Ananya Roy: I think what is par­tic­u­lar­ly strik­ing about the ques­tion of dis­pos­able lives in the 21st cen­tu­ry is what seems to be a new glob­al com­mon sense about pover­ty, the ways in which pover­ty and par­tic­u­lar­ly poor oth­ers have become vis­i­ble. And how that in turn, par­tic­u­lar­ly for mil­len­ni­als in the Global North—college stu­dents, young pro­fes­sion­als, so-called ordi­nary glob­al cit­i­zens of the world—how this has mobi­lized them to action. So I’ve become very inter­est­ed in the last few years in the ways in which dis­pos­able bod­ies, sur­plus pop­u­la­tions, are new­ly vis­i­ble and are being con­sti­tut­ed as a new glob­al object, if you will. Not so much a sub­ject but an object, par­tic­u­lar­ly some­one who can be saved, and some­one who can be saved by well-meaning glob­al cit­i­zens in the North.

As pover­ty has become vis­i­ble, of course there are par­tic­u­lar ways in which pover­ty is being rede­fined. And one of these is that pover­ty is then posi­tioned as a prob­lem that can be solved, as a prob­lem that can be solved through char­i­ty, vol­un­teerism, phil­an­thropy, or through tech­ni­cal inter­ven­tions. And I think what that does is a par­tic­u­lar kind of vio­lence to poor oth­ers. And part of that vio­lence is of course posi­tion­ing poor oth­ers only as the poor. But it also obscures the ways in which pover­ty and inequal­i­ty are pro­duced, often by the very rela­tions that seek to save poor others. 

I think it’s impor­tant for us to ana­lyze the ways in which dis­pos­able lives are sit­u­at­ed and resig­ni­fied through such work. So the ways in which quite priv­i­leged glob­al cit­i­zens in the North are able to see poor oth­ers, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the Global South, and how they are able to posi­tion these poor oth­ers as lives that they can save. And what that obscures is of course the long his­to­ry through which that pover­ty has been produced—say his­to­ries of colo­nial­ism and impe­ri­al­ism. So my stu­dents get very squea­mish in fact when we talk about colo­nial­ism and impe­ri­al­ism. Or we talk about glob­al trade. Or we talk about some­thing as sim­ple as their own con­sump­tion pat­terns that might in fact deep­en the very pover­ty that they’re hop­ing to erad­i­cate on an alter­na­tive spring break.

But I think it also obscures pover­ty and inequal­i­ty here in the US. And in par­tic­u­lar I stress inequal­i­ty because I think that while dis­pos­able lives might have become vis­i­ble through the frame of pover­ty, what has not become imme­di­ate­ly vis­i­ble is of course inequal­i­ty. What has not become vis­i­ble are the forms of pow­er and wealth that in fact cre­ate a world of inequal­i­ty. Because of course inequal­i­ty is not so eas­i­ly framed as a prob­lem to be solved. 

I often like to tell the sto­ry, I think it’s become almost an alle­go­ry for me, of how when years ago I was doing research for my first book on Calcutta, which was a book about urban pover­ty. And I was spend­ing quite a bit of time in some of the most pre­car­i­ous squat­ter set­tle­ments in the city. I was con­front­ed by this real­ly bright young man, Ranjan, who asked me if he could in turn asked me ques­tions. He said, You know, you’ve been ask­ing us ques­tions for many months about how we live. Can I ask you some questions?” 

And a ques­tion he had for me was how and why there are home­less peo­ple in America. Now of course, he read to me as some­one who was pri­mar­i­ly an American researcher, despite the fact that I’d of course grown up in that city. And he want­ed to chal­lenge me on how and why there was such deep and per­sis­tent pover­ty, and par­tic­u­lar­ly the embod­ied nature of pover­ty and home­less­ness at the heart of what he imag­ined to be the world’s most pros­per­ous country. 

And I remem­ber hav­ing this long con­ver­sa­tion with him, try­ing to explain the his­to­ry of housing—the very fraught his­to­ry of hous­ing in the US. And his response to me, his quite dis­sat­is­fied response to me, was, No. If one is a cit­i­zen, if one is tru­ly a cit­i­zen, one can’t be home­less.” And his exam­ple was that he as a young cit­i­zen in what is the world’s largest democ­ra­cy might in fact be poor, but he had at least a claim to shel­ter. He did­n’t have a right to hous­ing, but he had a ten­u­ous claim to shelter.

Now the irony of the Ranjan sto­ry is just a few days after we had that con­ver­sa­tion, that squat­ter set­tle­ment he lived in, and that he and his fam­i­ly had lived in for sev­en­teen years, was bru­tal­ly demol­ished in an overnight evic­tion dri­ve by the gov­ern­ment that was then in pow­er, and I nev­er found Ranjan again.

But I often think back to that moment because what it did for me as a schol­ar was to in fact bring me back home to the US, and to think about the ways in which I could study pover­ty and inequal­i­ty here in cities such as Oakland and Berkeley, but do so informed by that under­stand­ing that Ranjan had revealed to me. To think about the ways in which there are quite dif­fer­ent struc­tures and assem­blages of rights and claims in dif­fer­ent parts of the world. And how in fact some of those rights and claims in the cities of the Global South might be more stur­dy and robust than rights and claims here in the US.

