With urban growth outpacing the construction of new housing in many cities around the world, the shortfalls of affordable and adequate housing in the formal private and public sectors have been widely documented and analyzed. But less well understood are the diverse sets of informal, quasi-legal, and extralegal residential arrangements that fill the gap between supply and demand, the existence of which requires toleration and willful ignorance on the part of public officials, along with landlords and private sector employers. Such arrangements range from subdivided and crowded in apartments in US cities, to squatting in the cities in South Asia and Latin America, to rooftop slums and unauthorized extensions in the towering cities of East Asia. For many, city living requires that homes and livelihoods are made outside the barely visible lines of formality and legality. And while political calculations usually dictate that these arrangements are ignored, or even actively supported by public officials, particularly in the densely populated, dramatically under-housed cities of the Global South, evictions and demolitions are frequent, often accompanied by political pronouncements that unauthorized constructions “cannot be tolerated.” Most policy oriented research on the topic has framed the informal sector as an economic development issue, with estimates of lost tax revenues, unharnessed entrepreneurial potential, and diminished household assets fueling pushes for formalization and monetization of the informal housing stock. Legal research, meanwhile, has looked at these issues from the perspective of land use, property rights, and increasingly international human rights law. But a critical set of social science research questions have yet to be raised on the topic, the answers to which could help bring us closer to the “decent city.”

This “thought piece” outlines a broad research agenda on tolerance and intolerance of extralegal habitation, bringing a diverse set of literatures to bear on three areas that may fruitfully guide social science inquiries on the topic. The first area is the political and public sector response to extralegal housing. Decades of research on political patronage, primarily from anthropology and political science, has shed light on the interests and exchanges that produce public sector tolerance and support for informal housing. Meanwhile, research on land appropriation and “accumulation by dispossession” has begun to document the emerging political economies of intolerance on the part of public officials, the private sector, and middle class urbanites. Bringing together these insights, we may better understand the conditions under which informality is enabled, encouraged, or precluded as a strategy of urban survival. The second area sits at the intersection of extralegal habitation and religious and ethnic conflict. Housing insecurity does not fall evenly across the population, as recent migrants and religious and ethnic minorities are more likely to construct or reside in unauthorized dwellings. In many cities, particularly those in South Asia, evictions and clearance campaigns frequently intersect with and become indistinguishable from episodes of communal violence, particular when that violence carried out or supported by major political parties. Meanwhile, densely populated and usually ethnically heterogeneous informal settlements often act as tinderboxes, becoming the first sites enflamed by the violence of urban riots and ethnic strife. And third, this memo briefly explores the character of claims making on the part of extralegal urbanites. Partha Chatterjee has suggested that the legal transgressions made necessary by conditions of urban poverty make many urbanites (those in “most of the world” in fact) ineligible for full citizenship rights and inclusion in civil society. Yet despite this exclusion and their broader social and economic marginalization, extralegal residents do, at times, make successful legal and political claims for security, tenure, and “the right to stay put.” Social and political research in this area could fruitfully reveal the strategies used to access space and shelter, including litigation and mobilizations, along with electoral politics. As I discuss these three interrelated areas, it may be important to note that while informal and extralegal housing can be found in cities throughout the world, the focus here is primarily on those arrangements found in the Global South, and, in fact, is drawn largely from my research and experiences in urban India. While the questions are likely relevant for thinking through extralegal housing arrangements elsewhere, the underlying politics are clearly context-specific.

Tolerance and intolerance of the local state

Public sector tolerance toward the construction and maintenance of extralegal housing has generally been explained through the lens of political patronage. This understanding traces to insights from ethnographic studies of informal settlements, conducted primarily in Latin American cities in the mid-1970s, which revealed the embedded networks of political parties, local administrators, and community leaders that support a diverse set of extralegal livelihood strategies, including squatting (Lynch 1974, Handelman 1975, Perlman 1976, Ward 1978) Research in other parts of the world, meanwhile, confirmed this link between electoral politics and extralegal housing. So central is this understanding that slums in India are often described simply as “vote banks,” referring to the way that local politicians treat them as accounts into which they can make occasional deposits, such street lamps or toilet blocks, and cash in on votes when elections come around.

