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Delhi’s world-class hype

Reviewed item: 

In the first decade of this century Delhi offered a scene of greed and nuisance talks about its many slums, and of judges and bulldozers to have them excluded from the city. Ghertner analyzes in detail what happened during this period of aspiring world-class status, till it went wrong. Now, inclusive development is again fashionable.

Dominant policies with regard to urban housing in India focused during the first decades of the nation’s independence on providing all poor citizens with affordable, though ‘modern’ accommodation in the building up of a welfare state. Unfortunately, these policies remained mainly paper tigers and in the late 1960s it was widely recognised that – barring some exceptions - the urban poor could not expect to be decently housed in a somewhat near future. Slums (however defined) were hence more or less accepted by policy makers, and policies regarding low-cost housing became a shaky balancing act between occasional bulldozing of slums including conditional forms of re-settlement on the one hand, and a variety of types of improvement of existing slums (mainly some sanitation) and a few vague security of tenure promises, backed by vote-bank hungry politicians. In between these extremes, indifference, neglect and incapacities, covered up by Master Plans, completed the housing situation of India’s rapidly growing number of poor urban citizens, on ‘frozen land’ outside a formal system of property, according a World Bank Urban Strategy paper (26). 

Towards a slum-free, world-class city
In the late 1990s and the early 2000s substantial political and societal changes turned this shaky equilibrium upside down, in Delhi and other Indian million cities: the market, the judiciary, the state and middle class activism acted together in transforming Delhi into a ‘slum-free’, ‘world-class’ city, the more so since the Commonwealth Games were to be held here in 2010. These changes form the core of Ghertner’s book. He discusses in four chapters the role of the emerging land market in Delhi, following the neo-liberal economic development course from the 1990s onwards; subsequently the political role of the propertied classes, organized into neighbourhood organizations; and finally judgements of Delhi’s lawyers regarding the status of the city’s slums. These subjects have as such been dealt with by several authors too, but Ghertner brings them together in one comprehensive and detailed analysis.        
The liberalized land market triggered a new world of private (foreign) investments in real estate, the ‘discovery’ of ‘underutilized’ [sic] urban space that, though being used, e.g., to provide shelter for millions of slum dwellers in the city should accommodate the explosive growth of the ‘great Indian middle class’ as Ghertner quotes the consulting firm Mc Kinsey & Cy (24). This exploding middle class was invented to create a similar ‘Great Indian Market’ (30) for real estate on former slums and naturally fuelled price hikes. But where is the ‘great middle class’? Ghertner found not much (8% of the urban population in 2005, perhaps), but instead (with several other serious researchers) a growing number of urban poor during the last few decades, and he hence skilfully falsified McKinsey’s castle in the air of a rapidly growing, modern apartments hungry middle class as a justification for clearing the to-be-world-class city’s costly land from its slums.
More justifications became available with the introduction of an experimental programme in public-private partnership with regard to civic affairs: Bhagidari, launched in 2000. Bhagidari was meant to shortcut the distances and bureaucratic gaps between residents, organized into Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs), and politicians, in solving minor or major neighbourhood affairs dealing with for instance waste or safety. The programme was, however, only introduced in ‘officially residential colonies, membership which is open only to property owners’ (58). Such neighbourhoods represented less than a third of the urban housing stock. Bhagidari is hence elitist oriented and ‘designed as an instrument to incorporate the voices of property owners into urban governance without similar inclusion for the unpropertied’ (58) and overpowering the vote-bank bonds between slum dwellers and elected politicians. The Bhagidari aims went also much further than the usual routine activities of the RWAs. In many instances it rallied on the demand for the removal of slums and encroachments which were considered to threaten healthy neighbourhoods. Ghertner goes at length to describe how an RWA managed to articulate its objections to the presence of a nearby slum and its dwellers through ‘nuisance talk’ (dirty, uncivil, out of place, aesthetic impropriety) that formed the basis for demands to have the slum removed and that was not seldom incited by politicians. This happened, through court orders, as Ghertner subsequently shows. Complaints about filth, etc., in and around slums by nearby dwellers in ‘authorized’ settlements that were in the past brought to the court, resulted traditionally in blaming the authorities for not providing sanitary facilities in a slum. This trend was reversed from the late 1990s onwards when judges ruled that slums were a nuisance per se, ‘guilty’ so to say of an aesthetic crime, and that nuisance was a ‘predominant justification for slum demolitions in millennial Delhi’, as Ghertner concludes an account of several court decisions (120): ‘... if a slum appeared to be polluting or filthy, based on a judge’s aesthetic view of acceptable, clean conduct, then the slum was deemed polluting, a nuisance, and therefore illegal.’(121): Rule by Aesthetics, is the title of Ghertner’s book.           

