In late March 2020, after the Indian government instituted a nationwide lockdown to impede the spread of COVID-19, a perverse urban politics materialised on Delhi’s streets – as it did in cities across the country. While those who could afford it socially distanced in their houses and high-rises, many from Delhi’s migrant working class were left unsupported and out of work, looking for a way out of a city that had gradually been exiling them from its planned spaces. Stranded by the nationwide suspension of passenger rail services, thousands of Delhi’s migrant labourers, along with their families, began walking back to their home states, often hundreds of kilometres away. The police officers charged with enforcing the lockdown across the city have been meting out punishment with their batons and throwing people into underserved shelters. Under a new legislative scope defined by crisis, the city’s old hierarchies have gained a renewed sense of authority, and its urban poor have been perceived not as people but as potential carriers. This sheer inability to see humanity, and willingness to regularise trauma as a necessary evil of containment and orderly governance, is both a social and spatial issue – and it predates the current circumstances.
The book argues that the lives and landscape of Delhi have been undermined by a selective and self-serving rhetoric towards public space and the urban environment.
Delhi and its inequities has long been defined by a fight for who has a right to the city, diagrammed as it is by alien town planners, born from imperial collapse, and overwhelmingly populated by generations of Partition-era refugees. In her new book, Uncivil City: Ecology, Equity, and the Commons in Delhi, sociologist Amita Baviskar maps this fight over 20 years of writing on spatial and environmental politics in Delhi, expressing anxiety about the city’s deteriorating ecology, partitioned public spaces, and diminishing collective life.
The book argues that the lives and landscape of Delhi have been undermined by a selective and self-serving rhetoric towards public space and the urban environment. “Bourgeois environmentalism”— as Baviskar terms it — is an environmentalism for the privileged few; a style of interpreting and legislating space based on the largely aesthetic categories of beauty, order, health, nuisance, and hazard. Fuelled by an extractive attitude toward the city’s commons – its air, land, water, and green spaces – Delhi’s political and social elite have capitalised on a system of valuing nature and space that “reflects the city’s sharp hierarchies and shifting alliances.” Although published shortly before the arrival of COVID-19 in India, Baviskar’s thesis nonetheless echoes the events unfolding in the capital, and across urban India today. Rich in its references to contemporary urban scholarship on the Global South, the book charts Delhi’s postcolonial planning history, its economic boom, and its rabid modernisation from a bottom-up perspective, asking two questions that feel relevant now more than ever: whose city? Whose environmentalism?
How did we get here?
When the British Raj commissioned a new capital in 1911, moving from Calcutta to Delhi, it envisaged a city that could showcase the empire’s strength, authority and longevity. This project was planned south of the former Mughal capital, Shahjahanabad, which the British had already significantly demolished after the 1857 rebellion. In Shahjahanabad, colonial planners saw the need to impose spatial and cartographic control; to “prevent the spawning of seditious thought and action” and prune the risk of another revolt against a weakening empire. The new Delhi, planned primarily by the architects Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker, was inaugurated in 1931 and embodied exactly this imperial attitude. It developed a hybrid neoclassical aesthetic – inspired by European Renaissance cities, specifically Haussmann’s Paris – and featured spacious gardens, a radial street pattern with wide tree-lined avenues to assuage the sharp north Indian heat, and segregated housing assigned on the basis of rank and ethnicity. It was a city designed to be ruled by outsiders.
By the end of the century, elite perceptions of environmental cleanliness, combined with the incentives of capitalist development, had forced Delhi’s working class into an increasing number of informal housing settlements
These divisions continued to persist and mutate after formal decolonisation. The Partition brought hundreds of thousands of Hindu and Sikh refugees to Delhi, with the city’s population swelling by 44 percent between 1941 and 1951. The central government soon established the Delhi Development Authority in 1957, which enacted a rigorous urban-planning regime engineered by the principles of Nehruvian socialism, and a zonal division of commerce, residence, industry and leisure. The resulting Delhi Master Plan of 1962, the first of three iterations so far, envisaged a modern and hygienic city with a rotten irony at its core. This city could only be realised by the work of a vast number of low-paid migrant labourers for whom the Plan had allotted no space. As Baviskar writes, “the building of planned Delhi was mirrored in the simultaneous mushrooming of unplanned Delhi.”
