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 possible 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 the 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 kinds 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 to 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 the 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’d 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 would look, 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 the 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’s 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.