Saturday, August 9, 2014

Occupations, Evictions, and Summer in the Field

Many of us working in comparative law, especially those of us engaged in long-term qualitative research, rely on summer for getting intensive fieldwork done.  I'm curious how others have spent their summers, what "the field" looked like this year, and the limits or potential you see in summer re-engagement with familiar terrain.

I spent my summer working in and on Ukraine.  I've worked there for 19+ years and this year was like no other I've ever experienced.  (Many thanks to Shawn and Lissa for keeping the blogfires burning when internet complications and data overload kept me from it.  There was a lot to process.)  I'll be blogging more about aspects of my long-term research and current developments in upcoming posts.

For now, suffice it to say that the war in Ukraine has permeated life far beyond the areas of active fighting in the east.  The war is palpable in Kyiv [Kiev].  Even today (literally), Ukrainian friends wonder if open invasion of the eastern border is imminent.  And in potentially related news, volunteers and city authorities in Kyiv today cleared out several hundred "maidanovtsi," the remainder of those occupying the central square (Maidan) in Kyiv since the inception of protests last November.  Some in Kyiv saw these remaining hundreds of (almost all) men living 24/7 in a large tent encampment on the Square as protecters of the revolution that drove out a repressive government in February.  Others saw them as legitimate heros whose PTSD has kept them clinging to a place where comrades were felled by their own government's bullets.  Others, playing on the term for self-formed platoon, sotnya, together with the word for alcoholic, had started to refer to them as alcosotni, desperate opportunists -- otherwise underemployed or unhoused -- who moved in or hung on when other protesters moved on to civilian lives.  And still others saw the tent encampment of the remaining maidanovtsi as a potential security threat, a Trojan horse in the center of Kyiv waiting to be filled by unmarked military forces of the ilk that invaded Crimea in March or eastern Ukraine in April.  No wonder, then, that ordinary residents of Kyiv (including many who supported the Maidan protests at risk to their own lives) joined the mayor in cleaning out the tents and belongings and rubbish of the remainders today.

Thus evictions, occupations, perceptions of risk, claims to rights, discourses of inclusion and exclusion are preoccupying me these days.  Gautam Bhan has a new paper out that speaks to some of these themes (and attests to the potential richness of long-term qualitative research in comparative law) in a very different context.  Gautam looks at bastis, or evictions of poor illegal settlements, in Delhi.  [The Hindustani word basti, Gautam explains, comes from its root basna (to settle) and means, quite literally, settlement.  Colloquially, it invokes an image of an impoverished settlement often made of temporary or kuccha materials that reflects in its form the vulnerability of its residents.]

Cribbing from his introduction, "This paper’s core preoccupation is in many ways an old one:  through what mechanisms do democratic polities produce, maintain and reproduce inequality?  It grapples with this preoccupation, however, in a particular and emergent milieu."

Looking at case law that led to a seemingly relentless series of evictions of poor illegal settlements (colloquially known as bastis) in New Delhi over the last two decades, it asks:  how is inequality reproduced within and through contemporary Indian urbanism?"

Occupations, evictions, invasions.  What has occupied you this summer?


Bhan, Gautam (2014) The impoverishment of poverty: reflections on urban citizenship and inequality in contemporary Delhi. Environment & Urbanization. Vol 26 (2): pp. 1-14 DOI:10.1177/0956247814542391.

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