Nostalgia, secession and the absurdity of it all

Some reflections on the Indian city

'Cities provide important public spaces streets, parks, plazas where people stand and sit together, interact and mingle politics critically depends on the existence of spaces and forums to which everyone has access'

"Situated in the quiet but well-developed Wanowrie area, Clover Citadel has been created to be "your fortress"secure walls shutting out the worries of the world. And yet it provides more than just security. Clover Citadel is also a haven of beauty where you can enjoy scenic surroundings. Spacious 1,2 &3 bedroom apartments with the luxurious terrace option at Wanowrie."

The first statement above is by the political scientist IM Young. The second is an advertisement for a housing estate in one of India's fastest growing metropolises, Pune. Which of these two images of urban living rings truer in the context of India, is a moot point. Traditionally, social scientists have had a problem taking the Indian city seriously. India continues to remain a land of villages and fields in the popular imagination. While tomes have been written on the countryside and its toiling masses, the Indian city's self-image remains that of a refugee camp, a halfway house marking a period of struggle for most of its residents. Accompanying this self-image is usually a permanently unfulfilled fantasy of a more rooted existence someplace else. For the privileged with the means of exit, this 'someplace else' is, more often than not, the West. For the poor for whom mobility is either violently imposed or severely restricted, the fantasy revolves around a return to their place of original emigration. At some level, the step-motherly treatment of the Indian city in popular Indian imagination has over the years seeped into academic research also, to the extent that until recently not many good studies of the Indian city existed.

Lately however, researchers in India and elsewhere have been engaged in producing a growing body of excellent work on urban development in India –a recent example being the book 'Slumming India' by Gita Dewan Verma [see Himal, May 2003]. There are today numerous detailed ethnographic portraits of Indian cities, especially Mumbai, highlighting aspects like migration and employment of labour, the nature of the urban remittance economy and the manner in which patterns of land use and urban development have far-reaching consequences for the construction of communal and ethnic identities.

One of the questions that needs to be asked relates to the possibilities and perils offered by the contemporary Indian city as a location for politics? I live on the outskirts of Delhi. It'is a relatively older suburb, with a general air of infrastructural collapse infusing it. Streetlights are almost always on the blink, sagging electricity cables sway precariously between ageing poles and there are dirt paths where pavements should have existed. Nothing unusual as anybody familiar with Indian towns will tell you. Over the past few months, however, among the faded apartment blocks has sprung up the most exquisitely maintained park with loud green imported grass and neat little rows of imported plants labelled for the benefit of the English-speaking retired government servants who jog there every morning–lanterna (lavender colour)" or "ficus panda (non-flowering)".

In the midst of this botanical paradise, standing in all its phallic glory (why do monuments always have to rise vertiginously up into the sky?), is a gleaming marble monument dedicated to a young army officer killed in the Kargil war between India and Pakistan. At the entrance to this park is a long and stern list of injunctions (neatly stencilled, and again in English of course) "the park will be open to the public for a limited period only", "please do not bring dogs or food" and "this is a sacred place and sanctity must be maintained". Upper-class patriotism makes for pretty lavish civic monuments. After all, one cannot imagine a park like this being dedicated to the martyrdom of a mere jawan  a soldier. Worse, the park is clearly not open to all along with the profusion of notices one can clearly sense an invisible but very real sign saying, "Riffraff keep out". Thus, what used to be an ordinary but bustling neighbourhood park, overrun at all times by humans of all shapes and sizes, has now become what sociologists and urban anthropologists refer to as a 'gated community–a jealously guarded space. And this sterile fiefdom of affluent patriotism boasts about as much atmosphere as a graveyard.

Polis and Politics
The developing world is familiar with certain buzzwords–participatory politics, 'democratic citizenship, civil society and many other joined-at-the-hip term that the World Bank and other international bodies love to wave solemnly and regularly in our faces. But what are the concrete conditions under which such lofty ideals may come an inch closer to realisation? For most of the post-Enlightenment period in European thought and in actual practice for the past three centuries, the material 'container' for notions of citizenship and democracy has been the nation-state. Indeed, traditional disciplines such as political philosophy have become so accustomed to the 'imagined community' of the nation as being the quintessential political formation that the idea of citizenship being exercised in any other context (for instance, the city) was not explored until very recently. However, even such a conventional text such as The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Sociology defines a citizen as one who is a member of a nation-state or a city. The notion of urban citizenship is not new at all but at least as old as the Greek city-state (of course, keeping keeping in mind the fact that we know precious little about urban settlements outside the western hemisphere in the ancient world).

