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Informally urban

November 15, 2018


The writer is a PhD student in urban/regional planning at the University of Illinois.
The writer is a PhD student in urban/regional planning at the University of Illinois.

WE like to think of cities in the image of our aspirations: neat, clean and organised. The reality, however, is that our cities are far from top-down constructs planned to perfection. They have grown organically, and in this time, most formal planning has served middle- and upper-class interests. Our state faces capacity constraints, moneyed interests are strong, and we have steadily reduced public roles in welfare and service provision — all in line with neoliberal principles of governance.

This politico-economic context necessarily leads to a cycle of accumulation through dispossession, evidence of which is readily available from around the world. As the poor are priced out of housing markets, they resort to informal settlements and squatters. As they are forced out of commercial spaces, they have no choice but to set up informal businesses. Those who cannot set up businesses work informally for others, including other informal businesses, domestic help for the elite, and formal or semi-formal sectors like construction and manufacturing. This is the creation of urban informality, both in private and public spaces, most economic activity of which is undocumented.

Drives against encroachment seem to target the worst-off in society.

We never think of the poor and their constraints in devising policy responses to informal activities. To sanitise spaces, we engage in ‘anti-encroachment’ that snatches livelihood from thousands at a time. To formalise and record the economy, we impose bans on transactions without thinking about the lives of poor labourers associated with those sectors. Law enforcement like police officers routinely harass informal actors to extract bribes or issue fines. All of these steps, it seems, are taken against and affect those least able to resist.

We should shift the discussion on informality to what it is: an issue of rights, to the city, to public space, and to livelihood for the subaltern. Informal activities are not good because they allow sustenance and reproduction of middle- and upper-class lifestyles. That is a fringe benefit; in a situation where the state is unable to provide viable safety nets, living spaces, and alternative livelihood to large chunks of its population, informality is a right in and of itself.

Such a shift is possible if we re-describe informality. Only this time, instead of calling it ‘encroachment’ or ‘illegal’, we must view informal activity as the sole means of survival for millions of Pakistan’s poor citizens. The act of occupying public space for commerce or even squatter is an act of defiance; it is a way for the poor to engage in social reproduction of life within the constraints that they face. In many ways, the public space they ‘illegally’ occupy is the occupiers’ only asset, and an indispensable one at that. Leftist sociologists call this ‘survival by repossession’.

After all, is there no difference between a posh restaurant that collects but does not deposit sales tax, and a small vegetable seller whose business is undocumented and takes place on the street? Was a business owner operating on KMC land as likely to have acquired illegitimate wealth as legislators who pay nothing in taxes but drive around in expensive, gifted vehicles? Do federal ministers whose estates illegally occupy adjacent public land, or luxury hotels that have fenced public land to use for parking, or state institutions that have blocked off entire roads in the name of security, share the same responsibility as a slum built on public land?

It is clear that code enforcement and anti-encroachment drives are simply tools for the elite to restart the cycle of dispossession when they become too uncomfortable with the coexistence of poor people in their surroundings. Big­ger, more powerful actors either become too big to be charged, or buy and influence their way out of enforcement. Socially, we tend to accept such occupation by the elite and admonish the poor for the same.

There is no doubt that duly formalising the economy, and enforcing laws across the board, will lead to long-term benefits for the country. But why do we fail to think about the survival of those who are dispossessed in the time that it will take for those benefits to accrue?

It is apparent that our policies suffer from some form of tunnel vision — we fail to think beyond how life in a car will be more convenient on multi-lane roads and bridges, or how illegitimate capital will be forced to come under the tax net. Such policies are inherently unjust under both liberal and critical paradigms. A just policy must not further disadvantage the worst-off in society. Dispossessed, displaced and oppressed already, human beings who survive in informal settlements and on daily incomes are not non-perishable commodities that we can put in cold storage while we wait for benefits of code enforcement and formalisation to materialise.

The writer is a PhD student in urban/regional planning at the University of Illinois.

Twitter: @faizaanq

Published in Dawn, November 15th, 2018