The urban imagination

Illustration: Satwik Gade

Illustration: Satwik Gade  

The aesthetic demands of a global makeover of our cities is throwing up new, more minute, forms of displacement.

Homeless people have been pitching tents in Manchester in the U.K. this winter. And more than 150 students at University College London face eviction because they cannot afford the soaring cost of rent. Homelessness and eviction in one of the most advanced societies in the world? And what does this have to do with India? Plenty, I would suggest, but before making the connection, let me offer a little background.

Urbanisation, driven by the motto that ‘cities are the engines of growth’, has been a key tenet of India’s structural reforms. Since 1993, policymakers have pushed an aggressive urban upgradation and expansion programme through schemes such as the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission and the recently launched Smart Cities Mission and Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation; by 2030, if not earlier, over 40 per cent of India will be urban.

There is a political consensus on the subject, media coverage is generally euphoric, and public opposition, when it occurs, is sporadic and project-specific — against the Bus Rapid Transit System in Delhi, against Mumbai’s proposed coastal road, or against a smart city in Dehradun — rather than conceptual. Indeed, the discussion around India’s accelerated urbanisation, particularly in the mainstream media, has been not about whether India should rapidly urbanise but how best to go about it: what legislative amendments are required, how to allocate resources, which transport system is best, which cities to demarcate for upgradation, and so on and so forth.

What is a city?

If this discourse is in keeping with the long-held view of the city as a source of material progress and technological advancement (the latter most recently enshrined in the concept of the smart city), others highlight different, but equally familiar, associations with the city. In works of art, films, literary works, in the spurt of heritage walks and in the colourful events supplements of newspapers, one experiences the city as not only a repository of our pathologies, but also an escape, as Ambedkar pointed out, from traditional oppressions; a site for emancipatory struggles such as the independence and labour movements, cosmopolitan encounters, and creativity. While a preponderance of these approaches — logistical, celebratory and nostalgic — suggests a continuity with the past, urban scholars claim otherwise.

Amongst the many implications of the phenomenon, the one that seems to have caused perturbation worldwide is the impact on living costs.

Saskia Sassen, who wrote the perceptive The Global City in 1991, says: “I look at global cities today and find they are no longer the cities of the organised working class or of that older notion of a bourgeoisie that finds in the city the place for its self-representation and projection of its power (including its civilising power). Global cities are where that increasingly elusive, privatised, digitised category we call global capital hits the ground.”

In a world transformed by information technology and capital mobility, attracting global fixed capital investment in the form of corporate headquarters, production facilities and downtown skyscrapers, and circulating capital (as transportation, tourism and cultural events) through an international identity has become, as political scientist Darel E. Paul observes, ‘a nearly universal economic development strategy’. Earlier, the competition would have between nations but with privatisation, deregulation and growing decentralisation, cities have acquired greater significance.

The evidence is all around us in India. We see the galvanising force of the pursuit of a global identity in new towering office blocks, flyovers and public transportation systems, in the proliferation of cafes, nightclubs, boutiques, malls, convention centres and hotels, in the drive against slums and ageing buildings, in urban beautification projects and cultural festivals. The trend is pervasive, percolating from the metro to Tier II cities, small towns and even rural districts where one can see apartment blocks often built with the Non-Resident Indian in mind, sprouting next to paddy fields.

Amongst the many implications of the phenomenon, the one that seems to have caused perturbation worldwide is the impact on living costs. In 2013, the chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Investment Wing sounded a warning bell when he pointed out how investors looking for a safe place to park their money had raised real estate prices in London disproportionately high. The escalation not only marked a break from the U.K. economy, but also led to the phenomenon of dark, empty houses in rich neighbourhoods at a time of an acute housing shortage.

The phenomenon of urban gated communities, exclusive enclaves for the rich with their own security and essential supply systems, are now an integral part of cities everywhere.

Artists who once thrived in New York now believe that the city has closed itself to the young and the struggling and can only house those who have made it. The phenomenon of urban gated communities, exclusive enclaves for the rich with their own security and essential supply systems, are now an integral part of cities everywhere. The Guardian in a recent article on Punta del Este, a beachside city in Uruguay that has become a gated city for the uber-rich, described how the creation of menial jobs for the poor of the city had been accompanied by a steep hike in costs for basic food, clothing and transport.


The new urban landscape is particularly hard on the poor, as displacement, a familiar theme in India’s developmental trajectory since the dislodging of tribals from their habitats for the erection of dams, is now played out for the building of glossy towers and beautification projects. But the aesthetic demands of a global makeover throws up new, more minute, forms of displacement. The disappearance of lakes and the replacement of trees — that might have provided sustenance to the poor — with decorative plants are growing trends in Indian cities. Internationally, there is the spread of ‘hostile architecture’ which includes “anti-homeless” spikes and the Camden bench — a sculpted grey concrete seat designed by a London borough in 2012 to discourage sleeping or skateboarding. Incidentally, a Maharashtra State Minister made news in the early 2000s by moving to replace park benches with one-seaters, though his stated intention was to discourage lovers rather than the homeless.

While citification has stirred much public anticipation, the privileging of the global in the new urban imagination needs to be reflected on in urbanising India. At a time when the issue of social justice has been thrown to the forefront, its potential for expanding inequality is of particular concern.

Reading list

The New Blackwell Companion to the City edited by Gary Bridge and Sophie Watson (2011)

The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo by Saskia Sassen (2001)

Spaces of Global Cultures: Architecture, Urbanism, Identity by Anthony D. King (2004)

Justice, Nature & the Geography of Difference by David Harvey (1996)

Inside the Transforming Urban Asia: Processes, Policies and Public Actions edited by Darshini Mahadevia (2008)

The Promise of the Metropolis: Bangalore’s Twentieth Century by Janaki Nair (2005)

Bombay and Mumbai: The City in Transition, edited by Sujata Patel and Jim Masselos (2003)

Globalisation and the Politics of Forgetting edited by Yong-Sook Lee and Brenda S.A. Yeoh (2005)

Entangled Urbanism: Slum, Gated Community, and Shopping Mall in Delhi and Gurgaon by Sanjay Srivastava (2014)

Capital: The Eruption of Delhi by Rana Dasgupta (2014)

(Amrita Shah is the author of Ahmedabad: A City in the World.)

Why you should pay for quality journalism - Click to know more

Related Topics
Recommended for you
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Mar 30, 2020 2:47:24 PM |

Next Story