The Greek model of politics being such a powerful philosophical underpinning for western political philosophy, one may wonder why it has not informed discussions of citizenship or democracy until very recently. The main reason for this oversight may be located in the powerful hold that the nation state and ideas of nationalism continues to exercise over modern minds. However, developments in the twentieth century especially towards the end of the century have made the nation-state look like a very bad candidate indeed for any progressive politics. Even die-hard adherents of the idea of nationalism have had to concede that its most recent manifestations have shown a disturbing tendency to lead to the most reactionary politics within and outside its borders. The meteoric rise of the political right on the back of xenophobic national hysteria in the developed as much as the developing world has now led intellectuals and activists alike to believe that the hope for democracy must be invested in sites other than the mammoth and alienating institutions of the contemporary nation-state.

Thus, exit nation-state, enter city. The comeback of the city as a site for politics is now well established in social and political theory. Writers defending the civic ideal have emphasised the element of commonality and accessibility that public spaces in the city can and must provide in order to be a real setting for politics. This defence of urban politics is no doubt very inspiring. Images of impassioned men in togas spring to mind. It is worth wondering how we may best simulate the Greek model in contemporary political life. Over half the world´s population now resides in settings that can be described as 'urban'. All cities today and especially those in the third world are dense nodes of social, political and economic conflict. The reasons for this phenomenon are not difficult to gauge. Every city performs simultaneously the roles of political power base, employment hub for millions and public opinion-generator.

These diverse roles are bound to clash as they do on a regular basis. The very fact that there is such a concentration of populations and issues in urban areas could mean that cities can be a fertile and vibrant setting for politics. Indeed, much literature on the topic has suggested exactly that, some going as far as to say that the city and the municipality are the natural contexts for politics. But before we start celebrating the discovery of the new champion of grassroots democracy, we may have to look closely at what is happening in our immediate environment. Whatever fond illusions we may harbour about the potential for democratic politics in urban areas, examples like the neighbourhood park have to be reckoned with. The manner in which the park has been claimed by obviously upper-class residents of the neighbourhood over the past few months is surely an example of the way that processes of definition and exclusion are constantly at work in cities all over the world today.

Delhi as the national capital, the seat of power and culture, neck-deep in history and now a rapidly growing industrial centre provides an interesting case in point. Guidebooks love to tell us that over the ages, seven (some say nine, at last count it was 14) cities rose and fell in succession on the site where Delhi stands today. From the ancient city of Indraprastha to the itinerant capital of the Mughals, Delhi has never enjoyed a reputation for continuity. It would seem that the twentieth century has finally laid this disjointed history to rest following the aggressive settling of the city by two massive waves of migration. In the first half of the century of course arrived the British with the paraphernalia needed to sustain a self-indulgently colonial lifestyle. The more far-reaching migration however was in the second half of the century. By the millions came those that were displaced during Partition with (as legend has it) little else but their enterprise and a desire to start anew. Fifty odd years and millions of tonnes of concrete later, nobody can accuse Delhi of having an ephemeral existence. However, where the city has gained in temporal unity, it seems to have lost in spatial harmony. It has often been remarked by visitors and residents alike that the city gives the distinct impression of not one seamless whole but that of many cities shacked up uncomfortably together. This is a truism that could apply to any modern metropolis but nowhere is the fact made more painfully and repeatedly clear than in present-day Delhi. Upper-class 'Punjabi Gothic' bungalows jostle for space with cattle sheds in the southern and eastern parts of the city, and the chaotic bazaars of the old city, with their promise of disorder, loom dangerously close to the manicured lawns of Lutyens' Delhi.

Further, globalisation has had far-reaching implications for modern cities, a fact that is increasingly being recognised by those at the receiving end of this process. In the developing world, where governments do not provide most of the cushions required to absorb the continual economic risks and miseries that are thrown our way by the global juggernaut, the absolute numbers of the urban poor are reaching explosive proportions. As previously available sources of employment have dried up for the urban labouring classes in India, they have resorted to various forms of subsistence activity that barely sustain them. The result is the proliferation of small-scale industries, what one writer refers to as 'upgraded artisanal units' often employing as little as two or three people. Despite their contribution of partially processed raw material to larger industries and to the urban economy in general, such small-scale industrial units function under a constant threat of closure. Unstable employment outside the formal economy for the urban poor translates into reduced unionisation of workers. The lack of collective bargaining rights including housing rights for workers in turn has led to over a third of Delhi's poor living in what are euphemistically known as 'unauthorised housing colonies,'slums with subhuman conditions of living.

