From the Indian Express this morning.
This ambiguity over the city and the reductive stereotypes it inhabits has had a long innings; and yet has begun to change. The urban has begun to rise not just demographically but politically, electorally, socially, culturally and economically to become the defining problem space of the ‘new India.’ Cities, for better and worse, have caught our imagination.
This is only the latest contest in a series that will continue as India urbanises. A long-held myth holds that urban conflicts are economic and technical ones over resources and infrastructures while rural conflicts centre more on identity and community politics. The corresponding myth is that responding to urban challenges requires better technical planning and governance, not political or cultural interventions. It is time to put these myths to rest.
As resident welfare associations lead public interest litigations against the poor for being “dirty” and “criminal;” as Mumbai’s taxi drivers must learn Marathi; as the Sri Ram Sene polices southern Karnataka’s streets to ensure cultural purity; as anti-migrant, anti-Bangladeshi and anti-poor campaigns dot our urban landscapes; as malls are allowed to encroach on protected forest areas and protected forest areas are allowed to encroach on the homes of the poor; as Master Plans grow further and further from the realities of everyday urban lives; as imaginations of the world-class city transform built environments and budget lines, it is time to realise that politics has come to the city.
Our cities today lack a shared imagination of what and who can belong to them, what our urban vision is. They are often just a collection of fragments pitched against each other — and our debates are thus, in turn, fragments of their own. We do not speak of housing, but instead RWAs file legal petitions against settlements. We don’t think about ways to integrate different kinds of land use and different uses of the built environment, we simply “seal” those who innovate and try and work and live out of the same space. We don’t think of sustainable use of our urban environment, we create museum-like parks and find culprits and communities we simply declare “dirty.” We do not speak of the need for different types and classes of public and private transport, but make an effort like the BRT become about cars versus buses, as if the riders of those modes do not live in the same city. We are unable to speak of the city with each other, so we speak simply to our fellow city residents through and within the courtroom.
We must instead think of an urban citizenship — one where presence in the city, work and contribution to the city, a claim to city identity based on a sense of belonging are extended to all who are here and all those who come. No city in history worth remembering has ever prospered by closing its doors and denying itself to those who seek it. An urban citizenship is not an equality of assets of resources — equality is never that simple. It is about the right to have one’s own story in the city. The right to migrate to the city. The right to aspire, innovate and grow within the city and the right to be infrastructurally, culturally, economically and politically supported towards this aspiration. Urban citizenship is given to all those that are determined to be here. It is a testament to presence, not a test of it. We must, sixty years into the republic, remember to earn our citizenship once again, this time in a new urban battleground.