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Whose city?

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Whose city?  Place, environment and belonging in India’s ‘global cities’


This volume can be read in several ways. In order to get sufficient grip on the nature of the contents that the editors introduce with considerable sophistication, an open-minded look at the remaining composing essays seems the best initial way to assess the qualities of the volume. Nine essays deal with (mostly contemporary) urban India; i.e., eight on its mega-cities: four on (greater) Delhi, two on Mumbai, one on Chennai and Bengaluru each, and a remaining one on Indian new towns. These will be briefly presented here before they are confronted with the editorial.


The struggle against the urban poor: slum-dwellers in Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai

Two fine essays deal with Mumbai’s Slum Rehabilitation Scheme, designed in 1995 by the Shiv-Sena-led state government, and the latest answer to house the city’s slum dwellers. The plan was ambitious enough: four million slum-dwellers should be provided with free housing, and the city would be beautified and become a ‘Hinduized global city’ without ‘scapegoating outsiders for the ills of the city and the nation’ as Doshi summarizes Shiv Sena’s right-wing populism (in this volume, see below). Free settlement was partly in situ: slum-land was cleared and private developers were given rights to build luxury housing, etc on the empty land, provided they build on the spot as well apartments for some cleared slum-households. Some other slum-dwellers did not qualify for in site re-settlement and were displaced and provided by developers with apartments in the urban fringe. Nikhil Anand & Anne Rademacher analyse the in situ re-development and Sapana Doshi in a subsequent chapter the off-site counterparts. Both studies highlight the neo-liberal slum-clearance approach that is in operation since 1995, and distinguish between inclusionary and exclusionary policies and practices regarding slum-dwellers. In both studies the concepts of place and environment play a role: scarce and costly urban land, and elite environmentalism by which the urban poor are seen as the main urban pollutants.       

Slum relocation is also in Chennai a topic of a paper. Karen Coelho and Nithya V. Raman discuss large scale evictions from encroachments in water bodies in and around the municipality. Dominant in the paper are the accompanying double agenda’s and hypocrisies.  On a factual level absurdity dominates. The urban slum dwellers were in the past actually re-located onto such water bodies, which make the authors cynically remark that the state is “filling water bodies to house people, then removing people to restore water bodies and relocating them onto other water bodies” (p.146). However, more is at stake at a political and ideological level. The authors observe for Chennai two emerging foundations for urban development: ecological value and commercial value. Both values threaten the urban slum dwellers: their presence – on embankments of water bodies and similar ecological fragile sites – hinder Chennai’s aspirations to become an eco-proof global city, while at the same time they occupy costly land meant for commercial structures and the usual luxurious gated communities.         

Again, slums take a central place in some of the Delhi-based chapters. D.Asher Ghertner tells how residents of middle and upper class neighbourhoods – often transformed into fortified security zones – manage to get nearby slum dwellers. Unlike the secondary data that are mainly used by the other authors in this volume (and for that matter: in most Indian urban studies) Ghertner bases himself for a great deal on discussion with members of resident welfare organizations (say: neighbourhood committees) on the local slum dwellers. Hence the title: “Nuisance talk”. The resulting analysis is a strong and horrifying picture of the views of Delhi’s middle and upper classes. On the one hand, nuisance develops from assumed environmental degradation caused by slums and slum dwellers (“Rich people only spread goodness. Poor people spread dirt”, p. 267), towards fear for criminal behaviour and ultimately concern with property values. On the other, nuisance is even worse; it develops into sentiments of exclusion of Delhi’s slum  dwellers who are not considered a part of society, do not belong to Delhi and have to be removed. Exclusion has become institutionalized: by governments and by the judiciary, as has been observed by several authors, by Gidwani in this volume (see below) and also by Ghertner: government advertisements identify slum dwellers as sources, not products of urban decay.  Court orders rule against slum dwellers. Urban ecology – in its origin simply the spatial pattern of the distribution of people as a result of natural forces, has become political ecology. One wonders how close its spatial appearance comes to Apartheid. One wonders too how far the middle class dreams of going global underlie the ’modern’ desire for spatial segregation. The traditional demand of these classes was (and still is!) to have servants and other almost bonded labourers (invisibly but comfortably) nearby. Gidwani – in a paper discussed below - struggles with basically the same question.


