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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!

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