The great unwashed
It gets worse. Let us consider transport. The manner in which the public transport system of Delhi has been allowed to die a sudden death with the arrival of private car companies into the Indian market is well known by now. Not only has the drastic rise of private vehicles in Delhi spelt doom for the quality of air that the non-air-conditioned resident breathes, nobody seems to be blaming the real culprits. A convenient bogey has been found in the handful of 'polluting industries' identified by some crusading citizens. Meanwhile, Delhi´s roads are being reshaped to suit the needs of those who have the privilege of using private transport. The speed with which four-lane freeways around the margins of the city and flyovers in the heart of the city have been built over the past five years has left most Delhi-ites astonished. Some more angry than astonished–many main arterial roads in Delhi have taken rebirths as American-style freeways, with exits blocked for miles on end. This has meant that bus-routes have changed and bus stops have been summarily moved so as to not to obstruct high-speed private traffic. This in turn means that the average non-car-owning Delhi resident, who is dependent on whatever public transport that survives, has to cover much further distances everyday. The results of these changes are plain to see on city roads. The hundreds of cyclists and pedestrians caught in these new and unfriendly high-speed roads now wear the haunted look of zombies.

That is the face of the city today–the baffled tired face of thousands wondering where their place in the city is. Most accounts of the city however, not simply in local and national dailies but also in more sophisticated narratives on the city, succumb to what may be called the 'nostalgic temporal narrative' in describing Delhi. These accounts emphasise how this once proud and elegant imperial capital is now a sprawling, teeming, overpopulated urban agglomeration. This is the well-loved and well-tested story that 'Delhi-ites' tell themselves. It involves the fall from glory of a city that was historically a vibrant amalgam of benevolent emperors, generous courtesans and great poets like Ghalib and Zauq. One could be forgiven for concluding that the same sun that scorches us today used to once set gently over the colourful bazaars of Chandni Chowk and the Yamuna, meandering lazily along the eastern end of the Walled City. It is easy to succumb to the charm of the nostalgic temporal narrative–to lament over how a glorious past has now gone.

It is not as if at least some of these facts are not true. Delhi is indeed today a picture of urban chaos. The point is rather that Delhi has never been a haven for all its residents. Accounts of one of the previous avatars of Delhi–the city of Shahjahanabad–describe in graphic detail the manner in which the toiling classes of Delhi were condemned to a depraved existence outside the ramparts of the city. The main issue in contemporary Delhi remains the same that it was in previous eras – one of the reshaping of public space to suit the needs of those in power. It is this constant hegemonic claiming of urban space by the privileged that largely creates the sense of alienation and fragmentation that is characteristic of urban chaos. The larger danger with the nostalgic discourse on the city is that it cleverly deflects attention from the spatial to the temporal level of analysis. This shifting of perspective allows one to overlook the amazing structural inequalities that are built into the very fabric of Delhi.

On the occasion that a spatial perspective is included in public debate, it ends up mirroring the xenophobia of the immigration debate in the West. Notwithstanding the fact that the urban poor are the mainstay of an economy that would collapse without them, a discourse regarding the decay of the city due to the incursion of the Great Unwashed Masses is constantly set up in the upper-class and middle-class media. As some excellent recent research has pointed out, the trope of illegality has been used repeatedly against Delhi´s poor in the past decade in order to deprive them of even the marginal urban existence they are allowed at the moment. In the words of the historian and political theorist Partha Chatterjee, they are the functionally irrelevant, disorderly element, always to be barely tolerated, and if needed, thrown out.

Particularly dubious has been the blatantly upper-class discourse on environmental pollution that has arisen with the express aim of relocating polluting industries outside city limits. In an interview, the 'crusading' environmental lawyer MC Mehta, who was responsible for carrying out this aim through a court order, has revealed some very interesting ideas on pollution in Delhi. In a situation where over 70 percent of air pollution in Delhi is caused by vehicular pollution (Delhi being home to more private vehicles than Bombay, Calcutta and Madras put together) Mehta has spoken at length about the way in which pollution is caused by these industries since they require raw materials which is transported by freight vehicles. Workers commuting to and from these factories further cause pollution, he believes. Denying a case for favouritism for Delhi, Mehta has said the aim behind his efforts was rather to check migration into the 'fragile' environment that is Delhi and preserve it for its citizens. It is obvious that the term 'citizen' has always been distinguished in a discourse such as Mehta´s from the term 'population. Mehta perhaps would reserve the term for his friends and neighbours while considering the 'workers' a part of the 'population' of Delhi.

