Updated: May 8, 2012 00:35 IST

Citizens walk a hard road

Arvind Sivaramakrishnan
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URBANIZING CITIZENSHIP — Contested Spaces in Indian Cities: Edited by Renu Desai, Romola Sanyal; Sage Publications India Pvt. Ltd., B-1/I-1, Mohan Cooperative Industrial Area, Mathura Road, New Delhi-110044. Rs. 695.
URBANIZING CITIZENSHIP — Contested Spaces in Indian Cities: Edited by Renu Desai, Romola Sanyal; Sage Publications India Pvt. Ltd., B-1/I-1, Mohan Cooperative Industrial Area, Mathura Road, New Delhi-110044. Rs. 695.

The multiple fractures identified in this book show how strained the very idea of citizenship is in Indian cities

These nine outstanding papers combine excellent empirical material on everyday but very significant issues in urban life with accomplished analysis to show how citizenship is both a status and a practice. The first five contributors examine governance in the neoliberal city, where faraway developments affect hundreds of millions in India. Renu Desai shows how the Gujarat government, desperate to re-brand the state as other than a locus of state-supported and orchestrated anti-Muslim violence, funded glamorous events for corporates and the wealthy classes, including Gujaratis settled abroad, from 2003 onwards. Some Muslim communities were ostentatiously invited, but these were already wealthy groups. Despite some resistance to these projects, most Muslims and the rest of the poor were simply not spoken of, in what Desai calls a politics of erasure and denial.

If Gujarat engages in silent exclusion, Sapana Doshi and Liza Weinstein demonstrate the complexity of the relevant processes. Doshi finds that the distances the resettled of Mumbai have to commute cause them severe problems, and that even the local self-help groups reveal significant differences in wealth, status, and influence, with women bearing most of the burden of the inequalities. While officials sometimes try to mitigate the effects of resettlement, none of the largely unwilling subjects appears to be given any chance to reject resettlement altogether.

Weinstein, for her part, analyses Mumbai's Dharavi Redevelopment Project (DRP), where private developers foresaw colossal profits — but the existing inhabitants would be offered apartments the size of a moderately large room in an upmarket flat, and would have to pay their own municipal and other taxes. The project did co-opt some of the opposition, but tensions also arose between the main developer and public bodies, and while prior inequalities in Dharavi made for divergent forms of resistance, the globalisation of protest on the internet startled those who thought they could steamroller dissent. Weinstein also echoes Paul Divakar in noting the dependence of the elites on the poor who service them.


The internet, however, is not always benign; Malini Ranganthan shows that Karnataka's so-called e-governance contractualises citizenship by enabling public bodies to limit the range of complaints and responses. This then means addressing only issues like street lighting, rubbish collection, and irregular water supply. It also means shutting out poorer women, who have little or no net access. Furthermore, e-reporting individualises problems; the public cannot see which problems are shared by others or which result from systemic deficiencies. The process even dispossesses elected representatives by increasing the power of technical staff within the corporation; the latter then use numerical performance audits to bully the front-line staff who have to try and solve the problems. E-governance therefore captures neither the volume of work done informally and illegally — often in response to official failures — nor the collective nature of problems. Ranganathan cites Karen Coelho: this is a form of neutralisation and control. A techno-manageriat with sole authority to define problems and solutions is even less accessible to citizens than the dysfunctional political system.

This has parallels elsewhere. Sunalini Kumar, in the second section of the book, analyses bourgeois environmentalism, whereby the imposition of compressed natural gas or CNG on Delhi autorickshaws required the very concept of the public to be so restricted by the judiciary, public officials, and the media that public transport came to be dominated by elite interests. Yet CNG did not reduce air pollution, which was mainly caused by the vast expansion of motor transport; it also has worse greenhouse effects than low-sulphur diesel. Moreover, the poorest involved, the rickshaw drivers, had to bear the huge costs of adaptation, and were the least able to resist, as they were in a more precarious position than, say, bus drivers; yet they were cast as the villains by the very upper classes who are their main clients. Therefore, the relatively privileged are better placed to protest, as Jolie Wood shows in respect of boatmen and weavers in Varanasi. It is the wealthier who agitate and the poorer who operate.

Multiple failures

The multiple failures of official bodies, including collusion with extralegal and illegal forms of power and authority, mean that administrative measures like relocation cannot by themselves end the persistent vulnerability of the poor to violence (or to disease). Almost inevitably, informal and illegal methods of resolution are very widespread; Jaideep Gupte shows that some of these are so well trusted and so effective, even if they use violence, that they shame the Indian republic. Yet the impact of public processes never disappears; Romola Sanyal shows that during Partition, refugees from the then East Bengal had a certain status in India, even if officialdom then neglected them badly, but those who make the same move today are not refugees. Trying to escape structural violence in the form of economic hardship and the fear or the fact of religious discrimination, they are now illegal aliens in a foreign land which is ideologically oblivious to structural violence.

While the multiple fractures identified in this book show how strained the very idea of citizenship is in Indian cities, all the authors recognise the underlying issues in political philosophy. Most follow James Holston's sense of citizenship as the assertion of rights in the public space, but Kumar, for example, also recognises that reasoning about the content of citizenship is itself part of the practice thereof. That mighty figures — Hegel, Arendt, Habermas — appear naturally and illuminatingly throughout the book adds to its appeal, and will strengthen the reputation it deserves to gain.

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