Nithya V. Raman is an urban planner who has been working in India for more than a decade. Her research and writing has focused on urban governance, slums and access to land and services, and transparency and accountability. In 2010, she founded Transparent Chennai, which creates maps and information about neglected civic issues to support advocacy by and for the urban poor. Transparent Chennai’s research is cited widely, and has informed public discourse and decision making on urban policies in India.
Nithya V. Raman on Arrival City Chapter 2: Outside In: The Lives of the New City
The second chapter of Arrival City begins with a description of Sanjay Solkar returning to his village in Ratnagiri from Mumbai. Two other migrants from Sanjay’s village, Archana and Anant, also work in the city: Archana is a domestic worker whose employers pay her nothing, but promise to pay a sizable dowry when she gets married, and her brother Anant, works as a trainee in a lab. The chapter continues with a description of a man who provides cable connections to homes in a large slum in Dhaka, a couple looking for housing in Shenzen, a woman-headed family in Kibera in Nairobi, and a young boy in Santa Marta on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil who becomes a beneficiary of Lula’s progressive and resource-intensive favela improvement programs.
Just going through the list of stories told in this one chapter gives you a sense of why reading this book is exhilarating. Having spent many years in India and a lot of time in low-income neighborhoods in Delhi and Chennai, Saunders’ rich descriptions of similar communities in other cities is fascinating – how did they get started? What do people do for work in them? What are the ways in which residents have coped with the lack of services? What are the strategies they have used to improve their incomes? How do they compare to the neighborhoods that I know?
Saunders seems to be describing these neighborhoods because they are all “arrival cities,” but unfortunately not all of them meet the definition of arrival cities that he sets out in earlier chapters. The arrival city, according to Saunders, is a place where networks are maintained between village and city, and which serves as an entry point into urban areas from the village, and a place where people can establish themselves. But many of the neighborhoods that Saunders encounters (and many neighborhoods that I have seen in my work in India) never offer their residents a “path to enter the middle class,” the fourth criterion of an arrival city and perhaps the most important. Take the example of Sanjay, the first migrant discussed in this chapter. He is 20 years old and sleeps on the floor of a tea-shop next to a train station in northern Mumbai, and returns home to his village in Ratnagiri every year in June for the wedding season. Saunders then tells us that his grandfather did the same, working for a grocery store and sharing a room with his sister who was a domestic worker. Here, Mumbai is an entry point into urban India for the Solkar family, but its opportunities do not help to propel the family into a new socioeconomic class.
Perhaps, then, an “arrival city” is not so much a description, but rather what such places should be aspiring towards. Saunders’ descriptions of neighborhood after neighborhood may be somewhat overwhelming, but they also convey the incredible energy that such migrants must have in order to survive and thrive in their new homes. If these are truly to become arrival cities, then government policies need to better support their residents’ efforts to move from rural poverty into the urban middle-class.
What might such policies look like? So far, Saunders’ book has not offered easy answers. This chapter presented two government programs for improvement of such areas, neither of which seemed promising. In Nairobi, with the support of UN-Habitat, the government of Kenya was building high-rise settlements to which residents of Kibera were supposed to be moved. However, Saunders notes that most residents will not get apartments allocated to them, and the lucky few that do are likely to sell such a large asset off and move back into the slum. He also points out that such high-rises do not permit the informal economic activities that sustain many low-income families, such as small industrial units or petty shops. This means that the movement into a high-rise also could prevent these residents earning their livelihoods. Saunders also describes a program in Rio de Janeiro where some favelas were selected for improvements that included the formalization of property rights and the provision of birth certificates for all residents. But such programs are extremely expensive, and this is not a feasible approach for addressing all favelas or slums.
Saunders’ focus on a geographic space – the arrival city – suggests that improvements in the arrival city are the best ways to improve conditions for their residents. But is this really true? Despite being an urban planner, I am skeptical that improvements in slums are actually the most efficient way to address poverty and to move residents into the middle class. Might not the money spent on large-scale slum improvement programs be better spent on improving public education or creating more stable manufacturing jobs?
By Nithya V. Raman