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City in search of a centre

Despite the invocations in the election campaign, the political story of urban India is yet to be told.

The dominant narrative of urban development manufactures an artificial alliance of interests in its imageries of smart cities. The dominant narrative of urban development manufactures an artificial alliance of interests in its imageries of smart cities.

Despite the invocations in the election campaign, the political story of urban India is yet to be told.

“Why can’t we build 100 specialised cities, smart cities like health cities, sports city and twin cities?” was the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi’s question. The arrival of the urban in the national imagination is not new and certainly not confined to Modi’s vision. Developmental planning in India, especially in the post-liberalisation phase, often celebrated the images of a globally competitive, modern and seemingly “neutral” city space as constituting the core of the new nation. Both Pune and Bangalore thus aspired to become Singapore, while Mumbai dreamt of being India’s Shanghai. These imageries, however, generally remained divorced from the complex social realities of Indian cities and from the peculiarities of the processes of urbanisation in India.

The 2011 Census for the first time noted that urban population growth was higher than absolute rural growth. However, the patterns of urbanisation remain skewed. First, the extent of urbanisation in India is low, with just above 30 per cent of the population residing in urban areas. Second, urban India is distributed across diverse large and small cities unevenly clustered in a few economically advanced states. Thus, if Maharashtra, Gujarat, Kerala and Tamil Nadu have more than 40 per cent people living in cities, the percentage is less than 20 in Bihar, Assam and Orissa. The million-plus cities account for 42 per cent of urban population, whereas the average size of an Indian city is still around 60,000.

Third, as a result of top-heavy urbanisation, most of India’s cities have a weak economic base of their own and large populations are perhaps their only asset. The National Institute of Urban Affairs reports how the interlinkage effects between per capita income and urbanisation levels across Indian states, although slowly strengthening, are low by international standards and have only a weak impact on economic growth. Haphazard expansion of cities has led to large urban fringes that often oscillate between rural and urban economies and sensibilities. With lack of resources and planning, land has become one of the most lucrative resources in fringe areas and construction is the main service sector industry, without much contribution to the urban economic base.

The stunted growth of cities leads to what scholars like Amitabh Kundu refer to as “exclusionary urbanisation” on one hand, while culminating in the proliferation of several second-grade cities that offer only limited scope for economic and social mobility to their residents on the other. The result is a complex structuring of the social universe in Indian cities that not only contributes to the lopsided nature of urban transformation, but also makes the city space a contentious political space.

Our studies of Pune at the turn of the millennium revealed interesting patterns of urban social mobility as we investigated the caste occupation linkages across four generations of Pune’s resident families. This study, along with a few others at the all-India level, reports only a modest trend of upward social mobility among urban-dwellers. It also notes how the social universe of cities is structured around criss-cross patterns of caste and class identities, and how these give rise to contentious political claims over issues of identity and material interests. Thus, if the MNS presents one variety of urban politics in India, routine struggles of poor workers, seeking legitimacy for their urban existence, constitute the other, often unarticulated part of the urban political narrative.

The dominant narrative of urban development, however, manufactures an artificial alliance of interests and aspirations in its imageries of smart cities. Since development includes both slum improvement and flyovers, different sections of society acquiesce in the face of the development package. However, in the face of brutal neglect of urban planning and lack of resources, the development discourse becomes an attractive but mock discourse that has no integrity in terms of representation and outcomes. Solutions to urban problems are sought in a piecemeal manner and sectional claims of the poor are neglected. Instead, the vision of the smart city encourages only selective inclusion of the poor as bystanders seeking state support for rehabilitation and for the “beautification” of slums. The new nationalist imagination of the urban celebrates the city space as a modern, uncontested and smart space that becomes the epitome of development. It depoliticises development as sectional claims are effectively dissolved in civic interests, as contestations get diffused and politics is reduced to urban management by experts, and as city-dwellers aspire to share the dream of a city completely detached from the severities of their urban existence.

The writer teaches political science at the University of Pune

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