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Making the ‘Invisibles’ Visible

In Search of Home: Citizenship, Law and the Politics of the Poor by Kaveri Haritas, New Delhi: Cambridge University Press, 2021; pp 194,price not indicated.

Urban poverty, especially in the context of homelessness and hou­sing, has grown into an issue having social, economic, and political verticals. It is a global phenomenon; the subject is viewed as citizenship right, lucrative moneymaking opportunity, or an illegitimate aspiration from the state—depending on which end of the fence one is.

State-led assault and discrimination is not an unknown experience for the urban poor. Often people spend their lives in informal settlements with identities of illegal occupants. This construct of identity can be seen happening even over multiple generations. From the book titled In Search of Home: Citizenship, Law and the Politics of the Poor, one expe­cted to find an explanation of the entire rehabilitation ecosystem in the context of citizenship and governance. The book does make an honest effort to document the experiences of all possible stakeholders. However, it leaves gaps for misrepresentation, even if unconsciously. Given the complex and layered nature of the subject, the urban poor and its relation with the state requires really sharp and careful presentation or it may further the stereotypes and prejudices against the poor.

Powerfully Told Story

The author has sufficiently engaged with the issue, which makes her account of incidents real and authentic. Using Laggere colony, a rehabilitation colony in Bengaluru, the author presents a broader system of slum rehabilitation progra­mmes and challenges. This book is a valuable combination of field experiences and scholarly understanding. Like a storyteller, the author takes the readers thro­ugh the lanes of Laggere colony and presents what life is at the rehabilitation colony and what all goes into it. The book makes for relevant reading, close to ground realities and simple description. The experiential style of narration makes the presentation interesting and easy for comprehension.

What is promised in policies and what is delivered rarely meet. There is a serious bottleneck of perspective that results in this gap of delivery. Often it is beli­eved that the poor people are being ­“given” and “helped”; rarely it is guided by the idea of rights. The book, very interestingly, begins with the definition of rehabilitation or rather questioning the definition of rehabilitate and rightly so.


The missing piece: Criminalisation—The book effectively scrutinises the politics of rehabilitation; however, while analysing the legal response, it misses out the frequently used legislation implemented by most of the Indian states. Urban poor, especially the pavement and slum dwellers, are criminalised and punished under the anti-beggary legislation. Those getting processed under the beggary-prevention legislation get further caught in the vicious cycle of the loss of livelihood, unaff­ordable legal expenses, and the resul­tant debts, followed by the loss of dignity and breakdown, and failure to access the various schemes for their well-being. The long-term psychological trauma is not even estimated. Unfortunately, this most frequently used tool by the states does not find even a mention in the book. By holding individuals responsible for their plight and punishing them for destitution, this law projects state failure as indi­vidual failure. It would have been apt to capture this critical aspect of ­urban governance.

Right to housing, in spite of all the claims and policy declarations made by different governments, remain a distant dream for the majority of urban poor. The exclusion is not only in implementation but also in design itself. While urban planning is essential for the overall dev­elopment and growth of city spaces, it is the perspective that planners and admi­nistrators have about the urban poor which makes them go absent from the planning itself. The most visible yet the most invisible homeless and pavement dwellers remain invisible from the state policies and schemes as well, thanks to the apathy of the state mechanism. While the book attempts to capture and project this apathy, it dilutes the same when indi­vidual factors like corrupt officials or political motives are brought into discussion simultaneously. This simultaneous explanation is enough to allow “systemic and designed discrimination” to be understood as individual doing.

Illegal Occupants–Legitimate Citizens

When the eviction is carried out, the number of people who are allocated alt­ernative houses is a mere fraction of those evicted. However, when this is presented along with people manipula­ting to get a house allocated for them, it does shift the onus of responsibility and takes the focus away from extremely disproportionate allocations. One may think the poor dweller as the one mani­pula­ting. A person who does not understand the reality is likely to miss the ­aspect of under-allocation and may only see how people manipulate to get the quarters all­ocated. While it is true that individuals do take recourse to manipulative processes in order to get their all­otments, the real reason for this dismal situation is inadequate allocation.

The manipulation happens at both the ends and not only by the affected community members. This manipulation beg­ins from the politics of identification and recognition of the slums by the state. The way slum clusters are recognised by the government and granted a legal status is based largely on political estimations. In one stroke, the government turns someone’s legal identity from that of a citizen to an illegal occupant. With this turn in the legitimacy of one’s existence, the state’s role also shifts from its responsibility “towards the poor” (say provide housing) to “against the poor” (say evictions, demolitions, and criminal cases).


Reordering of city spaces: The author rightly highlights and questions the design of rehabilitation. She argues that rehabilitation has little to do with providing adequate housing. It is more of a drive to empty the cities of poor groups. Most evictions are carried out in key geographies—often the city centres, and the evicted families are moved to far-flung areas on the city outskirts, making commuting a nightmare and holding on to existing livelihoods a challenge. In other words, this can also be termed as the state clearing its land and projecting that “forced clearance” as a legitimised process.

