Legitimizing the Illegitimate

by George Carothers

The “slum” is often a place that people associate with lesser-value, filth, societal collapse, and criminals. A place to be avoided, shunned, and hopefully one day, destroyed and regenerated. The “slum” has become a typology of spatial arrangement; an example of failure in an urban design textbook. It holds an image of past-time London, crime-ridden Rio, and filthy Mumbai. Dirty, illegal, and inhumane.

Perhaps, in some cases, many of these characteristics hold some degree of truth. Some neighbourhoods are more dangerous, more edgy, more cluttered, and more inclined to have internal issues of their own. But in other instances, the “slum” is a social construct; a label that has been given to an outcast neighbourhood or informal place. The sociological tsunami that follows in the wake of this branding of space carries with it an international message of caution. These are places to be feared and avoided.

India is no stranger to slum terminology. It is also no stranger to people who are fascinated in studying these alienated places. A slum is a formally defined settlement category in India, and these settlements have long been discussed both in public and academic circles. Debates have emerged in the fields of economics, development planning, sociology, geography, and the image of the slum has become a staple within performing arts. Across each field, however, one consistent assumption flows seamlessly over the academic and public circles of discussion; the “slum”, for all intents and purposes, is still an alien place.

But why is this the case?

That the term “slum” has formally found its way into a legal framework for settlement categorization speaks to the structural violence that inherently prevents these communities from gaining the legitimacy that they require. A slum is a slum, and the associated stereotypes that accompany this title will continue to hinder it so long as it continues to be called such a thing.

But what is it exactly that we are calling a "slum"? As I travel to and from the URBZ office everyday, I begin to ask myself the very same question. The most obvious concern within the context of Mumbai relates to the highly publicized Dharavi “slum”, which is also the neighbourhood that houses the URBZ office. Dharavi has been made famous through novels, documentaries and more recently, major western films, and in many ways the artists, writers and directors have dragged the “slum” title through the streets of New York, London and Los Angeles, glorifying the misfortune of the people that inhabit this incredible neighbourhood. But the fact that Dharavi has been labeled a “slum” has made residents angry and left with a sense of not only being used, but also completely misunderstood.

A case that was recently made by Matias Echanove and Rahul Srivastava at TEDx Mumbai touched heavily on this theme and drew surprising comparisons between the incremental developments experienced in Dharavi with those of post-war Tokyo. In the closing slide, photos from two neighbourhoods, one in Dharavi and one in Tokyo, were cut down the middle and fused together to form a single photo. When asked to identify which side of the photo is Tokyo, and which side is Dharavi, it became immediately apparent that these two places, one being the symbol of complete economic and consumerist success, and the other being the symbol of failure and filth, look exactly the same. But for some reason, one side of the photo continues to be called a slum, while the other is a fully embraced model of cozy live/work space.

Perhaps it comes down to the remark on structural violence within the categorization of neighbourhoods. As soon as a place is considered to be alien, it will remain as such, whether or not we really understand how that neighbourhood actually operates. As I spend more time working at URBZ and experiencing Dharavi, I begin to wonder how many artists, directors and researchers who have collectively made millions of dollars on research and artistic projects off of this "slum" have actually stayed in this neighbourhood and genuinely taken the time to understand it. Maybe it is not so outrageous to say that when confronted with the word "slum", the average person still tends to think of the images described in the opening paragraph of this article. Perhaps many researchers, directors and artists tend to do the same.

Credits: Images of Dharavi from George Carothers. Image of Dharavi and Tokyo from Matias Echanove and Rahul Srivastava.


  1. these pictures are stunning, and i agree with your point about labels (although i would like to see structural violence elaborated upon). but don't these photos also glorify dharavi? they are works of art, but what about the real problems with air pollution, worker exploitation, unclean water, insufficient medical facilities and so many other products of government neglect? i like the way you dispel incorrect stereotypes and highlight the many good things people have accomplished there. how can these be preserved while still holding government accountable for improving conditions in informal settlements?

  2. Some excellent questions and insights! From a similar response that I posted on the URBZ website, I'll try to briefly expand on the idea of structural violence:

    Similar to general notions of “class” or “caste”, the word “slum” brings with it a particular popularized meaning that has demoralized an identifiable cross-section of urban society. For example, I would find it exceptionally difficult to convince a general urban citizen – a stranger – that a “slum” is a place in which they would want to live. Regardless of my own understanding of that “slum” situation, the popular connotation carries with it a subordinate flavour. This is seen in an endless number of classic and contemporary novels, and most recently in the film Slumdog Millionaire. Although the word’s meaning may vary across the spectrum of those who are interested in these spaces, the word itself is powerful one, and as such must be used carefully.

