Groundviews

The State Defense and City Development Ministry: From Utopia to Dystopia

Photo from RNW

Seek ye first the political kingdom, and all things shall be added unto you.’ Kwame Nkrumah (First President of Ghana, 1960)

We got the ‘political’ kingdom and nothing has been added unto us: A lot has been taken away (Chinua Achebe, 30 years later)

Security and development are primarily responsibilities of the state.  Our cities need visionary leaders and disciplined citizens. We should also appreciate the efforts of our leaders who are trying to take our country forward amidst of many obstacles. But if urban development is merged with the Ministry of Defense as ‘State Defense and City Development Ministry’, we run the risk of replacing public-spirited behavior and deliberative politics with selfish interests, authoritarianism, and militarism. This sets us back in our efforts to achieve sustainable ‘human security,’ and in the long run could undermine the nation’s economic and political sovereignty.  ‘Human security’ requires the continuous protection of individuals from economic, political, environmental deprivations, and from all form of violence. In these terms, there is no difference between being shot with a gun, and being deprived of equality, justice and freedom!

Defense is a top-down command-driven institution called into action when the security of society is threatened or in emergencies when other civil institutions are incapable of performing their duties. Development is (at least in theory) a participatory decision-making institution responsible for everything that matters for human well-being.  The merging of such different institutional cultures could limit the ability of either to carry out their respective duties.  The evolution of these two ministries raises many questions about their ability to create a democratic space to navigate development.

Although the security-development convergence appears as an extension of the post-war popularity and military power of a government consolidating its control over society, its real origins lie in the global phenomenon known as ‘new urbanism’ (deceptively branded as sustainable/green city development), which utilizes national security as a means of preparing cities for global capital in its desperate search for safe areas of investment.  Investments have to be grabbed as quickly as they become available, and the safety of investments takes priority over every other ‘national interest’ even if it requires clinical interventions similar to those used during the war on terrorism.

Securitization of development, a rapidly globalizing ‘clinical’ approach to urban development, is a response to a paradox of the neoliberal state-i.e., the privatization of social welfare (‘rolling back the state’) and historically unprecedented increases in state power (‘rolling in the state’) to managing the objective and subjective, inequalities, insecurities and dissent arising from abrogation of the state’s social welfare responsibilities.  National security apparatuses, under the pretext of liberating the city from inefficient public institutions, uncleanliness, threats of terrorism, and criminal behavior, take the responsibility of removing the barriers for property acquisition and investments arising from bureaucratic procedures and democratic norms safeguarding society, religion, culture, and freedom of dissent often concentrated in urban settings.

In Sri Lanka, urbanization and securitization of urban development, especially since 1977, occurred incrementally, often through policies that were abruptly approved without a dialogue and under the pretext of serving other interests such as law and order, preventing terrorism, progress, stability—a pattern of policy making that seems to be getting worse under the current regime.  There have been different patterns of urban development, and their negative implications-dispossession, marginalization, and vulnerability continues to outweigh the positives. The following is a glimpse of that story.

Since colonial times, people moved to cities because they offered more opportunities for upward social mobility, attractive lifestyles, and social-safety networks.  Urban areas have also been vibrant public spaces for intense intellectual and political activity, where inequalities were debated, contested and resolved, and the welfare system and instigation of racial politics (thanks to the nationalism of the Left) managed the conflicts between the rich and the poor. That balance was upset in 1977, however, when the state began drastically cutting social spending, and making the country a safe haven for private investments by suppressing democratic freedoms and deliberately channeling dissent against reforms along ethnic lines.  Pre-planned anti-Tamil riots in 1983 involving the Jathika Sevaka Sammelanaya (JSS), the UNP trade union, targeted urban Tamil business and neighborhoods, which saw the exodus of Tamil businesses; particularly those not deeply entrenched with the mainstream political parties.

Following the 1983 riots, property developers, including those from the Sinhala and Tamil Diaspora, invested in gated communities, high-rise apartment buildings and luxury houses. High concentrations of Tamils in these well-fortified residential complexes under constant security surveillance are evidence of how dispossession, marginalization, insecurity and anxiety are exploited by the capitalist class.  Urban sprawl followed gentrification with rapid development of residential and commercial buildings on the outskirts or otherwise underdeveloped areas of the city, that bypassed the established building and environmental regulations and protocols.  This new phase started when those displaced by high rents, housing prices and property taxes, and fear of repletion of riots began to move out of Colombo.  Urban inequities and related tensions were transferred to the suburbs, and, in response to infiltrations of the LTTE, these suburbs were subject to tight surveillance by security forces and the general public.

