Politics and urban geography: Do the poor have a voice or a place in Indian cities?

Political journalism in India is clearly divided into two camps, at least the way my eye sees it. There is the neo-liberal camp that at present has Modi as its poster boy. And there is the socialist camp that has defeated communists at one extreme and liberals floating around in it without a particular form of organisation. Intertwined within this dichotomy are the strains of religious communalism, identity politics (region, caste, class) and nationalism, that both camps use in their own way to justify their stands.

My specific interest in all of this has been the status of the urban poor, a community I’ve had the opportunity to work with and that I respect for their tenacity and street-smartness (that often contrasts with a certain surprising innocence). That political battles are increasingly being played out in urban geographies in our country is apparent.

This morning, I read a very interesting post by George Ciccariello-Maher, who is an assistant professor of political science at Drexel University in Philadelphia, on the intersection of politics and urban geography in Caracas. In tracing the history of the rich and poor settlements in the city, the author sheds light on some the mutual mistrust between the elite and the urban poor over time. Many of the phenomena the highlights are visible in cities like Delhi and Mumbai, in the past and in the present.

Synthesizing Ciccariello-Maher’s piece: Exclusion, segregation and the enduring nature of class conflict

1- Deliberate forms of exclusion: Gated communities, militarised exclusion and the creation of municipalities within the city to further enhance inequalities and ensure resources for the elite were some ways the rich separated themselves from the poor at a time when the barrios sprang up everywhere. Ciccariello-Maher’s points out, of course, that this was a reaction of fear of the poor (add to that the element of racism) who had risen in rebellion in ’80s (pre-Chavez) and had to be controlled per force!

2- Discomfort with the new-found voice of the poor: Social housing appeared as a key ingredient in Chavez’ socialism, in multiple forms. Not just new housing units built by the State, but also more recently, a strong demand for the granting of title for the poor so that they can live in self-managed housing. Ciccariello-Maher speaks about how the strengthening of housing for the poor is something the elite fear very much, inducing out-migration of the educated young from Caracas. To me, its interesting that his discourse is still focused on segregation and suggests that decades of socialism have not given the poor a leg-up or eased the social segregation in any significant way. If true, it does support my hypothesis that housing security is vital for larger social transformations.

The poor in urban India: Do we fear them? Hell, no!

What does this mean for India where the voices of the poor are still not loud enough, where the elite have an enormous sense of entitlement and security (they don’t foresee a rebellion) and where the government continues to refrain from taking bold decisions on providing housing security to those who do not have any? If one assumes that the rebellion is a long time coming, it only means inclusion still remains a distant dream. As long as professionals and practitioners like us, who belong to the elite but empathize with the poor, continue to remain apolitical, its not likely the status quo will change. Is that case for renewed activism? Or a case for a change in profession for people like me!

About ramblinginthecity

I am an architect and urban planner, a writer and an aspiring artist. I love expressing myself and feel strongly that cities should have spaces for everyone--rich, poor, young, old, healthy and sick, happy or depressed--we all need to work towards making our cities liveable and lovable communities.

Posted on October 27, 2014, in Politics & Citizenship, Urban Planning & Policy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. A new paradigm for future cities needs to be defined wherein the mega-cities of today have to set the examples. Its a big responsibility for us elite sympathizers with the poor. the traditional definition of urban space and access to land as a resource has to be challenged with ideas such as monetizing temporal ownership and shared spaces. Time in the future could really become money.

    • absolutely! private ownership of land can be really painful, but with the right incentives there can (theoretically speaking) be market-based means to redistribute that resource. the rest is easier to manage i think…

  2. Great Post
    I have recently written a research paper on social exclusion of urban poor.
    If I would have seen your post, I would have certainly incorporated your views.

  3. Well thought out and refreshing post.

  4. Take an example from the Brits over the French. The French killed the nobility the Brits taxed them into the national trust. Want a gated community great have it BUT property taxes increase 33%. This will decide gated or not gated.

    DDA colonies are an excellent microcosm that spell out how the interactions between the rich and the poor have to happen more equitably and that is why they relatively speaking actually do. In one DDA colony a lady refuses to pay her part timer over some issue. All the part timers go on strike in less than an hour the offending lady is brought to her senses by the neighbours. The leader of the maids rubs it in telling the RWA presidents wife “If she would behave like a Mem saab we would not have to do such things”. The lesson is not lost on anyone. But wait the RWA prez’s wife gets back to the part timers saying that if you are standing up for each other then you have to take their accountability. The leader agrees and the women have greatly stopped quibbling and bickering with the maids. The point I make is that when you have an equitable and just mechanism you get better results for everyone. The maids more money and respect the ladies better service.

    One good thing about AAP was that it helped empower the Urban poor BUT also showed them that lumpen behaviour would not take them anywhere.

    I feel if we are to be a more just society then class pride should ONLY mean the ability to be more civic minded and fairer than the people economically below you, without compromising on eithers’ dignity and self respect.

    Social housing should be a priority but with changed norms foremost density. The EWS in Gurgaon are totally gentrified that is not what we need. If someone remembers what Professor Chandok taught in sociology class about his inputs on the design of the Class IV quarters of AIIMS would be a good start.

    Anything written above is not altruism but enlightened self interest. I hope more of the middle classes agree on the need for equitability and justice and in more absolute terms.

  1. Pingback: Ramblings of the year gone by: Recap 2014 | ramblinginthecity

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