At the time this article was written, newspapers and news channels were full of stories accusing the Delhi government of not doing enough to remove illegal Bangladeshi nationals living illegally in Delhi colonies. One such 'Bangladeshi' national works in my home too. Last month her son, daughter-in-law and young grandsons were among thousands of supposed 'Bangladeshis' rounded up by the police from their slum and taken to the railway station. They were then asked (to put it mildly) to go back home. Some who could not produce adequate papers and ration cards were actually taken to the India-Bangladesh border. Such evictions and harassment have been the norm during the reign of the BJP government looking to drum up national hysteria on the 'border problem. At a more everyday level, the discourse on illegality can be handy for local governments and municipal bodies forced in post-liberalisation India to raise their own finances.

One of the easiest ways to achieve this is to force slum dwellers to vacate their 'unauthorised housing' and force factories to shut down and relocate outside city limits. Land freed up from such displacement is instantly offered to property sharks for speculation and sold at massive profits to a select few among the former factory owners and real estate dealers. Since the arrival of the aggressively liberalising BJP government, at least 900,000 slum dwellers have been relocated in Delhi, often outside Delhi. At times the new colonies allotted are as much as 40 km away from the original settlements. The INR 15,000 crore Delhi Metro project has been designed in such a way that trains run underground where there are posh colonies and run over the ground where 'illegal' colonies used to exist. Thus, even the limited space previously available to over a third of Delhi's population living in unstable circumstances (as little as 12.5 sq m per family when the original Master Plan of Delhi in 1962 provided for a minimum of 80 sq m) has been narrowing in the most recent phase of urban 'planning' in India.

Absurd times  
These are desperate times for the urban poor. These are also often absurd times for all those who dwell in urban India. Globalisation in third world contexts has meant that whimsical elites seeking to recreate some ridiculously western-centric ideal of urban aesthetics invest masses of energy (not their own of course, that of the labouring classes) into reshaping urban space. In the manic drive to make Indian cities conform to 'global standards' with the mandatory neon-lit MNC signboards and shopping malls dominating skylines, the changes created by these new global imperatives have produced results that are nothing short of absurd. Take platform number 12 of the New Delhi railway station–a glittering, well-ordered island of brightness in an otherwise dingy and overcrowded station. An elevator (mostly non-functioning but standing proudly nevertheless) and numerous eateries, bookstalls and vending machines are the main attractions of this platform.

What is the story behind this haven of efficiency and order? In India certainly, if not elsewhere in South Asia, it is a well-tested strategy to maintain a strictly guarded, under-utilised 'model' public amenity that is probably designed to draw attention away from the general state of decay that everything else is in. Delhi residents are now accustomed to seeing brand-new touch-screen telephones that have been installed at some offices and public sector commercial concerns. They look great but normally do not work. Often there is a surly guard hovering around such amenities. I have noticed that this now extends to certain government offices too. The government of India seems to have recently employed corporate consultants to conduct workshops aimed at enhancing interpersonal skills for a select few officers. To a population inured to years of being treated at best as if they were invisible by government officials, complete bewilderment is the only response should they run into the totally out-of-character cordiality of these select few officials. Of course, these officers are entirely in keeping with the spirit of the fancy elevators and telephones–they do not work but they look and sound great.

Given this phenomenon, it is easy to conclude that Platform number 12 is simply meant to be a model platform inaugurated with pomp (or more accurately, pompousness) by some limelight-seeking politician. On closer observation, however, it dawns on you that the platform is right next door to the VIP parking area of the railway station. In the era of state control over public infrastructure VIP'meant the political elites. In the democratic capitalism of the post-liberalisation era, it apparently means all those who have the means to pay extra for their cars to be brought right up to the platform. Platform number one in the Pune railway station has been 'renovated' along similar lines. Both stand as rude reminders to the general population about the way public amenities are meant to be, but will never be for those without purchasing power in India. Crucial public infrastructure in India has always been deeply segregated–education and health care being only two instances. But in the Delhi of the 90s, the examples of absurdity, of such oases of luxury can be multiplied: the park in the neighbourhood, numerous traffic 'roundabouts' that have suffered the same fate and housing estates in Delhi´s upmarket suburbs bearing names like Malibu Towne and Manhattan Towers without a trace of irony.

'Secession of the middle class
Of course, much more than absurdity and aesthetics is at stake here. Delhi today is an everyday drama of conflict over public space, with millions of what one writer referred to in another context as 'flat-out, ding-dong, slap-up kinds of quarrels. How is one to make sense of this chaos, this urban stew created by over 20 million souls pushing and yelling their way through their daily work? Given a ground situation where the most basic infrastructure remains a distant dream for most of the population, the setting up of parallel infrastructure has been widely described as the secession of the middle classes from the city. Secession is certainly part of the problem, but is that the sum of the problem. Does the term 'secession' adequately describe the processes of definition and exclusion we have been discussing in the context of Delhi? Consider the term 'middle classes.'In the mid-1980s there was a hugely popular television serial called 'Hum Log' (roughly translates as 'We Folks). The serial revolved around a Punjabi family in Delhi and was peopled by characters that were so distinctly, so quintessentially middle-class–– schoolteachers, struggling theatre artistes, small business owners and shopkeepers.

