Shehernama – Dilli hai jiska naam V: Dunu Roy

We thought of a series on Delhi that does not talk only of the narrow lanes of Shahjahanabad, the Mughalia, aka Mughlai delights and the lip-smacking Chaats of Chandni Chowk or the grand ruins of the seven Delhis and the wide open spaces and broad roads, but a series that also looks at the way Delhi has evolved. We wanted to explore the logic of the city and of the forces that have shaped the idea of the city itself.  It was this idea that made us approach people who have engaged with the city with love and care for decades and we requested them to write for Kafila.

This series is titled Dilli hai jiska naam, and the links to the previous posts can be found at the end.

This is the fifth post in the series, by DUNU ROY

Shehernama: DUNU ROY

सीने में जलन आँखों में तूफ़ान सा क्यूँ है

इस शहर में हर शख़्स परेशां सा क्यूँ है


Twenty-fifth March 2020 marked yet another step forward in the emergence of a strong-arm State in India. An unprecedented lockdown began on that day; a draconian net of control and supervision descending on a people deeply divided, restive about one issue after another, plagued by an economy that makes the rich richer and the poor poorer, and now struck with the double whammy of a virus running amok with the State engineering a siege. Within a week, with work evaporating, savings running out, and stomachs clamouring for nourishment, the great exodus also began. In cities and towns across the land workers launched the long trek back home, dragging trolleys, head-loading baggage, carrying the very young the very old and the very sick, and evading – as best they could – a rampant police. The song from the 1978 film Gaman (Departure) strikes a wailing echo to the rhythm of purposeful feet – “Burning chests and stormy eyes; what ails all in this city”?

What is this city which gives birth to such imaginations?

From the days of the Arthashastra,[1] composed about 350 BCE and credited with the rise of a commoner, Chandragupta Maurya, to pan-Indian emperor, the city was a fortified centre of trade with a perennial source of water and radial roads leading out of the fort to the interiors. Its author, Kautilya, was king-maker to Chandragupta, and he opined, “The value of land is what man makes out of it.” Since it was from the land that the revenues emerged which went into the building of empire, Kautilya encouraged migration to the countryside, ostensibly to prevent urban overcrowding, but essentially to create more value out of land. He specified wood as the key material of construction and espoused the principles of Vastushastra, both to create ordered urban spaces but also to exploit traditional beliefs of a gullible people. The urban space was strictly demarcated according to occupations, both to bring synergy into the crafts as well as to spatially fix the evolving caste system. His treatise imposed a prohibition on the movement of people between dusk and dawn, except for essential services. This marks the emerging identity of the city as a dialectically ordered space.

A series of travellers from alien lands have left behind their travelogues from which we can examine what was the impact of these ancient treatises on the growth of the city. Their writings are deliberately chosen as perhaps being a little more objective than the compositions of bards and court historians. So, a little after the Mauryan ascent to the throne, (about 302 BCE) Megasthenes, the Greek ambassador to the court of Chandragupta (indicating the extensive trade ties with the Greco-Roman empire after the death of Alexander), wrote of the seven classes in the empire[2]. The most numerous were the farmers, who had no weapons, but tilled the land and paid taxes to the kings and the self-governing cities. The next in number were the armed soldiers, who enjoyed the greatest freedom and most agreeable life. Then there was the class of over-seers, who supervised everything and reported to the king or to the self-governing authorities. Above all was the smallest class which deliberated about public affairs, was distinguished by its wisdom and justice, and from among whom were selected the rulers, treasurers, generals, admirals, and comptrollers. Thus, the city had evolved as a hierarchical structure for the extraction of wealth from the hinterland and the armed protection of the process of extraction.

