Inclusion, Contestation and Identity in Indian Cities: An event report on recent talks

By Mukta Naik, Senior Researcher, CPR

With three excellent talks taking place within a week, CPR has been quite the hub for discussion on topical urban issues. While distinct, the talks (as conversations on ‘urban’ are wont to do) converged and coalesced, intersected and jumped around common themes like inclusion and poverty, the politics and contestation over urban services and identity issues around urban and rural.

Inclusion in public sector housing

On Friday, 20th February, Diana Mitlin, Professor of Global Urbanism and Director of Global Urban Research Centre at Manchester University talked about ‘Realising inclusive urban development – a discussion of experiences across the global South and lessons from the JNNURM’. Her study of the Basic Services for the Urban Poor (BSUP) component of the JNNURM program reveals, broadly, that end-users were inadequately consulted during project, that access to services worsened for many beneficiaries, that the process of household entitlements discriminated against certain groups (for instance widows) and that the poorest households found themselves further in debt after paying the beneficiary contributions mandatory in the scheme.

Prof Mitlin’s talk highlighted that the JNNURM’s approach was essentially that of turning informal areas into greenfield sites via the redevelopment process, an approach that emerged from the government’s obsession with modern style housing, one that embraced a contractor-driven system while destroying neighbourhoods that were built through long-term community investment. Similar approaches in other countries confirmed that this phenomenon is widespread. Moreover, Prof Mitlin referred to a realisation on the part of governments in the Global South that relocation of the poor to the peripheries of cities has been costly (for beneficiaries and the city) and hence a renewed interest in strategies to draw investments into the city via slum upgrades.

In contextualising the BSUP with projects in South Africa and Thailand, which she has also studied, Prof Mitlin was able to point towards good practices of community involvement while also outlining policies that led to further exclusion of certain communities—the urban poor, lower castes, women, the disabled, etc. The need to broaden the debate on inclusion to encompass various communities that might be currently not benefiting adequately from policy interventions was indeed an interesting subtext of her talk.

The complex politics of accessing water

Lisa Bjorkman’s talk on 24th February on ‘Pipe Politics: Contested Infrastructures of Millenial Mumbai’ was organised as part of the CSH-CPR Urban Workshop Series. Lisa, a research scholar at the University of Göttingen’s Transregional Research Network (CETREN) in Germany, used rich ethnographic narratives to explain the intricate dynamics of accessing water in Mumbai. Particularly fascinating were her accounts of characters like the social worker, the valve fixer, the plumber and the broker who are able wield considerable power because of their intimate and on-ground knowledge of the water supply system and the community.

Lisa drew attention to the link between Mumbai’s urban development trajectory and the problems with water provisioning, specifically pointing to policies like the Slum Redevelopment Act (SRA) and Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) that skewed the existing land use patterns and made it hard for the water department to predict how many people they needed to supply across varying geographies in the city. What’s interesting is that the resulting contestation and intense negotiations to get water has impacted both the rich and poor (perhaps not in equal measure though) and created sufficient pressure so the city is now looking at making both demand and supply side interventions to resolve water woes. Lisa’s book (Duke University Press 2015), Pipe Politics, Contested Waters: Embedded Infrastructures of Millennial Mumbai is out now should you want to know more.

Urbanism in small towns

Sandwiched between these two speakers, Srilata Sircar who is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Human Geography, Lunds Universitet, Sweden, spoke on 23th February on small towns in West Bengal also as part of the CSH-CPR Urban Workshop Series. Titled ‘You Can Call it a Muffasil Town, but Nothing Less: New Narratives of Urbanization and Urbanism from Census Towns in West Bengal’, her exploration of urbanisation and urbanism of Garbeta census town in West Medinipur district of West Bengal viewed economic processes from the standpoint of social justice. Amid several threads, Srilata presented narratives around caste, land, urban aspiration and entrepreneurship.

Even as caste appeared a clear differentiator in terms of access to services in Garbeta, she commented on the difficulty of having conversations about caste in the context of West Bengal legacy of communism. Her research highlights that, more than a desire to be urban, residents in small towns desire to have increased access to government bureaucracy and services; this manifests itself in Garbeta in a demand to be declared a sub divisional headquarter rather than a demand for increased municipal functions.

She also spoke about how ownership of land and the ability to feed your family from its produce is an important part of the identity of residents of Garbeta. Srilata’s predictions of conflict and violence around any future attempts at acquiring land for development processes are contextual. They remind us that villages and small towns across India are likely to be the sites for contestation on-ground even as Parliamentarians argue and clash over the Land Acquisition Act in New Delhi.

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