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Oct 11, 2022

The Contradictions of the 'Urban' in India

The informal working class makes the city, but the city has no place for its own makers.
Representative image. Photo: Flickr/Jay Hariani (CC BY-SA 2.0)

According to the United Nations report on World Urbanisation Prospects 2018, the size of India’s urban population will nearly double between 2018 and 2050 – from 461 to 877 million.

A number of rural settlements now exhibit characteristics of what is dubbed as the ‘urban’. The lives of millions of Indians are shaped and will continue to be shaped by the urban experience, which in itself is diverse and contradictory. 

The formal city is bounded by toll-gates, entry points, police checks, hoardings, billboards and signboards that tell you where we are and in which direction we are headed – even messages on our mobile phones by service providers tell us that we have entered a new domain. Yet, within the city and on its frontiers, we find a sharp distinction between the formal city designed by urban planners, and the informal city occupied by squatter settlements.

The urban poor do not live only in squatter settlements, they live in slums characterised by decaying infrastructure, in unregulated and in unrecognised colonies, in degraded, abandoned warehouses and factories; ill-lit, airless, and claustrophobic, and on the pavements of New Delhi. 

Of course, rich sections of the population also colonise land, buy their way out of legal restrictions and regulations, and hire labour which constructs mansions for them. Theorists of resistance are, however, more concerned about the people who build our cities and our homes, but for whom the city has no place.

How do they eke out a living on the margins? And how do they challenge the formal planned city?

And they do challenge it. As Graham Greene reminds us, speaking of Kinshasa in The Comedians, “the heart of the capital city is the shanty-town”.

Also read: Envisioning a Humane Urban Policy for India

History is not crafted only by tales of domination, helplessness and despair, it is also created by struggles that try to negotiate the malaise of the urban condition, or indeed of any condition that has been humanly fashioned. Despite the multiple oppressions that stalk the lives of the inhabitants of the shanty town, we have to recognise that this space is not only the site of oppression, it is also the site where people have spoken up against marginalisation.

Without glamourising the lives of the urban poor, we have to register their attempts to make their own space and their own culture in a city that has no place for the very people that create the built environment. This generates simmering discontent.

Debjani Bhattacharya, in a review of recent work on the ‘urban’, points out that Indian cities, like most cities of the Global South, are products of “restive frictions, protests, and policies of the people. The restive publics of urban India often experience their daily lives in the city…as sites of contestation” (2020).

Her analysis is borne out by the city.

The city that presents itself to visual imaginary is the haphazard and the unintended city; one in which the squatter settlement occupies both the core as well as the periphery of urban space. The illegal and sprawling squatter settlement extends but also subverts carefully planned housing spaces – spires that signify the information revolution, recreational places, work areas, commercial zones, highways and transport lanes.

It is the squatter settlement that defines the city as much – or perhaps, even more – than luxury housing, or the five star hotel, or glittering shopping malls.

Lying cheek by jowl with the office skyscraper, the high rise, and all the gaudy symbols of affluence and consumerism lies the squatter settlement with its insistent projection into and constant sabotage of the built environment. Politically manufactured space, manufactured through strategies of resistance, interrogates and challenges the planned city.

By challenging the spatial order, the inhabitants of these rude and rough dwellings challenge the social order itself. Excluded from residential areas by real estate prices, land speculation, social discrimination, myopic land use policies and land sharks, homeless squatters learn to make a home for themselves by the occupation of public spaces.

Even though the visibility of squatter settlements is constantly erased by moving their inhabitants elsewhere, bulldozing their rude dwellings, evicting the settlers, or creating walls around these spaces, these spatial forms make the relationship between forces of domination and forces of resistance starkly visible in a way few other mediums can do. The shanty town, simply speaking, relentlessly imprints itself on our gaze. 

