Start searching »

Vital acts and futile talks: the poor and the better-off in greater Delhi

Reviewed item: 


Reviewed title: Srivastava, S. 2015. Entangled Urbanism, slum, gated community and shopping mall in Delhi and Gurgaon, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, ISBN 9780198099147

Reviewed by Hans Schenk


A challenging study of disparate contested sites in Greater Delhi by the sociologist Sanjay Srivastava brings the reader to the threatened slums of the urban poor and the safe havens of the self-declared middle-classes in their gated communities and shopping malls.

Cities are collections of interconnected sites, writes Srivastava in the introduction to his book on entangled urbanism in Delhi and Gurgaon (xx). He intends to explore the connections by choosing quite disparate sites: slums - and notably a (to be) demolished slum - gated residential middle-class communities and shopping malls, even when such sites are contested. He then asks how the pleasures of gated enclaves are related to the pain of a demolished slum; which processes of consumerism link middle classes and the poor. These ambitious and promising questions form the backbone of a sizeable and in a way impressive book on citizens in India’s capital city and in its most prestigious satellite city Gurgaon.

Srivastava’s book consists of 11 chapters grouped into three parts. The first three chapters are primarily located in a slum; a set of four chapters is configured around middle class areas and their neighbourhood committees, predominantly those in Gurgaon, while a final group of four chapters deals with consuming citizens, rich and poor. Besides some (historical) background data, his main sources of information come from apparently semi-structured discussions with a relatively small number of spokeswomen and - men in the different research localities whom he quotes often at length.


Unclean places

The first part is a clear – and rare – inside account of lives, expectancies, sorrows, and also tricks to survive by many poor in the big city ending with the partial demolition of their often ‘unauthorized’ living quarters, considered as ‘unclean’ by others, and conveniently called: slums. It is also an account of the relationships between slum dwellers and the state, their ‘most consistent tormentor’ (55) in case of demolition of their living places. The second of Srivastata’s three chapters in slum locations takes the reader along a fascinating account of desperate attempts by slum dwellers to accumulate as many documents as possible proving their ‘identity’: ID, ration card, Scheduled Caste certificate, etc., in case of ... For this purpose fakes seem essential as well as counterfeiting, bribing, and knowing the right persons in the slum and in the government apparatus. Eventually there is a third chapter: the (partial) demolition of the slum, in 2006, in spite of many cards. This chapter too is a rare narrative and analysis of the demolition: the preceding rumours, the (un)successful escape routes, the divide and rule of re-settlement for some, somewhere far away, the arbitrariness, but finally the physical power of the bulldozer. It forms good complimentary reading to the outstanding essay of Ghertner of a recent (also in 2006) slum demolition in Delhi as seen through the eyes and minds of the surrounding middle-class inhabitants and their Resident Welfare Association.


Secular sanskritisation

Srivastava subsequently bridges the gap with the second set of chapters by announcing a narrative of ‘‘clean’ spaces that emerge from demands for removal of ‘unclean’ ones’, such as the slum that he has brought to the fore (82). His ‘clean’ places consist not seldom of surrounding gates and guards and are inhabited by so-called ‘middle-classes’ organised in Residents Welfare Associations (RWA). The middle classes that are given a central position in these chapters are not clearly defined. Srivastava too chooses a subjective, even activist approach: middle-classes are those (groups of) residents who claim middle-class status. They do so by building gates and walls around their existing neighbourhoods or moving to new gated surroundings, and by organizing themselves in RWA’s. This process comes close to the Hindu concept of seeking higher caste status: Sanskritisation and seems a secular equivalent. Srivastava’s narratives and analyses in this section of the book are pervaded with the idea that the poor, unclean and dangerous co-citizens should be kept at a safe distance from their safe havens. There is a cruel argument for this process, as it creates spatial areas where women may move around in privatised public spaces and ‘liberated from the dangers and ‘backwardness’’ of the city outside the gates (166).


Consuming middle-classes

Middle-classes have become the prime booster in cleaning major parts of Delhi from slums, and persuading public authorities with public bulldozers to do the job. They have taken over the traditional roles of public authorities such as the Delhi Development Authority which in the past initiated slum-clearances in the name of beautification and cleanliness. Illustrative for this change is a ‘Citizen-Government partnership programme’ (Bhagidari scheme) in which citizens of ‘authorized colonies’ (sic, HS, 99) discuss with officials (police, municipality, water, electricity, taxation, DDA, etc) local problems and try to solve them, as outlined in Chapter 4. This partnership is exemplary for the close collaboration between the organized middle-classes and the state, including the privatization of erstwhile public services such as garbage collection, water supply, public thoroughfares and even a police force(sic: the Quick Response Team!). Srivastava notes as well the changing role of the state vis-à-vis its citizens. Whereas the post-colonial state was a benefactor of the poor and sought its development, the current post-Nehruvian role of the state is re-defined as a friend of the middle-classes, and their desires: consumerism in a context of privatization and individuation. The following chapters in this section are subsequently devoted to the individual expressions of new life styles among interviewed members of the middle classes, and their acquired freedom to consume, notably those in (upper?)middle class colonies in India’s window to the globe: Gurgaon. Ranking of shopping malls (‘You don’t want to be seen at the wrong Mall!’, 241) and brands of jeans etc. fill subsequently many pages. Consumption continues in this group of chapters as well as in the third group. A temple complex turned into a ‘Mystic India’ show similar to worldwide Disneylands, is analyzed, while Srivastava finally turns to the: ‘engagement with consumerism’ (260) among the poor. He analyzes the dealings of a pyramid sales construction in which many poor take part (participants pay an entrance fee and are subsequently paid for enrolling other participants into the scheme). Some win, many lose.



Srivastava’s book leads to several questions, in spite of many interesting analyses and sharp observations in actually a set of loosely connected set of essays in its second and third parts. Why, e.g., does Srivastava choose a pyramid construction when dealing with consumerism of the poor when more than 50% (a growing percentage) of Delhi’s citizens cannot afford a required daily caloric intake? If the author seeks a fair representation of his stated problem, what then is the status of a pyramid construction? Is it a matter of methodology? Which? And why does the author not fulfil his promise to connect the contested spaces of the slum dwellers and the middle-classes? The possibilities seem obvious. Why not connect, e.g., the servants in the gated communities with their living places somewhere in an often unauthorized slum? Why not discuss the relations of many new middle-class neighbourhoods almost on top of the sites of demolished slums? Why is caste not an issue anywhere in his analyses? The book results now in an impressionist set of observations of attitudes and behaviour of middle-classes in gated communities - often of a futile character – and the vital ways in which Delhi’s poor try to survive against the combined attempts of these middle-classes and the state to have them removed from a ‘World Class’ city in the making.

Hans Schenk, University of Amsterdam (retired) (



Ghertner, D.A. 2013. ‘Nuisance talk: Middle-class discourses of a slum-free Delhi’, in Rademacher, A. & K. Sivaramakrishnan (eds.) Ecologies of Urbanism in India, metropolitan civility and sustainability, Hong Kong University Press, pp. 249-277.            

Facebook icon    twitter icon    RSS icon is an initiative of the International Insitute for Asian Studies