So began the city’s long and ongoing mismanagement of its most vulnerable communities. The question of what to do with Delhi’s poor and insecurely housed was bounced around between planners, politicians, and municipal officers with little-to-no action taken. In the late 1980s, commercial real-estate development and public-private partnerships produced a capacious appetite for flyovers and upscale residential complexes, many built from exploitative labour contracts that kept wages low, workers unprotected, and developers in control. With the country’s economic liberalisation in the 1990s, Delhi became increasingly self-conscious about its image as a metropolitan capital on the world stage. A narrative around urban air pollution emerged, guided by the country’s judiciary and economic elite. Baviskar reports that even though 64 percent of Delhi’s air pollution in 1993-94 came from motor vehicles, the Supreme Court shut tens of thousands of industrial units in the city that decade. Private cars, for the most part, continued choking the city’s roads and air. The toxic working conditions which were common for factory labourers were never a cause for concern until this hazard was articulated as a bourgeois anxiety over environmental harm. The interests and aspirations of the workers who lost their livelihoods – and the trade unions that advocated for them in the courts – were ignored, and often voiced a common sentiment: “sheher ko sundar banana ke liye ameer log mazdoor ke pet par laat maar rahe hain (to make the city beautiful, the rich are kicking workers in their belly).”
“Cleaning” the Yamuna river, as Baviskar writes, “did not take the form of installing sewage treatment facilities but entailed the removal of working-class squatters from the riverbank.”
By the end of the century, elite perceptions of environmental cleanliness, combined with the incentives of capitalist development, had forced Delhi’s working class into an increasing number of informal housing settlements and slums, which were subsequently vilified as hindrances to the beautiful utopia the city had so ‘rightfully’ earned. As the architect K T Ravindran wrote in a 2000 story for Frontline: “Four decades of urban planning in Delhi, which progressively marginalised both the urban environment and the poor, is now faking an encounter between the two.”
An environmentalism for the few
In 2003 – as the ideas around a class-based right to the commons gained legislative force – Delhi won its bid to host the 2010 Commonwealth Games. For Baviskar, the city’s preparation for them exemplified bourgeois environmentalism, empowering the existing blind spots in planning with a nationalistic desire for Delhi to be a “world-class city.” A spatial logic that previously focused on order and legibility soon pivoted, under the auspices of the Games’ development agenda, to more abstract ideals of beauty and progress. Mentioned twice within the introductory page of Delhi’s latest Master Plan which was prepared in 2007, “world-class” became a catch-all for the city’s aspirations, especially among the urban elite enticed by its implications: a distinctly postcolonial feeling of “we’re-as-good-as-anyone-else.”
Citizens were encouraged to identify those who ‘looked like’ beggars and contact the Department of Social Welfare.
In his book Rule by Aesthetics: World-Class City Making in Delhi, Asher Ghertner describes a form of governing urban space, belonging, and citizenship based on “codes of appearance, not documents and records.” Baviskar draws from this idea when characterising bourgeois environmentalism, in which “the very presence of the poor is equated with pollution” – an antithesis of the world-class aesthetic. Both as a rhetorical strategy and a planning doctrine, phrases such as “beautification drive” and “clean and green Delhi” imply a menacing subtext for the city’s poor and property-less. “Cleaning” the Yamuna river, as Baviskar writes, “did not take the form of installing sewage treatment facilities but entailed the removal of working-class squatters from the riverbank.” Delhi received a massive facelift. Air-conditioned stadiums were built, older facilities refurbished, hotels grew out of the ground, a new bridge rainbowed over a road near the Yamuna river, and a “Games Village” materialised on its ecologically precarious banks, despite protests. The number of forced evictions, slum clearances, and demolitions soared throughout the 2000s – in some instances outstripping the urban displacement that took place during the Indian Emergency in the mid-1970s. Bamboo “curtains” were installed to hide the poor and an anti-beggary law permitted street beggars to be caught and tried in mobile courts. Citizens were encouraged to identify those who ‘looked like’ beggars and contact the Department of Social Welfare.