    The result of this complication is what I refer to as ’structural violence’ – a theme that is discussed academically in a number of settings, but mostly in discourse on governance and societal structures within the field of peace and conflict studies. The structural violence acts as an unseen barrier; a form of exclusion. This could be a word, an attitude, or a generally accepted notion. Whether or not we choose to see a distinct difference in the meaning of a word, the largely negative connotation that is attached to a word (or an idea) ultimately has the power to exclude or demoralizes a particular community or group. When this word is built into the actual “structures” that govern a society (i.e. the official settlement categorizations in India, popular media coverage, etc.), the results can lead to long-term stigmatization and issues of exclusion for those who are situated within these spaces. Thus we have, structural violence.

    My colleagues, Rahul and Matias, have discussed the “S…Word” and similar themes in some detail. You can find the link to their blog, airoots/eirut, in the article above, or on the ‘network’ section to the right of this column. I would encourage you to read their perspectives as well.

    The “real” problems that you speak of are, perhaps, are the “real” misconceptions that exist. From my day-to-day experiences in Dharavi, working at URBZ and having casual conversations with local residents, I have found it incredibly difficult to identify Dharavi as a miserable, polluted, unclean place. Of course, living standards are different than what the “average” western or even middleclass Indian citizen is accustomed too, but like anywhere else, people in Dharavi go about their day-to-day activities, making a living, embracing their community, enjoying the company of friends and neighbours, and doing their part to improve their own livelihoods. I would say that Dharavi is simply that; a collection of incredible neighbourhoods. All I can suggest is for you to come to Dharavi, or visit the URBZ office and see for yourself!

  3. thank you for the detailed response! i see your point about structural violence and that stigmatizing places like dharavi can contribute to exclusion and neglect. but what happens when someone from dharavi gets sick? do they have access to adequate health care? or if an unregulated business decides to burn materials that emit harmful chemicals into the surrounding area? are these misconceptions of slums or examples of structural violence?

  4. i guess they could be both. but having been to dharavi i know there are many, many good qualities, but there are also problems with air quality, waste disposal, access to healthy green space. not because of laziness or crime, but because formal government isn't adequately working there. it's important to keep the good without ignoring the things that really need to be improved.

  5. My colleagues Matias, Rahul and I took part in a conference today at TISS (Tata Institute of Social Sciences) here in Mumbai, and the theme of this article was brought out in some detail during the discussion between panelists (including Matias and Rahul) and the fellow researchers in attendance.

    In lieu of these insights, I would say that we are beginning to tread on dangerous water when we speak of "exclusion" as a defining characteristic of "slums". Are slums characterized by the lack of access to adequate infrastructure (be it healthcare, water, sanitation, etc.)? If this were the case, a large number of middle class neighbourhoods in Mumbai would also easily fall into the same “slum” categorization (many apartments in Mumbai’s middle class nieghbourhoods have access to running water for only one hour per day). A great deal of the city is lacking proper access to basic amenities, not solely the city's slum dwellers.

    The informal and formal debate can go around in circles, though I would say that much of the perceived "informality" in informal settlements (by means of governance and economic transactions) does, in fact, embody a great deal of order and organization. The lack of "formal government", as was mentioned above, is simply a subjective use of the informality analytic. In Dharavi, by and large, there are a number of extremely formal, "informal" governance structures that not only maintain some degree of communal stability, but also go about enforcing an entirely local "planning" apparatus. In Dharavi "slum", funnily enough, building is actually controlled.

    On an entirely opposite end of the spectrum, I would pose this question: how much "formality" do you think is actually involved in the so-called "formal" sector of Mumbai? I'll highlight a few actors: Land development mafias? Corrupt politicians? Police? The very same idea of informality is not only embraced within the mainstream social, political and economic structures, but these actors also blatantly impose the very same structures on the communities within “slum” areas. The “formal” sector engages in millions of “informal” economic transactions in Mumbai, everyday, thereby legitimizing the existence of the informals. Even if a slum-dweller wanted to become a theoretically “formal” member of society, he or she would continue to struggle to do so outside of the slum.

    What we are generally pointing towards is a theoretical rat ball in which we are stuck, and cannot seem to escape from. Slums are slums for reasons x, y, and z. But x, y, and z also occur in the non-slum areas of the city. So what are we left with? A scale of “slummy-ness” from one to ten? Ultimately, the title or word isn’t the problem; our obsession with “categorization” is the real disease.

  6. great points. categorization can be inaccurate, unproductive, damaging, etc. i'm more concerned with finding ways to provide basic services throughout mumbai, and the world for that matter. it isn't fair that some children can be born into places where these services are substandard or nonexistent, when the necessary resources and technology are available but directed towards things like this. thanks for answering these questions by the way.

  7. Thanks george for this article. I've been thinking also thinking about how places/neighborhoods that are considered poor are always demonized or made to look horrible and we are made to feel sorry for these communities, when in these places there also lies happiness and light, and strength and resilience. anyways, just wanted to thank you for this article. hope to see you in india soon.



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