Also read: How a Strike 40 Years Ago Dismantled Workers’ Claim Over Mumbai, Hastened its Gentrification

Squatter settlements made of tin, scraps of cardboard, newspapers and rags can hit the consciousness of a newcomer to the city with the full force of a sledgehammer. These settlements intrude into our consciousness at traffic crossings, on the margins of public parks, while we cross roads, when we traverse pavements, when we commute to work, when we come home from work, or when we go out for a pleasant evening with friends. They speak to us in various ways, but above all, they forcefully tell us of the unequal way in which the social and the spatial ordering of our society has been produced and reproduced. They tell us of the determination of the urban poor not to be banished.

The inhabitants of these dwellings have been denied personhood because they have been denied a home and yet, they speak back to history and geography. They make the homelessness of the modern condition visible, but also make visible the resolve of people who have been consigned to the periphery of history to make their own way, right into the heart of the city.

The urban poor appropriate space and remake it, subverting, thereby, the city of architects, urban planners, caretakers of heritage and environmentalists. The geographical remapping of the city etches social resistance in the form of the shanty-town onto space as much as it etches the politics of power-palaces, museums, shopping centres, recreational spaces, offices towers, hotels, roads and highways.

Reportedly, squatter settlements generate their own notion of ‘laws’ of property and rules of inheritance of even pavements. These acts of appropriation of space are not backed by legal documents or entitlements. Their only sanction is the politician who sees discrete settlements as a captive vote bank, and who calls upon settlers to provide an audience for speeches and rallies.

Yet, even as we recognise and register the determination of the urban poor to make their own way in an inhospitable city, even as we note the remaking of the planned city, we also have to register the sheer chaos and anarchy that stalks the shanty town.

Also read: Who Are India’s Urban Poor?

These settlements are often the reserve of criminal elements. People are protected from the harshness of deprivation by ties of kinship, but they often live under the rule of street thugs. If a shanty town dweller can count, somewhat, on his caste or community leader to help him negotiate the world of the urban, he is helpless before the slum lord, the political patron, and the entrepreneur who encourages the forcible take-over of occupied land. 

These spaces challenge the domination of urban planning but they are also the locale of brutal exploitation and despair. They are a telling commentary on the kind of urban order that has been brought into being by the cynicism and irresponsible behaviour of the affluent. The informal working class makes the city, but the city has no place for its own makers. They are relegated to the category of what we can call the poorest among the urban poor.

Ironically, governments have not been able to create a stable, organised and ordered wage labour force. They have created a vast urban mass which can be uncontrolled and dangerously autonomous of disciplinary mechanisms. The results of the unintended city have been frightening. As the urban poor become increasingly conscious of the tangible and intangible forces that divide them from other, better off sections, bitterness creates rage and resentment.

It is this very resentment of the elite that has been tapped by populist leaders to great effect. The urban poor are, politically speaking, unpredictable. Very often their vote, if they have one, is sold to the highest bidder of a political party. 

The yearning for consumption goods means that often, the urban poor can be mobilised for projects of cynical political leaders, and contribute a vast unorganised mass for reactionary communal and caste politics. Shared ownership of resources is no longer the problem, ownership of a smart phone is.

Struggles are not over resources or factors of production, they are over consumption goods. This uneasy factor runs against classical Marxist theories of political upsurge. For struggles over consumption do not challenge the proprietorial relations of a society. As people become dependent on the state for say, subsidised rations, and on the politician for non-removal from occupied land, they become vulnerable to manipulation and to exploitation. They turn against each other. 

In sum, the entrepreneurship that generates what Ayona Dutta calls the ‘illegal city’ also consolidates captive vote banks, urban warlords, lumpen activity, illegal brewing and distilling, drugs and domestic violence.

The herding together of people into dense and unhospitable spaces can create social tensions that can erupt at a moment’s notice. Such rage can erupt periodically into riots. These riots do not contribute to building creativity and destroying oppression.  

Squatter settlements have become centres of social tensions instead of spaces that can be sites of solidarity among the dispossessed. The appropriation of space may pose a challenge to power, but the challenge does not always defy the structural issue of inequality within the city. Nor does it lead to enduring political coalitions between the dispossessed.

This is the irony of resistance to spatial and social domination.

Neera Chandhoke was a professor of political science at Delhi University.

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