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OP-ED: Can a city be equal for all?

  • Published at 08:23 am November 21st, 2020
city infrastructure
Photo: Mahmud Hossain Opu/Dhaka Tribune

In the light of Covid-19, we have seen signs of a new society

Cities are growing bigger but concomitantly facing problems of inadequate housing, transportation, utility services, office and business spaces, etc. Ironically, the rich, ie, the capitalists, usually solve these problems in such ways that perpetually renew the crises. In ensuring public health, making the city aesthetic, meeting the needs of businesses, traffic requirements (railways, streets), the working-class people are expelled from the centre of emerging cities.

A city becomes lavish and grand, new amenities are built; however, in the process, the “not-so-fitting part” of the city -- where the working-class people usually live -- disappears. Diverse reasons for urban reconfigurations produce the same results -- evictions of the working-class/poor. 

During the last three decades, construction of gigantic market-places/shopping centres, residential areas, high-rise office complexes, transportation projects, etc have reconfigured Dhaka. As a result, working-class people have lost housing and, due to increasing costs and decreasing income, they cannot enjoy the “new” infrastructures as much as the rich. 

Still now, a lot of development work is ongoing all over the city, driving the working-class people outwards from Dhaka’s central areas.

The puzzle of fixing a city

The reconfiguration of any city stands as an account of success, as we always hear about the rhetoric of “city of the future” or “smart city.” But the “unorganized spaces” appear at once somewhere else. This claim is not an exaggeration -- a 2014 research funded by the German Research Foundation shows the distribution of slums for the Dhaka metropolitan area in 2006 and 2010, and it is evident from the satellite images that squatters and slums are disappearing from the centre of the city and appearing at the outskirts. 

The relocation of working-class neighbourhoods happens due to a unique reason. The growth of cities and economies increase value of real estate in the central areas. The old buildings/infrastructures of a city thus depress its value instead of increasing it. Even with the greatest overcrowding, rent in these places can never rise above a certain limit, as the working-class people earn extremely low owing to the capitalist extraction of surplus values.

Hence, city planners propose to renovate or replace the less developed parts of a city. Public and private initiatives are taken to build new roads, shops, gated communities, industrial complexes, hotels, restaurants, and public buildings or commercial spaces for greater economic returns. 

The land/property owners may sometime sell the lands and keep some stake, and the middle class becomes the customers of the newly built real estate. However, the losers of this process is the working-class. 

Accumulation by dispossession in cities

Friedrich Engels in 1872 described the process of expulsion of the working-classes from the city of London. In the present time, expulsion of the poor from city centres has become ever more prominent, ensuing a global process of gentrification or elitization in urban locales. It is as common in Dhaka as it is in New York, for instance. 

For understanding the process of urban reconfiguration, Dhaka is an example in hand. One of the poshest areas of the city is Gulshan; however, till the 1950s, this area was a village. People migrating from the Bhola district of Southern Bangladesh predominantly lived in the place, hence the name “Bhola gram” became popular. 

Once British colonizers left, the region became part of East Pakistan. Afterwards, the new rich classes in their search for a well-planned residential area -- free from the hustle and bustle of the city centre -- started buying land in the area. 

In 1961, the city administration passed a plan for building a well-planned residential area imitating Karachi of West Pakistan. Bhola gram was renamed as Gulshan or garden of flowers. Because of the infrastructural changes, people of Bhola gram were forced to sell off their lands and migrate towards the periphery of the city in Uttara, Tongi, and Gazipur. 

As the urban reconfigurations took place in the 1960s and 70s, local residents of the “village” were dispossessed form the land which now hosts some of the expensive real estate properties in Dhaka. Similarly, Rajuk has recently planned to reinvigorate Baridhara-Gulshan-Banani lake, and would acquire 82 acres of land, evicting thousands of low-income families living in the Karail slum.

Historically, every mega city has gone through similar experiences. In Seoul, construction companies and developers forcibly evicted people from the hillsides of the city in the 1990s. The neighbourhood built in the 1950s were occupying high valued lands of 1990s. Real estate developers reclaimed and remodelled the hillside with skyscrapers for portraying the city’s worth to the world. 

In India, central and state governments’ favouritism towards special economic development zones policy led to violence against agricultural producers. The 2007 massacre at Nandigram in West Bengal was outcome of the state government’s effort in making way for large scale Indonesian capital investments for urban property and industrial development. Even though the villagers owned the lands as private property it did not give them any protection.

Expulsion of the poor from potential development sites is mooted in all the growing cities. Accumulation of land properties for high revenue yielding ventures filter out the poor to the peripheries of cities -- a process that David Harvey termed “accumulation by dispossession” -- the core of the contemporary urban process under capitalism. 

Creative destruction on the loose

Do the people being displaced get compensation? A few do, and most do not, as many slum-dwellers are illegal occupants and unable to prove long-term residence on the land; hence, they remain unable to claim right to compensation. 

Every few years, slum-dwellers must move with their belongings to the margins of the city, or wherever they can find a space to live. These dispossessions -- whatever the form of it, are done to favour higher order land use (such as condominiums, private office spaces, hotel, restaurants, shopping centres). 

Urbanization plays a dual role for capitalism: It absorbs the surplus capital as sites of production and it also generates sites of realization of expensive commodities, eg, luxury housing complexes. 

As the investments and surpluses have grown big; cities and capitalism as a production system expanded geographically, ensuing a process of creative destruction -- urban remodelling and transfer of control of urban locales from working-classes to the rich.

Possibilities of rebel cities

A process of dispossession entails that the urban masses are stripped of any right to the city. Periodically, this process of creative destruction has ended in revolt -- for instance, the working-class protests of 1871 in Paris and of the 1960s in the US. 

In the current historical conjuncture, the main obstacle in making a city equal for all is the private control over the “surplus” professed by neoliberalism and consumerism. Therefore, we all must converge on the singular aim of gaining greater control over the uses of surplus and over the conditions of its production. 

David Harvey in the book Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution proposed that we must create urban commons and de-commodify public goods such as education, health care, housing, and the like. Against the capitalist onslaught, we should self-organize and work towards ensuring common societal benefit, ie, non-commodified commons. 

We can take a lead from the recent egalitarian experiments that the Covid-19 pandemic has forced us to adopt, though for a limited time. During this global crisis, we experimented with alternative systems of resource distribution, such as free supply of basic foods to the poorer groups through volunteers. 

Many facilitated a process through which agricultural products reached from the farmers to the consumers devoid of any middlemen, there were platforms for free medical consultation via digital mediums, and so on. 

We should all join in to continue this form of solidarity in the future. This expectation is not utopian. We have seen signs of a new society. In realizing a new world, we must analyze cities as class phenomena, and centre of anti-capitalist resistance. 

Mohammad Tareq Hasan is an anthropologist and teaches at the University of Dhaka. This piece is written for the series: Contemporary City Dynamics.

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