This series of three essays is the first installment of the Massive Urbanisation forum, collectively written by the Massive Urbanisation Collective, a collective of Southern urban scholars. You can view the whole forum here, and click the following links to view Part 2, Part 3, and the afterword.


ontiguities and eventualities at the margins of Manila’s massive urbanization

Amid the disorienting multiplicity of occurrences in massive urbanisation, where and how do we look? In Manila, the massive scale of movement, circulation and transformations have been fueled by various processes, particularly at the margins where conversion of peri-urban lands to make way for dreams of homeownership and sprawling visions of urban progress conjoins with systematic evictions of the urban poor to the very same fringes. As sites of new juxtapositions and uneasy contiguities, the peripheries assemble as sites where novel and disparate eventualities coalesce in ways that are sometimes fleeting and other times sustained.  

Take the example of resettlement sites that dot Manila’s fringes, whose rather hopeful names like Kasiglahan (“Place of Vitality”) and Southville invoke a promising future and an idealized sense of place that conceal their brutal uninhabitability. Relocation of the urban poor has always been a strategy to clear the city, to make way for various forms of urban projects. In recent years, these strategies have shifted to more benevolent versions of dispossession that appear to cushion the violence of eviction. Despite this, hundreds of thousands of families have been uprooted to sprawling social housing projects in the middle of nowhere, often with minimal provisions and incomplete infrastructure. Evictees are forced to start a new life from scratch, carve spaces of maneuver amid new configurations of everyday life and relations with neighbors, and face a different set of challenges to maintain life in what many of them refer to as “death zones.” They are compelled to navigate the fractures of space-time in these sites through encounters with half-finished housing units and absent or exorbitantly priced infrastructural services. They learn to divide time and shuffle bodies across space through daily commutes or weekly migrations to bridge the distant relocation site with livelihood opportunities back in the center. 

Figure 1: Construction of a model resettlement-housing site in Manila’s periphery in 2018 (Photo by Kristian Saguin)

Yet new, precarious forms of sociality, congruities and possibilities emerge amid these strange and coerced juxtapositions. The collective work of inhabiting has taken on various forms with plural political effects in the periphery. Ironically situated on what used to be farmlands, resettlement sites often host urban community gardens promoted by the village administrators to improve an individual sense of responsibility, household food security, and community spirit. These activities are expected to smoothen neighborly frictions and transform evictees to proper urban citizens through productive and collaborative work in the gardens. However, as these gardens come to host different economies and uses, they also open up opportunities for some to expand their room for maneuver, pursue other tangential interests beyond the intended and realize alternative visions of peripheral life. 

At the same time, resettlement sites have also produced more overt forms of organizing to claim rights to housing and infrastructure access amid the scraps of the urban periphery. The massive reshuffling of people to the fringes and their uneasy juxtapositions have created the conditions for mass political movement that took shape as a housing takeover and occupation in 2017 in one of the largest resettlement sites in Pandi, Bulacan, 30 kilometers north of Manila. The scale of the movement, how it unfolded, and its anticipated futures are all situated within the particularity of peripheral contiguities. 

Eventualities at the margins tend to be plural, provisional and uncertain, shaped by shifting contingencies at the peripheries. Massive urbanisation therefore prompts us to pry open the urban as a source of these eventualities and locate their uneven trajectories. 


he year of reckoning - mass movements and massive mobilization under the urbanisation of a ‘Delhi without borders’

