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From Informal to Illegal

April 16, 2007

The fight for city space, today, has gone far beyond the Master Plan. On the traffic signals of South Delhi, the Master Plan 2021 now rivals Paulo Coehlo in sales. Planning and the fight for urban space has, it seems, becomes everyone’s debate. On the surface, this is a fight about planning and order, about drawing the lines between formal/informal, legal/illegal, and public/private to prevent the “anarchy” that may result without planning.

Yet how do we understand “informality” and “illegality” in a city like Delhi? According to the Tejender Khanna Committee, appointed by the government and led by Delhi’s ex- Lt Governor, nearly 70% of the city lives in a state of semi-legality, mostly due to the DDA’s consistent failure to meet its own land acquisition and housing development targets over the last twenty years. Sainik Farms and the slums of Yamuna Pushta are, therefore, just as “informal” as each other, albeit in different ways. Yet the consequences of their informality are vastly different. Within the courts, the Master Plans and in public opinion, it is only the slum dwellers and the urban poor that have become “encroachers,” and the homes that they have lived in for decades “temporary” and “illegal.” In the context of poverty, it seems, informality very easily slides into illegality.

What allows such vastly different consequences for what is, in essence, the same crime? Informality, many theorists have argued, is not the absence of order, but its deliberate and selective suspension. It is the government and the planning authorities that decide who and what should be informal, what the consequences of informality will be, who shall be allowed to remain informal and until what time. The slums of Yamuna Pushta had been continuously inhabited for nearly thirty years. Forty thousand families don’t hide from the state, they exist and survive because the government allows them to, and, most importantly, because the city needs them to, unable to survive without their cheap services. They build shelter where they do because of the failures of the DDA to build even the inadequate low-income housing stock that they have committed to over the past twenty years. In effect, the government punishes an illegality it creates.

What allows this to occur? It is here that the fight for the city extends far beyond the Master Plans and the DDA, and into the heart of the city’s imagination of itself. Who has the right to the city? The urban poor are punished in our names, as part of our manufactured dreams of hyper-modern cities and lives – informality is merely the latest accusation leveled against them. In court judgments, in Master Plans, in advertising campaigns that call for “world class cities”, in RWA meetings, and on the city streets, “illegal” and “informal” have become moral charges that portray a part of our city’s population as being unfit for citizenship. It is a part of the fight over city space that is the least talked about: the re-casting of slum dwellers as non-citizens, unable and unfit to live in a “world class” city. It is a re-casting that is needed by the government, the DDA and the courts so that they can still claim the legitimacy of acting in “public interest.” The use of the word “encroacher” is an example in point. Even at the height of the sealing debates the courts never described or attacked the moral character of the traders. They couldn’t – that public talks back. Yet the courts feel free to say that giving slum dwellers alternate housing tracks is like “rewarding a pickpocket for stealing.” It invites skilled professionals to land in Delhi’s new airport, but migrants who walk across the border are told not to come to Delhi “if they cannot afford to live here.”

The texts of the court’s judgment say as much as its verdicts. They take away from slum dwellers the right to be seen and imagined as rightful citizens who can ask the state and city for space, services, and inclusion. Slums are increasingly being seen as social, rather than planning, failures. This is an extremely dangerous turn in our public discourse – a contempt for the poor that is reinforced constantly by language, by law, and in public visual language. Slums as sites for disease, drugs and illiteracy. Slum dwellers as those that “steal” public services and don’t pay taxes, and take the middle classes’ hard earned benefits. They are anti-growth, anti-modern, and anti-global. They are all, in short, that the new India is constantly told that it does not want to be. Slums, today, are, in essence, being blamed for their failure to adapt to a modern India, for not transitioning from industrial to service-sector economies, for not being able to pay service charges for more efficient, private basic services. For being, because the image captures so much, pedestrians trying to cross the eight-lane expressway between Delhi and Gurgaon that has no overpass that they can use.

The 1962 Master Plan said that it “was of the utmost importance that physical plans should avoid stratification on income or occupation basis.” That plan has lost itself somewhere along the way, and has legitimized its new path by accusing the poor of “informality” – a mode of living that once described their marginalisation but now has become their crime. New migrants are surrounded by invisible walls that allow them no right to imagine belonging to the city, no possibility of ever moving from the slums to create the working and middle class neighborhoods of tomorrow. Why does this matter? It matters because no new Master Plan can fix the increasing spatial inequalities that characterize our cities today, not while the government and the judiciary can place their assault on the poor on the shoulders of public interest and an assumed acquiescence. There is an urgent need for us to recognize that world class cities should be measured by the dignity of their poorest, not the height of the gates that enclose the houses of the rich.

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