The Plight of Squatters

(According To Amnesty International, These People Were Relocated From Government Camps After Being Driven Out Of Harare, Zimbabwe, In Operation Murambatsvina./amnesty International Via Associated Press)
By Robert Neuwirth
Monday, August 22, 2005

Thousands of families are sleeping in the open, atop the rubble of what used to be their homes. The roads are lined with people pushing jury-rigged carts piled high with the things they could salvage from the onslaught.

Devastation, deprivation and hardship: It's a common snapshot of the Third World.

But why are these people living in misery? In India and Zimbabwe, they are not refugees from an armed conflict or a drought or a sudden natural disaster. Instead they are the victims of organized demolition drives, prepared, funded and coordinated by the governments of the two countries -- political pogroms directed against squatters.

In India, a dogged campaign in Mumbai in December and January flattened 45,000 squatter homes and left 200,000 people homeless.

In Zimbabwe, a similar operation in June smashed tens of thousands of homes in Harare, the capital, and several other cities, and left 200,000 without shelter.

Mumbai's putsch was intended to clear land, while Harare's may have had a political slant to it, as squatters have tended to vote against the ruling party. But both governments offered the same rationale for the demolitions: that these unsightly and unsanitary areas were retarding development and restraining investment.

Local leaders of India's Congress Party asserted that their action was part of a plan to transform Mumbai into a Shanghai -- a city open for construction and high-tech growth. In Africa, Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's ruler, named his demolition plan Operation Murambatsvina, meaning that it was designed to get rid of rubbish.

Every day close to 200,000 people leave their ancestral homes in rural regions and move to the cities. It is estimated that there are about a billion squatters in the world today -- almost one in six humans on the planet. The best guess is that by 2030, the number of squatters will double. And by 2050 there will be 3 billion squatters -- better than one-third of the people on Earth.

Who are these illegal citizens? The vast majority are simply people who came to the city in search of a job, needed an affordable place to live and, not being able to find it on the private market, built it for themselves on land that wasn't theirs. For them, squatting is a family value.

Most of their communities start in mud -- acres of shanties without water, sewers or sanitation. But the squatters improve their houses one wall at a time, going from mud and stick to concrete and brick. Eventually, they make all four walls fully modern. Then they start on new projects -- perhaps a second story, or better windows, or even securing water or electricity.

I spent two years living in squatter communities across the developing world, and I know how hard the squatters work to establish their neighborhoods and improve their homes. If the governments of India and Zimbabwe ran water mains to their communities, the squatters would figure out how to tap into them to get water to each house. If Mumbai and Harare installed sewer pipes, the squatters would build toilets with proper plumbing and streets with good drainage. If global nonprofits invested in power lines, the squatters would wire their communities and pay to let there be light on their streets and in their homes.

There is no mud hut utopia. But if society won't build for the mass of people, don't they have a right to build for themselves? If they are creating their own homes and improving them over time, then isn't there something good -- at least potentially -- about a community without water and sanitation and sewers? And shouldn't those of us in the comfortable classes stop complaining about conditions in the shantytowns and instead recognize squatters as impromptu activists who are building the cities of tomorrow?

Recent reports from Zimbabwe have been harrowing.

The fate of Mthulisi Ndiweni and his family is typical. After their home was flattened, they braved the cold for two weeks, then sought shelter in a church. But the government evicted them from this refuge and sent them to a temporary transit camp.

Finally, they were trucked to a remote rural village and dumped at a shopping center. The police told them they would be killed if they tried to return to the city.

Anna Tibaijuka, executive director of U.N.-Habitat, the United Nations agency that deals with housing, went to Zimbabwe on a fact-finding mission and issued a harshly critical report. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and World Bank chief Paul Wolfowitz labeled the events a tragedy.

Their words are welcome. But policy changes are far more important, for other countries are poised to follow similar demolition strategies. Malawi, for instance, has warned squatters in Lilongwe, its capital, that it is prepared to use force to drive them from their homes.

Forget structural adjustments, privatization and free markets. It's time to invest in the basics: water, sewers and sanitation. And here's another item that will resonate with people in every country of the developing world: Export a new component of freedom -- the freedom to build.

Robert Neuwirth is the author of "Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, a New Urban World."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company