Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Safety for the urban poor: the complex taxonomy of security provision in cities

by Jaideep Gupte

With the world now mostly urban, an old question has resurfaced: Are cities the incontestable and inevitable context in which sustained poverty eradication will occur? For the first time, India reports higher population growth in its urbanised areas than across its vast rural landscape, with its urban population set to reach 600 million by 2031. And yet, India is only 30% urbanised, a rate much lower than China, Brazil or Mexico, leaving much room for further expansion. As in sub-Saharan Africa, only a minor proportion of India’s urban growth is due to migration from rural areas as most of it occurs due to natural increases in the urban population as well as the reclassification of rural areas as urban. By 2030, large cities could generate more than 70% of India’s net new employment and produce 70% of its GDP. This is consistent with a host of positive contributions urbanisation has had on development on the global scale, where nearly all urbanisation among low- and middle-income nations is associated with economic growth, higher life expectancies, and lower infant mortality.

These positive contributions notwithstanding, we also know that this growth is built upon acute inequality. A third of the world’s urban population live in slums, and the urban share of global poverty is increasing.[1] In India, a staggering 37% of urban households live in accommodation of only one room or are homeless. Many have argued that such a confluence of vast urbanisation and dense pockets of localised scarcity of resources often implies heightened levels of violence.[2] Recent evidence from India supports this claim: urban riots are persistent and widespread, with an average of over 64,000 riots per year over the last decade and 16 out of 28 states experiencing more than 1000 riots in 2010.[3] Moreover, this violence can be located quite precisely, with a vast majority occurring in urban areas, centred in impoverished neighbourhoods.

How the urban poor get access to security – for themselves, their families and communities and their assets – is however a neglected question. We know relatively little about whether the spatial and material parameters of the physical environment in which the urban poor live, which are often governed by informal arrangements, somehow pre-dispose the poor to insecurity.  The answers to these questions are not straightforward. The consensus that providing legal tenure protects the urban poor is beginning to be challenged. Tenure might not be a priority for the urban poor, while flexibility of living arrangements, or proximity to the workplace might be valued instead. Indeed, there are different levels of security of land tenure and unless there are very clear signals of an impending eviction, any action by the state (such as the provision of services or infrastructure) can be seen as a form of ‘recognition’ and therefore provide a sense of security to the settlement.

In my ongoing research on insecurity amongst the urban poor in Mumbai, India, I find a complex relationship between the urban form, security provision and poverty/wellbeing outcomes. I summarise two findings below (the full paper can be accessed here).

Urban Form Affects how Security is delivered

The nature of urban form (whether the streets are crowded, dense or sparse for example) affects how security is delivered, both formally and through informal agents. This can often happen in non-obvious, ‘ephemeral’ ways and through long chains of events, which go unnoticed until they suddenly come into focus during moments of extreme public disorder. Alternatively, the nature of space can interact more overtly with the mechanics of security provision in such a way that certain strategies are rendered unsuccessful, like police swift-searches for example, while other strategies become realised, like blocking off street with burning debris for example. This not only impacts who is secure and who is insecure, but importantly, also alters local perceptions of who needs security. Here, notions of criminality, illegality or even whether a person or household is poor have little impact. Instead, notions of who needs security are more closely linked to how groups, households or individuals relate to the urban space around them. This has the potential to reinforce structural exclusion and segregation. Moreover, it introduces a critical variation at a very local/micro level that is highly significant in determining outcomes.

One of the resettlement sites in Mumbai where pavement and shack dwellers have been relocated. It is not clear that tenure provides security. Image: Jaideep Gupte

Perceptions and Providers of Security highly localized

The highly localised variation in how insecurity is perceived or experienced, is reflected by an equally high degree of fluidity in terms of who provides security, how they provide it, and to whom it is provided. Furthermore, security can be represented as a collectively owned, but nevertheless excludable ‘commodity’, in that acts of public violence perpetrated by vigilantes function as markers that legitimate not only their own standing in the community, but in turn, also legitimate the long-term use of and reliance on extralegal forms of security provision. However, the institutionalisation of security, whether formal, informal, public or private, is not needed for this to occur. Rather, the commoditisation of security can occur in moments of extreme public disorder, through fleeting systems of extralegal and opportunistic activity.

Such a relationship between security, informality and extralegality in urban impoverished areas presents a challenge for formal (state) security providers. The slum panchayat system, a Mumbai Police initiative to involve slum dwellers in basic community policing, for example, would be at odds with this complex taxonomy of security, where ephemeral vigilante activity defines core notions of legitimacy. Broadly speaking, this reformulates the channels through which state and society respond to the challenges of urban poverty. Areas previously not regarded as slum areas on account of their tolerable spatial and material parameters could conceivably be classified as slums owing to heightened levels of vulnerability and insecurity. As a consequence, where the responsibilities of housing provision traditionally fall under the purview of national planning boards, city municipalities and the legislature, with non-governmental organisations and private sector actors also involved in various capacities, directly including vulnerability and insecurity parameters within the framework of adequate living conditions would imply the direct involvement of the police (or other private agencies/agents providing security) as well as the judicial, punitive and correctional systems within urban poverty alleviation efforts.

As we move towards an ever more urbanised era, where vast amounts of development resources are diverted towards cities, growing evidence highlights that accurately understanding urban form is therefore critical to delivering safe, sustainable and inclusive urban development. And, the calls for development professionals, urban planners, designers and architects to bring their skills together are getting increasingly louder!

Ravallion, Martin, Shaohua Chen, and Prem Sangraula. 2007. New Evidence on the Urbanization of Global Poverty. Washington, D. C.: World Bank. Policy Research Working Paper 4199. Available at.
See Urdal, H. 2008. “Population, Resources and Political Violence: A Subnational Study of India, 1956-2002. Journal of Conflict Resolution 52 (4): 590-617. Homer-Dixon, Thomas F. 1999. Environment, scarcity, and violence. Princeton, N.J. ; Oxford: Princeton University Press. Davis, Mike. 2006. Planet of Slums. London: Verso.
GoI. various years. Crime In India. New Delhi: National Crime Records Bureau, Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India.