[Reader-list] Planet of slums

Rana Dasgupta eye at ranadasgupta.com
Fri Jul 2 13:24:21 IST 2004

Stunning overview of the vast and fast-growing global population of informal
workers living in large illegal settlements and the religious systems they
have chosen as their personal and political ideologies.


Rana Dasgupta

Planet of Slums
from Harper's Magazine, June 2004

Keywords: slums, cities, religion, poverty, inequality

(Adapted from an essay by Mike Davis, in the March/April issue of New Left
Review. Davis is currently writing a book about slums that will be published
by Verso next year.)

Sometime in the next year, a woman will give birth in the Lagos slum of
Ajegunle, a young man will flee his village in west Java for the bright
lights of Jakarta, or a farmer will move his impoverished family into one of
Lima's innumerable pueblos jovenes. The exact event is unimportant and will
pass entirely unnoticed. Nonetheless it will constitute a watershed in human
history. For the first time, the urban population of the earth will
outnumber the rural.

In 1950 there were 86 cities in the world with populations over one million;
today there are 386, and by 2015 there will be at least 550. The present
urban population (3 billion) is larger than the total population of the
world in 1960. The global countryside, meanwhile, will reach its maximum
population (3.3 billion) in 2020 and thereafter will begin to decline. As a
result, cities will account for all future world population growth, which is
expected to peak at about 9 billion in 2050.

Ninety-five percent of this final build out of humanity will occur in the
urban areas of developing countries, whose populations will double to nearly
4 billion over the next generation. The most celebrated result will be the
burgeoning of new megacities with populations in excess of 8 million and,
even more spectacularly, hypercities with more than 20 million inhabitants.
By 2025, Asia alone could have ten or eleven conurbations that large,
including Jakarta, Dhaka, and Karachi. Shanghai could have as many as 27
million residents in its huge estuarial metro-region. Bombay meanwhile is
projected to attain a population of 33 million, though no one knows whether
such gigantic concentrations of poverty are biologically or ecologically

But if megacities are the brightest stars in the urban firmament, three
quarters of the burden of population growth will be borne by faintly visible
second-tier cities: places where, as U.N. researchers emphasize, "there is
little or no planning to accommodate these people or provide them with
services." In China the number of official cities has soared from 193 to 640
since 1978. In Africa, likewise, the supernova-like growth of a few giant
cities such as Lagos (from 300,000 in 1950 to 10 million today) has been
matched by the transformation of several dozen small towns and oases such as
Ouagadougou, Nouakchott, Douala, and Antananarivo into cities larger than
San Francisco or Manchester.

The dynamics of Third World urbanization both recapitulate and confound the
precedents of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Europe and North
America. In China the greatest industrial revolution in history is shifting
a population the size of Europe's from rural villages to smog-choked,
sky-climbing cities. In sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, the Middle East,
and parts of Asia, however, urbanization has been radically decoupled from
industrialization, and even from development per se. This "perverse" urban
boom contradicts orthodox economic models that predict that the negative
feedback of urban recession should slow or even reverse migration from the

The global forces pushing people from the countryside-mechanization in Java
and India; food imports in Mexico, Haiti, and Kenya; civil war and drought
throughout Africa; and everywhere the consolidation of small into large
holdings-seem to sustain urbanization even when the pull of the city is
drastically weakened by debt and depression. At the same time, rapid urban
growth in the context of structural adjustment, currency devaluation, and
state retrenchment has been a recipe for the inevitable mass production of
slums. Much of the urban world, as a result, is rushing backward to the age
of Dickens.

The astonishing prevalence of slums is the chief theme of the historic and
somber report published last October by the United Nations' Human
Settlements Programme. "The Challenge of Slums" (henceforth "Slums") is the
first truly global audit of urban poverty. It is unusual in that it breaks
with traditional U.N. circumspection and self-censorship to squarely indict
neoliberalism, especially the I.M.F.'s Structural Adjustment Programs: "The
primary direction of both national and international interventions during
the last 20 years has actually increased urban poverty and slums, increased
exclusion and inequality, and weakened urban elites in their efforts to use
cities as engines of growth."

