Architects of Shantytowns

Planet of Slums
By Mike Davis
Verso. 228 pages. $24.

The view from an Indian train can sometimes be depressing. When you are out in the countryside, the bucolic landscape and the furrowed fields often mask rural poverty. It is when a train approaches a megalopolis like Delhi that the destitution becomes all too obvious. Alongside the rails cluster shack after shack.

India is the world leader in the number (though not percentage) of slum dwellers.

The scale of such global poverty is staggering. “Bombay, with ten to twelve million squatters and tenement-dwellers, is the global capital of slum-dwelling, followed by Mexico City and Dhaka (nine to ten million each), and then Lagos, Cairo, Karachi, Kinshasa-Brazzaville, Sao Paulo, Shanghai, and Delhi (six to eight million each),” writes Mike Davis in his latest bracing work.

All told, he says, there are more than one billion slum dwellers the world over.

Davis started his book-writing career critiquing Los Angeles in works like City of Quartz and Ecology of Fear, but in recent years he has branched out. In Late Victorian Holocausts, Davis linked late-nineteenth-century weather patterns and misadministration to large-scale famines in British India, China, and Brazil. His penultimate book, The Monster at Our Door, was about the avian flu.

Davis includes everything in Planet of Slums that you would ever want to know about these communities. He even traces the word origin of slum, along with the typology, geology, and economic forces at work.

Davis implicates the colonial powers for their role in the formation of modern slums.

“The British were arguably the greatest slum-builders of all time,” he writes. “Their policies in Africa forced the local labor force to live in precarious shantytowns on the fringes of segregated and restricted cities. In India, Burma, and Ceylon, their refusal to improve sanitation or provide even the most minimal infrastructure to native neighborhoods ensured huge death tolls from early-twentieth-century epidemics (plague, cholera, influenza) and created immense problems of urban squalor that were inherited by national elites after independence.”

Davis shows us the various shaky locales that slum dwellers are forced into. Slum residents “are the pioneer settlers of swamps, floodplains, volcano slopes, unstable hillsides, rubbish mountains, chemical dumps, railroad sidings, and desert fringes,” he writes.

These inhospitable environments have led to repeated disasters, including the worst in post-World War II America (till Katrina), when a hillside shantytown collapsed in 1985 near Ponce, Puerto Rico, killing hundreds
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In other countries, it’s been far worse. For instance, flash floods in 1999 killed 32,000 people in and around Caracas.

Davis doesn’t buy the excuse that the poor live in fragile environments. He argues: “ ‘Fragility’ is simply a synonym for systematic government neglect of environmental safety, often in the face of foreign financial pressures.”

Davis describes the human waste that the denizens of such areas have to contend with. It’s a hellish picture.

“The global sanitation crisis defies hyperbole,” states Davis. “Its origins, as with many Third World urban problems, are rooted in colonialism.” An astonishing 30,000 people die each day around the world due to poor sanitation.

Women have to bear the brunt. “Poor urban women are terrorized by the Catch-22 situation of being expected to maintain strict standards of modesty while lacking access to any private means of hygiene,” Davis writes.

One culprit, says Davis, is the free market restructuring imposed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. These institutions require cuts in public spending on health and sanitation. By ushering in multinational corporations, their policies end up throwing peasants off the land and into the city. And they impoverish urban residents by slashing public sector employment and subsidies on food and fuel. The IMF and World Bank call this “structural adjustment.”

“The 1980s—when the IMF and the World Bank used the leverage of debt to restructure the economies of most of the Third World—are the years when slums became an implacable future not just for poor rural migrants, but also for millions of traditional urbanites displaced or immiserated by the violence of ‘adjustment,’ ” Davis writes.

War is another culprit.

“In Baghdad’s giant slum of Sadr City, hepatitis and typhoid epidemics rage out of control,” Davis writes. “American bombing wrecked already overloaded water and sewerage infrastructures, and as a result raw sewage seeps into the household water supply. Two years after the U.S. invasion, the system remains broken, and the naked eye can discern filaments of human excrement in the tap water.”

