites of conflict over land and other resources, and are experiencing considerable demographic and social change. There is clearly a need to incorporate understanding of the peri-urban areas of our cities and the socio-spatial processes that produce them in order to grasp the full implications of metropolitan urban growth. There is likewise a need for constant updating of empirical findings on the poor and more specifically, the urban poor, for with our cities becoming more overcrowded, the old slums within the city core are no longer the predominant places where the poor reside. Squatter settlements in the periphery of the city and along roads, canals and other vacant public land constitute an increasingly important type of residence for the urban poor. Growth in such settlements since the 1980s is an indicator of increasing landlessness in rural areas and the resultant distress migration into urban areas. Also on the increase is the daily commuting into our largest metropolitan areas by thousands of rural residents working mainly in the city

Squatter Settlements: Urbanised Spaces?

Annapurna Shaw

The third chapter, called ‘Domestications’, is on the gendered nature of poverty and the “feminisation of livelihoods”. This refers to not only the central role of women earners but also to the ways in which their livelihoods perpetuate their vulnerable status within households. Women from landless rural families earn a living primarily as domestics and petty vendors putting in hours and hours of hard work to return home to manage their households. Their husbands, mostly unemployed, busy themselves with local party politics as a means to keep alive

T
his is the Indian edition of the book City Requiem: Gender and the Politics of Poverty published in 2003 by the University of Minnesota Press. Based on 11 months of fieldwork done in Kolkata in

book review

Calcutta Requiem: Gender and the Politics of Poverty by Ananya Roy; Pearson Education, New Delhi, 2008; pp xlix + 288, Rs 525.

1997, it is a scholarly and well written study of the poor living in the south-eastern fringes of the city and the processes, institutions and politics that keep them so. Using post-structuralist feminist theory and postmodern cultural interpretations, Roy stretches the boundaries of research in poverty studies to come up with fresh and interesting perspectives into the changing character and location of poverty in the metropolitan area, the gendered nature of poverty and the practices of institutions of the state and political parties that perpetuate poverty. The Indian edition has a 50-page introduction written in 2007 to connect the earlier edition, which is based on fieldwork done 10 years ago, to current realities of advancing globalisation and neoliberal policies of the state.

With our cities growing larger and larger, their fringes or where the urban and rural meet, have become sites of conflict over land and other resources, and are experiencing considerable demographic and social change. There is clearly a need to incorporate understanding of the peri-urban areas of our cities and the socio-spatial processes that produce them in order to grasp the full implications of metropolitan urban growth. There is likewise a need for constant updating of empirical findings on the poor and more specifically, the urban poor, for with our cities becoming more overcrowded, the old slums within the city core are no longer the predominant places where the poor reside. Squatter settlements in the periphery of the city and along roads, canals and other vacant public land constitute an increasingly important type of residence for the urban poor. Growth in such settlements since the 1980s is an indicator of increasing

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
may 31, 2008

landlessness in rural areas and the resultant distress migration into urban areas. Also on the increase is the daily commuting into our largest metropolitan areas by thousands of rural residents working mainly in the city’s informal sector or in informal jobs in the formal sector. The inability of agriculture to provide adequate income through the year is one of the root causes of these city ward movements whether on a daily, seasonal or permanent basis.

Persistence of Poverty

At the conceptual level, there is need to rethink why the extremely poor remain so despite so many poverty alleviating programmes. What explains the persistence of poverty? This book attempts to provide us with some answers in the context of the “rural-urban” poor, that is, the poor who live in the peri-urban areas of the city. Chapter 1, describes the objectives of the book which are structured around the themes of poverty, the urban, gender and voice. Chapter 2, entitled ‘The Politics of Poverty’, concerns the first and revolves around the rural poverty and development debates of West Bengal. Through a review of these debates, the author concludes that city migrants living in squatter settlements constitute the rural landless and are therefore among the poorest of the poor. Her fieldwork involved data collection via a structured questionnaire survey, as well as ethnographic research of 87 migrant households living in squatter settlements in south-eastern Kolkata and 72 households commuting daily to the city from nearby villages. This chapter also introduces us to some of the families via a first person narration of migration histories.

their “marginalised masculinities” and protect their squatter settlements from eviction.

The fourth chapter is an examination of the institutions of the state government that control urban planning and land development in the city. A concept, central to the author’s understanding of the politics of squatter and resettlement colonies in southeastern Kolkata, is the “informality” of the state. An example of such informality is the lack of transparency and “extra-legal” mecha nisms used in government dealings on land in the city’s rapidly urbanising south-eastern fringes. It is reflected in the non-existence of proper maps, lack of updated records of land titles, a process labelled as “unmapping”. Fuzziness in records and reluctance to provide information on land development plans permits the state to keep urban squatters occupying vested land in a condition of continued dependence and uncertainty. Only with political patronage can they remain where they are. But political loyalty does not ensure a permanent foothold in the city, for increasingly, the imperatives of urban developmentalism override the promises made to disparate groups of squatters by politicians of different parties and the state evicts them when the land is needed for private development projects. Only some are resettled and the politics of list making divides the poor further, ensuring loyalty to the ruling government of those who have been provided for.