Four centuries (about 130 AD) later Ptolemy (who probably never visited India but based his work on treatises by earlier travellers) described a host of cities in the sub-continent[3] at the time of the Shunga dynasty (a Brahmin general having overthrown the plebeian Mauryas) that had imbibed the principles of production, extraction, and trade in their design: from Punnat (Pune) as a centre for agate stones, the ports of Maillarpha (Mylapore), Maisolos (Machilipatinam), and Puhar (Poompuhar, which he called a ‘well-planned city’) as vital centres for import and export; and Samabalaka (Sambalpur) as a centre for diamonds. The critical change in the interim though, had been the ascension of Ashoka (268 to 232 BCE), grandson of Chandragupta, and his conversion to Buddhism (about 265 BCE) resulting in an attempt to build a caste-free society. Governance was by the principles of Dhamma, as spelt out in his rock edicts, envisioning a moral State dedicated to the happiness and welfare of all people including “proper behaviour towards servants and employees, respect for mother and father, generosity to friends, companions, relations, Brahmans and ascetics, and not killing living beings.”[4]

Another three centuries later, the Buddhist impact was still in evidence when Fa Hien (399-412 AD) travelled through the Gangetic plain and was greatly impressed by the wealth and prosperity of the towns of the Gupta Empire (founded by yet another commoner), including the splendour of Ashoka’s palace, still standing in Pataliputra[5]. There were numerous Buddhist monasteries in the cities, supported by the wealthy Vaishya merchants, who also “establish houses for dispensing charity and medicines”. In addition, the State provided rest-houses in large towns as well as on highways for the comforts of travellers. Many of the laws and ways according to the Buddha were still in practice nine centuries after his death, but now regulating both extraction of produce from the countryside as well as its distribution within the city. The only specific exclusion mentioned was that of the untouchable Chandalas who were required to strike a piece of wood in public spaces so that other castes would know and avoid contact with them.

We find a somewhat different picture emerging when Hiuen Tsang (629-645 AD) described the cities two hundred years later in his travels through the same territory[6]. Houses were no longer of wood alone, but bricks had become common and the streets were dirty. Many of the old cities were in ruins while new cities had grown up. The oral tradition had given way to the textual and the script had changed from the common Prakrit to the elite Sanskrit. Cotton, silk, and wool were being used for garments. The State’s revenue came from the tax of one-sixth of the produce, and the emperor Harsha (who uprooted the Guptas and their decentralised rule) was spending half of it on scholars and Brahmans and Buddhist monks. The caste system had been restored in all its rigidity, while the practice of sati prevailed. The empire was exporting cloth, sandal­wood, medicinal herbs, ivory, pearls, spices etc. and importing gold, silver and horses. Thus extraction was increasing and the wealth was being largely appropriated by the upper classes and castes.

Al Beruni (1000-1025 AD) accompanied Mahmud of Ghazni on his different invasions into the Indo-Gangetic kingdoms as a member of the court and he related stories of the society of his time[7]. Each story – of the scientist Vyadi, rescued from despair by a harlot who offers him her money to persist with his plans; or the king of Uhara who not only lacks the courage to spring into a cauldron of boiling oil to achieve immortality but is also anxious that somebody else should not be able to follow the ritual and become invincible; and the Siddha who turns into gold when thrown into the fire and is then sold bit by bit by the indigent fruit-seller until he can buy the whole town and kill the king in a night-attack – leads Al Beruni to give his candid opinion, “The greediness of the ignorant Hindu princes for gold-making does not know any limit.” It was, in fact, for this fabled wealth that Mahmud had crossed the Khyber Pass seventeen times and plundered numerous towns and cities carrying appropriation to its extreme limit.

As invasion by foreigners was followed by settlement and the Delhi Sultanate (1206-1526) established, a succession of travellers to India recorded their observations about the southern part of the country. Marco Polo (1288-1292 AD) landed in Kerala[8] to observe the remnants of an egalitarian society. In Malabar rich and poor all wore the same minimal clothing; the king sat on the earth, because, “we were made from the earth and to the earth we must return”; but the wealthy slept in cane-work hammocks while the poor slept on the streets[9]. A little later, Ibn Batuta (1333 AD) chronicled[10] the emergence of an efficient postal courier system and how the capital was moved from Dilli to Daulatabad so that the monarch could be closer to the conquered territories and the revenue they yielded. But in the Malabar he also observed that while the merchants were fabulously wealthy (as a result of the spice trade with China and Persia through Calicut and Kollam ports), the old tradition had survived of a wooden house every half mile with food and water for weary travellers.