Elaboration and normalization of the security apparatus and its extension to development has continued even more aggressively after than during the war, all in the name of capitalist  ‘efficiency’, stability, and security, according to the dictates of the “unholy trinity” (the World Bank, IMF and the World Trade Organization), the dictates that often masquerade as ‘national interests.’

‘Efficiency’ is about removing barriers for property acquisition. Investments from bureaucratic procedures mask the reality that the city contracts property, education, health, water, sanitation and transportation to the highest bidder, transforming them into commodities accessible only to those who have the ability to pay ever-higher prices.  Efficiency arguments promote ideas of etiquette and civility as conceived by the investors and the middle class, and take the basic needs of the working class and poor out of the equation. They are about replacing social welfare efficiency with market efficiency that ends up increasing dispossession, marginalization and insecurity of vulnerable urban communities.  The cosmopolitan culture symbolized in architecture, religious rituals, billboards, and entertainment obscures the fact that Colombo is polarized between malls, gleaming high towers, skyscrapers, casinos, night clubs, entertainment parlors, luxury housing complexes and ‘Collywood’ (Colombo’s version of Hollywood) glitz and the slums and crowded tenements where janitors, laborers, rural immigrants and the urban poor live.

The Expropriation Act hurriedly passed without a substantial parliamentary or public debate, classified and intends to allow the government to acquire ‘under-utilized’ or ‘under-performing’ land and assets that are ‘prejudicial to the national economy’ and ‘urgent in the national interest.’ This act was followed by Town and Country Planning Ordinance proposed to empower the ‘subject Minister’ to acquire lands for economic, social, historical, environmental and religious purposes within municipal and urban areas.  There is no public debate about these acquisitions.  Their values are likely to be assessed according to short-term market values and often corrupted by patronage and geopolitical cleavages, rather than judged by their long-term economic, social and cultural values. In other words, social and environmental returns and present and future values of land and property are treated as synonymous.

The same public property and institutions the government is likely to classify as under-performing and which it seizes are those that the state neglected and underfunded.  Given the bankruptcy of public accountability systems and the culture of fear, these classification systems are likely to be arbitrary, and its objective is to pave the way for privatizing them.  Under normal circumstances, these public properties and institutes would face stiff opposition to being privatized.   When the government acquires these properties under the guise of ‘national interests’ and sells them off to private investors, it deprives the masses (and even the state) of their commonwealth and the safety nets that could be useful in the future.

Many private sector institutions are underperforming because of the global financial crisis and losses they face from the competition.  Under-performing private sector institutions are begging for billions of public bailout money.  Unlike the private sector, the public sector is long lasting, and does not abandon the nation when it is not making commercial profits, because its priority is commercial returns.  Ironically, public sector subsidies are considered wasteful, while no one seems concerned that the private sector absconds with millions in public funds.  Government-run EPF, now a target of privatization (as the Social Security in the US) is a far more secure form of social security than those invested in private financial institutions. Today the private sector is increasingly a target of anti-corporate protesters who are demanding universal education, health, water, and other basic needs.  We must remember that relatively advanced human development that we all enjoy is due to its public sector.

The “National Policy on Involuntary Resettlement” is ignored when impoverished families are uprooted, depriving them of their livelihoods and their sense of belonging to places where they have lived for generations.  Beggars too are fast disappearing from the urban scene. Some residents sell their properties to meet the rising cost of living and the expense of educating their children abroad.  Traditional and Victorian houses and buildings are being transformed into tourist attractions or used for commercial ventures.  Shopping complexes and malls displace local businesses and street vendors, increasing the cost of living for the urban poor.  The high costs of privatized health, education, water and sanitation services in the urban areas are transferred to the entire nation.

