The Politics of Hope – An Interview with Arjun Appadurai

Arjun Appadurai, a world-famous anthropologist researching globalization, the development of civilization, and humanity, professor of Yale University and New York University, gave a lecture at PAGEO’s invitation at Corvinus University of Budapest. In his interview with HUG he spoke of his hometown, Mumbai, and the creative and active inner liquidation of the slums.

Mr Appadurai’s best-known study is entitled “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy”. There, he argues that in his view the entire world has become complex overlapping order, which can further be differentiated into complex subsystems. He opposes theories that define globalization as cultural imperialism. His latest volume appeared in 2013, entitled The Future as a Cultural Fact: Essays on the Global Condition, encompassing ten years of scientific research that Appadurai carried out in the area of globalization. Here, too, Appadurai situates India at the heart of his work. His writing is based on firsthand research among urban slum dwellers in Mumbai. He examines their struggle to achieve equity, recognition, and self-governance in bleak conditions. Perhaps it was this struggle that led Appadurai to embrace the “politics of hope” and he lays the foundations for a revitalized, and urgent, anthropology of the future.

Mr. Appadurai! Your scientific work is extraordinarily diverse. What drew you to to research urbanization and questions related to it?

Urbanization as a field of interest appeared relatively late in my career. Up to the 2000s I was occupied with other topics, for instance with various matters relating to India, media, migration, globalization. However, around that time I began studying the conflict between Muslims and Hindus, as it was very current then. This problem has roots that can be traced back far into the past, but it has become a serious national issue from the 1990s onwards, which manifested itself in rebellions and conflicts degrading into violence, in particular in the cities. Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay, where I was born, was also affected. As a result, I was forced to realize I have no idea at all about the city where I grew up, where I lived until I was 18. Then I moved to the United States. So, I started researching the communities and the activists of the Mumbai slums, the destitution there, political life in the slums, and similar themes.  Through this single city, I finally got to the topic of urbanization, which, as a research theme, was entirely new for me. This was around the turn of the millennium.

The globalization that began fifty years ago progresses at an unprecedented speed in the postcolonial arena, one never experienced in Western world before. Can we, however, say that there is an urbanization crisis in the developing world?

We can claim with certainty that this is the case. Especially when we examine Asia and Africa, we can say that the metropolises of these regions have similar characteristics, namely, they lack the appropriate infrastructure. In these metropolises, we normally find the infrastructural elements of the colonial era, which were not designed to bear population growth of this dimension.

In the absence of appropriate infrastructure, enormous masses of people are forced to live in slums, where they have no access to proper quality city services. Thus, in these cities social inequality has grown to an unprecedented scale, which results in ever intensifying tension within the local population. The defenseless, embittered slum-dwellers can in many cases be easily mobilized for any kind of political goal.

Is it a single mechanism worldwide that “creates” these slums, or do the causes differ regionally?

Each country is affected by different causes, which can influence and shape the local characteristics of slums on a regional basis. However, we can detect global universal pattern.

We should not fail to take account of the fact, however, that there were cities in the developing world prior to colonization which possessed very long histories. In other words, countries in the developing world were not wholly rural, rather, a number of premodern, preindustrial cities could be found there. After decolonization and with the spread of industrial capitalism an entirely new quality of urbanization started. Thus, processes that happened one after another, causing one another in the developed world, these processes took place in the developing world parallel to one another. As a result, sporadically dual urban patterns emerged, for instance in Delhi – and many other Indian cities -, where we can find the several centuries old, ancient Delhi, and right nearby the young, new Delhi side by side.

In general, we can say that the fact of these two cities living side by side complicates matters a great deal. If, for instance, we take a look at the sectarian strife in Indian cities, the most serious conflicts happen in the old parts of the city. The strifes forcefully contribute to the ever-growing division between the old and the new cities. This duality does not exist in the metropolises of the Western world.

In the case of Africa, we can observe significant economic problems, which in turn lead to enormous unemployment. In other words, were we to build houses for these people, this would not yet solve their problem, as they would remain unemployed, and thus without income that they would need to sustain their new apartments or houses. What about India?

In India, we encounter a very different situation than in Sub-Saharan Africa. After all, India is a very dynamically developing economy, which, in terms of GDP-increase, is almost on par with China. Technology, industry, and infrastructure are all very well developed, much more so, than in any African country. Therefore, here we have significant economic development, only it is very unevenly distributed in society.

In contrast, in most African countries, not counting South Africa and perhaps Nigeria, there is no economic growth to speak of, there is no appropriate infrastructure or processing industry. Thus, while in India the main issue is income distribution, in Africa it is economic growth itself.

We can find several different operations and organizations in, for instance, African and Indian slums, which were founded by the slum-dwellers to improve their own circumstances. What causes this intensified activity in contrast to other regions?

Poor people in the developing world, in particular those who live in cities, tend not to be apathetic, bur rather strive to exploit whatever limited capacities they might have: they continually improvise, innovate, and they strive to solve problems related to housing, employment and city services with all sorts of creative ideas. In Mumbai, for instance, a large portion of the economy originates in the small business operations located in slums. Here the fashion industry deserves a special mention. This appears in the global market, too: In Mumbai’s slums luxury handbags, for instance Gucci handbags are manufactured, which are then sold, among other places, in New York.

In other words, we find enormous energy and capacity in these locations. The difference does not originate from a difference in people’s heads (that they are more creative, talented on one continent than on the other), rather, there is a fundamental difference in opportunity. The opportunity to exercise themselves in innovation. This is very similar to physical exercise. If you don’t train, you will not be muscular. We meet the apathetic elements in the culture of the destitute primarily in agrarian societies, both in the Western and the developing world, where the opportunities for economic growth are limited. As they adjust, people must develop the “survival techniques” characteristics of the culture of poverty.