Still later, Nicolo Conti (1420-1421 AD) wrote[11] of the ‘ninety thousand men fit to bear arms’ in the heavily fortified city of Bizenegalia (Vijayanagar). The habitations were mostly poor and squalid, but interspersed with stone-built dwellings of the nobles, merchants, and upper classes and ornate temples with attached Brahmanical colleges and vast numbers of slaves. Twenty years later Abdul Razzak (1442-1445 AD) confirmed that Deva Raya II oversaw a powerful empire ‘with three hundred ports, each equal to Calicut’. There were more than a thousand elephants and eleven lakh troops to defend the seven walled citadels. Solid gates were placed in the outermost bastion with guards examining all travellers and levying octroi. Cultivated fields with houses and gardens were located in the outer citadels, and as the king’s citadel in the centre grew nearer there were many shops clustered by profession (or caste) in bazaars with lofty arcades and magnificent galleries. The king’s palace was elevated above all with three to five storied pavilions, numerous running streams and canals, and with several cells filled with bullion.

Vasco da Gama (1460-1524 AD) changed the narrative of the observer-traveller when he arrived with his armed fleet at Kappadu near Calicut[12]. He was unable to secure a commercial treaty but traded in cargo that was worth sixty times the cost of the expedition, providing an enormous profit to the Portuguese crown. He then formed an alliance with the ruler of Cannanore and sailed back to Calicut, bombarded the port for not signing the treaty, and seized and massacred hostages. On his second trip da Gama imposed a new order, and thus laid the foundations for the huge profits that annual Portuguese (and other) Armadas extracted from India. The Mughal period (1526-1857 AD) followed and Francois Bernier (1656-1668 AD) arrived in Delhi when Prince Dara Shikoh was being paraded through the streets in disgrace for sedition. Bernier observed[13] that, of all the provinces of the Mughal Empire, Bengal’s production of cotton and cotton products, rice, sugar and other commodities was simply astounding and they were incredibly cheap. But he also mentioned that the general people were very poor and insecure. According to him the rulers expropriated the resources of the country for their own splendour.

What does this travelogue of two millennia imply for the city? One of the clear continuities is that the city has always been a centre for the accumulation of wealth. Earlier the surpluses were extracted from the land and agriculture, then from artisanal manufacture, then through internal and external trade, and finally by armed brigandage and occupation. Except for the brief period in the third century BCE when the Buddhist Shramans challenged the Brahmanic tradition (and were later overthrown by the upper caste Shungas), the common working people remained poor and marginalised to the street, the hovels, and the dirt. As the levels of extraction and appropriation grew – and, thereby, the wealth of the empire multiplied (the Mughal empire controlled 25% of world trade in its heyday) – the competition among the rulers also grew, as did the invasions from foreign looters, resulting in wars, violence, fratricide, and the vast amounts expended on defence and fortification. Much of this was built on the exploitation and slavery made possible by the caste system. And it impacted upon the design and layout of the walled, fortified, and exclusionary city with the lord in a protected citadel in the centre.

When the English, following in the heavy military tread of Mahmud Ghaznavi and Vasco da Gama, reached the peak of colonisation by converting instruments of trade into weapons for war and cultural domination, they also further reinforced the exclusionary design of the city. The first markers were the construction or occupation of forts, the establishment of military Cantonments, and the evolution of Civil Lines. These reinforced the complete separation of the ruler from the ruled, the lines drawn between rich and poor, and the sharp cleavages of religion, gender, ethnicity, and, above all, caste. The huge extraction of surplus through the ports, the railways, and the industries that replaced artisanal production, to plunder the native wealth and fill the coffers of the imperial powers is documented enough to recount. But the point being made here is that the exclusionary and profiteering nature of the city has only sharpened through the dialectics of imperialism. The visual contrast of Lutyen’s hierarchical geometry of New Delhi set against the jigsawish kaleidoscope of Shajahanabad, or the severe linearity of Georgetown versus the jiggled-piggledy of Thiruvallikeni, illustrate this dialectic with a clarity that can savage the eyes of the perceptive.