The report uses a very conservative definition of "slum": many readers will
be surprised by the U.N.'s finding that only 19.6 percent of urban Mexicans
live in slums. Nonetheless, "Slums" estimates that there were about 924
million slum dwellers in 2001: nearly equal to the population of the world
when the young Engels first ventured onto the mean streets of Manchester.
Indeed, residents of slums constitute a staggering 78.2 percent of the urban
population of the least developed countries and fully a third of the global
urban population. Extrapolating from the age structures of most Third World
cities, at least half of the slum population is under the age of

The world's highest percentages of slum dwellers are in Ethiopia (an
astonishing 99.4 percent of the urban populations), Chad (99.1 percent),
Afghanistan (98.5 percent), and Nepal (92.4 percent). The poorest urban
populations, however, are probably in Kinshasa and Maputo, where two thirds
of residents earn less than the cost of their minimum required daily
nutrition. In Delhi planners complain bitterly about "slums within slums" as
squatters take over the small open spaces of the peripheral resettlement
colonies to which the old urban poor were brutally removed in the mid-1970s.
In Cairo and Phnom Penh, recent arrivals squat or rent space on rooftops,
creating slum cities in the air.

Whereas the classic slum was a decaying inner city, the new slums are more
typically located on the edges of urban centers. The governor of Lagos State
told reporters last year that "about two thirds of the state's total
landmass of 3,577 square kilometers could be classified as shanties or
slums." Indeed, writes a U.N. correspondent,

"Unlit highways run past canyons of smouldering garbage before giving way to
dirt streets weaving through 200 slums, their sewers running with raw waste.
So much of the city is a mystery. No one even knows for sure the size of the
population – officially it is 6 million, but most experts estimate it at
10 million – let alone the number of murders each year [or] the rate of
HIV infection."

Lagos, moreover, is simply the biggest node in the shantytown corridor of 70
million people that stretches from Abidjan to Ibadan, probably the biggest
continuous footprint of urban poverty on earth.

Slum ecology, of course, revolves around the supply of settlement space, and
indeed more than half of the residents of cities in the developing world
occupy property illegally. National and local political machines usually
acquiesce in informal settlement as long as they can control the political
complexion of the slums and extract a regular flow of bribes or rents.
Without formal land titles or home ownership, slum dwellers are forced into
quasi-feudal dependencies, where disloyalty can mean eviction or even the
razing of an entire district.

Infrastructure development, meanwhile, lags far behind the pace of
urbanization, and peri-urban slum areas often have no formal utilities or
sanitation whatsoever. As in early Victorian London, the contamination of
water by human and animal waste remains the cause of the chronic diarrheal
diseases that kill at least 2 million children each year. An estimated 57
percent of urban Africans lack access to basic sanitation, and in cities
such as Nairobi the poor must rely on "flying toilets" (defecation into a
plastic bag). In Bombay, meanwhile, the sanitation problem is defined by
ratios of one toilet seat per 500 inhabitants in the poorer districts. Only
11 percent of poor neighborhoods in Manila and 18 percent in Dhaka have
formal means to dispose of sewage. Quite apart from the incidence of the
HIVjAIDS plague, the U.N. considers that two out of five African slum
dwellers live in a poverty that is literally life-threatening.

The urban poor, furthermore, are everywhere forced to settle on hazardous
and otherwise unbuildable terrains – steep hill slopes, riverbanks, and
floodplains. Likewise, they squat in the deadly shadows of refineries,
chemical factories, toxic dumps, or in the margins of railroads and
highways. Poverty, as a result, has "constructed" an urban disaster problem
of unprecedented frequency and scope, as typified by chronic flooding in
Manila, Dhaka, and Rio, pipeline conflagrations in Mexico City and Cubatao,
the Bhopal catastrophe in India, and deadly mudslides in Caracas, La Paz,
and Tegucigalpa. The disenfranchised communities of urban poor, in addition,
are vulnerable to sudden outbursts of state violence such as the infamous
1990 bulldozing of the Maroko beach slum in Lagos (an eyesore for the
wealthy neighboring community of Victoria Island) or the 1995 demolition in
freezing weather of the huge squatter town of Zhejiangcun on the edge of

As "Slums" emphasizes, the I.M.F.-mandated Structural Adjustment Programs
(SAPs) of the 1980s displaced or immiserated millions of traditional
urbanites and were, in fact, "deliberately anti-urban in nature," designed
to reverse any "urban bias" in welfare policies, fiscal structure, or
government investment. The I.M.F.acting as bailiff for the big banks and
backed by the Reagan and Bush administrations-offered poor countries
everywhere the same poisoned chalice of devaluation, privatization, removal
of import controls and food subsidies, enforced cost-recovery in health and
education, and ruthless downsizing of the public sector. At the same time,
SAPs devastated rural smallholders by eliminating subsidies and pushing them
out, "sink or swim," into global commodity markets dominated by First World