Third World governments also betray their own urban poor, Davis demonstrates. For almost all of them, “the idea of an interventionist state strongly committed to social housing and job development seems either a hallucination or a bad joke, because governments long ago abdicated any serious effort to combat slums and redress urban marginality,” he writes.

Instead, they evict hundreds of thousands—perhaps millions—annually from slum areas. Security forces often beat up, jail, and sometimes kill those who resist. Davis gives many examples, but leaves out one terrible instance. During India’s nondemocratic interregnum from 1975 to 1977, the authorities repeatedly tried to “beautify” Delhi by clearing the slums. “Since she could not eradicate poverty,” the mordant joke went, referring to Indira Gandhi’s victorious 1971 campaign slogan, “she has decided to eradicate the poor instead.” But the effects of the evictions were not funny. In the most brutal incident of the Emergency, as Indira Gandhi’s authoritarian rule was referred to, police fired on slum residents of Old Delhi when they protested their expulsions. The police killed eighty, according to the BBC.

Slum inhabitants have, however, continued to protest over the past two decades. “The slums of Africa, Latin America, and South Asia did not go gently into the IMF’s good night—instead they exploded,” Davis notes.

These disturbances have sometimes led to profound political change. A major conflagration set off in Caracas in February 1989 by an IMF-dictated rise in fuel and transit prices killed more than 400 people and shaped the political consciousness of a young army officer named Hugo Chávez. Three years later, Chávez launched a failed coup in protest against the neoliberal policies of Carlos Andrés Pérez. In 1998, Chávez was elected president of Venezuela.

This book is not for the faint of heart. The cataloging of the horrors of urban deprivation is hard to bear, even if Davis has a wry style that smooths the hard edge off some of his depictions. “Excremental surplus, indeed, is the primordial urban contradiction,” begins a subsection titled “Living in Shit.”

Davis does take a few potshots. He pours scorn on the notion of microfinance as a way of alleviating poverty in the slums, pointing out that organizations such as the World Bank have cynically embraced this concept. It is true that microfinance has done little to lessen mass poverty, as studies have revealed. However, something is better than nothing, and the fact that at least some deserving people (women being the recipients in a lot of instances) are receiving much-needed financial help should not be dismissed.

The central shortcoming in the book, however, is the absence of primary research. Davis seems to have picked all of his evidence from the research of other people, and not from visiting these slums himself. His sources range from books and scholarly articles to major newspapers such as the Asia Times, the East African Standard, and the Hindustan Times.

Another shortcoming is that Davis offers no solutions at the end. Perhaps he doesn’t think there are any without a radical overhaul of the global socioeconomic system, but he doesn’t quite even say that. The result is that the reader is left with a sense of despondency.

Others who have examined the same issues as Davis have at least addressed the possibility of a way out.

“Central to our movement is the conviction that, in contrast to the belief common to both neoliberalism and bureaucratic socialism, there is no one shoe that will fit all,” said Walden Bello of Focus on the Global South, when he accepted the Right Livelihood Award in 2003. “It is no longer a question of an alternative but of alternatives.”

Bello stresses the need for what he calls a “poor people’s economy” that links up small farmers, local food processors, street vendors, and consumers. As one example, he cites the Thailand Land Reform Network that has already put forward a bill to improve property distribution.

And something that has never been tried on a large scale, even in India, has been Mahatma Gandhi’s economic program of sustainable subsistence farming and village-based cottage industries.

These are the kinds of solutions it would have been nice for Davis to discuss.

But he presents the problems in vivid detail.

And that itself is at least a step toward a solution.

Amitabh Pal, the managing editor of The Progressive and co-editor of the Progressive Media Project, is the author of “ ‘Islam’ Means Peace: Understanding the Muslim Principle of Nonviolence Today” (Praeger).