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`Squatters are the largest builders of housing in the world'

By Meena Menon

Journalist Robert Neuwirth quit his job to study squatter communities around the world and try and change people's perceptions about squatters. At present, he is in Mumbai where five to six million people live in slums

New York-based freelance journalist Robert Neuwirth, 44, lives in a small one-room loft in suburban Mumbai doing research for a book on `squatter communities', as he prefers to call slums. He started his work in November 2001, even before he got a grant from the MacArthur Foundation. Neuwirth's travels have led him to the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, policed by the drug mafia, settlements that have literally come up overnight in Istanbul, the largest slum in Nairobi, and Mumbai, his final destination.

Robert Neuwirth has worked for a daily in New Jersey, a weekly business newsmagazine, and at present is a contributing editor to City Limits, a New York-based magazine. He has freelanced for a number of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, Newsday, The Village Voice, The Nation, Wired and Metropolis Magazine.

Where did it all begin? How did you think of writing a book on squatters?
Ten years ago, a friend of mine working at the United Nations told me that squatters are the largest builders of housing in the world. My immediate reaction was -- that's a good story! People don't look at slums as neighbourhoods -- they look at them simply as dangerous places. It did seem like a big and scary idea to go around the world looking at squatters' settlements. I didn't think I would get the money -- but while working for a business weekly, one day, I decided to go for it. So I quit the job. It took me a year to find an agent and another year to get funds (from the MacArthur Foundation, as part of its Global Security and Sustainability Programme).

Why did you choose to visit the cities you went to, and what were your experiences?
I started out in Rocinha, which is the largest favela (squatter settlement) in Rio de Janeiro. Then I went to Istanbul where the squatter cities are called gecekondu (which in Turkish means `it happened one night'). That is how the settlements develop -- overnight. Then to Kibera in Nairobi, the largest slum there. And now I am here in Mumbai. I came here in mid-May and will live here till early August.

I picked Rio because the favelas are controlled by the drug gangs who park large amounts of cocaine and marijuana there, before shipping it to the US and other countries. These gangs have good weaponry -- you will see many AK-47s. Rio is unsafe but the drug gangs guarantee safety in the favelas. They do community work too, like building football fields and funding childcare. The drug gangs provide certain amenities. People in the favelas do not like the drug dealers but they regard them as a necessary evil. In fact, a rich woman who owned a jewellery shop in a fancy place in Rio, moved it to the favela where it is safer. She told me that if someone broke into her shop, they would die. That's the kind of protection the favelas offer.

The favelas are on the steep hills behind the city of Rio, which has the ocean in front. No builders will build there and the squatters have invaded it. Some of the land may be government-owned, some of it private, or involved in contentious legal cases.

I went to Istanbul because of the phenomenon of cities being built overnight. According to Turkish law, if you build a home overnight and live in it by morning, you cannot be legally evicted. This is an interesting legal protection for housing.

I chose Nairobi because it is the headquarters of the United Nations Commission on Human Settlements, the UN's main housing agency. HABITAT, as it is called, spends a lot of money on studies for improving squatters' settlements, but does nothing about actually improving their conditions. The agency has a large lovely campus but does no work in the slums nearby.

Finally, it is not fair to cover the squatter phenomenon without coming to India, especially to Mumbai where the contrast between a cosmopolitan city on the one hand, and the slums on the other is very great. You have five to six million people here living in slums.

What differences or similarities did you see?
In Brazil and Turkey, people have a sense of security that they will not be evicted. In the favelas, people have built three- to four-storey buildings with all the basic amenities like water, toilets, electricity -- in short, everything. Once squatters are given that sense of security, their neighbourhoods become as good as any other neighbourhood -- they start developing businesses, etc. In Rio, the favelas are full of restaurants, bars, stores, etc. You can buy almost anything there -- I even bought my mobile phone in the favela. There were two government banks too!

My flat had three rooms. It was fairly stylish and self-contained, with a balcony overlooking the ocean. Given a chance, people will build well.

In Turkey, in Istanbul, is Sultanbeyli, a squatter city with an independent seven-storey city hall with lifts, built by the squatters, and a mayor who is also a squatter. About 275,000 people live there. Forty per cent of Istanbul's population consists of squatters.

In Mumbai, I notice there isn't quite that level of development as we see in Turkey or other countries. People have obeyed the instructions to build small houses even though they have lived for a long time in those areas. In some places, there are no amenities like piped water or showers.

What are your perceptions of the people you have met, or communities you have lived in?
In Nairobi, a friend of mine called Armstrong O'Brien Jr, who lives in a slum called Southland, told me that once you live in a slum you can't live anywhere else -- you can't go back. It is a lot cheaper to live in a slum, and there is a different level of community interaction. You share a space, a room, you know your neighbours in a completely different way. You live as a unit. That develops a more giving and sharing spirit.

In Kenya, for instance, many of those who live in slums are casual labourers. It's not the nine-to-five work culture -- you are around a lot, you share stories. It's not the workaday world; it's a different way of living. I don't mean they like the horrid conditions, but some people prefer the communal living and sharing, with the possibilities of improving the area.

What is the community you live with in Mumbai?
In Mumbai, my landlord is a tailor. My space is clearly marked out and there are subtle class distinctions here, which I would not have realised otherwise.

I feel I should be part of the community. In Rio, for instance, I taught English classes twice a week, as there was an ongoing programme there. And in Nairobi I helped with the social action committee in Kibera. Even in Mumbai I would like to teach or help people in some way.

I feel three months is a bare minimum in a community. I am also trying to honour the community by living with them. I would like to understand the various caste and also communal differences due to religion in Mumbai. To do this, I have to be part of the community so that people come to trust me.

How have people reacted to your presence?
I am welcomed mostly, but everyone does have a suspicion: Who is this guy? What is he doing here?

Why do people perceive slums as dangerous places? What do you wish to achieve with your book?
Cities grow `cacophonously', and slum-dwellers grow with them -- it's part of the energy of a city. `Slum' is a problematic word -- I try to avoid it. Its meaning is pejorative and it can mean dirty, criminal, ugly, depraved and violent, and that places the communities who live in slums in a different light. I prefer to use the words `squatter community'. To say there are crooks in slums is derogatory -- there are crooks everywhere.

People always fear what seems different -- many squatters live in difficult conditions, and often the amenities are a result of people coming together and they may not be enough. In Kenya, for instance, there is one pit latrine for 100 people and many have what are called flying toilets -- people shit in plastic bags and then throw them as far as possible from their homes.

Also, our perceptions are clouded by our history which goes back to feudal times -- respect is given to people who own land. It's long-standing conditioning. We view poor people without property as depraved, different. There are large numbers of squatters, so the middle class distances itself. There is also a perception that they choose to live that way.

In my work, I wish to reverse some of these perceptions. People in squatter communities are no different from the rest of us. They want the same things. I see how much of a difference it would make if the government were to make minimal public investments. It would also increase that much investment from the people. Many people in the slums work, earn money and are willing to improve their conditions. Somehow, some way, people make things work.

Is free housing a solution?
Free housing is not necessarily the best answer because it takes away the incentive to use your creativity. Why would people invest their money and energy in their community when it may be demolished and they may be relocated without any effort? Maybe pavement-dwellers can be given free housing, or provided housing loans -- people can build cheaper. Alternatively, government can make land available to the people instead of offering builders TDRs (transfer of development rights -- a provision in Mumbai). Housing is not a handout for the people, and when it is it takes away the incentive for people's creativity. There is a lot of ability to invest energy, hard work and creativity in the squatter communities. I'd like to see the government find ways to use that.

InfoChange News & Features, June 2003