Yet despite this understood relationship, slums do frequently get demolished and vote banks are broken up. Two broad explanations are generally being offered to explain the increasing intolerance of public officials toward extralegal housing for the poor, at least in the Indian case. First is the growing political power of the new middle class, who, it is suggested, had ceded the messy domain of urban politics to the poor, yet have recently become active in a new “rule by aesthetics” (Benjamin 2000, Chatterjee 2004, Ghertner 2011a). Second is the identification of “accumulation by dispossession” as a more globalized strategy of capital accumulation whereby land is seized and once-public goods are privatized to extract value (Harvey 2003). While research on variegated neoliberalization (Brenner, Peck, Theodore 2010) has demonstrated the historically contingent and locally specific ways this strategy is being carried out, this literature links a growing intolerance toward extralegal housing to efforts to dispossess the urban poor of their claims to land (Levien 2011) .

Yet political patronage, the new middle class, and the political economies of land acquisition can only take us so far in explaining the uneven and inconsistent responses of local governments to extralegal habitation. A nuanced understanding of tolerance requires a broad set of lenses, theoretical perspectives, and methodological approaches.

Urban cleansing

One area of inquiry that may help reveal the uneven and inconsistent enforcement of prohibitions on squatting and other forms of extralegal habitation is the nature of ethnic and religious conflict and the ways specific conflicts manifest in the city. Among those writing on this topic, anthropologist Arjun Appadurai (2000: 649) has used the phrase “urban cleansing” to describe the confluence he observed of urban renewal strategies and so-called ethnic cleansing in 1990s Mumbai, describing the “macabre conjuncture [in which] the most horrendously poor, crowded, and degraded areas of the city were turned into battlegrounds of the poor against the poor, with the figure of the Muslim providing the link between scarce housing, illegal commerce, and national geography writ urban.” In cities across South Asia, as well as in other parts of the world, calls for dismantling slums and other unauthorized dwellings frequently align with broader efforts to malign religious and ethnic minorities. In cases such as actions taken against Bangladeshi Muslims in Delhi (Ramachandran 2003) or Bihari migrants in Mumbai (Kumar 2009), the threats posed by extralegal housing often become indistinguishable from those posed by “ethnic others.”

The intersections and overlapping character of these threats often become apparent during the ethnic riots and incidents of violence that periodically enflame South Asian cities. When Mumbai (then Bombay) erupted in riots and Hindu-Muslim clashes in late 1992 and early 1993, along with many other parts of India, some of the most heavily battered areas were the city’s densely populated, sprawling slum settlements, including, most famously, Dharavi (Chatterji and Mehta 2007). Similarly, when Delhi’s Hindus undertook a 5 day pogrom against Sikhs in November 1984, much of the violence was concentrated in the resettlement colonies where waves of Sikh refugees had been resettled on the outskirts of the city, despite one of the grievances having been the relative affluence of Delhi’s Sikh population (Tambiah 1997). While the density and heterogeneity of these settlements, paired with their accessibility and lack of a strong police or security presence, makes them susceptible to the violence of riots, these geographies are often shaped by intolerance toward extralegal housing and the discursive links made between it and the ethnic or religious “other.”

Beyond the vote bank

A third potentially fruitful area of exploration is an examination of how extralegal urban residents make political and legal claims for space and shelter. In the minds of many urban dwellers, the legal transgressions committed as acts of survival make the urban poor ineligible for full citizen rights (Chatterjee 2004). In fact, eleven petitioners filed a claim in the Bombay High Court in 2004 to bar extralegal residents from voting and steps have been taken to immediately expunge the names of evicted slum residents from voters’ lists (Goopta 2011). Meanwhile, research on the emerging political practices of the new middle class has revealed a number of arenas in which India’s urban politics are being “gentrified” and the poor are being squeezed out of public debate and deliberation (Ghertner 2011b). Yet despite these shifts, successful claims have been made by the urban poor, and the inconsistencies and unevenness of public sector response to extralegal habitation is in part a reflection of where these claims have been successful. In addition to the ballot box, which remains one of the most important sites in which informal urbanites have retained political voice, claims for housing and shelter are made in the courts, by NGOs and advocacy organizations, as part of organized social movements, some linking to transnational activist networks, and through a whole set of more subtle negotiations and “quiet acts of resistance” (Roy 2003, Roy and AlSayyad 2004, Benjamin 2008, Anjaria 2011).   A clearer understanding of these varied forms of claims making and the conditions under which they are most successful could further reveal the ways in which tolerance for extralegal habitation is generated and the urban poor are able to access space in the “decent city.”

