The study of urban sociology has fast gained ground in India in the preceding decade. This is concomitant with the rapid pace of urbanization taking place across the country. The city has always been the focal point of aspirations. Almost as soon as India realized its aspiration of integrating with the world in a fuller manner, its populations, high on ambition, realized that it is the city where their dreams will come to fruition. A little story might be instructive at this point. At a public discussion on environmental issues organized by Tehelka at Jamia Millia Islamia in 2006, environmentalists veered inevitably towards a discussion on solutions to ameliorate poverty in India. A smartly dressed, bespectacled, and earnest looking young man from the audience pitched in with his tuppence: convert all Indian villages into cities. Naive as it was, the remark reflects just how deep and starry eyed is the desire for all good things that urbanization purports to bring.
Beneath the promise however lies a complicated reality. A city is always larger than the sum of its parts. It will always acquire a shape and personality far beyond what planners envisage. A city in the globalized world may be the site where global processes take place, but it is at the same time, deeply local in its moorings too. This does not stop a city from being a symbol of the national. All of which makes urban living a very political experience. This experience is unlikely to be uniform for all. While for some, a city and its amenities spell comfort and fortune, there are those to whom it is relentlessly unkind. Yet, cities continue to thrive and grow.
Given the layers that go into the making of a city, it is only natural that all these layers be carefully unpacked for a better understanding. The progress of urban sociology has enabled this understanding. In India, it is not only the megalopolises that have been given academic attention, but also what are commonly known as ‘tier two cities’. Urban studies have not only helped assess the processes that shape these centers, but have also contributed to widening theoretical understanding of urban spaces. Casting the net wider, Jonathan Shapiro Anjaria and Colin McFarlane have put together a book that seeks to understand cities not only in India, but in the whole of South Asia. The aim of the book is to glean whether and how there is a distinctive South Asian brand and process of urbanism.
The cities under the scanner are New Delhi, Bombay, Bangalore, Shillong, Kathmandu, Colombo and Karachi. D. Asher Ghertner brings out the ‘nuisance value’ that slums have come to acquire in major Indian cities, with particular reference to Delhi. With nuisance laws as the point of reference, Ghertner traces how successive legal judgements led to the construction of slums and the activities of ‘illegal residents’ as public nuisance that merited removal. Slums, to begin with, were viewed as spaces where the municipalities failed to deliver basic services such as water, electricity and toilets. The onus thus was on the municipalities to become more responsive to the requirements of slum dwellers. Litigations filed by Resident Welfare Associations over the decades subsequently created a discourse of treating the marginalized and their activities as the nuisance that the city must be sanitized of.
So while on one hand, two separate legal entities attempt to cleanse and aestheticize their environs, what happens to all the waste that leaves their spotless homes on a daily basis? Urban wastes create a parallel economy of their own, with processes and agents embedded at every level, creating an astounding hierarchy.
“Urban Navigations takes us across a vast terrain, yet manages to capture numerous facets peculiar to the South Asian urban experience. Despite a certain bourgeois cosmopolitanism, caste, class and ethnicity play a predominant role in shaping urban geography. The entry of the private sector in housing coupled with a growing middle class’s obsession with sanitized living means that those not privileged have been pushed to the periphery.”
The collection and separation of waste, as Vinay Gidwani and Bharati Chaturvedi point out, was a source of livelihood for the urban poor, and profit for the middle-level waste collector as well as the reprocessor. It was an intricate and effective network creating associations for the urban poor. The move to privately control waste collection and segregation in Delhi has broken down this network. Waste collectors have lost their livelihood in most areas covered by private companies, and in the remaining few areas of the city, there is competition among the waste collectors, often leading to conflict. The unkindest cut has been that waste collectors are now viewed as criminals, their rights to collect waste having been taken away by the handing over of dhalaos to private companies.
Amita Baviskar examines how spectacles such as the Commonwealth Games attempt to transform the city in the mould of the middle class imagination of a ‘world class city’. In spite of the slapdash preparations, the many scams involving everything from real estate to flower pots, and the untold damage to the environment and cruelty to the city’s poor, the Commonwealth Games created a sense of optimism. Even those affected negatively by the developments saw the games as a matter of pride for the city as well as the country. This is turn, created ‘networks of solidarity’ which may otherwise never have happened.