The urban landscape is being rapidly transformed into complexes where production, recreation, housing, cultural and religious experiences, and open green spaces are all integrated and secure.  The products of the village are now brought to the mall, so anyone with the money can enjoy traditional village food cooked in clay pots and served in banana leaves in Disney-like village environments, without actually living in the villages or experiencing their less pleasant realities.  Villagers supply traditional vegetables and fruits to the urban population, and, in turn, urban supermarkets pay them higher prices so they have more cash to purchase other necessities.  It sounds idyllic, but rural food insecurity and unhealthy consumption habits are often a direct result of the “supermarketization” of food distribution and the importing of unhealthy practices of city dwellers. Urban rich consumers enjoy organic food and ‘green’ lifestyles, while the poor consume contaminated food and live in unhealthy environments.  Importing (or creating idealized simulations of) rural traditions and lifestyles into urban spaces simultaneously dispossesses rural folk.

Highly fortified malls are paradoxical spaces, where hyper-tradition, hyper-religiosity and Western modernity coexist with apparent ease.  Women dressed in conservative religious attire eat Kentucky Fried Chicken cooked according to religious guidelines.  Mall security places patrons under security surveillance, ostensibly to protect them from groups espousing extremist ideologies and terrorism, although their main job is keeping out the ‘vulnerable’ and ‘undesirables’ like the poor and destitute.

Morality and spirituality are compromised to take advantage of the new economy.  Casinos and religious centers also thrive in close proximity to each other, often patronized by the same people.   Madam Gena’s brothel and the Japanese Buddhist temple coexist in Liberty Plaza Mall, which is also a location where transnational sex workers solicit clients. Fear and paranoia among the powerful have a given a new boost to ‘voodoo spirituality’ which now has become a lucrative business in the city.  The high costs and social restrictions limiting entry into the most coveted places of entertainment result in the spread of lower-priced imitators to the suburbs and even to villages, along with the violence and immoralities associated with them.

New urbanism especially increases the dispossession and vulnerability of women. Despite the fact that visible and invisible work of women are the main contributors to the national wealth now invested in security and development, their wages are far smaller than those of men, and displaced women spend more time in commuting without changes in their traditional roles. The impact of displacement are disproportionately born by women, whose cheap labor once made Sri Lanka attractive for foreign investors and brought in highest proportion of the remittances to the country. Architecture and urban services are allegedly gender-bind; the security and surveillance systems are intensely masculinized.  Built environments incorporate general beliefs and stereotypes about the differences between men and women: the experiences of dispossessed women living in urban and suburban environments are radically different.   Society’s behavioral expectations for women in public spaces are drastically different and far more rigid than for men and the design reinforce them.

Today Colombo is a magnet for women drawn into the sex industry due to poverty, or being kidnapped or sold to pay off debts.  Transnational sex workers ‘loiter’ in Colombo city, or commute between Colombo and Kandy, and they are in the same predicament as local sex workers, often with even fewer rights or resources.   Male sex workers, for example, are subject to homophobic assaults, but the whoring of politicians and the decadence of the rich and powerful is viewed as benign.  In those waves of arrests, though, you find the sex workers who are penalized rather than their pimps, employers, and customers.

Exposure to urban lifestyles increases the expectations of rural populations, particularly youth, who may resort to illegal activities or join extremist social movements out of frustration with being deprived of access to the material benefits and exciting opportunities the city seems to offer.  Poor and marginalized people who commit crimes are penalized and placed under surveillance, but politicians and their children, the wealthy or even the enlightened middle class escape this fate when they commit the same crimes.

New urban development transfers economic and political power to financial capital connected with property development.  Although success of real estate development rests on fragile foundations because they are driven by speculative financial capital subject to abrupt changes of their values and instantly could move across borders, also attract many gullible investors.  For example, Ceylinco Limited’s controversial success in property-development attracted the middle class (cricketers, politicians, businessmen, pensioners, and religious heads) to invest their funds.  Property sales, loan default rates and delinquencies soared as people’s real income did not increase on par with the increase in property prices.  The rich and powerful withdrew their money and received their compensation, leaving many middle-income depositors stranded.  In some ways this is comparable to the subprime mortgage crisis in the U.S. where bailouts and rewards went to the rich, rather than on justly compensating those who had lost their hard-earned savings, and they also failed miserably to rescue the crumbling financial institutions and real estate markets, and restore consumer confidence.  Many investors fled with bailout money and the cities inherited vacant buildings, unemployment and impoverished masses.

