On the Social Organization of Urban Space-Subversions and Appropriations
The heart of the capital city', perceptively remarks a character in the Graham Greene novel The Comedians 'is a shanty town*. And if we take this comment on the city in the post-colonial world seriously, as I have done, then the theorist of the urban is provoked to ask the following questions:—who shapes the city? in what image? by what means? against what social odds?, and more importantly, what are the consequences of this kind of spatial and social reordering?
As regards the first question as to who shapes the Indian city; even a cursory look at any Indian city, informs us that the city that presents itself to the visual imagery is the haphazard; the unintended city, a city that has the shanty town both occupying its core, as well as delineating its boundaries. The 'illegal1, sprawling squatter settlement both extends and subverts carefully planned housing spaces, recreation spaces, work spaces, commercial zones, and transport lames of the Indian city. But more importantly, it is the squatter settlement that defines the city, much more than the residential block or the office tower; the luxury hotel or the open parks. Lying cheek by jowl with the office skyscraper, the hotel tower, the informational spire, the recreational spaces, and all the gaudy symbols of affluence and consumerism, lies the shanty town, with its insistent projection into, and constant subversion of, planned urban spaces.
But there is more, squatter settlements interrogate urban planning, which builds cities on the backs of these workers, but does not have any place for them in the produced built environment. They symbolize the determination of those who are excluded, to make a place for themselves, in areas which are forbidden to them. And by challenging the spatial ordering of cities, the inhabitants of these 'dwellings' challenge the social order itself. Excluded from residential areas, by real estate prices, by land speculation and by myopic land use policies, homeless squatters learn to make homes for themselves by the occupation of public spaces.
Department of Political Science, University of Delhi.
Social Scientist, Vol. 21, Nos. 5-6, May-June, 1993