The papers on Mumbai and Bangalore are fascinating for understanding the complex networks that ensure or disrupt the delivery of essential services to the residents. Operating by subverting formally established processes, power relations are realigned. Malini Ranganathan shows how ‘illegal’ colonies at the periphery of Bangalore, inhabitated mostly by the middle class, got around the problem of water supply. The residents pay for the provision of piped water from a partly privatized system, with the intervention of RWAs, who succeeded in bargaining with local level politicians by assuring votes in exchange for essential services. Nikhil Anand’s incisive paper on Mumbai conducts an ethnographic study of Mumbai’s water supply system. Studying the opposition to a 24-hour water supply, he concludes that the marginalized of the city have higher chances of gaining access to water when the currently limited supply system breaks down, by mobilizing engineers, plumbers and also the local political representatives. It is at the interstices of city infrastructure therefore that democracy plays out. Although a city and its attitudes are often equated with heightened cosmopolitanism, Daisy Hasan’s paper on Shillong traces the rise of strongly polarized Khasi ethnic identity that shaped the city. One of the surprising players in the construction of Khasi identity were the local television channels, which effectively harked back to the pre-colonial Khasi markers of identity.
Urmi Sengupta studies the squatters’ struggle for urban space in Kathmandu. The city has only recently become a prominent urban center. Squatters were engaged in a contest for resources with a booming private real estate sector, which views them as encroaching upon land, thereby creating ‘shortage of land for housing’. However, they successfully rallied together, and with support from various non-governmental organizations, were able to stake their claims to secure tenure for themselves in the city. The city government did not have a system of affordable public housing. The squatters were able to bring pressure to bear upon local authorities to create formal residential spaces for them. Andrew Nelson documents the other end of the spectrum, the everyday dynamics inside a gated community in Kathmandu. Private housing appealed to these residents since they were assured of the supply of essential services like water and electricity, they felt more at ease at governing their own enclave and thus perceived a rise in ‘participation in democracy’, and were also able to effectively cut out ‘undesirable elements’, referring to the lower castes in Nepal.
Adding a perspective that is particularly relevant for South Asia, two of the chapters are devoted to what happens when a city is under siege, a fallout of the violence that plagues the region. The Sri Lankan capital Colombo has been at the centre of ethnic violence. Suicide bombings at various sites have made urban warfare a reality of the cityscape. Under the shadow of anxiety, public space has diminished and ethnic identities have hardened, belying hopes of cosmopolitanism. A similar fate has visited Karachi—once known for a secular culture, more westernized than Bombay, a more thriving and jiving city. Having handled waves of migration that occurred during and well after partition, Karachi lost its sheen as the ‘city of lights’ after the establishment of a dictatorship in Pakistan in the 70s. Through the reminiscences of the older residents of the city, a romanticized, happy and prosperous past image of the city is recreated, although research shows that Karachi was hardly new to sectarian violence. As things stand today, it has become a part of the geography of terror.
Urban Navigations takes us across a vast terrain, yet manages to capture numerous facets peculiar to the South Asian urban experience. Despite a certain bourgeois cosmopolitanism, caste, class and ethnicity play a predominant role in shaping urban geography. The entry of the private sector in housing coupled with a growing middle class’s obsession with sanitized living means that those not privileged have been pushed to the periphery. The book reminds us that the middle class itself is not a prosperous monolith. Both the lower middle class and the lower classes are finding creative methods to ensure that a system skewed towards privilege works for them. This could involve creating networks that subvert the system, making additional payments, or quite simply acting as a pressure group. These are extremely interesting insights into the conception of citizenship and its terms of engagement with the state. An interesting take however, is how cities remain ethnic flashpoints. Ascriptive identities tend to harden instead of chipping away. In regions affected by longstanding conflicts, the war has shifted from the rural hinterlands into the thick of the city. The urban space is no longer insulated from the messiness of war. The most significant understanding that one can draw from the book is that while neoliberalism is a major force impacting spatial politics, it is definitely not the only force. Despite their best efforts, the editors were unable to include chapters on Lahore and Dhaka, a regret they have voiced in the intro-duction itself. Quite apart from this lacuna, this highly readable volume pushes the boundaries of research and successfully sets a research agenda for the future of urban studies in South Asia.