Under new urbanism the urban informal sector does not disappear or shrink, but simply expands and get relocated in the margins of society, because though marginalized, and often criminalized, it is those who live in the informal sector who sustain the mainstream economy.  The informal sector compensates for the shortfalls of formal sector incomes. Human rights abuses in the formal sector are not eliminated, but transferred to the informal sector: prosperity and security in the informal and poverty and violence in the informal sector are two sides of the same coin.

Evidence from major cities around the world demonstrate that the underworld and mafia act as subcontractors of the economic, political and law enforcement ventures that formal institutions were unable to carry out within their jurisdiction. Recent violent incidents involving the underworld reveal the consequences of the rather uneasy and embarrassing relations between underworld and the powers that be.  The underworld absorbs the blame for violence and state increases its popular credibility by suppressing the underworld activities.

The disproportionate concentration of resources in urban development not only continue to neglect the agricultural sector, but also the latter is driven by the interests of urban and foreign investors, and the resulting influx of imported vegetables and fruits to rural markets continues to displace local varieties and subsistence crops continue to disappear in favor of cash-crops, which deprives the farmers of their livelihoods and land.  The rehabilitation of the irrigation system vital for rural incomes and food security is neglected and underfunded in favor of tourism and urban real estate development, and the costs and benefits of the later is unevenly distributed between rural and urban sectors.  The uneven rural development of new urbanism is simultaneously about connecting the rural and the urban by polarizing the populace into haves and have-nots, and the placing of development under Defense deprives the freedom of dispossessed groups to voice their dissent, instead dissent gets criminalized.

The merging of state security and urban development is a class project in which the dispossessed and marginalized are criminalized and subject to punitive treatment.  It is also imperialist as national cities are cogs of economic empires and the “slums of poor Third World cities have become a decisive geopolitical space.”  Pentagon strategists are lending great importance to urban planning theory and architecture, since the peripheries are “one of the most challenging terrains for future wars and other imperialist projects.”

The new urbanism’s success in organizing and connecting world citifies along a universal logic of security and global capitalism, explains why the international states’ hyper interests in trying to hold each other accountable for human rights, war crimes, freedom of expression, and human security are superficial, and hardly amount any concrete actions.

New urbanism transforms the entire nation as ‘outward looking’ and vulnerable to a highly volatile global economy and its promise to create equality and justice are always undermined by its own economics predicated on inequality and intractable crises.  The only way in which the inevitable gap between promise and reality could be sustained is by ever expanding surveillance that leaves out no aspect of social fabric, and concentration of power to the extent that the state trusts no one except for a few closely linked with governance.

The urban architecture follows the logic of security-development of the new economy. Mega-malls, national parks and apartment complexes are panopticons, subject to surveillance by real and virtual police.  New urban space is exclusive and cosmopolitan only for the passive consumers. ‘Beautification’ of the city is also a means of privatizing and policing the urban commons as much as direct suppression of electronic media and compulsory documentation/registrations of the city dwellers.

Many conform to the securitization of the urban space as it sustains their livelihoods while consumption, entertainment and pseudo religiosity desensitize them to their own vulnerabilities. They in their private automobiles can escape from the cold realities of the street by moving freely from their fortified housing complexes to malls, offices and entertainment centers.  Fear and survival make to remain silent. Fear and silence are oppressive and paralyzing, and can be explosive.   Insecurity and fear could easily reinforce the articulation of dissent against dispossession and marginalization along the lines of race, nationalism, and xenophobia.

In the final analysis, however, states—fiscally and politically bankrupt and having lost the common wealth to the private sector—fail to safeguard human security and have become isolated from society, finding no option other than to continue to safeguard the interests of economic forces even if it entails sacrificing the economic, political and cultural sovereignty of their respective nations.  The awareness of marginalized groups that “the emperor has no clothes” brings penal and austere governance to direct confrontation with the marginalized, who around the world are now reclaiming the urban commons as sites of dissent against mortgaging human security for corporate greed.

Our failure to engage constructively with the economics and politics underlying the defense-security merger will make us complicit with the anarchy, disorder, even bloodshed that the country has experienced periodically.  History does not always have to repeat, to think so is a recipe for paralysis.