Bulldozing for the world-class city
Greed, nuisance, a world-class city hype and legal backings brought havoc to the inhabitants of Delhi’s slums. An estimated one million dwellers have been forcefully removed from their dwellings during the first decade of this century, while some 15% only have been relocated in far away new colonies. Ghertner studied a West Delhi slum that had (in 2007) been partly bulldozed and waited for final bulldozing. To his amazement Ghertner found dual feelings on which he reported in two a bit spun out chapters. There were feelings of indignation expressed for the court cases and subsequent bulldozing, in spite of earlier promises of tenure security, but he found also substantial apprehension for this forceful attack on their livelihoods among the dwellers even when just shaky re-settlement packages were offered very remote from the city. The idea that Delhi was to become a world-class city was internalized. A dweller said: ‘it is good for Delhi if we are removed from the city. Look at this place. People here spread filth. The area is dirty. Anybody can see this. Such places are a problem for Delhi’ (135). Ghertner explains this paradox by pointing at the promised property ownership in a resettlement colony. Promised property was ‘fetishized: elevated as a source of belonging’ (158) and a pre-condition to participate in a world-class city.  

The new hype: inclusion
The reader might expect a next chapter in which the author continues his fieldwork in a new re-settlement colony. Ghertner, however, starts to conclude his study, until he suddenly briefly reports about his final visits in 2010/2012 to the to be demolished slum he researched earlier. It was still there and so were it inhabitants. And, ‘As millennial Delhi wound to a close, the world-class city had lost its luster’ (187). Corruption scandals around the Commonwealth Games, too obviously false promises of cheap apartments to slum dwellers, made the tide turning and a special law was passed giving slum dwellers protection against punitive actions by local authorities. No more Bhagidari constructions, no more aesthetic evictions, but instead a new hype: inclusive growth in a ‘caring city’ that should be implemented through a new national-level housing plan to create (again) a slum-free India. Public-private partnerships were designed to be instrumental in reaching this plan, but early evidence suggests that affordable housing is not compatible with the desired rates of return of private (often foreign) capital inputs. Ghertner is also not very optimistic about this new wave, though he quotes hopefully a slum-dweller: ‘Delhi has improved so much. We also want improvement.’ (198)  
Ghertner treats the drastic changes from 2010 onwards unfortunately very sketchy only, and does not enter into the wealth of details that characterises the earlier chapters. However, even as his study deals to some extent with an unusual episode in the history of Delhi only, his analyses of the ways in which slum dwellers in this city (and in many other Indian cities) have to survive in an inherent hostile societal climate is very instructive to those who want to understand India’s urban society.     

Hans Schenk, University of Amsterdam (retd), (

Schenk, H. 2016. A review of Ghertner, D.A. 2015. Rule by Aesthetics, World-Class City Making in Delhi, posted online on 7 June 2016:

P.S. Dear Oxford University Press, henceforth please consider printing footnotes instead of endnotes as in this book. Endnotes are dozens, and sometimes hundreds of pages apart from the main text, and the frequent turning to and fro the pages with note numbers and their contents has an alienating affect on the reader. 

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