Did the 1947 liberation from English rule free the city from the grip of profits and productivity on one side, and poverty and violence on the other? For a while, it seemed, there was an overt attempt to do so. The Government of India resolution that set up the Planning Commission in 1950 said, “The State shall … direct its policy towards securing:- the citizens … have the right to an adequate means of livelihood; ownership and control … are so distributed as best to sub-serve the common good, and (this) does not result in the concentration of wealth and means of production to the common detriment.”[14] Sixty-five years later though, in 2015, the Government resolved to set up the National Institution for Transforming India (NITI Aayog), to replace the Planning Commission, with the words, “Our challenge is to ensure that India’s middle class, an economically vibrant group unique in terms of its size and purchasing power, remains engaged and its potential is fully realised … Future national policies must incorporate the strength of the NRI community in order to broaden their participation in the new India…”[15]

This dialectic may also be seen to work in how cities were imagined. From the First to the Third Five Year Plans[16] (1951-66) there was the concept of the Welfare State concerned about providing state housing to the poor in the city, rehabilitating the detritus from Partition, and improving slums. Then from the Fourth to Sixth Plans (1969-1985), there was a subtle shift towards urban financing of self-built homes, reaching basic services to these homes, reclaiming surplus urban land through the Urban Land Ceiling and Regulation Act, and the not-so-subtle shift from improvement to forcible clearance of slums as another way of reclaiming prime real estate. The next three Plans, from the Seventh to the Ninth (1985-2002), marked a radical transformation towards privileging the private sector as being more ‘efficient’ in creating better cities, with the setting up of financial Institutions to support this sector, the more intensive use of land for the poor by changing entitlements from plots to flats, and programmes for self-employment in the name of ‘empowerment’ under the 74th Constitutional Amendment.

It was the Tenth Plan (2002-2007) that put the seal on this dialectic by announcing that cities were henceforth to be regarded as ‘engines of growth’, and successor Plans stated that they had to be ‘world class’ in order to attract Foreign Direct Investment and be able to ensure adequate returns on that investment. Thus, cities began to be graded according to how they could secure profitable investment. By 2015, when the NITI Aayog was set up on the premise that it was the middle class and the NRI who constituted the nation, the visual imagination of the city was clear: in the centre of the conurbation rose the awesome towers of corporate power, citizens had become consumers, and the global extraction by the market was rooted in the high speed corridors of surface, oceanic, and air travel. What Vasco da Gama and Warren Hastings once had to accomplish through the tumultuous clash of arms was now being silently achieved through the insidious power of trade and money.

To put the dialectic in a simpler way, if the Rs. 39,00,000 crores invested into sixty-five million-plus cities marked for urban renewal for 7 years and the Rs. 48,000 crores being put into hundred Smart Cities for 5 years had been directed into the public pool, rather than to private investors, they could have created 40 crore livelihoods at Re. 1 lakh per opportunity. That is three times the working population in all the notified 7,933 towns. In this context it would be well to remember that, in spite of decades of surplus appropriation and distributive neglect, the share of urban India in national GDP is 65%, of which 48% is contributed by sweat labour in the informal sector. But investing in this sector has never been a political imperative because of the economics of surplus appropriation. For instance, in 1985 the Seventh Plan had declared that the productivity of labour is linked to urbanisation. This was the launch pad for the theory that migration from rural to urban areas is inevitable for ‘development’.

It took two decades, though, for Goldman Sachs[17] – as the watchdog of investment opportunities – to disclose in 2007 that labour is four times more productive in industry and six times more productive in services, than in agriculture. The Reserve Bank of India and the Prime Minister echoed the same refrain until a Working Group of the Planning Commission[18] announced in 2008 that organised labour productivity in non-agricultural occupations had gone up to seven-fold. The McKinsey Global Institute[19] did not take long to declare in 2010 that the GDP per worker was seven times the rural norm in urban manufacturing, but nine-and-a-half times in urban services. All this tucked in nicely with the World Bank’s assertion that urbanisation is an integral part of the process of economic growth. To which the Confederation of Indian Industry promptly added that labour law reforms were much-needed for economic growth. Nobody, of course, commented that while productivity of labour would increase by many magnitudes, wages would remain constricted within the same narrow range, thereby increasing the share for appropriation.

