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.

Help Support Open Transcripts

If you found this useful or interesting, please consider supporting the project monthly at Patreon or once via Cash App, or even just sharing the link. Thanks.