In theory, of course, the 1990s should have righted the wrongs of the 1980s
and allowed Third World cities to regain lost ground and bridge the chasms
of inequality created by SAPs. The pain of adjustment should have been
followed by the analgesic of globalization. Indeed, the 1990s, as "Slums"
notes, were the first decade in which global urban development took place
within almost utopian parameters of neoliberal market freedom:

"During the 1990s, trade continued to expand at an almost unprecedented
rate. . . . All the basic inputs to production became cheaper, as interest
rates fell rapidly, along with the price of basic commodities. Capital flows
were increasingly unfettered by national controls and could move rapidly to
the most productive areas. Under what were almost perfect economic
conditions according to the dominant neo-liberal economic doctrine, one
might have imagined that the decade would have been one of unrivalled
prosperity and social justice."

In the event, however, urban poverty continued its relentless accumulation,
and the gap between poor and rich countries widened, just as it had done for
the previous twenty years. By the end of the century, global inequality had
reached an incredible Gini coefficient level of 0.66, the mathematical
equivalent to a situation in which the poorest two thirds of the world
receive zero income and the top third, everything.

The brutal tectonics of neoliberal globalization since 1978 are analogous to
the catastrophic processes that shaped a "third world" in the first place,
during the era of late Victorian imperialism. In the latter case, the
forcible incorporation into the world market of the great subsistence peasan
tries of Asia and Africa entailed the famine deaths of millions and the
uprooting of tens of millions more from traditional tenures. The end result,
in Latin America as well, was rural "semi-proletarianization": the creation
of a huge global class of impoverished semi-peasants and farm laborers.
Structural adjustment, it would appear, has recently worked an equally
fundamental reshaping of human futures. As the authors of Slums conclude:
"instead of being a focus for growth and prosperity, the cities have become
a dumping ground for a surplus population working in unskilled, unprotected
and low-wage informal service industries and trade." "The rise of [this]
informal sector," they declare bluntly, "is... a direct function of

Overall, informal workers constitute about two fifths of the economically
active population of the developing world. "Slums" estimates, moreover, that
fully 90 percent of urban Africa's new jobs over the next decade will
somehow come from the informal sector. Indeed, the global informal working
class (overlapping but not identical with the slum population) is almost one
billion strong, making it the fastest growing, and most unprecedented,
social class on earth.

The pundits of bootstrap capitalism may see this enormous population of
marginalized laborers, redundant civil servants, and ex-peasants as a
frenzied beehive of ambitious entrepreneurs yearning for formal property
rights and unregulated competitive space, but it makes more obvious sense to
consider most informal workers as the "active" unemployed, who have no
choice but to subsist by some means or starve. With even formal-sector urban
wages in Africa so low that economists can't figure out how workers survive
(the so-called low-wage puzzle), the informal tertiary sector has become an
arena of extreme Darwinian competition among the poor.

Slums originate in the countryside, where unequal competition with
large-scale agroindustry is tearing traditional rural societies apart. As
rural areas lose their "storage capacity," slums take their place as a sink
for surplus labor, which can only keep pace with subsistence by ever more
heroic feats of self-exploitation and the further competitive subdivision of
already densely filled survival niches.

Tendencies toward urban involution, of course, existed during the nineteenth
century. The European industrial revolutions were incapable of absorbing the
entire supply of displaced rural labor, especially after the 1870s, when
Europe's agriculture was exposed to the devastating competition of the North
American prairies. But mass immigration to the settler societies of the
Americas and Oceania provided a safety valve that prevented the rise of
mega- Dublins as well as the spread of the kind of underclass anarchism that
had taken root in the poorest parts of southern Europe. Today, surplus
labor, by contrast, faces unprecedented barriers to large-scale migration to
the wealthier countries-a literal "great wall" of high-tech border
enforcement. Likewise, controversial population-resettlement programs in
"frontier" regions such as Amazonia, Tibet, Kalimantan, and Irian Jaya
produce environmental devastation and ethnic conflict without substantially
reducing urban poverty in Brazil, China, and Indonesia.

