New Internationalist

Architects of our futures

Issue 386

Robert Neuwirth’s two years in squatter communities left him with an abiding admiration.

Crispin Hughes / Panos / www.panos.co.uk
Standing tall. Kibera, one of Nairobi’s toughest slums, is not for the meek and mild. Crispin Hughes / Panos / www.panos.co.uk

The women of Vikas Sagar still live in one-storey huts hacked into the steep hillside above Mahim Bay. They still worry about floods and landslides. They are still concerned about having enough money to make ends meet. But today their homes are permanent: made of concrete instead of mud. Their walkways are now paved with cement and tile to prevent erosion. And they have pooled their resources to create a communal savings plan – a small-scale bank, giving each of them the ability to get loans. They have transformed their lives and their community.

How did they make these improvements? Instead of agonizing, they organized. Vikas Sagar is a tiny squatter community in Mumbai, India. It was founded decades ago. But the nine women sitting on the floor of Mumtaz Sadik Shaikh’s house know that no matter how long they have been living here, the Government still considers them illegal. ‘Unless we take action, nothing will be granted to us,’ says Lali Penday. Her neighbours nod approvingly.

It wasn’t always this way. Little more than a decade ago the women of Vikas Sagar were traditional housewives so controlled by their husbands that they seldom left their community. ‘When we started,’ remembers Sangita Duby, ‘we were not able to go out of our houses. We were illiterate and signed our names with a thumbprint. Now we are literate and sign our names in Hindi and English.’ The women of Vikas Sagar know who the local politicians are. And, more importantly, the politicians know who they are.

There are a billion squatters in the world today: almost one in six people on the planet. And their numbers are on the rise. Every day close to 200,000 people leave the world’s rural regions and head for the cities. That’s 130 people arriving every minute; two every second. They all face the same struggle. They come in search of work. And they find work, too. But then they can’t find a place to live. No developer is building for them. No government seems willing to make the investment required to provide decent homes they can afford. So they become squatters, invading unused turf or joining communities established by people who made the same journey before them. By 2050 there will be three billion squatters – a third of the people on the globe.

Most governments have responded to this massive migration with outrage, attempting to drive squatters out of the city. A year ago Mumbai embarked on a drive against squatters. It was part of a campaign that was marketed with the slogan ‘from Mumbai to Shanghai’ – sending the message that crowded Mumbai was a city open for development. Local officials sent the police to flatten 90,000 homes, leaving hundreds of thousands homeless.

More recently, in November 2005, Kolkata (Calcutta) started its own effort to evict squatters. A panel of judges ordered the ejection of 20,000 families from a well-established squatter village alongside one of the city’s commuter rail lines. The squatters are resisting by demonstrating and interrupting traffic on major roads.

These government-sponsored pogroms are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of squatters and their communities. Most outsiders see these neighbourhoods solely as outposts of misery, lawlessness and criminality. And – around the world – go to any one of these communities and it’s certainly true that you will find hunger, poverty and disease. But you will also find health clinics, beauty salons, grocery stores, bars, restaurants, tailors, clothiers, churches and schools. In most squatter communities, the residents build and rebuild and build again – often one wall at a time – to make their homes better. In the midst of the squalor and open sewerage, you’ll find commerce, thrift, energy and hope.

The way forward for the world’s cities is not to muscle out the squatters, but to tap their energy. With a guarantee that they won’t be evicted and the ability to participate, squatters will rebuild their communities and their cities. The women of Vikas Sagar are ready.

In a city with 12 million residents and 6 million squatters, Mumbai is the headquarters of a worldwide squatter organizing effort called Slum/Shack Dwellers International (SDI). SDI got its start under a different name back in the 1970s. The movement is now international with chapters in 14 countries. As with the women of Vikas Sagar, SDI bases its mobilization on communal savings groups, and its 5.6 million members round the globe have amassed nearly $32 million in savings. The principle is simple: each squatter community that joins SDI creates a savings association. Any family can join if they are willing to contribute a small amount every day. The pooled money is returned to the community in the form of small loans. ‘Through savings, we don’t have to demand that the politicians improve living conditions or economic conditions or homes,’ says Jockin Arputham, a long-time squatter activist in Mumbai who is the founder and president of SDI. A slight man with thinning hair, a sparse grey moustache and the suggestion of a Buddha belly, Jockin might be called the philosopher-king of squatter activism. A firebrand organizer before he became a devotee of savings (he once locked a government official in a latrine to win the promise of new toilets for his community), Jockin now sees savings as a more efficient way of getting things done. ‘Because of savings, you empower yourself.’

