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OP-ED: And city divides

  • Published at 11:00 pm October 26th, 2020
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Representational Photo PIXABAY

Increased securitization has increased suspicion towards any outsiders, decreasing societal bonds

In Dhaka, just opposite to the embassies of the US and China, G4S -- a multinational security services company -- has its local head office. The building is covered with a huge sticker announcing, “securing your world.”

Maintaining “security” has become a major concern for the urban middle and upper classes of Dhaka as the city has been growing rapidly since the 1990s. The process of securitization got an upturn due to the Holey Artisan attack in 2016. The increased security arrangements of urban pockets have reconfigured the landscape of Dhaka much like many of the cities around the world.

All upscale areas in Dhaka have gradually tried to mark their boundaries -- they have placed barricades or large metal gates on entrances, and vehicles could pass or use certain roads if those have required permits. Even rickshaw-pullers are given distinctive “vests” -- that they must wear to enter the areas. Now, people must take three different rickshaw rides to go from Baridhara to Banani, for example, while previously one ride was enough. Besides, many apartment complexes in Dhaka are also “secured” with guards, closed-circuit cameras, monitoring, etc.

Cities have grown and become lavish, but security concerns have made cities ever more divided. The process could be termed as “elitization” of certain locales, and private and public infrastructures. I argue that this process of securitization has important implications for the way we understand a “state” and the “othering” process or class dynamics in the cities.

A focus on security

Globally, a surge of securitization started after the attack at World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001. Since then, we met increased surveillance in the name of national/international security interests. However, looking further back in history, we find that security in the broadest sense has been a central concern of nations and states since these institutions came into existence.

Assurance of security is a basic function of any state. We surrender some of our freedoms to a sovereign power so that we collectively could withstand dangers of known or unknown enemies/entities. A state was formed based on some moral ethos that identified enemies and authorized the state to undertake appropriate responses.

However, Marxist perspectives inform us that widespread fear and social conflicts are the by-products of capitalism -- it turns us into atomistic individuals who are mutually hostile to each other in search of profit, private property, and wealth. The alienation that capitalism produces forces us to seek security of a state. Therefore, the state purportedly assumed the role of protecting citizens against threats that diminish peace and well-being.

We are seeing a great shift in roles of the state in its recent neo-liberal form as the contemporary city dynamics reveal.

Securitization in neo-liberal states

Securitization of urban areas reveals a dimension where the tasks of governance that had once been considered the responsibility of the state are relegated to civil institutions, local communities, private companies, and individuals.

This new form of governance can be referred to as individualizing techniques of governmentality -- indicated by the surge of gated communities, for instance. So, we must explore what securitization in cities entails for its people.

The new enclosures

Gated communities are spatially enclosed residential areas that have a secured entrance. The entrances of these new enclosures are usually secured by guards and the inside often patrolled by security personnel. Gated communities ensure a “restricted access” to residents’ homes. Even roads and parks within the enclosures are exclusive for the residents. Thereby, we face new forms of neighbourhood segregation and a “fear of others.”

For instance, in many of the gated communities in Dhaka, “outsiders” are denied entry in the community facilities. Security guards question and sometimes deny “outsiders” to sit in the park areas. In many places of Dhaka, we can find signboards declaring “outsiders are not allowed”. And so, one may claim, gated communities run like a mini-state and decide -- “who is included and who is not.”

Gated communities reflect a class’s desire for status, privacy, and fear from the intrusion of other classes of the society. The spatial enclosures in cities produce a socially exclusionary process and extend class divide.

Increased surveillance

With the increase of gated communities, we see an increase of surveillance practices. In gated communities of Dhaka, there is a demand of registering informal workers -- such as house helps and private vehicle drivers. These workers must obtain an ID card from the community association so that they can enter the area without much interrogation.

The surveillance by guards or by security cameras aims to identify people “who should not be there” and is also supposedly to prevent theft thought to be perpetrated by the people who would temporarily enter the enclosures for providing the required services. Whether a person appears as an “outsider” or not is contingent upon visible characteristics -- a form of class-based racism.

The securitization process entails that the category of the “other” is transformational and temporal. It is also something that one “becomes” eg, once securitization was triggered, the “working class” became the “outsiders.”

Private governance institutions

Gated communities and apartment complexes have developed their own homeowners’ associations; they regulate and decide regulations that supposedly govern the areas and people within.

These corporate bodies decide when and who can come inside, what sort of security protocol residents and outsiders must follow, how the residents may use the common facilities, etc. This miniature governance structure has developed in response to the local surroundings and with an increasing desire for safety, convenience, and a class identity.

This is not unique to Bangladesh; in almost every developing country a form of parallel governance is common where states have privatized many of its functions. Increasing crimes, diminishing quality or maintenance of property, and lack of infrastructural investments have contributed to this process to a greater extent. A well-maintained place within some sort of chaos also reflects social worth of the residents and property values.

Formation of mobs

Securitization in the cities is associated with an increasing crime rate -- a common feature of growing cities in neo-liberal states. In such a situation, while the rich create enclosures and employ private security firms, outside the enclosures we find an increased lynching of criminal suspects.

Across the “developing” countries -- the neglected segment of the cities resort to forming mobs in order to create a sense of security in absence of basic security-making functions that the state is ordinarily expected to provide. In the contemporary states and cities, increasing incidents of mobs reflect that the state is losing its ability to mediate social conflicts.

Increased securitization has increased suspicion towards any outsiders -- everyone has become a potential criminal. Human societal bonds decrease as the “fear of others” increases. These tendencies constrain community life and as people grow to mistrust, the sense of collective identity declines.

Increased securitization and associated inequality, culture of fear, social distrust, and distancing of everyday life -- are outcomes of a neo-liberal state’s attempt to get rid of its responsibilities of governance through privatization and hence, we have divided cities.

Mohammad Tareq Hasan is an anthropologist and teaches at the University of Dhaka. This piece is written for the series: Contemporary City Dynamics.