Slumland South Asia?

By Anjum Altaf

The success of Slumdog Millionaire has made the slum an image familiar to a lot more people in both East and West. Is it possible to use that image to discover something new about South Asia?

It was not the movie that triggered the idea itself but a chapter in a very old book that I happened to be reading. The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs, first published in 1961, is a classic described by the New York Times Book Review as “perhaps the most influential single work in the history of town planning… a work of literature.” It contains a fascinating chapter titled ‘Unslumming and Slumming’ that made me realize that while we have overused slums as a descriptive category we have underused it as an analytical one.

The question that came to mind was whether there was anything to be gained by thinking of South Asia in the slumming and unslumming perspective employed by Jane Jacobs?

[Before proceeding with this line of thought I need to address readers who would object to South Asia or countries in South Asia being labeled as slums. There are two responses to such an objection. First, I am not saying South Asia is a slum; I am trying to see if we can learn something if we think of it in those terms. This may not be enough to convince some readers for whom I have the second response. We have no hesitation in labeling Dharavi as a slum without being concerned that it might be hurtful to the residents of Dharavi. So what is the moral basis for feeling hurt if one’s hometown or country is called a slum?]

Jacobs has a very interesting definition of a slum: It is not a poor, underdeveloped, or rundown place; rather, it is a place that people want to leave or dream of leaving. A poor area is not a slum if people do not wish to leave. A ‘perpetual slum,’ on the other hand,  is one that shows no sign of social or economic improvement over time, or which regresses after a little improvement, and so loses a lot of people who can afford to leave. And a slum begins to ‘unslum’ when not only people wish to stay but also begin to invest in their homes, and other people begin to move in.

Note the brilliance of Jacobs’ conceptualization: she has turned the focus away from the physical conditions of a place to the feelings and actions of the people who inhabit that place. This is critical because in the traditional approach dominated by the physical characterization it is always outsiders who come in to improve slums often riding roughshod over the wishes of the residents. In the latter, it is the people who are at the center of the action.

If one thinks in this perspective one might be allowed to say that Pakistan, for example, is a slum very much in danger of turning into a perpetual slum. India, or at least some parts of India, on the other hand, has begun to unslum.

There is little doubt that the desire of an increasing number of Pakistanis who can dream of leaving is to try and leave. Such a desire was evident even in the 1980s when Pakistan was memorably characterized by Ghazi Salahuddin as the ‘Greatest Country to Go Away From.’ (This was in the context of a contest at that time between cities and countries to find something that they could boast about.) In the 1970s and 1980s it was the upper class youth and the working class of all ages that wanted to leave; in a book that will appear later this year, Arif Hasan, a perceptive observer of the social scene, will be presenting evidence of how quickly this desire has filtered down into the dreams of the new generations of urban middle and lower middle class youth in Pakistan.

And while people in rural India might still be dreaming of leaving, there are, at least since the later 1990s, an increasing number of urban Indians who are excited about staying and an equally significant number that are keen on returning.

Jacob mentions that when sufficient people begin to stay in a slum by choice, several other important things begin to happen: the community begins to gain competence and strength and becomes comfortable with outsiders.

So, if we wish Pakistan to start ‘unslumming’ we have to get to the point where a significant number of Pakistanis who have the option to leave decide to stay home by choice. How are we going to get there?

Desire of course is not enough. Jacobs inserts pragmatism into her description as follows: “Successful unslumming means that enough people must have an attachment to the slum that they wish to stay in, and it also means that it must be practical for them to stay…. Impracticality has mostly to do with the unavailability of money for improvement, for new buildings, and for commercial enterprises at a time when these needs become urgent and their discouragement crucial.”

This brings us to a discussion of possible solutions. Now that that the US government has decided to channel a huge amount of funds into Pakistan, would this money trigger the unslumming process?

The subsequent chapter of Jacobs’ book ‘Gradual and Cataclysmic Money’ provides a cautionary answer that is contained in the title of the chapter itself. Very briefly, Jacobs provides a convincing argument for why ‘cataclysmic’ money (money that arrives in huge amounts in short periods of time) is a surefire way of destroying all possibilities of unslumming. What is needed, she argues, is gradual money in the control of the residents themselves.

There is a section in this chapter that is invaluable for Pakistanis: Jacobs who had nothing to do with foreign aid uses that analogy to describe what happened in the community of East Harlem in New York when it was attempted to be reformed with cataclysmic money.

It was as if East Harlem, in effect, had been decreed a backward and deprived country, financially apart from our normal national life…. Eventually, much as the generosity of a rich nation might well extend massive aid to a deprived and backward country, into this district poured massive “foreign” aid, according to decisions by absentee experts from the remote continent inhabited by housers [this is Jacobs’ term for housing experts] and planners. The aid poured in for rehousing people – some three hundred million dollars worth. The more that poured in, the worse became the turmoils and troubles of East Harlem, and still more did it become like a deprived, backward country…. In East Harlem, citizens today have to fight off still more money for repetitions of mistakes that go unappraised by those who control the money floodgates. I hope we disburse foreign aid abroad more intelligently than we disburse it at home.

I have highlighted the crucial sentence of the paragraph. Alas, we don’t. Alas, we don’t.

Pakistanis, beware of the money that will come coursing through the floodgates repeating the mistakes of the past. It will enrich a few more but it will do nothing to unslum Pakistan. On the contrary, it may well push it over into the state of being a perpetual slum.


  • Hasan Abdullah
    Posted at 05:10h, 28 May Reply

    The slum has been excellently defined.

    Perhaps, if the slum is to be rooted out from the face of the earth, the root cause that gives rise to this phenomenon would have to be ascertained, and the society built on the logic, which is radically different from the one that results in the pathetic scenario of today.

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