Works cited and further reading

Anjaria, J.S. 2011. “Ordinary states: Everyday corruption and the politics of space in Mumbai,” American Ethnologist 38(1): 58–72.

Appadurai, A. 2000. “Spectral Housing and Urban Cleansing: Notes on Millennial Mumbai.” Public Culture 12(3): 627-651.

Auyero, J. 2011. “Researching the Urban Margins: What Can the United States Learn from Latin America and Vice Versa?” City & Community 10(4): 431–436.

Benjamin, S. 2008. “Occupancy Urbanism: Radicalizing Politics and Economy beyond Policy and Programs,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 32(3): 719-729.

Benjamin, S. 2000. “Governance, Economic Settings and Poverty in Bangalore,” Environment and Urbanization 12(1): 35–56.

Brenner, N. J. Peck, N. Theodore. 2010. “Variegated Neoliberalization: Geographies, Modalities, Pathways.” Global Networks 10(2): 182–222.

Chatterjee, P. 2004. Politics of the Governed. New Delhi: Permanent Black.

Chatterji, R. and D. Mehta. 2007. Living with Violence: An Anthropology of Events and Everyday Life. London: Routledge.

Ghertner, A. 2011a. “Rule by Aesthetics: World Class City Making in Delhi.” In A. Roy and A. Ong (eds.) Worlding Cities: Asian Experiments and the Art of Being Global. Oxford: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Ghertner, A. 2011b. “Gentrifying the State, Gentrifying Participation: Elite Governance Programs in Delhi,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 35(3): 504–532.

Goopta N. 2011. “Economic Liberalization, Urban Politics and the Poor.” In S. Ruparelia, S. Reddy, J. Harriss and S. Corbridge (eds.) Understanding India’s New Political Economy: A Great Transformation? London: Routledge.

Handelman, H. 1975. “The political mobilization of urban squatter settlements: Santiago’s recent experience and its implications for urban research,” Latin American Research Review 10(2): 35–72.Harvey 2003

Harvey, D. 2003. The New Imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kumar, A. 2009. “A Class Analysis of the ‘Bihari Menace’,” Economic and Political Weekly, 44(28): 124-127

Levien, M. 2011. “Special Economic Zones and Accumulation by Dispossession in India,” Journal of Agrarian Change 11(4): 454–483.

Lynch, O. 1974. “Political Mobilization and Ethnicity among Adi-Dravidas in a Bombay Slum,” Economic and Political Weekly 9(39): 1657-1792.

Perlman, J. 1976. The Myth of Marginality. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ramachandran, S. 2003. “‘Operation Pushback’: Sangh Parivar, State, Slums, and Surreptitious Bangladeshis in New Delhi.” Economic and Political Weekly 38(7).

Roy, A. 2003. City Requiem, Calcutta. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Roy, A. and N. AlSayyad. 2004. Urban Informality: Transnational Perspectives from Latin America, the Middle East, and South Asia. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Tambiah, S. 1997. Leveling Crowds: Ethnonationalist Conflicts and Collective Violence in South Asia. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ward, P. M. 1978. “Self-help Housing Mexico City: Social and Economic Determinants of Success,” Town Planning Review, 49(1): 38-50.

Weinstein, L. 2013. “Demolition and Dispossession: Toward an Understanding of State Violence in Millennial Mumbai.” Studies in Comparative International Development 48(3): 285-307.

Yiftachel, O. 2009. “Critical Theory and ‘Gray Space’: Mobilization of the Colonized.” City 13(2-3): 246-263.