The new city is caught between revolution, repression and the rush of aspirations

On July 18, 2013, a group of ex-Maruti employees tried to organise a protest march to the company’s factory in Manesar to raise questions about the handling of legal and other inquiries into the violence that took place at the plant a year ago. Among other things, the sacked employees who gathered in a car park in Gurgaon that day wanted a more transparent inquiry into the death of HR manager Awinash Kumar Dev, and the fate of arrested workers who are being held in two separate jails in Haryana. As trade union leaders gave speeches about a coming revolution, the car park was surrounded by several hundred police in riot gear, including some with firearms. A hammer had been prepared to deal with a pinhead. Between the riot police, the guns and lathis, the 200 or so protesters were denied permission to even move beyond the confines of the car park. The district administration had imposed prohibitory orders on almost every route to which the workers wanted to proceed. Eventually, a group of protesters lit some candles under a tree — guns and lathis watching from a distance — and dispersed. The Maruti “event” is not merely a story about one industrial dispute at one location. It is an instructive tale about possible urban futures.

Making of the city

The most significant difference between 20th century city-making and those of the 21st is the large-scale involvement of private enterprise. In both the colonial era fashioning of a new imperial capital, and the postcolonial construction of “steel cities,” the state was the key actor. This began to change by the mid-1970s. In the National Capital Region, for example, the most significant reason relates to the state becoming a land monopolist, forcing private interests to move beyond Delhi to nearby areas in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. The involvement of private interests is, by itself, not an indicator that public interest and social needs will no longer be met. At least in Delhi, it has been the state that has failed to meet its own targets for housing for the poor; since 1957 — when the Delhi Development Authority was established — it has made criminal amounts of profits through speculation in land. It is not privatisation that lies at the heart of troubling aspects of the new city. Rather, it is the relationship between newly prospering groups, migrant workers, older residents, the private sector and the state that is at the heart of matter.

Paradox

Gurgaon is not only about shiny, new towers and super-luxury, gated communities. It is also home — usually under miserable conditions — to working class populations from around the country. They do a variety of work: in factories, shops, hotels, homes, as construction labour and security guards. The new city is being built and maintained by migrant labour and yet migration is also at the heart of an urban paradox. In the immediate aftermath of the violence at the Manesar plant, there seemed to be a sense of workers’ solidarity and various meetings reinforced the rights of all workers to fair conditions of pay and work. However, at the protest gathering this month, most of the workers and the protest organisers were migrants to the area. They related that locals (that is Haryanvi villagers) who had earlier pledged support had withdrawn on the grounds of rumours that should the protests against the company continue, Maruti may decide to relocate the factory to another area causing a regional economic decline. It is impossible to confirm, but another rumour has it that the locals have been told that if the migrant workers are made to leave, their jobs would go the locals. Hence, there is now a great deal of hostility between local villagers and workers from States such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

Second, the new city is the site of changing relations between the middle classes, the private sector and the state, linked to the rise of the post-Nehruvian state. Historically, the Indian state has presented itself as a “friend” of the poor. Its recent transformation from a “developmentalist” state (emphasising savings) to a “growth-state” (emphasising consumption) also means that it is open to greater pressure from private enterprise, particularly when it relates to issues such as industrial work conditions, land acquisition and how to deal with the most vulnerable sections of society. There is, however, no automatic or invariable connection between the rising voice of the private sector in public affairs and greater misery for the poor. The G.D. Birla Enquiry Committee — set up to look into the functioning of the Delhi Improvement Trust in 1950 and whose report was released in 1951 — made far more humane recommendations regarding the treatment of the urban poor than has ever been suggested or practised by any government body. The issue is one of a failure of policy imagination rather than private versus public activity.

Levels of indifference

Finally, the new city is characterised by new sets of aspirations on the part newly prospering classes. The aspirations for “global lifestyles frequently involve the refusal to engage with the lives of those at the local coalface.” Ironically, while residents of cities such as Gurgaon see themselves as global citizens, they rarely participate in movements of social justice or, at least, attempt to gain an understanding of the problems of justice and equality that beset new urban environments. This is not really a special characteristic of the “new middle classes,” for the older state-produced middle classes practised their own elitism. The key problem is that the current levels of indifference to the socially and economically marginalised are much more intense than before. As previously disenfranchised groups prosper, they do not become more sympathetic to the poor, but see protesting workers as obstructions on the road to national and individual prosperity.

Notwithstanding the numbers that live in rural India, it is urban life that will exert the greatest amount of influence upon the future life of the nation. Over the coming years, there will be hundreds, perhaps thousands, of new cities. There is urgent need for discussions about city-ness in our times if we are to avoid a fate where cities become home to recurring revolutions, authoritarian repression and exclusively self-serving aspirations.

(Sanjay Srivastava is professor of sociology and co-editor, Contributions to Indian Sociology, Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi University North Campus.)

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