We arrived in Dakar on March 3 in the afternoon. Immediately after exciting the plane, down the stairs the stresses of India and our travel flew away on the delicious sea breezes. We were met at the airport by our country coordinators Waly and Mariane and a couple buses. After dropping off the students at their hotel, the faculty got dropped off at their apartment. After being awake for over 36 hours with only a few hours of sleep, we collapsed into sleep.
Our first day in Dakar has been great. There was traditional food and dancing with the students and staff from the West Africa Research Center (WARC), our hosts for this phase of the program and then Waly and Mariane did a really thorough introduction to the program, logistics, homestays, and local culture. Then the students’ homestay families arrived and took them away. After the students had been whisked away, we went out to a delicious dinner with Waly and Mariane that included steak and fresh salad. We all have great feelings about this new country.
On Wednesday this week, I tagged along on some student research trips around waste in the city. First we went to Connaught Place and talked with primary waste pickers and also some construction workers about their trade and their understanding of poverty (for an assignment in the Politics and Development class).
Then in the afternoon, four of us went out to East Delhi to visit a neighborhood of trash pickers who sort the wastes. It was an amazing visit and I’m really proud of our students for thinking creatively and strategically about how to have those conversations, how to work with an interpreter, and build report to facilitate the harder questions. After that we went for fresh lime soda at the Radisson fancy-pants business hotel just on the main road in front of the settlement. When asked what was behind the hotel, the waiter prevaricated; but even though you could see the slum from the back windows, never acknowledged its existence.
After recharging, we hailed an Auto and headed for the big Delhi dump in Gazipure. Afterdifficulting convincing the auto driver that we really wanted to go there, we walked. Our “shortcut” took us through a neighborhood of metal working shops, recycler’s with houses perched above, and cow dairies(?), and finally arrived at the main trash pile, swarming with birds, smoke rising from a dozen fires, taller than any building in Delhi (it’s called Delhi’s Himalayas). We ended up walking to the top and looking in every direction as thesun sank low. When we descended, we hitched a ride with a garbage truck on its way down (and I almost fell out the door when it popped open going over a bump)
At the bottom we made our way back to the metro and then home to shower, and eat dinner. In short, it was a perfect IHP day.
Today we are back in Delhi after a 16 hour train ride across the country. I’ve been thinking a lot about the many sights, guest speakers, and faculty sessions we’ve had since arriving in India. Unsurprisingly, one of the biggest themes is the informal sector–it is estimated that 1/2, or approx. 8 million people, in the Delhi area live in informally constructed housing. These are mostly the same people who are getting by on verily little income and lack security in the form of land tenure from eviction without notice. It’s a precarious life in many ways, but people are resilient and find ways to make it work and find joy amidst the struggle. The response of the state, at the municipal level and the nation, has been to treat these communities as illegal and clear them, resettling the residents in new (often unserviced) concrete block buildings on the edge of town. From our American perspective it’s hard not to feel both parallels to the failure of urban renewal, but also to feel like these are communities that desperately need help.
In the face of this, one of our speakers made the fascinating claim: that the slums are not the problem, they are the solution. In a fascinating recapitulation of Jacob’s observation that poor areas can often “unslum” themselves given reasonable security and public service provision. In this sense, the ability of people to “make it work” should be seen as an asset and you ask, if we just stopped poking people so much and instead worked to provide incremental public services it would be more effective than wholesale clearance that also destroys sometimes decades of social and physical capital in the slum communities.
So the issue I am wrestling with is what is the role for the urban planner? If part of the problem is that the state is too involved in the “management” of the city what are we to do? One obvious answer is as the community supporter/civil servant that comes out of the community planning model? A second answer is to work on the provision of basic public services (water, sewer, transport, roads, etc.). But to do that efficiently, such that tax base can support services laid out in an efficient pattern, an iteration of land use planning and infrastructure planning must happen. And this challenges the notion that we should stay out of the business of managing the city and just let the people do it (“as they have for thousands of years”). And yet, it’s interesting because the private sector has always done the majority of the building. So maybe the real question is what is the transition from “formal” to “informal” and back?