The polluted environment: who pollutes? 
Ecology in a more original sense before it was taken over as a social science concept by the Chicago-School sociologists of the 1920s, is the initial subject of two chapters. In the first one management of air quality in Delhi is at stake and is discussed by Awadhendra Sharan while in the second  solid waste – its removal and the presence of waste workers in the same city is discussed in a forceful essay by Vinay Gidwani. Sharan helps the reader to understand the legal jungle of dealing with industrial pollution. The distinction between obnoxious and non-conforming industries and the policy choices of expulsion from the city versus brooking (especially the ‘modern’ industry), has led to socio-political conflicts without yielding a cleaner environment. Gidwani’s  essay reads as a parallel chapter to that of Ghertner (above) as it centers on the perception s of the elite and middle classes of Delhi. He states that “Middle-class environmentalism criminalizes Delhi’s urban poor” and even twice, as waste workers (engaged in collecting, recycling) who are not wanted  anymore in a ‘world-class’ green and clean city with privatized handling of waste, and as citizens whose presence in the city is contested.  He emotionally concludes: “How different might India’s cities look if its ruling classes learned to recognize the sprawling universe of people, places, activities, and things that they currently scorn as marginal, peripheral, illicit, or annoying as the enabling conditions of possibilities of their own lives? “ (p.195).


Urban planning: flexibility and the rule of law
The planning and growth of Gurgaon in Greater Delhi forms the decor of a well written and convincing essay by  Shubra Gururani. She describes the transformation from a little township in the state of Haryana towards a glossy residential and commercial shop window of India’s liberal capitalism.  The growth started with the establishment of Sanjay Gandhi’s Maruti car factory in the mid 1970s and has become stormy since then. Gururani observes that urban growth was not a result of urban planning and land use controls laid down in Master Plans,  but of flexible exemptions incorporated in plans. She introduces hence the term flexible planning: the result of meddling, negotiation, concessions and patronage by rich and poor but  benefiting mainly the local elites.  However, Gururani concludes that  the flexible planning of Gurgaon is not a deviation from the planning norm, but provides for an opportunity  to rethink the fundamentals of urban planning.

The two remaining chapters are not or less city-specific. Is there an Indian urbanism, is the structuring question Janaki Nair puts. She takes to some extent Bengaluru to answer this question.  In a sophisticated essay Nair specifies this question by wondering why the planning law has been so pliable in the governance of cities (p.43). Similar to the observations of Gururani, she sees constantly violators of the law, to be pardoned by its ‘regularization’.  This is, however not typical for post-colonial India, as “planning and the planning law  ... was compromised ... by the specific arrangements of governance under colonial rule” (p.57).  


India’s new towns: belonging
In an interesting essay Glover analyzes the nature of the many new towns in independent India (he counts not less than 118!) and many during the colonial years . For that reason he emphasizes the socially ‘conservative’ character – in his words - of the new towns as guardians of the normative and cultural bonds of the ‘community’ that is embedded in belonging to proven specific local social structures in relation to as specific environments, which are supposed to sharply oppose the ‘anomy’ of the big cities. Inspired by Ebenezer Howard, Geddes, Redfield and others from the British and American side and by Indian sociologists such as Mukerjee, he sketches an ideological climate in which such conservative bonds flourish. It is a pity then that Glover has chosen to ignore (apart from a footnote) the ideological roots of Chandigarh, capital city of Punjab and Haryana, designed by Le Corbusier and probably the best known new town of India. Chandigarh was exactly based on an opposite ideological set of assumptions: the universal city of universal man, reflecting Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s promise of modern India ‘free from existing encumbrances and old traditions’ (quoted in Nilsson[i]).


Chapters and editorial
The chapters in this volume deserve a longer and more subtle review than can be given here.  They address important aspects of India’s urban society – at least those of its large cities. (The editors argue rightly that a similar set of papers based on smaller towns is very needed, how difficult perhaps to realise, because of the lack of the abundant  amount of supportive secondary material that the authors in this volume could use.)  Indeed, the several chapters can be read  without the conceptual chapter on urban ecology by the editors and would have resulted in a valuable volume on urban India in which the several meanings of the term ‘ecology’ and its specifications would have been used on appropriate pages. Anne Rademacher and K.Sivaramakrishnan, however, have sought to bring all these meanings under one editorial umbrella; hence the plural: ecologies. In their lengthy essay the authors have frequently chosen to use, and to work with terms which have originated in the life sciences and have been applied in the social sciences such as ecology, environment, nature.  Analogies cause confusion and hence, the question what ‘ecologies of urbanism’ eventually means does not become sufficiently clear. Perhaps the editors should have switched  to the term social geography and its specifications and use the term ‘urban geography’ as a rallying concept in the editorial and somewhere in the title of such a good book in the middle of the social sciences.


Hans Schenk, University of Amsterdam  (retired) (

[i] Nilsson, S. 1973. The New Capitals of India, Pakistan and Bangla Desh, Scandinavian Institute of Asian Studies Monograph Series, no 12. Lund, p.89


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