The massive mobilisations and cross-solidarities of 2020, the year of the pandemic, have provided a major reckoning to the spectre of capitalism that manifests as the massive urbanisation of a ‘Delhi without borders’. At a time when a grand axis of tyrannic architectural splendour[1] rises from the rubble of democratic institutions at the centre of Delhi, a mass mobilisation by millions of farmers from the adjoining states of Punjab and Haryana blocks Delhi’s border to protest against the ‘anti-farmer laws’. This mobilization, dubbed as Dilli Chalo (a long march to Delhi), has been ongoing since November 2020. It has farmer unions protesting against the privatisation of the gains made under the ‘the long green revolution’[2] which turned Punjab and Haryana into agricultural supply zones (dubbed as breadbaskets) enabling the massive urbanisation in the region. The occupation of Delhi’s borders by the farmers is not merely a symbolic protest against the political power that is centralised in Delhi, but is rather a form of determination of land rights under a massive urbanisation that defies the binaries of the village and the city, the built and the unbuilt, and the agrarian and the urban. It is a massive mobilisation under an extensive urban fabric of disparate contiguities, which encases agriculture within mega highways with mushrooming gated communities conjoined with plotted ‘grey zones’, and industrial nodes conjoined with tenement towns housing migrant labour.

Figure 2: Cross-solidarities among the protests at Shaheen Bagh (Photo by Ita Mehrotra)

At the protest site at Delhi’s Singhu Border, among the revolutionary chants of inqulaab zindabad (long live the revolution), pop-up libraries, speeches, poetry, revolutionary music, art, and graffiti, emerge solidarities with other injustices shaping under Delhi’s massive urbanisation (see - Trolley Times a newsletter reporting from the farmer protest). The protests are joined by the Muslim women, who under another massive mobilisation at the start of 2020 had occupied the streets of Delhi demanding a rollback of the exclusionary citizenship laws of the CAA-NRC. These protests that started in the neighbourhood of Shaheen Bagh in East Delhi and slowly spread to rest of Delhi and the country saw mainly Muslim women occupy streets and public spaces day in and day out under Delhi’s harsh winters (see – Ghertner and Govil). Here again, the site of the protest, Shaheen Bagh, symbolises another facet of Delhi’s massive urbanisation - the ‘grey zones’ of ‘planned illegalities’ that make up one of the over 1800 ‘unauthorized colonies’ housing two-thirds of Delhi. Neighbourhoods where the marginalised working classes of the city enterprise through solidarity economies and waste recycling. Where the new citizenship laws are seen as a coming of a new urban apartheid that would legitimise exclusion through reifying citizenship along religious boundaries. These protest sites persisted in the face of the politically instigated Hindu-Muslim riots in North-East Delhi that coincided with Donald Trump’s visit to Delhi’s grand axis. The protest sites continued even under the early days of Pandemic, with a self-organised regulation on social distancing and numbers by the protestors only to be crushed through a brutally imposed COVID lockdown in mid-March that completely suspended all public life in India.

Figure 3: An illustration capturing the environment at the Shaheen Bagh protests (Photo by Ita Mehrotra)

The brutal COVID lockdown was the start of another silent revolution- one that was symbolised through the movement of millions of invisibilised labour migrants making way to their home villages often thousands of kilometres away on foot and on bicycles. In an uncanny way, the movement visibilised the other ‘grey zones’ of Delhi’s massive urbanisation, the tenement towns that have powered its urban-industrial fabric through enabling a permanently temporary class of labour migrants. The silent images of this revolution spoke and moved more than words could, stirring both the government and bourgeois policy makers alike to take stock of the ignored housing question under the neo-liberal massive urbanisation of Delhi. While 2020 will be immortalised as the year of COVID, it should also be remembered for the cross-solidarities between these mass and silent mobilisations that seem disconnected at first but are united through the fabric of Delhi’s massive urbanisation. The creative forms of protests and visibilisation of contradictions open an opportunity of reckoning for spatial justice under the uneven massive urbanisation of a ‘Delhi without borders’.


eclaiming space and time in Jakarta

Like several other cities across the Global South, the reclamation of space in Jakarta proceeds through both horizontal expansion and practices to optimize floor area ratios which colonize the vertical. The enclosure of land in Indonesia takes place through efforts to reclaim new land from the sea  - such as the Jakarta coastal reclamation project, the introduction of new towns such as the new Indonesian capital city in Kalimantan, Borneo, and the expansion into the agricultural land across the vast city peripheries. In Jakarta, the periphery, just like the urban center is also a site of high-rise, high density developments such as the Meikarta project - a project that aims at accommodating 250,000 housing units in just 500 hectares (10,000 sq.m.) of land. While in the city center the apartment construction proceeds through the eviction of working class residents, at the periphery, the housing development and industrial estates proceeds through the evictions of agrarian communities. The reclamation of spaces thus becomes a predominant tool of socio-spatial segregation in the city.