Today the term is so heavily loaded, so indiscriminately wrapped in claim-making by anybody who cares to use it that it is now more an obfuscation than a description. Every culture in the modern era has its beloved class myth. Socialists believed that the proletariat would seize political power and use it responsibly and democratically, the capitalists believe in rags-to-riches under the incredibly open economic system that capitalism is meant to be. Our very own subcontinental version of the class myth is that of the benign but enterprising middle class. Describing anybody other than the handful of big industrialists as 'middle class' is a well-tested strategy with the Indians who make up this pampered class.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  Recent work by sociologists and economists has questioned the validity of the widespread use of the term 'middle-class to describe an obviously pampered and privileged upper crust that influences most major educational, financial and political decisions in the country. And the one thing that so-called middle class in India not simply influences but controls is the public imagination. Often this is literally true.  Compare the severe difficulty that community radio initiatives like Namma Dhwani in Karnataka have had in taking off to the recent deregulation of private FM radio channels dedicated to low-information, high entertainment (dare we say low-IQ, high bullshit) music programmes. These FM radio channels like most television news and entertainment channels have incredibly narrow class bases compared to the reach of the state-controlled Doordarshan and community radio (if the latter were ever allowed to flourish).

Ironically, as many have noted, privatisation in India has meant that the government continues to control public broadcasting media with massive untapped potential for education and information dissemination (such as community radio) while it gives a free reign to middle-class entertainment channels. Thus the middle-class maintains near-complete influence over the public imagination in Indian cities. The discourse on illegality versus citizenship and the domination of the nostalgic narrative on discussions on the city would not be possible without this influence. The term 'secession' usually describes a group of people hitherto constituting a polity who have for some reason withdrawn entirely from the polity. If this simply were the case with the middle classes, it would not pose such a severe problem.

The 'middle class' in India has not simply set up parallel infrastructure; it seeks to go further by dominating public policy and public life. Even when it hibernates in its centrally air-conditioned spaces it is really everywhere–constructing flyovers, parks and shrill discourses. It has succeeded in transforming its peculiar and whimsical notions of urban aesthetics, hygiene and citizenship into a generalised public discourse on these matters. While earlier the members of this class at least paid lip service to the notion of public opinion and the media as windows to the rest of the country, now all they seek is that public discourse and public space should become mirrors reflecting their dearly held notions. This is the reason that Platform 12, every neighbourhood park and every posh new housing estate and bowling alley have become polished shining surfaces throwing the glory of the middle class back onto itself.

What, in the circumstances, is the potential for politics in Indian cities. Given the daily assault on the urban poor, it would be difficult to imagine such a powerless, floating population to engage in politics of any meaningful kind. A dense heterogeneity of populations such as that found in urban areas does not necessarily mean a diversity of issues at the political level. For the everyday conflict in urban settings to translate itself into a vibrant spring of political activity, one needs to ensure a more level playing field. In other words, a degree of accessibility of different sections of the population to the skills, tools and material resources required for political organisation and articulation is crucial. This in fact is impossible under the present circumstances since the one thing that is regulated to ridiculous extremes in our cities today is access; access to housing, water, electricity, transport, employment  indeed, to the very category of 'resident' or 'citizen' itself.

Yet, it may be possible to end on a positive note–the intense and dizzying spatial dislocation effected by the global juggernaut has made people´s organisations consciously reclaim their immediate environments as a site for their politics. The work of some exemplary urban political organisations in Delhi needs to be mentioned here. Through a sustained campaign of protest and consciousness-raising, such organisations have continually questioned the processes of exclusion that are the premise of urban living in India today. Radical politics has often emerged from situations of absurdity and desperation and these organisations have through their version of urban politics refined our understanding of citizenship, democracy, participation and civic engagement. Political organisation and work will have to be sustained over a much larger period for it to make a significant dent in public opinion and more importantly to make a serious difference to the status of the non-privileged in urban areas. Only then can we begin to share the optimism in the vision of urban life quoted at the beginning of this article. For the moment however, urban grassroots political organisations have shown the way. Most importantly, they remind us of the need to retain a commitment to the politics of the possible in the increasingly impossible situations that the Indian city creates everyday.

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