This package of ideologically committed research by all the major financial interests thus painted a picture of mouth-watering profits with four essential features on the canvas. The first pencil sketches came from the belief that cities were centres from which ‘development’ radiated outwards in ring fashion to bring prosperity to the hinterland. The second step of inking in the various objects and flows was the argument that the wealth created at the top gradually trickled down to the bottom, thus leading to an egalitarian society. In the third stage vivid colours were added to highlight that investment in and migration to the cities was necessary for wealth to be created. And the final strokes emphasised that since public money was not available for undertaking this investment it was necessary to lure private and international capital to see the cities as profitable ventures. Each pencil and pen and brush stroke dialectically concealed the fact that every one of the hypotheses above was deeply flawed, as manifest in the history of urban development over at least two millennia.

Thus, as the New Urban Agenda of Habitat III[20] recognised, globally there is the “persistence of multiple forms of poverty, growing inequalities, and environmental degradation … with social and economic exclusion and spatial segregation”. India’s own national report[21] acknowledged that supply of land lagged behind demand; urban infrastructure was grossly inadequate; there was a high economic cost of poor air and water quality; and the shortage of housing was as high as 18.8 million units, or 26%. As a conservative estimate[22] of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted: the health system has been unable to cope with the public health crisis; the internet has largely not been available for sustaining education; there have been huge income and job losses in all economic sectors; vehicle ownership (mainly two-wheelers that compete in cost with the bus) has risen phenomenally with deterioration of air quality; and essential water and sanitation services have become worse. A sober assessment[23] by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy for September 2020 indicated that while urban employment decreased by 2.3 million, unemployment also declined by 2.3 million, so the total labour force in towns and cities reduced by 4.6 million.

What then can be done to envision a different kind of city?

One vision is for a reviving the ethos of the pre-Fifth Plan period of the 1960-70s when, at least, there was a liberal (some say socialist) genuflection before the ideals of accessible livelihoods for all; distribution of ownership and control; and the use of wealth and the means of production for the common good – often referred to as the Nehruvian period, but perhaps better characterised as the substantive expression of the fraternal dreams of the national movement for emancipation from colonial rule. Apart from the generational gap that makes such a vision seem surreal today, the pragmatic question that immediately comes up is, why did that vision not work? It is a vital question, particularly now that Nehru is being demonised and a different vision of affluence and exclusion, with a Kautilyan mix of hatred has gripped the imagination of the upwardly aspirational middle class, privileged by urban planning.

Closely related to this is the vision of ‘Inclusion’[24]. At its core lies the belief that the working poor can be included in the exclusionary (and extractive) city if: firstly, they are recognised as visible and legitimate citizens; secondly, they are invited to the table where all the other ‘stakeholders’ sit to express their needs and problems; thirdly, they are able to assert their entitlements either through the executive using instruments such as the city master plan, or through the judiciary by using the Constitutional provisions. Such a process involves the empowerment of the marginalised who – with the help of sympathetic professionals and academics – become familiar with the technical aspects of planning and begin to collect primary data as well as analysing it to develop norms and standards in a language that is acceptable to the technocrats and policy-makers. Thus, they are able to claim physical space within the city and become ‘included’ in the social fabric.

There is the ‘Nexus’ theory[25], which recognises that food, energy, and water are necessary for the city and they must come from the ‘environment’, and forecasts that by 2050, with 9.2 billion people on planet Earth, there will be an increase in demand of 70% for food, 40% for energy, and 60% for water. The ultimate goal of the Nexus approach is to accelerate access to services, and to increase service quality and quality of life within our planetary boundaries. According to Nexus theorists, this heroic task of saving society is to be accomplished by the private sector that “has a critical role in driving positive change towards more sustainable nexus management and could reap considerable benefits from collaboration with researchers to devise solutions to some of the foremost sustainability challenges of today” because it “clearly has the financial and human resources to act and help shape global responses to nexus challenges: fifty-eight per cent of the top 150 economic entities in the world are corporations rather than countries”[26]. Governments or the common people have clearly no role to play; but corporations do because they have accrued, or appropriated the wealth for which they were created.