So far, the group’s strategy has led to the construction of almost 80,000 permanent homes. In addition it has helped secure land for 125,000 squatter families. In a sense, Jockin and his allies are developing a parallel government: one that – perhaps when money and capacity meet – will be able to provide services that governments currently refuse to squatter areas.

Gilles Saussier / Still Pictures / www.stillpictures.com
Oh-oh, looks like rain; the plucky squatters of Mumbai have had to overcome a lot more than inclement weather to sustain their communities. Gilles Saussier / Still Pictures / www.stillpictures.com

Jockin is a master of media relations. After authorities insisted that the poor who flock to the city return to their former rural homes, Jockin told one interviewer: ‘I’m willing to give Mumbai’s middle class a plane ticket to go back to their villages. They have acres to go back to. Will they?’

Sitting cross-legged on the floor of his office in a former garage behind Mumbai’s Byculla municipal infirmary, Jockin sums up this thinking: ‘We very strongly believe that the problems of the urban poor can only be solved by the urban poor, not by anybody else. The urban poor will be the change-agents of the city.’

An even more effective approach – which exists so far as I know only in Turkey – involves giving squatters political rights. Once a squatter community has 2,000 residents, it can petition the Federal Government to be recognized as a legal municipality, giving squatters a chance at self-government. Sultanbeyli, on the Asian side of Istanbul, took this opportunity. A generation ago Sultanbeyli was a tiny hamlet that was just beginning to attract immigrants from the east. These early arrivals lived in hovels, pirated electricity and survived without water or toilets. But as more residents came, Sultanbeyli opted to pursue political rights. The area became a legal municipality in 1989 and a district (a designation with a bit more power and independence) in 1992. Today Yahya Karakaya, Sultanbeyli’s popularly elected mayor, sits in his air-conditioned office on the top floor of the seven-storey city hall and looks out on an amazing squatter empire: a city of 300,000 people, most of whom live in solid concrete and brick buildings, with a bustling main drag, full of stores, offices, restaurants, banks and even car dealerships.

Using its newfound political weight, Sultanbeyli arranged with Istanbul’s big-city Government to bring water and sewers to every home in the district. In exchange, Sultanbeyli’s squatter politicians agreed to rein in their city’s growth, and passed strict rules against encroachment in surrounding forests – crucial for Istanbul’s water supply.

But moving into agitation, organizing and politics takes self-confidence. And, in my two years of living in squatter communities, I found that this was the very thing most squatters lacked. Consider Elocy Kagwiria Murungi, a squatter in Nairobi, Kenya. I think of her as a squatter success. We talk in Kibera, Nairobi’s largest and most primitive shanty community. Between 500,000 and a million people live here, without water, sewers or services. Many people here don’t even have toilets. Like most of her neighbours, like most squatters around the world, Elocy came to the city with nothing. She had to scrounge to make ends meet. She sold paper and pencils on the street. She took menial jobs in the downtown hotels. Now she is a teacher, working in a school for street children. It is not a high-paying job, but it is rewarding work. In her time in Kibera, Elocy has improved her life and opened up opportunities for her young son, Collins.

Yet this intelligent and hard-working woman has a different view. The uncertain light bounces off the corrugated metal walls of the cabin, casting wild shadows on her face as she talks. She leans towards the flickering kerosene lantern in her cramped single-room dwelling as she describes herself as a parasite: ‘I act like lice; the way lice act. I burrow in and scratch out an existence.’

Changing that self-perception is the key to moving forward in the world’s burgeoning squatter communities. For it is people like Elocy and Collins who, when they recognize that they are leaders and not parasites, will be the most powerful force for change in their cities. With permanence, stability and political rights, it is they who will build the cities of tomorrow. •

Robert Neuwirth is author of Shadow Cities: A billion squatters, a new urban world (Routledge, New York, 2005).

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