In a well-worn story, ongoing massive urbanisation marginalizes the urban poor, corners them as scapegoats, and portrays them as the cause of Jakarta's eco-social problems. The reclamation of space requires constant narratives to convince the public that the government's policies are aligned with the public interest. Particularly with the increasing threat of climate change, coastal urban regions are forced to deal with multiple disasters, particularly flooding and subsidence. In Jakarta, local governments attempt to enforce “green displacement” (i.e. “slum clearance”) to justify policies which they claim are required to protect the city from sinking. Policies aimed at protecting the urban poor often, however, become excuses to protect the city from the poor.

Two main arguments have been mobilized within green displacement to justify increased levels eviction: benevolent acts and green aesthetic narratives. Slum evictions are justified by attributing their residents as the leading cause of environmental deterioration. Instead of tackling massive overbuilding on precarious terrain, governments in Jakarta continue to portray residents of informal settlements as the cause of floods. Whereas, through their eviction, more land becomes available to fuel the building boom in Jakarta.

  Figure 4: An architectural model depicting the new design for the kampung Akuarium (Photo by Dian Tri Irawaty)

At the same time, the concept of reclamation does not belong to processes of displacement alone; more broadly, it is a process of continual contestation, a reclamation over the temporality of endurance of what settlement could become. As such, grassroots movements have increasingly engaged in maneuvers to influence the government and rewrite the dominant urban narrative. Movement organizers need to have leverage or allies in the government, to facilitate their particular aspirations and abilities to reclaim. Political contracts forged during the last Jakarta gubernatorial election, where different associations of the urban poor negotiated the terms of their collective support for the winning candidate have proven to be useful in halting evictions. Through a detailed agreement and constant monitoring, lobbying, and political pressure, the Urban Poor Network (JRMK) and its partners have influenced the government policy, and to some extent, has shifted the policy for the benefit of the urban poor.

Figure 5: The official groundbreaking of Kampung Akuarium redevelopment by the Jakarta's Governor (Photo by Dian Tri Irawaty)

For example, Kampung Akuarium, a settlement evicted under the reign of the previous governor in 2016, was rebuilt according to designs proposed by residents themselves. The reclamation was contested not just in terms of the right to remain, but the right for the continuous efforts of the residents to build a community that keeps on evolving.  Becoming the "allies" to the governor has boosted the residents’ confidence as they realise that even if their power is limited, they are at least on the same playing field with the big developers, bureaucrats, and politicians.  Previously, the urban poor have tended to stand aside without having any access to the power game. However, playing this game also requires political support from the movement itself to the current allies such as the governor. Here the dilemma for the grassroots movement, long in the trenches of militant critique and activism, is to juggle between the ideological understanding of their conditions and immediate political interests. Moreover, being on the same playing field does not guarantee the same treatment. The urban poor still have to use a wide range of discrepant strategies to navigate across an urban region where they remained consigned to the most precarious of territories and remain within the popular imagination the culprits for much of what goes wrong. They have to play a game of hedged bets and incremental victories so that they win spaces of maneuver enabling them to demonstrate that their realities, and those of the city at large, are not simply the stuff of technical solutions.

Figure 6: A view of the Kampung Akuarium before the redevelopment begins (Photo by Dian Tri Irawaty)

[1] The USD 2.72 billion revamp of the imperial axis of Delhi has been described as a pet project of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The project is highly contested not only due to its extravagant spending but also due to the ecological impact and enclosure of public spaces that it will entail.

[2] See – Patel, Raj. 2013. “The Long Green Revolution.” The Journal of Peasant Studies 40 (1): 1–63.