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A crusader for housing rights

Jai Sen, an activist on dwelling and labour, talks to TNS about rights to housing

A crusader for housing rights

There are very few people in the world who leave their roaring business and successful careers to promote the cause of people, particularly the poor. Believe it or not Jai Sen is one of them. Born in 1946 at Delhi, in an upper caste, upper class Bengali, educated family of professionals and Gandhi followers, Sen was educated first in Delhi and then in England. He went to a university in Montreal, Canada where he studied architecture.

According to him, “Somewhere along the way, the habit of questioning things arose in my life.” He graduated in architecture and urban design. He had a very successful practice as a consultant but then he was disillusioned with the mainstream practice and dropped out of it and decided to re-educate himself, trying to understand how ordinary people understand architecture.

For one reason or another, he ended up coming back to India and visiting Kolkata. He found himself in love with the place. Although a Bengali, he had gone there as a child but never lived there. So he decided to work there and ended up staying there for 25 years.

When asked the reason, he says: “I was buried in research first, living with the poor, understanding their work, housing. But you can’t just understand; you become radicalised by the experience. I worked among refugees from what was then East Pakistan, and then became Bangladesh. I worked among people called ‘squatters’, labouring poor who find a place to live in the cities. I was fundamentally re-educated in terms of how the social structure works, how the land market works, how people like students are marginalised.

“Formal education never teaches you how to build lives and how to contribute to the civil society. So my work changed and I became an activist, an organiser among such people. I wrote an essay ‘An Unintended City’ in which I intended to theorise the city which emerges within the city, the city of poor. Some work was involved in setting up an organisation called ‘Unnayan’ Kolkata, which means more in the sense of self-realisation.

“Now my aim was to work among people of the labouring poor, to have them realise their potentials. I worked in that organisation for fifteen years. It was a profound experience. It was a very creative period. In 1977, post emergency there was flowering —of new thinking in the country and we were a part of that. We were thrown up by the time I think. It was the time when India was moving gradually towards a globalised, liberalised world; the market was being opened up. We did not know the structural factors at play.

“Along with many others in the country we began to conceptualise the term “housing rights” but we redefined them, not in terms of the building but as the right of every woman, man and child to live in dignity. And we built a national campaign for housing rights at the national level, in Kolkata; a mass organisation fighting for people fighting for their rights.”

Then he linked his campaign with International Habitat Coalition. Some of his colleagues there were very active, in getting a new documentation at the UN level for comments and also for something called right to good housing (UN has not yet recognised housing as a fundamental human right).

The News on Sunday: Please tell us briefly about the Institute for Critical Action in Movement (CACIM)?

Jai Sen: CACIM (the India Institute for Critical Action — Centre in Movement) is an initiative towards cultivating and nurturing a culture of critical reflexivity and action in individual and public work. In principle we expect to work in many fields but our focus at the moment is on activism, research, and publication in relation to social and political movement.

We primarily work by building and maintaining real and virtual spaces for fundamental research and critical reflection, exploration, action, and creation in the field of movement: Books, seminars, workshops, websites, and news bulletins and action alerts. Initiated in India in 2005, CACIM is transnational, intercultural, and interdisciplinary in vision and culture.

TNS: I have read somewhere that 40 per cent members of the Indian parliament are developers. Are they willing to develop housing projects for the poor?

JS: I did not know that figure. I can believe it. It is now common in the country to be a crorepati. Even in Delhi state government 60-80 per cent people are declared crorepatis. I belong to a generation that cannot believe the money the people are making. To have that kind of money is to assume this is legitimate, otherwise they would not declare it or say it in public that they are crorepatis because in India now you have to declare what you are. But that astonishes me.

I think 67 out of 70 members in Delhi are from Aam Adami Party. AAP has taken the position that its priority is the lives of Aam Admi, in terms of education, health and everything. So even if 60 or 80 per cent are crorepatis, they are committing themselves to it. So I assume the new capital does have a plan for that. Even in the few days they have been in power, they have already taking steps in that direction. I would hope that they will stand by the Seven Points and implement it.

TNS: What is your concept of a modern city? What should be the basic ingredients of an ideal city?

JS: Well, I think the fundamental precept of a modern city, at any time in history, has to be that it has to be democratic. It has nothing to do with a smart city or better infrastructure, etc. It has to be democratic, participatory. A democratic city is by definition modern. That is fundamental — where women have a place, where Dalits have a place, where Muslims and other minorities have a place. We treat each other with respect. That is a modern city. But that is not part of the discussion of any modern city today. It is all technocratic.

TNS: Did you try to link South Asia with it?

JS: CASIM, no, not really. It has not. I think there are many faults in what are we doing or have done by virtue of becoming associated with World Social Forum. We are too small to get attention in the way we should have. I happened to be in Nepal, for personal reasons. While there I did talk with people about what they are doing. It was interesting. With Sri Lanka there was some exchange that happened by default. I know my colleagues here in CASIM. I think they are working independently.

My life is now changed [health problems] I live only half the time in India. They [my colleagues] would be very keen to look into any possibility of dialogue with the people of Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. I hope it does take place.

TNS: Would the old land mafia allow them?

JS: I think many of the struggles we fought in the 1970s and 80s in Mumbai and Delhi were against the land mafia. So when you have the context of the government, state government, that can take a position, it lends psychological strength for ordinary people on the ground to do more. And also they have the backing of the law technically on their side.

In Bengal CPIM should have been an example of this. It came into power in 1977. Sadly, they quickly became criminalised with the land mafia in order to “retain power”. Previously, in the 1960s, they were thrown out by a presidential ordinance. In order to stay, they had to consolidate their power. But we saw them getting corrupted and being the primary oppressors of ordinary labouring people. I met in my work with Habitat International Coalition people from different parts of the world. I remember a Marxist Leninist in Colombia who said that if they are doing this they are not communists. No communist would behave in the way the left behaved in Bengal

Aam Admi Party does not talk about this. I have deep respect for socialism, communism and I have relations in those directions. Hopefully, an understanding takes place in society to fight against caste and communalism. Hopefully, we can take that struggle against land mafia successfully.

One comment

  • thanks . very interesting . he should have told about what was achieved on ground in Calcutta or elsewhere. to be democratic is the correct definition for a modern city. the west Bengal left’s fall is also shared in our land of the pure.
    thanks again zamna sahib,

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