The Illegal City: Space, Law and Gender in a Delhi Squatter Settlement

January 3, 2013

The growing interest in slums and squatter settlements owes much to the economist Hernando De Soto’s The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else (2000), in which he argues that excluded communities must be brought into the mainstream economy for capitalism to work effectively. Subsequently, writings on slums and squatter settlements have attracted phenomenal journalistic interest, leading to some fine accounts of the lives of squatters around the world, including Robert Neuwirth’s Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World (2004), Mike Davis’ Planet of Slums (2006) and more recently Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity (2012). Although these journalistic interventions have brought such stories to a wider audience, they have also presented academics working in this area with a new challenge, namely that of matching such writers’ attention to nuance, circumstance and storytelling. Ayona Datta is clearly aware of that challenge and tries hard to infuse The Illegal City with passion, with some success.

Nevertheless, what works best here is the content, which provides readers with a fascinating insight into different facets of squatters’ experiences during different phases of their lives. The Illegal City is an impressive account of the unfolding relationship of space, governmentality and gender in a Delhi squatter settlement in the context of rapidly changing value systems and societal norms. Datta carefully lends her analytical and often etymological lens to the dissection of power struggles, violence (both internal and external) and the threats experienced by these squatters (and possibly those in every other slum or squatter settlement around the world) as she weaves seemingly disparate strands of identity, poverty, power and society. The description is vivid, eruditely expressed and immensely effective in challenging the stereotypes that suggest these settlements exist outside the purview of the law of the land. Indeed, Datta goes so far as to argue that “illegality in squatter settlements is not where law ceases to exist, but rather has a distinctive relationship with the rest of the city”.

Drawing on five years of her own research via on-site investigations and in-depth interviews, Datta also offers historical insights into Delhi’s changing legal, institutional and social contexts by citing case law and government publications, and interpreting their application through real-life stories. She makes especially good use of the lens of gender to expose readers to different facets of female squatters’ everyday negotiation with their own families, societies, law and state. Even the most reluctant reader should be convinced that these observations are worth pondering, as Datta demystifies the state’s alluring but often illusory promise that squatters can achieve better housing arrangements without recourse to the slow-moving debate and decision-making that are staples of democracy.

Squatters’ communities are highly heterogeneous and residents experience constant change via their ever-shifting relationship to the distinctions of “legal/legitimate” and “illegal/illegitimate”. Inevitably, therefore, The Illegal City’s central message is a snapshot bounded by time and geography. However, this does not negate the work’s importance. At its core, it is an immensely scholarly work that adds substantive and methodological value to urban development studies. It is rich with insights and observations that may lead to further work, even if it may not directly give rise to new theory. That said, readers who expect it to capture fully the vibrant human spirit that exists in these settlements may need to look elsewhere.

The Illegal City: Space, Law and Gender in a Delhi Squatter Settlement

By Ayona Datta
Ashgate, 210pp, £55.00. ISBN 9781409445548.
Published 20 September 2012

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