Slums are Worker Colonies

ACORN International Housing India Workers

             Delhi      The last workshop we led in Katmandu at the World Social Forum focused on housing rights.  Judy Duncan from ACORN Canada detailed the long and successful campaign to win landlord licensing in Toronto and the resources for inspections and fines to give it sharp teeth.  Emma Saunders from ACORN’s affiliate in Scotland, Living Rent, told about their great progress in advancing rent controls both nationally and in our core cities, Edinburgh and Glasgow.  Neither of these fights are over yet, but what we’ve won to date has been historic for tenants especially.

The session was moderated by Vinod Shetty, ACORN’s director in Mumbai, India, where we work primarily in Dharavi, often called the largest slum in Asia.  Vinod brought the life-or-death struggle in Dharavi to moderate the billionaire developer and Prime Minister Modi facilitated Adani project to redevelopment Dharavi to the attention of everyone in the room.  After decades of struggle along with many others to stop the redevelopment and displacement of what could be one-million people, some project is inevitable now that the bids have been let and house-to-house surveys are in progress.  The fight now is largely about displacement, relocation, and the right-to-return.  A variety of options, some good and others horrific, are available, depending on whether residents can prove their tenure in Dharvi before 2011, giving them the right to in-situ housing in Dharavi in the future.  Another tranche would be able to rent there, and the final tens of thousands of people would be displaced to housing on city acreage in the saltpan area twenty kilometers away.  ACORN is working with our members and other residents to get documents together and construct proof of residence for people to remain in Dharavi.

Dharavi is more than housing, because it is also where people work, so the relocation of jobs is as critical as residences.  Vinod made an important argument about Dharavi, and in some ways, slums in general, arguing that these are “workers’ colonies.”  A subdivision or housing complex in India is called a colony, but his point is larger than the local context.  Slums are workers’ housing.  The workers are informal and often precarious given the wages of the local economies, but they are not simply tolerated, but part of the economic business model.  Work without benefits or living wages mandates substandard housing as one of its key requirements.  They are kept together and near the sources of production because that directly subsidizes the dominant economy.

City managers and big time developers may see these 600 acres of Dharavi as prime real estate for luxury condos and upscale office towers and malls, but for centuries Dharavi’s function in reality, despite any tut-tuts about the living conditions, fueled the growth of the city and its enterprises on the backs of the population forced to survive with such available work and housing.

Vinod was talking about Dharavi, but as we met later, we were all struck by the obvious fact that this is part of the fabric of many – maybe all – of our cities.  It may be starker in Korogocho, San Juan Lurigancho, and Dharavi, but it’s everywhere we work in one way or another, because this is how too many governments and the businesses they serve want to keep workers near at hand and marginal to fuel their enterprises and castles in the sky.  Workers’ colonies are slums, because that’s exactly how they want it.