A Republic of Cities

From the Indian Express this morning.

Independent India was built, imagined and judged by its villages; by gram swaraj. The nation was rarely, if ever, imagined by its founders to be led (Chandigarh aside) by its cities. Cities were spaces of the other — of colonial empires and cantonments, of a modernity that had come first in the garb of colonialism — separate from the “inner” nation, which, authentic and unsullied, lived on in the villages. As Nehru once famously said: “we want to urbanise India’s villages; not take away the people from villages to towns.”

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.

What Mumbai’s taxi drivers remind us of, however, is that this emergence is a deeply contested and fraught one.

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.

How should we think of this urban politics? There is an old frame long applied to the nation that offers itself for a much needed urban reclamation: citizenship. Cities were the original sites of citizenship long before the nation-state. In its essence, citizenship implies a sense of belonging and membership to a community. It is an identity to be constructed and exercised, not simply to be passively possessed. Constructing citizenship in the city means asking difficult questions of inclusion, exclusion, equality and belonging – the very same ones we asked for the nation through the Constitution. It is these questions that we must now ask instead of looking to new and different versions of planning. There is no Master Plan, no matter how technically competent, that can fix a city without a sense of itself because there can never be a solely technical answer to a political question.

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.

2 thoughts on “A Republic of Cities”

  1. Thanks for this, Gautam. I really liked your point about “being unable to speak of the city with each other, so we speak through the courtroom.” About urban citizenship, Henri Lefebvre once famously said “The revolution must be urban, or fail.” I’ve always been swept away by this phrase, but lately I’ve begun to wonder why are we so invested in the dream of an urban citizenship? Is it because the urban simulates/stimulates (?) most closely the conditions demanded by the highest ideals of liberal-capitalist democracy? Because the urban gives the lie to nation-states and their occasional performances of an alienated, disembodied citizenship? Is it worth asking what a post-urban ciitizenship may look like, just as we are asking what a post-national citizenship looks like…in short, what makes us so enamoured of cities as spaces of/ for politics?

  2. Gautam,

    This post is quite poetic and I like that.

    But I must also confess that there is a lot about the city that I know which simply does not resonate with what you are envisaging.

    I am thinking of a parochial, backwaters, provincial city that was never the center of power in any empire. It always lies at the edge of the empire – first of the Moghul, then of the British and then again of the new empire – I am talking about Hyderabad.

    The ‘state government’ (not the municipal government) enacted the city’s last master plan in 1985. By law masterplans are acts of state governments.

    It was drawn up by a few planners and draftsmen sitting in a corner of a Nizam era mansion which now houses the US embassy. I doubt if the planning staff have even found a proper place to store their maps after being kicked out of their building.

    Since 1985, hundreds of Government Orders have been issued giving exemptions, creating special development zones, changing land use categories, altering building rules – nobody knows exactly how many and everyone knows that many of them contradict each other -so it is just a matter of which order you can lay your hands on to get things done. I have even come across a GO where the order explicitly bars the government itself from changing building rules in one area any further. The person who engineered it said, he did it just for the heck of it. It was never adhered to.

    Every few years, we have a new draft master plan which is put up for public suggestions and then it goes to the secretariat to be introduced into the assembly and enacted. But something happens at the last minute, it just gets scrapped and they start all over again. The latest draft has just been put out for public suggestions this is supposed to be a master plan for the city upto 2035.

    This is a city that is governed by an incessant flow of executive orders (which incidentally are always issued at the bidding of some network or the other operating through the CM’s peshee as they call the front office of the chief minister).

    I am sitting in an apartment built on land that barely two decades ago used to be an irrigation tank. The legal battle here went all the way to the supreme court – it was not about settling matters through the court – it never was. It was about buying time through status quo orders, it was about playing hide and seek in the corridors of the court – each trying to get an ex-parte order, each trying to prolong the battle in the court while altering the status on the ground, waiting for the right political moment, for the right constellations of power to fall in place.

    In a city like that, I really do not know what to make of these oft heard sentences – the city was the space of the colonizing modernity; no matter how technically competent a master plans cannot fix a city.

    Given that there were just four major centers of colonial power in India – Madras, Bombay, Calcutta and Delhi – and the rest of the cities in India were at various distances from the edge of the colony ( 568 princely states, and hundreds of trading centers that grew because of railway expansion and agricultural commodity trading!!) –

    I wonder howmany cities the urban citizenship that you are envisioning applies to – and in any case, I wonder how that vision will grapple with the complicated structures and networks of governance.

    The right to be able to tell one’s own story — is ultimately a battle against powers that claim to have already told your story isnt it?

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