Urban space is classified as legal and environmental if it appears planned, and illegal and polluting if it doesn’t.
In many of these cases, the seemingly benevolent language of “environmental good” and “public interest” was applied retroactively to justify an intrusive development agenda. Having already suffered greatly from urban industrial expansion in the decades prior, Delhi’s hilly ridge and the Yamuna river – the two main topographical features of the city’s commons – were designated as ripe for capitalist development. Consequently, the people inhabiting these regions automatically became non-people in the eyes of the law – contingent variables on the path to a narrow vision of prosperity in which “capitalism usually trumps ecology, and equity is a particularly low value card.” Settlements on the western banks of the Yamuna, for instance, were demolished in 2004, displacing nearly 350,000 people from the city. It was argued that the settlements violated the Master Plan, which designated the banks as a protected ecological zone, but these issues never came up when, after the clearances, the same banks were ‘beautified’ with promenades and parking lots.
As the scholar Gautam Bhan, a contemporary of Baviskar’s, writes in In the Public’s Interest: Evictions, Citizenship, and Inequality in Contemporary Delhi, “it is planning itself that produces and regulates illegality.” The social realities of space in Delhi are governed not by what they are but what they ought to be. Using this logic, urban space is classified as legal and environmental if it appears planned, and illegal and polluting if it doesn’t. For the people caught in between, reduced by this dichotomy, navigating Delhi’s invisible divisions has material risks. For instance, in a story Baviskar retells in her book, a morning walker finds a teenage boy loitering in the park of his affluent Ashok Vihar colony in north-western Delhi in 1995. It was January and the boy had travelled to the city to see the annual Republic Day parade with his uncle, who lived in a jhuggi that was separated from the colony by a wall. Incensed by the sight of the outsider, who himself was unaware of the line he had crossed, the walker phoned the police. Soon, a group of residents and two police officers descended on the teenager, beating him to death within minutes.
With the power to secure and legislate Delhi’s commons in the hands of an elite few, those whose lives are destroyed by this imbalance find the language of public, environmental good largely inaccessible. The fight for spatial and environmental equity in today’s Delhi is a fight for legitimacy. Looking at the history of environmental movements across rural India, we can see that, in some cases, combining ecology with social justice, citizenship, and livelihood have allowed local communities to secure their rights to land, forestry, water, and other resources from public and private forces. This stance – perhaps best articulated by Ramachandra Guha and Joan Martinez-Alier’s influential framework of the “environmentalism of the poor” – differs from Western Green movements, which have historically viewed environmental issues through the lens of consumption. The historically significant Chipko Movement, which originated in Uttarakhand in the early 1970s, is a notable expression of this stance. Indigenous activist communities, many led by women, protested government-authorised commercial logging by hugging and encircling trees in their surrounding areas, thereby literally attaching their lives to the forested land that was being perceived as raw material for state development. The movement’s success created waves across India, Southasia, and the world, demonstrating how a dominant rhetoric of environmentalism could potentially be challenged through grassroots agitation.
In the urban context, the premium that elite institutions and social groups hold over public space and the urban environment has been harder to challenge. This is partly a problem of definition. In Delhi, Baviskar has said, “nature survives by chance,” between concrete, tarmac, brick, and glass. Unlike its rural counterpart, the discourse around urban environmentalism remains partial, unable to move beyond a discussion of negative externalities to economic growth. When organising to secure the environmental resources crucial to them – clean water, sanitation, reliable housing – Delhi’s poor are positioned both outside and against the accepted conceptions of progress and “public interest.” Their demands are considered provincial compared to the seemingly democratic and humanistic agenda of bourgeois environmentalism.
To live in an uncivil city, as the book’s title suggests, is to confront the fixed urban hierarchies concealed by the veneer of civility, the utopian promise of commerce, and the authority of planning.