Is this why in Europe apathy has become characteristic? Because there is not enough opportunity to exercise and try themselves out in creative enterprises?

Yes! For instance, the European Roma are one of the most stigmatized, most discriminated against groups, whether we consider education, employment, or really any area of life. The majority of them lack appropriate housing and appropriate social support. The media paints a very negative picture of them, the majority of society stigmatizes them. The Roma are victims of active discrimination from Southern Europe all the way to Ireland. And then we act surprised why they happen to be so hopeless and apathetic. The fact that today they live in such bleak conditions has no genetic causes.

If we remember how they lived before they were settled, there we could speak of a very creative and active group. After all, it required a lot of energy and inventiveness to organize and arrange their travels, doing business, maintaining connections, and so forth.

However, by the modern age society has stigmatized them, just as Afro-Americans were stigmatized in the United States, or the “untouchables” in India. The root cause of their apathy is their exclusion from society.

In your study entitled “Deep Democracy” we read about SDI (Shack/Slum Dwellers International, an international network of slum-dwellers), and about Mahila Milan, a decentralized network of poor women’s collectives which was founded by slum-dwellers. What are the origins of such an organization? How did it come to be?

SDI is an organization that operates worldwide and has lots of African members, too. If I remember correctly, there are about 30 African members, and it is very active in Nairobi, for instance. SDI also has an Indian member, the Alliance, which consists of three parts: on the one hand Mahila Milan, which was founded by women living in the Mumbai slums, among whom there are many aging sex workers.

The second groups are the National Slum Dwellers Federation, which operates in entire India. The third is an NGO founded by middle-class citizens, who speak English fluently, are educated, and are interested in the problems of the slums. In the 1990s, as a consequence of many serendipities these three organizations met one another, and thus the Alliance could be formed. In the framework of this cooperation the slum-dwellers are active in many areas: improving housing conditions, building latrines and toilets, establish common savings groups, etc. In other words, they are not waiting for the state to solve their problems, but rather they push forward and they attempt to effect positive change out of their own power. Among other reasons, SDI is very good because it provides a very broad learning opportunities for organizations operating in different countries, so that experiences of local developments can be shared with one another. Thus, on the global level they are continually exchanging experiences. The organization boasts significant results in India’s metropolises, in particular improvements in housing and sanitation, employment, and in the struggle for various rights.

How does an organization like Mahila Mihan come to be? What is the first step?

People meet one another. This is actually a true story. Persons who would like to do something meet one another and recognize that they have common interests. In the course of their meetings they come to trust one another, and they try to do something together. They are the key figures who lead organizations, who encourage others to join. Thus, for the whole to run, personal ties and trust are necessary. Without this, these people would not take on any risk for someone else, and the emerging ideas could not be put into practice.

Roughly how many slums does Mumbai have?

Depending on which statistics you consult, you will find that Mumbai’s entire population is about 15 million people. Out of these at least 50%, about 7-8 million people, live without adequate housing. This means that these people either live in slums (3-4 million people), or a smaller portion on the street, i.e. they have no roof whatsoever over their heads. If you pass over Mumbai in a plane, we can see that a sea of blue-roofed slums covers a large chunk of the city. A shocking number of people live there.

How does the Mumbai city government see the slum problem? Do they make any effort to find a solution, or do they simply close their eyes, as the Nairobi city government has done for a long time?

No, they don’t close their eyes, they acknowledge the problem and attempt to manage it. From 1947 onwards, from India’s independence onwards, there has been a very forceful political will to compensate for colonial oppression, that is, for the mitigation of all kinds of discrimination. As a result, they do not regard destitution as an acceptable condition in the country.

There are numerous state-run organizations whose task it is to manage the problems of poverty, slums, and housing. However, in a city like Mumbai they must face enormous difficulties. The first problem for a large portion of urban inhabitants is the absence of appropriate infrastructure. Here we must think of masses counting millions who are involved in the problem. This is not an issue that can be solved overnight. On the other hand, India is a democratic state, thus here it is unimaginable that the population would simply be moved to another location, as could happen in China. If anyone tried to something similar in India, there would be massive demonstrations, large scale resistance. In other words, it would be impossible to evict masses of people. The third factor is an issue that renders helping the poor even more difficult for state bodies. This factor is the real estate market. The capitalist market is very forcefully represented on the real estate market. In practice, this means that for investors it is most profitable to build skyscrapers for the middle class. Thus, real negotiations in the slums must be carried out by organizations operating in the slums, it is after all they who negotiate with the investors.

What is the best result that the slum organizations are able to achieve? Are they in a position to eliminate urban poverty?

No. The elimination of poverty is an extraordinarily long process, which requires the support of many actors, including the state, politicians, and the business sector. However, what these organizations can do, and are doing very efficiently is raising consciousness about rights and dignity and creating a new level of consciousness amongst slum-dwellers. Thus, they develop the abilities of poor women and men, who are then in a position to speak for themselves when speaking with investors, politicians, or whomever else.

This is an enormous achievement, when one sees that, for instance, a woman who worked in the sex industry before, gains some self-confidence after joining such organizations, becomes conscious of her rights, and stands up for herself, for instance by speaking with Kofi Annan. This actually really happened. This consciousness also led to tangible results, such as the realization of many infrastructural developments, for instance the construction of latrines, which is a cardinal issue in the slums. In other words, the greatest change such organizations can affect is raising consciousness, and this is an enormous result.

Author: Ráhel Czirják

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