Slums: Local or Global?

When we hear the word “slum”, we are inevitably thinking of places that have got the global recognition. For many, the idea of slums is restricted to the famous slums, the ones they have seen in movies. Dharavi, a slum in Mumbai, India, is one such place. The Slumdog Millionaire has caught the Western world’s imagination and placed Dharavi on the global map. So much so that it has become a tourist destination for many. The Reality Tours and Travel advertises the tour of Dharavi as their signature tour and conducts it on regular basis. Would you take one? Of course a question that takes some soul searching. The answer to such a question becomes even harder when you know that the company invests the profit back in the community.

reality tours

Dharavi Tour is conducted regularly by the Reality Tours and Travel (Image Courtsey: http://www.realitytoursandtravel.com/)

The detour to ethics of tourism is over. Let us go back to our original question: are slums local or global? My short answer is that most slums are local. Just the way most cities are. Unfortunately, the slums shown in the movies are not the only slums that matter. According to the UN-Habitat, there are 200,000 slum communities across the world. Agreed, Dharavi is famous and recognized. But there are many other slums in Mumbai (and there WERE many other slums before they got evicted). Do we know other slum communities in Mumbai? Do policymakers in Mumbai recognize them? Do people living in Mumbai know? The fact of the matter is that the slums are so local that their existence is often not recognized in the local government’s formal planning documents. If we take the microscopic view, even if a slum is recognized, the individual households and their shacks are often not recognized as legitimate citizens.

In contrast, very similar to her global cities discourse, Saskia Sassen of Columbia University has recently coined the term ‘Global Slum’. What is this global slum? According to her article in the Forbes, the global slums are found in the global cities or next to the global cities. One reason she cites for the rise of global slums is that the advanced economies of global cities have established working connections with slums. As an example, she tells a story of a rag picker in Buenos Aires who describes himself/herself as an “environmental entrepreneur”.  According to Prof. Sassen, living in what she calls ‘global slums’ enables slum-dwellers to position themselves as ‘actors with positive valence’. Such a generalized statement could be misleading. With or without global working connections, that is if there are any, slum-dwellers are the actors with positive valence. They build their own housing without any government support and solve their housing problems creatively. Besides, coining new terms for the same kind of work (rag picking termed as environmental entrepreneurship) does not make it different. As she asserts in the same article, the type of work has not changed for these slum-dwellers.

To me, the global slum is a place that has caught the popular imagination (Particularly, the western imagination) especially because it is featured in popular media and  Hollywood movies. Unfortunately, documentaries about slums also tend to restrict themselves to the ‘global slums’. For example, Jonas Bendiksen has documented lives of slum-dwellers in his project called the places we live, mostly in slums that are well-known (Dharavi in Mumbai and Kibera in Nairobi).  A recent example is that of the documentary called “the Fourth World” that features stories from three slums, two of them being the well-known slums: Mathare Valley of Nairobi, Kenya and Li Limonada of Guatemala City, Guatemala (even if the makers were consciously skipping the famous Favelas from Rio, they did not pick a lesser known slum in Guatemala City).

theplaceswelive

Source: http://www.theplaceswelive.com/

The key difference here is that being in a global slum does not make them much different from the other slums in the city, but being in a global city does. Most importantly, the land beneath the global slums, usually occupied illegally, becomes a major issue. Slum-dwellers are required to fight for their right to the city once the city in which they are located becomes global and attracts foreign investments. The following clip from the Shack/Slum Development International, the global network of urban poor, talks about this issue from four global slums (they call them mega slums):

There is one thing that helps a ‘global slum’ and that is the sensitivity to media. Any efforts to evict such slums do not go unnoticed. The sense of importance that comes along with the global recognition, often provides them a shield, a protection against eviction. However, most slums who do not enjoy the global recognition, gets evicted overnight. Without making it to the news even after the eviction. Not even in the local newspaper.

The ‘global slum’ discourse may be important to seek attention of policymakers and general populace, some will argue, but little is discussed how such ‘awareness’ about the issue could improve  living conditions of urban poor. The terms such as ‘Planet of Slums’ (title of a book by Prof. Mike Davis of University of California) may increase the policy salience of the issue but each slum requires a unique and local solution. Paying too much attention to the ‘global slums’ or slum as a ‘global issue’ may be overrated. Especially when we know that there are many more lesser known or unknown local slums then there are global slums. Have you heard of a slum called Khodiyar Nagar in Ahmedabad, India? Wait, have you heard of a city called Ahmedabad? Most cities do not make it to the global cities list and so is true for most slums . The global slums are important but an unrecognized slum in an unrecognized city requires equal attention, may be more.

[Note: this video clip shows Khodiyar Nagar residents in Ahmedabad. The clip is produced by my students in India resulting from a lab on Inclusive City Sanitation Plan. In planning for the city in this lab, students recognize  residents of 710 slum communities in Ahmedabad as legitimate  citizens and argue that they are equally eligible for sanitation services of the city. It is interesting to note that Ahmedabad too aspires to be a global city!].