Although there have been instances in which working class groups have been able to deploy the existing rhetoric of urban environmentalism to secure their right to the city, these cases remain few and far between. Notably, Baviskar brings up the example of Delhi’s sanitation workers, who include poor lower-caste communities that are often denied fair pay and safe working conditions, leading to a significant number of work-related deaths. Through strikes, Baviskar writes, these workers have been able to position themselves as “ecological warriors” essential to maintaining the clean and green Delhi so prized by the dominant planning regime. In 2019, Narendra Modi washed the feet of five sanitation workers on camera in the neighbouring state of Uttar Pradesh, hoping to raise the profile of his Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission), just a few months before India’s general election. Capitalising on the media attention, hundreds of workers, many of whom were under-protected by the scheme, gathered in Delhi to protest the vacuous political gesture and overall government neglect of their plight. “Modi shouldn’t be washing our feet,” one said, “he should be wiping our tears.”
Effectively challenging the historical power imbalances that determine the fight for Delhi’s commons involves rethinking how we define environmental resources, issues, and ownership in the city. It necessitates going beyond a narrow vision of public space as consumable and developable property and accounting for the full breadth of social, economic, and environmental life contained within it. As Baviskar writes, “questions about definition are important because they allow and disallow not only what can be talked about but who can do the talking”.
Unlike its rural counterpart, the discourse around urban environmentalism remains partial, unable to move beyond a discussion of negative externalities to economic growth.
In recent months, the broader issues that animate Uncivil City have continued to find shape in the contestations for space, resources and belonging in Delhi. Last September, the government announced its plan to redevelop Delhi’s Central Vista – a relic of colonial planning – to support Prime Minister Modi’s vision for a new India, as per the Central Public Works Department. The exercise, which is already being planned with little oversight, would reallocate 80 acres of public space for official government use, consume water otherwise meant for roughly 2.3 million citizens, and likely require felling 2000 trees in the area. In the wake of COVID-19, as the city’s poorest are being devastated by financial insecurity, the project carries on, racking up a bill of INR 200 billion (USD 2.63 billion) and counting. When Guha attempted to question these priorities, his column was axed by The Hindustan Times (though published shortly thereafter by The Wire.)
In mid-December 2019, a protest against the central government’s divisive Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), which overwhelmingly targeted poor and paperless Muslims, took the form of a sit-in in the south Delhi neighbourhood of Shaheen Bagh. As public space in Delhi has been increasingly squeezed by traffic and development, public protests have found little physical room to breathe. The Delhi Police’s casual use of Section 144, prohibiting public assembly, enforces the belief that “politics should not be on the street but on television,” Baviskar writes. Shaheen Bagh’s success in creating a “shared space of politics” made it a flashpoint on these television screens. Pro-CAA talking heads quickly framed the sit-in as disruptive to car owners, who the Delhi Police’s arbitrary road-blocking tactic had inconvenienced. No protestors who increased Delhi traffic could possibly love democracy, the messaging implied. The sit-in was suspended 101 days after it began, due to COVID-19. Acting in accordance with the state-sanctioned lockdown, the police demolished the protest site with enthusiasm, while still unprepared for the nationwide lockdown that was going to be announced that evening.
The chaos that has ensued so far during India’s ongoing lockdown has been particularly painful for the migrant urban working class. In an aerial video taken on 28 March at Delhi’s Anand Vihar bus station – where tens of thousands of labourers had gathered to find a ride home – the division of space has a near-metaphorical resonance in the context of Baviskar’s work.
— فرقان أمین | furquan ameen (@furquansid) March 28, 2020
A police officer walks down the length of the vertical frame, beating a queue of people off the road with a baton so that a bus can pass: decades of planned violence compressed into 14 seconds. The crowd, the officer, the road, and the bus all figure into Delhi’s familiar and uneven arithmetic of power. As Baviskar argues, the segregations produced by Delhi’s planning regimes have also produced an “apartheid of the imagination.” Social distancing in a deeply segregated city unfolds along spatially inscribed lines of class, caste, and religion. Central to Baviskar’s work is a belief that these lines must always be questioned when imagining Delhi – beyond the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic. To live in an uncivil city, as the book’s title suggests, is to confront the fixed urban hierarchies concealed by the veneer of civility, the utopian promise of commerce, and the authority of planning. The vision of Delhi to which Uncivil City is committed emerges from a radial sense of possibility to conceive new, collective futures, to hold strong to the conviction that “the value of something only grows when it is shared.”