Thus only the slum remains as a fully franchised solution to the problem of
warehousing the twenty-first century's surplus humanity. But aren't the
great slums, as a terrified Victorian bourgeoisie once imagined, volcanoes
waiting to erupt? Or does ruthless competition, as increasing numbers of
poor people compete for the same scraps, ensure self-consuming communal
violence as the highest form of urban involution? To what extent does an
informal proletariat possess that most potent of Marxist talismans,
"historical agency"? Can disincorporated labor be reincorporated into a
global emancipatory project? Or is the sociology of protest in the
immiserated megacity a regression to the pre-industrial urban mob,
episodically explosive during consumption crises but otherwise easily
managed by clientelism, populist spectacle, and appeals to ethnic unity? Or
is some new, unexpected historical subject slouching toward the supercity?

For the moment at least, Marx has yielded the historical stage to Mohammed
and the Holy Ghost. If God died in the cities of the industrial revolution,
he has risen again in the postindustrial cities of the developing world.

Today, populist Islam and Pentecostal Christianity (and, in Bombay, the cult
of Shivaji) occupy a social space analogous to that of early
twentieth-century socialism and anarchism. In Morocco, for instance, where
according to some estimates half a million rural migrants are absorbed into
the teeming cities every year, Islamist movements like Justice and Welfare,
founded by Sheikh Abdessalam Yassin, have become the real governments of the
slums: organizing night schools, providing legal aid to victims of state
abuse, buying medicine for the sick, subsidizing pilgrimages, and paying for
funerals. As Moroccan prime minister Abderrahmane Youssoufi, the Socialist
leader who was once exiled by the monarchy, recently admitted, "We [the
left] have cut ourselves off from the people. We need to reconquer the
popular quarters. The Islamists have seduced our natural electorate. They
promise them heaven on earth." And indeed, a Justice and Welfare activist
recognized that "confronted with the neglect of the state, and faced with
the brutality of daily life, people discover, thanks to us, solidarity,
self-help, fraternity. They understand that Islam is humanism."

The counterpart of populist Islam in the slums of Latin America and much of
sub-Saharan Africa is Pentecostalism. Christianity, of course, is now in its
majority a non-Western religion, and Pentecostalism is its most dynamic
missionary in cities of poverty. Indeed, Pentecostalism is the first major
world religion to have grown up almost entirely in the soil of the modem
urban slum. Unified around spirit baptism, miracle healing, charismata, and
a premillennial belief in a coming world war of capital and labor, early
American Pentecostalism originated as a "prophetic democracy" whose rural
and urban constituencies overlapped, respectively, with those of Populism
and the Industrial Workers of the World. Its early missionaries yielded
nothing to the I.W.W. in their vehement denunciations of the injustices of
industrial capitalism and its inevitable destruction.

Since 1970, largely because of its appeal to slum women and its reputation
for being colorblind, Pentecostalism has been growing into what is arguably
the largest self-organized movement of urban poor people on the planet.
Recent claims of "over 533 million Pentecostal/charismatics in the world in
2002" are probably hyperbolic, but there may well be half that number.

In contrast to populist Islam, which emphasizes civilizational continuity
and the transclass solidarity of faith, Pentecostalism, in the tradition of
its African-American origins, retains a fundamentally exilic identity.
Although, like Islam in the slums, it efficiently correlates itself to the
survival needs of the informal working class (organizing self-help networks
for poor women, offering faith healing as para-medicine, providing recovery
from alcoholism and addiction, insulating children from the temptations of
the street), its ultimate premise is that the urban world is corrupt,
unjust, and unreformable. With the left still largely missing from the
slums, the eschatology of Pentecostalism admirably refuses the inhuman
destiny of the Third World city that Slums warns about. It also sanctifies
those who, in every structural and existential sense, truly live in exile.

The new urban poor, indeed, are the ghosts at the table of world politics.
Every debate about the war on terrorism, the future of the Middle East, the
AIDS crisis in Africa, and the international narcotics trade is haunted by
their presence and growing desperation. The helicopter gunships that hover
over the megaslums of Gaza and Sadr City, the nightly gun battles in the
shantytowns of Bogota and Karachi, the bulldozers in Nairobi, Delhi, and
Manila-is this not already an incipient world war between rich and poor?

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