I think that the right to the city” con­cept which has emerged as a dom­i­nant con­cept in urban stud­ies is an impor­tant one. And I think we need to think about the ways in which the right to the city is actu­al­ly being instan­ti­at­ed in par­tic­u­lar parts of the world, notably Brazil. But also how the right to the city as an orga­niz­ing con­cept has become quite impor­tant for social move­ments even in the Global North.

I think the chal­lenge of the right to the city, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the Lefebvrian sense, which is a very expan­sive con­cept, is that it exists along­side a whole set of prac­tices that in fact con­tin­ue to impov­er­ish the urban poor, that con­tin­ue to ren­der pre­car­i­ous and dis­pos­able urban life. And Brazil is a good exam­ple of this. That this is the one coun­try where we have in fact the insti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion of the right to the city, both in 1988 demo­c­ra­t­ic Constitution and then in the 2001 City Statute. Very inspir­ing. And my Brazilian col­leagues always tell me that I am per­haps a lit­tle too inspired by the Brazil con­text. But work­ing in India makes me quite inspired about Brazil, because India has a long way to go before such a right is acknowledged. 

And yet what we’ve seen of course in Brazilian cities, par­tic­u­lar­ly lead­ing up to the World Cup and Olympics, is in fact sys­tem­at­ic evic­tions, the wide­spread mil­i­ta­riza­tion of the fave­las, and so forth. So the para­dox then becomes how despite an insti­tu­tion­al­ized right to the city, lives con­tin­ue to be ren­dered dis­pos­able. So I think we need to keep in simul­ta­ne­ous view these forms of inclu­sion, and these forms of vio­lent exclusion.

I think one of the turn­ing points that marks the start of the 21st cen­tu­ry is what I would like to think about as a new man­date to gov­ern dis­pos­able lives. And it might seem para­dox­i­cal to talk about the gov­ern­ing of dis­pos­able lives. But I think that this is very much the case in many parts of the world, includ­ing in the Global South. And I like to con­trast this moment with what I think was a moment of quite crude neolib­er­al­ism in the 1980s and ear­ly 1990s, when in fact we looked, in many parts of the world, at say out­right slum erad­i­ca­tion, demo­li­tions, evictions.

What has emerged in sev­er­al parts of the world, includ­ing India but many oth­ers as well, is what is being tout­ed as inclu­sive growth, as a way of con­tin­u­ing with fast-paced eco­nom­ic growth. Which still remains the pri­or­i­ty, par­tic­u­lar­ly for so-called emerg­ing economies. But, the sense that the poor in par­tic­u­lar, but more gen­er­al­ly sur­plus pop­u­la­tions, have to be gov­erned, and they have to be includ­ed. And part this of course is the quite amaz­ing pro­lif­er­a­tion of pro­grams, both non-governmental pro­grams and pro­grams ini­ti­at­ed by var­i­ous states around the world. Everything from con­di­tion­al cash trans­fers in South America, to slum upgrad­ing pro­grams in South Africa, to India has a new set of pro­grams that real­ly seek to cre­ate what would be an urban wel­fare state.

And so I think that these pro­grams demand our atten­tion. Because in fact they’re not as straight for­ward as the crude neolib­er­al­ism of the past. They are pro-poor in all sorts of ways, and they have very par­tic­u­lar ways of cre­at­ing new sub­jects and cre­at­ing new rela­tion­ships between gov­ern­ment and dis­pos­able populations—and I’m using the term gov­ern­ment in the Foucaultian sense that I’m talk­ing not just about the states but talk­ing as well about that entire appa­ra­tus through which gov­ern­ing hap­pens, which in many parts of the world are such things as non-governmental orga­ni­za­tions or inter­na­tion­al devel­op­ment banks, at times even social movements.

So I think that think­ing about the ways in which sur­plus pop­u­la­tions are includ­ed, and how in fact dis­pos­ses­sion might take place through such inclu­sion, is an impor­tant research imper­a­tive. So I’ve been think­ing quite a bit about a new pol­i­cy that India launched a few years ago called Slum-Free Cities. And the idea is to ren­der India’s largest city slum-free in the next five years. There’s a fas­ci­nat­ing tem­po­ral­i­ty of course to these very bold imag­i­na­tions. They’re rein­vent­ing mod­ern­iza­tion and devel­op­ment, and doing so at these hyper speeds, if you will. 

But Slum-Free Cities is not the old-style poli­cies of slum evic­tions and erad­i­ca­tions. A great deal of it is about grant­i­ng legal title to slum dwellers. Now, this is rev­o­lu­tion­ary in India, which until now crim­i­nal­ized in many ways squat­ting, and real­ly ignored slums. So this is the first pol­i­cy that rec­og­nizes slum dwelling, and grants secu­ri­ty of tenure. But when one looks more close­ly at the pro­gram, what it does is to cre­ate pri­vate prop­er­ty mar­kets in slum areas. And hop­ing to turn slums into what the pro­gram called urban assets.” 

Now, what’s fas­ci­nat­ing to me about this is of course the sheer impos­si­bil­i­ty of some of this. That slums are, as we know, com­plex arrange­ments of tenure, shel­ter, prop­er­ty. So to take those slum lands and con­vert them into neat lit­tle plots of cadas­tral prop­er­ty, and to then trans­form those neat lit­tle plots into glob­al­ly leg­i­ble assets, is a whole dif­fi­cult endeav­or. But I’m equal­ly fas­ci­nat­ed by the idea that lies behind this. And the idea is that the poor deserve rights. But what are those rights? Those rights are pri­vate prop­er­ty rights.