The Bias

The fifth chapter, entitled ‘Disruptions’ is about the hegemonic structures controlling the everyday lives of the poor and the potential of voice to “disrupt” these structures. It notes the existence of

BOOK REVIEW

voice as women commute in crowded trains and its absence in the workplace and home. The author concludes that the politics of poverty is a politics of knowledge and the persistence of poverty is due to both the regime in power with its masculinist and elite bias, and the family with its gen dered relations that simultaneously foster a “feminisation of livelihoods” and a “masculinisation of politics”.

The book is strongly critical of what has happened in West Bengal in the last three decades. Doubting whether any real improvement has occurred in the lives of the persistently poor, the author singles out middle peasants in the rural areas as the main beneficiary of the government’s land reforms. The landless have been left to fend for themselves and they do so by fleeing to the city or commuting to it from their villages. In the city they are used for vote bank politics, in the squatter and resettlement colo nies, and often have to relocate several times. The Left Front in its pursuit of creating a new millennial “bhadralok” city has not shown any real concern for the very poor.

The book is not without some weaknesses. One weakness in the author’s analysis of urban poverty in Kolkata is the rather neat categorisation of the different rural origins of the poor with “distinctive urban sites” (p 72). Thus, according to the author, interstate migrants head for the labour lines of factories or pavements, middle peasants show up in the regularised slums while the rural landless live in squatter settlements. This greatly simplifies the income, occupational and ethnic diversity of the slums. Inter state or non-Bengali migrants can be found not only in industrial areas and pavements but also in regular slums as in Park Circus and Bhowanipur. Regularised slums can contain landless interstate migrants as well as landless within-state migrants, while the older “bustees” of north Kolkata and the relatively newer bustees of the south need to be distinguished for the latter, even if regularised, can display high proportions of poverty and casual work with men primarily engaged in daily labouring jobs and women working as domestic servants [Shaw 1984].

The Categorisation

One reason for the neat categorisation could be because, while Roy has entered the debate on rural Bengal with data from

the National Sample Survey Organisation Bangla (golden Bengal) being perpetuated
and national level estimates of poverty, by “new communism” (p 145), by which
the presentation of the broader context of the author means the post-liberalisation
the urban through an analysis of large Left. The ruralisation aspect has not been
data sets such as the census and large adequately illustrated. Moreover, since
sample surveys has been much weaker. the government’s push for industrialisa-
These would have indicated the complex tion, how much of the Left’s ideology is
character of the slums and their ethnic preoccupied by this rural myth needs to
and occupational diversity. Since squatter be reassessed. Likewise, the author’s con
settlements are the focus of study, it would clusion regarding stalled urban projects
have been interesting to know what pro and “the double edged failure of urban
portion of the total slum population was developmentalism” (p 167) would need to
accounted for by them around 1997. A be updated in the light of urban growth
brief background into the history of that has occurred since 1997.
migration into the city and its changing The writing style of this book is auto
character by 1997 would have also helped. biographical with the author presenting
While commuting data is not available, the multiple and layered realities that cross
Census of 1991 would have indicated the over class, gender, cultural practices and
flows of intrastate and out of state migrants interrogating these realities, including
into Kolkata between 1981 and 1991. Roy’s the one that represents herself as a non
own fieldwork indicates that most of the resisident Indian (NRI) settled in Berkeley
squatter families whose migration histories doing research in a third world city. In
have been given in chapter 2 (pp 51-65) had keeping with this style, two pages of the
entered the city 10-15 years prior to her sur author’s own poems have been added
vey. They are not recent migrants although (pp 130-31) and after the last chapter, four
relative to the inhabitants of older slums, different postscripts. Whether the overtly
they are so. Census data indicate that in personal style has always enhanced the
1991, the share of migration in the urban presentation of the research is debatable
growth of Kolkata had declined to 35.47 for, at times, the author’s voice and persona
per cent from 38.89 per cent in 1981. In seem to overshadow that of the poor. Many
fact these figures are the lowest amongst personal details, for instance, the shabby
the five largest cities of the country. ceeping her chauffeur-driven car out of
The census, however, does not yet record their lothes worn by the author during vis
commuting data and this pheno menon has its to the poor, ksight and being addressed
certainly been increasing. The question of as “memsahib” by them have not added
why short and long distance migration any unique elements to the field work
into the city show declining trends while and could have been excluded as they fo
commuting, at least from non-official cus attention on herself and not the poor.
accounts, has been increasing, deserves Likewise description and analysis of her
further analysis. own predicaments and discomfort
While the strength of the book is in its while doing fieldwork could have been
focus on the processes that keep the poor minimised.
persistently poor, a few of these processes Despite the above, Roy’s book is a good
are unclearly developed or need to be contribution based on a rich theoretical
updated in the light of changes, both literature and varied research tools. Since
material as well as ideological, that have the 1990s, there has not been much de
occurred since 1997 when the author’s tailed micro-level research on the poor in
fieldwork was done. An example of this Indian cities. This book fills a sizeable gap
is the notion of “the ruralisation of the and will be of interest to those in the broad
villages from which migrants and com area of development policy research.
muters flock to the city” (p 145). According
to the author, Kolkata is experiencing Email: ashaw@iimcal.ac.in
“simultaneous urbanisation and ruralisa
tion”. While the urbanisation part is con- Reference
cretely visible and measurable, the ruralisation part rests on the myth of a Sonar Shaw, Annapurna (1984): ‘Wage Labour in Slum Households of Calcutta’, Labour, Capital and Society, Vol 17, No 1, 27-42.
may 31, 2008 Economic & Political Weekly
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