Invisible cities are those ‘unmapped’ human settlements with filthy and substandard living conditions unnoticed by the authorities and the general public. Sustenance necessitates the consumption of food, clothing, and shelter. Even today, many cannot afford these basic amenities. Most of the residents of these invisible cities wander around the built environment without a physical address or a social identity. Moreover, they do not have a place in the census or city demographics.
Due to rapid urbanization, the urban poor and the marginalized in developing countries like India face many challenges. Often, there are random or informal settlement patterns, limited access to essential infrastructure, and a lack of political power. The majority of the invisible city population comprises migrant workers, unskilled labour, and domestic servants, the hardest hit by the pandemic. This invisible workforce is treated as ‘half’ citizens and seen as a burden on society.
The Continuum of Invisibility
Invisible cities lie along a continuum where pavement dwellers, the poorest of the poor, are located towards the bottom, squatter settlements in the middle, and slums at the top. In the former case, there is no home. In the latter, people generally live in either temporary shelters or congested areas that are nothing but dump yards and breeding grounds for animals, drug addicts, and alcoholics. Even if they have a ‘temporary’ home, there is no security of tenure, and there is always a fear of land disputes and evictions.
Across the globe, billions of people are victims of socio-spatial exclusion and submerged humanity. The urban poor are deprived of food, water, sanitation, shelter, and electricity and are thus more vulnerable to malnutrition, water-borne infections, loneliness, and depression. They have an unsanitary environment, a low standard of living, a poor quality of life, and a discordant spatial and social structure. City governments have long ignored the urban poor, with many believing that they will fade away once the anticipated economic boom kicks in. In reality, this never happens, or rather, it is not made to happen.
Equitable Housing for All
It is interesting to note that while there are people without houses, there are also houses without people. In many cities, housing societies are coming up to provide affordable accommodation for the economically-weaker strata. Its success, though, is still up in the air. Firstly, we must establish a relationship between the housing shortage, affordability, and the number of vacant units. Without extensive research, merely constructing uninhabited vertical cities will do more harm than good. While the objective of ‘Housing for All’ is praiseworthy, it seems the key to ‘equitable’ housing is first to unlock the ‘ghost’ houses. There is a desperate need for different types of accommodation, as per the requirements of various income groups, to eliminate this ‘hidden’ homelessness.
The Way Forward
Invisible cities are an inevitable outcome of unintended urban growth and increasing urbanization. There is still a lack of data on intra-urban disparities in informal settlements. Furthermore, we lack a thorough assessment of the deeper socio-economic problems that these communities face. There is a pressing need for a movement, if not a revolution, to provide equitable resources to all, irrespective of anybody’s economic status or background.
One way out of this urban ‘mess’ could be the constructive use of the cities’ ‘lungs’ to provide some breathing space for the homeless. The sustainable use of urban open spaces could help in developing housing units to help the needy. The need of the hour is a ‘cost-effective’ house that is self-sufficient, long-lasting, and easy on the pocket. It is time to channelize public funds to help end poverty in all its forms. The urban poor also have the right to the city. For managing poverty, we should see informality as a ‘resource’ and not a liability. Where there is a ‘political’ will, there is a way!
‘Shipping containers’ could be repurposed as low-cost houses. Bamboo and rammed-earth could also be explored as alternative building materials to construct inexpensive and eco-friendly residential units. The essential elements that constitute a city are being disease-free, wealthy, and highly productive. What we lack today is harmonious living and a strong vision for our cities. The story does not end here. Many times, the aged and the differently-abled also find a place in this vicious cycle. Instead of heading towards inclusiveness, cities ‘informalize’ the underprivileged, as if they are exclusively for the well-off.
The urban poor must be an integral part of the bottom-up planning approach. Construction activities and urban agriculture could be of great help in creating employment for them. Providing free and mandatory education to the urban poor should be our top priority. Education can provide them with job opportunities to get rid of their financial problems and contribute towards the upliftment of society as a whole. Knowledge is the power that can take them from obliviousness to blissfulness. Our selfless love for the unloved and shelter for the unsheltered can change a million lives!