There is this chain that gets created, as explained beautifully by the author, from the eviction of masses to partial ­resettlement and the ensuing struggle to find their way out. Ghettos developed on the outskirts of most of the Indian cities are the results of these evictions. These ghettos, over the years, see the repeat of how they originated and face the risk of yet another eviction as once “outskirt area” becomes the new “present prime land.” Worst is the fact that this rehabilitation provides for rationalisation for the displacement and acquisition of land for urban development projects. From this context, if the rehabilitation is not provided at the same place without hampering one’s livelihood and the social life, then rehabilitation is nothing but a mechanism to legitimise the land clearance process.

The rehabilitation housing is a small price to free up costly land from its habitants. It is also argued by the author as probable appeasement for slum dwellers by the government, especially around the election times as their status is promised to be changing from forced occupants to legal citizens. It also helps in breaking the resistance of protesting communities as they are shown the promise of legal housing. Unfortunately, it is left to the corporations and state agencies to provide whatever they deem appropriate as rehabilitation. Neither the law nor the judicial pronouncements have supported rehabilitation as a necessary remedy in the case of evictions. While rehabilitation could be provided “in situ,” implying settlement at the location of eviction, which rarely happens.


Citizenship: Practice–Idea—This book provides a nuanced explanation of citizenship as an idea and its execution. The author begins by expl­aining how citizenship is understood by various scholars and then moves to explain how the practice of citizenship imp­acts laws, regulations, and their enf­orcement. Further, she connects citizenship with the law and explores the effect of law on citizenship and vice versa while treating the law as the tool for manifestation for the state. Kaveri Haritas calls neighbourhood as the most crucial cog in understanding caste, class, religion, and gender. Using the neighbourhood as a concept, she explains the relationship between the informal urban poor and the political class. While studying this association, she provides livid insights about the poor person’s interface with slum terminology and state control. Human nature and emotions also unfol­ded. Through a case study, ground realities such as the conditions of homes and dysfunctional services are shown.


Slum rehabilitation’ market: The slum rehabilitation scheme has bec­ome infamous due to corrupt practices and patronage that are rampant. The housing units under the rehabilitation scheme are often misused by elected representatives as a reward for their supporters. Similarly, the officials consider poor housing as an easy opportunity for corrupt functioning. This often results in conflict between local politicians and officials, both attempting to establish their supremacy. In Search of Home: Citizenship, Law and the Politics of the Poor captures this aspect eff­ectively and shows the power conflict among different stakeholders.

While the stated purpose for evictions and subsequent rehabilitation is to eliminate slums from the cities, what happens in the field is entirely opposite. Dem­olition of one slum actually leads to the creation of another cluster. The wide gap between the number of families losing their shelter and those offered residence as compensation is one of the biggest contributors to the creation of more slums.

With eviction, it is not only the housing that is affected but also the livelihood, energy, money, time everything that are seve­rely affected. Often the resettlement sites are located far from cities, making it almost impossible for people engaged in occupations like domestic work, lab­our work, and employment in informal sectors to continue with their livelihood.


People’s resistance: Using communities’ resistance, Haritas has attempted to bring out the intersectionality of gender and caste. She has used anecdotal format to describe different dimensions, including women or the absence of women from the slum movement and their manipulation. Using a real protest incident, she explains the gendering of the politics of rehabilitation and shows how women are used, only symbolically, both by the communities as well as politicians.


Construct of legitimacy: As an activist working with the urban poor, one clearly notices most evictions taking place during a certain point of the year and then letting the place get encroached again. The government often uses these evictions to get the land cleared and show it in its possession on a given date. People could be seen struggling even to prove their existence in spite of having lived in the neighbourhood for years. Their experience with the state machinery taught them the value of maintaining and protecting their documents and using them extremely judiciously in order to establish their identity and thereafter seek inclusion in the government programmes and schemes; people use the documents to legally claim citizenship and some visibility.


Right to have ‘Rights’: While most of the rights remain out of access for the poor homeless, there is a pretty interesting phenomenon that the author has examined and called it the “right to have rights.” This understanding could be serving as a critical inspiration req­uired for the mobilisation and collectivisation of the community, especially in the light of poor access and availability of services for the poor. Haritas explains how certain practices, over a period of time, become the norm and create a system of sorts that parallels the legal system. She also opines that these norms and the law are linked intricately as they produce each other. This could be easily understood in any slum resettlement colony where officials would be seen functioning on the basis of what are the norms and community members mistaking the norms as “rules” and following them diligently. Long-practised norms are considered by people as “law” and poor people practice those norms thinking them to be law.

The Continuation of the Journey

Although brief, but powerful explanation is made showing how the resistance is never allowed to grow to any serious level. The acceptance or practice of norms become paralegal; corruption and mediation when combined take away the potential for radical resistance. Urban poor can often be seen fighting among themselves in their struggle to get hold of their share of scarcely available res­ources. Unable to see through the false promises of mediators or the corrupt practices, any possibility of resistance beyond a routine, symbolic opposition is killed accidently as well as strategically.

The way variety of issues concerning slums recognition and rehabilitation system are covered, this book qualifies as an essential reading for anyone wanting to understand the politics of urban poverty and the state’s response. Given the number of urban poor affected across the country, it is impossible for any political outfit to ignore these groups outrightly and therefore slum rehabilitation plan finds itself on agenda for all political parties; the only difference being the “cut-off” date triggering the cycle of criminalisation.




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Updated On : 8th Aug, 2022
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