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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!

Internal migration and urbanization: Why we need a nuanced view of how these intersect

UNESCO’s Internal Migration in India Initiative launched an important publication yesterday (see here for details). ‘Social Inclusion of Internal Migrants in India‘ draws focus to an issue we often sweep under the carpet, asking us to confront head-on the issue of India’s large population of internal migrants- some 326 million, close to 30% of India’s population as per estimates by the NSSO. I’ve been working in the area of migration and as an architect and urban planner, I see substantial linkages between urbanization and migration. Linkages that we need to scrutinize minutely if we are to create urban living environments that are equitable and enjoyable to all of us.

ImageTo begin with, we need to understand which urban areas migrants are opting to move to. In this regard, these figures from the report stand out- 43% of Delhi’s population comprises internal migrants. However, it is not just the metros, but cities like Surat (58%), Ludhiana (57%), Faridabad (55%), Nashik (50%), Pune (45%), Lucknow (28%), Patna (27%) and Kanpur (19%) that need to gear up to support migrant populations urgently. Cities often without strong planning and governance frameworks, and low capacities to create and implement sensitive city level planning programs. Yesterday Minister Jairam Ramesh mentioned, for instance, that data from the 2011 census highlights the presence of 3900 Census towns that fulfill various characteristics of being urban but are still managed by gram panchayats! Clearly, these places have no way of understanding or managing the rapid changes they are experiencing and we see a catastrophic impact on social cohesion as well as the environment. There is no doubt, therefore, that urbanization in the country needs to be seen with new eyes and local municipal bodies be strengthened substantially.

In all this, the migrant plays a significant role as a contributor to the economies of the cities that receive them. As we go about our daily lives, whatever we may be busy with, we interact with migrants across social class and from various parts of the country. We are migrants as well, often enough. The discussion at the book launch yesterday therefore, distinguishes between educated migrants that opt to migrate in search of better opportunities (like many of us) and those who need to migrate in order to find paid employment; in other words, they migrate as a survival strategy and this is often termed as distress migration. In that sense, the story of migration into urban India becomes a story of class, in fact another dimension to the class issues that urban Indians are facing on a day to day basis.

I make two observations out of this. As a citizen, I see a keener analysis of migration as a way to develop a more nuanced approach to how we lead our lives in the city. I have written often in this blog about middle class bias, our suspicion of the ‘other’ in our midst (on intolerance here and on the need for idealism here) and also of the shrinking of public spaces that help us interact with people from various walks of life (on community driven public spaces here) and retain our tolerant attitude towards those who are unlike us. Bringing to the fore the stories of migrant families, their experiential journey as they adjust to urban lives is an effective way of highlighting that they are not so much unlike us, their aspirations are not so different, and it may not be unthinkable to treat them in a humane manner and welcome them into the community. A friend told me yesterday that upper class women (madams) in the Durga Puja pandal in my neighborhood had literally shooed away Bengali women who are migrant domestic workers; the same women who are their support system in taking care of their homes, who cook, clean and babysit for them! Clearly, this sort of bias needs to be addressed.

Second, only by being able to understand the type of migrants in a specific city can city planners hope to cater to the needs of the future. Cities like Gurgaon may have, unfortunately, missed the boat. But all those new urban areas scattered across the nation might benefit hugely from research that creates fine and nuanced distinctions between circular/seasonal migrants and more permanent ones, as well as from studies that map migrant consumption choices  of both goods and services.  Urbanizing areas need to have in place systems to monitor incoming migrants. It is debatable, but perhaps the Aadhaar could be a means of tracking data as well as providing portable services to migrants, as was discussed at yesterday’s event.

Tenement rooms are taken on rent by migrants privately in informal areas like urban villages in the absence of formal supply of affordable rentals

Tenement rooms are taken on rent by migrants privately in informal areas like urban villages in the absence of formal supply of affordable rentals

My research focuses on housing, which is one of the most challenging issues cities are facing today. Nuanced data on migration (in addition to other forms of data on employment, labour, industry, demographics, etc),  is imperative to be able to decide what sort of housing must be planned in a city– how much rental and how much ownership, what sort of affordability slabs must these be in, etc. The role of governments in this is critical, as land is a crucial resource. The earlier we recognize the urgency of this need and use it to create new data collection, analysis and planning systems for upcoming urban areas, the better we will be able to reap the benefits of urbanization, as indeed as a nation we should and will.

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