Beyond the Informal: Reconceptualizing

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  • Working Paperswww.mmg.mpg.de/workingpapers

    MMG Working Paper 13-13 ISSN 2192-2357

    MATIAS ECHANOVE (The University of Tokyo)

    Beyond the Informal: Reconceptualizing Mumbais urban development

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  • Matias Echanove (The University of Tokyo)Beyond the Informal: Reconceptualizing Mumbais urban development

    MMG Working Paper 13-13

    Max-Planck-Institut zur Erforschung multireligiser und multiethnischer Gesellschaften, Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic DiversityGttingen

    2013 by the author

    ISSN 2192-2357 (MMG Working Papers Print)

    Working Papers are the work of staff members as well as visitors to the Institutes events. The analyses and opinions presented in the papers do not refl ect those of the Institute but are those of the author alone.

    Download: www.mmg.mpg.de/workingpapers

    MPI zur Erforschung multireligiser und multiethnischer GesellschaftenMPI for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, GttingenHermann-Fge-Weg 11, 37073 Gttingen, GermanyTel.: +49 (551) 4956 - 0Fax: +49 (551) 4956 - 170

    www.mmg.mpg.de

    info@mmg.mpg.de

  • Abstract

    This essay looks at the theoretical meaning and practical implications of a much-

    used and abused notion in urban planning and development circles, that of informal

    settlements. In Mumbai alone over seven million people supposedly live in them.

    Yet, what is informal about these settlements is not all that clear, especially in the

    broader context of a city where land tenure and occupancy rights have been histori-

    cally contested across the housing spectrum. Besides, from an architectural, urban

    planning, and development point of view, the notion that habitats can be informal

    evokes imaginaries of both crisis implying the need for urgent and radical action,

    and anti-conformism which explains the appeal that informal settlements have

    for design students and scriptwriters alike. After reviewing classic literature on infor-

    mality, focusing notably on Keith Harts original conceptualization of the informal

    economy and the way it slipped into the more vague and confused notion of the

    informal sector and from there went to defi ne entire settlements, I propose a few

    alternative concepts such as enformality, homegrown neighbourhoods, neigh-

    bourhoods in-formation and the tool-house, all based on observations of so-called

    informal settlements in Mumbai.

    Author

    MATIAS ECHANOVE is a PhD candidate at the Graduate School of Interdiscipli-

    nary Information Studies, University of Tokyo and a doctoral fellow at the Max

    Plank Institute of the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity. His research explores

    the role of local actors in urban development in Mumbai and Tokyo. He previously

    obtained a B.Sc. in Government and Economics at the London School of Econom-

    ics and a M.Sc. in Urban Planning at Columbia University. He currently lives and

    works in Mumbai, where he co-founded URBZ: User-generated cities, a platform for

    experimental urban engagement, and the Institute of Urbanology, a research studio

    and consultancy.

    ma as@urbanology.org

  • Contents

    Introduction....................................................................................................... 7

    Slums and prejudice ........................................................................................... 8

    A contextual and conceptual vacuum ................................................................ 12

    The narrative of informality .............................................................................. 16

    The narrative of formality ................................................................................. 19

    Informal, informe, enform ................................................................................. 21

    From the informal economy to the informal sector .......................................... 24

    From the invisible hand to informal labour ........................................................ 27

    The informal state .............................................................................................. 31

    User-generated habitats ..................................................................................... 32

    Neighbourhoods in-formation ........................................................................... 40

    Conclusion ......................................................................................................... 41

    References .......................................................................................................... 42

  • Introduction

    This essay addresses the limitations of the phrases informal settlements, informal

    neighbourhoods, informal city, or urban informality when it comes to identifying

    certain types of habitats and providing a framework for academic research, planning

    intervention, and policy-making. Often used by well-meaning commentators who

    prefer it to the politically loaded word slum, the phrase informal settlements is

    equally problematic. Tagging specifi c geographical areas as informal obscures more

    than it reveals. It distracts researchers and practitioners from the task of identifying

    the diversity of forms and the multiplicity of processes at work in the city. The narra-

    tive of informality produced by governmental agencies, non-governmental organiza-

    tions, academic institutions, media networks, and private groups, singles out certain

    areas and transforms them, fi guratively and in reality, into zones of exception. These

    become the receptacle of fantasies, fears, good intentions, and speculative interests

    from the aforementioned set of actors. Above all, both the informal and the slum

    labels deny the normalcy to which many incrementally improving neighbourhoods

    aspire.

    This essay offers a critique of the narrative of informality as well as an alterna-

    tive terminology, which should hopefully allow researchers and urban planners to

    engage with incrementally and locally developing neighbourhoods without patron-

    izing them. It proposes the development of a practice based on the recognition of

    neighbourhoods dynamics and the role of local actors. The concepts presented here

    have emerged from fi eldwork and discussions with local actors and colleagues. They

    include homegrown habitats, neighbourhoods in-formation, and the tool-house. These

    are not intended as substitutes to describe informal settlements, slums, or marginal

    neighbourhoods. Because they refer to urban processes rather than specifi c geo-

    graphical places or demographic groups, the concepts presented in this essay cannot

    be presented as part of the nascent academic fi eld of subaltern urbanism. The con-

    text of this essay is that of Mumbai and the citys politics when it comes to what the

    authorities and commentators refer to as slum areas or informal settlements. Yet

    the concepts proposed here can be used across different physical and social spaces.

    What these concepts emphasize is the role of local actors in urban development and

    neighbourhood life.

  • Echanove: Reconceptualizing Mumbais urban development / MMG WP 13-138

    Slums and prejudice

    In The Argumentative Indian (2005), Amartya Sen discusses the importance of

    acceptance in Indias multiculturalist tradition. Tracing the origin of the notion to

    the Sanskrit word swikriti, he presents it as an enduring feature of the sub-continents

    social ethos. Sen describes how the inclusiveness of pluralist toleration in India has

    tended mainly to take the form of accepting different groups of persons as authentic

    members of the society, with a right to follow their own beliefs and own customs

    (2005: 34). He argues that acceptance of the other in India provided a fertile ground

    for democratic and equalitarian politics. He notes, however, that although it implies

    political equality, acceptance does not automatically extend to the promotion of

    social and economic equality (2005: 36). India is indeed marked by sharp contrasts

    between an inclusive political sphere and a polarized economy. The persistence of an

    intense class and caste divide, and the general lack of concern about the living condi-

    tions of the poor, is symbolically represented by the presence of shacks in close prox-

    imity to high-class residential towers in Indian cities, an image that often features in

    academic presentations on Mumbai.1

    Sen, however, probably equates acceptance with recognition too hastily. While

    recognition implies an active relationship to the other, acceptance is akin to a pas-

    sive form of pluralistic tolerance that easily mutates into fatalism and indifference.

    Acceptance lays the foundation for communitarism and casteism. Indeed, the philos-

    opher Slavoj Zizek argues that the global celebration of tolerance and multicultural-

    ism conceals a form of racism with a distance: It respects the identity of the other,

    conceiving it as an auth

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