The vision of the ‘Circular Economy’[27] defines the environment somewhat differently by accepting its insufficiencies. Its principles are articulated as “preserve and enhance natural capital by controlling finite stocks and balancing renewable resource flows”, “optimise resource yields by circulating products, components, and materials at their highest utility at all times, in both technical and biological cycles”, and “foster system effectiveness by revealing and designing out negative externalities”. What this circularly obtuse language really means is that the various processes of reuse, repair, remanufacture, refurbishment, and recycling that have been part and parcel of the informal social behaviour of cities for decades will now be taken over by corporations and further profits extracted through mechanisation and economies of scale. The vision proclaims that such an approach in just three focus areas of cities in construction, food and agriculture, and mobility and vehicle manufacturing, in India could bring “annual benefits of Rs. 40 lakh crores in 2050” – a benefit equivalent to 30% of India’s current GDP.

The ‘New Urban Agenda’ of Habitat III[28] carries this message of private profits through public provenance and mass migration even further, but couches it in the language of social justice. The “persistence of multiple forms of poverty, growing inequalities, and environmental degradation … with social and economic exclusion and spatial segregation” are to be addressed through “well-planned urbanisation, high productivity, competitiveness, and innovation”. Throughout its appropriated prose, Habitat III repeatedly recognises the social inequalities created by neo-liberal ‘development’, but the proposed solutions are more of the same set of commitments, affirmations, and pledges that are meaningless since, in the end, full faith is placed in the private sector (and foreign direct investment) to implement the agenda of inclusion through managing housing, basic services and infrastructure, by applying their “creativity and innovation”. The forces of appropriation that very creatively made the urban rich richer and the working poor poorer, that are responsible for poverty and inequality, are being summoned to put the djinn back into the lamp.

All the visions listed above (and there may be more on offer) have one thing in common. They take the urban structure of surplus appropriation for granted and, even if they recognise poverty and violence as symptoms, they are not willing to go into the structural causes of those symptoms.  Hence, they are confined to either getting some concessions from the existing structure or reforming it to the extent that the structure can continue to survive – often represented by the word ‘sustainability’. In other words, it is not the sustainability of nature that they are concerned about, but – as the Sustainable Development Goals resolution[29] adopted by the United Nations suggests – about ‘sustained economic growth’ (with its implicit exclusion and appropriation) with some dialectical nods to ‘end poverty and hunger everywhere; to combat inequalities within and among countries; to build peaceful, just and inclusive societies’. Should it be any surprise that all these theories are funded by those who stand to lose the most from structural change – giant corporations and enormously wealthy philanthropies?

Does that leave any other imagination possible about the city?

If we begin from the fundamental premise that the city (has been and) is a centre for accumulation of wealth in which the surpluses are extracted from a working population both within the city as well as its hinterland, then the dialectical relationship suggests that a truly alternative vision would call for a spatial assemblage of individuals who do not produce surpluses for profit, who do not compete in the market, and who do not resort to violence that is embedded in the exploitation of both human beings and the materials that nature offers so magnanimously. Thus the city, as an organisational expression of such a society, has to be the creation of a theoretically dialectical opposite of the present conception focused on an ‘engine of growth’ approach. Therefore, this new society cannot be subservient to the owners of wealth, the investors, the share market competitors, the entrepreneurs of appropriation, the dealers of death – as they all set out to make a ‘killing’. It has to be a society in which the working poor are not seeking to be ‘included’, but asserting their right to try and remake it in their own vision and, if at all necessary, leave the choice of self-exclusion to the other.

Such a vision has to be based on a concept of work. The city is no longer to be imagined as a ‘land-use’ plan but a ‘labour-use’ one: bearing in mind that among all urban male workers, the salaried constitute 42% (less than 9% in the formal sector), matched by the self-employed at 41%, and the casual ones are only 17% (for females the ratio is 44:36:20). Since such a concept is not taught in Schools of Planning, it appears to be a strange one, but it is one that is very much part of the existential reality of the working poor. The workers adda; the labour chowk; the weekly haat; the idli vendor on wheels; a cluster of jhuggis; the colourful jigsaw of fatfatis; the neighbourhood shadighar; the route of the dhobi – these are just a few examples of activities based on intricate labour-use plans which incorporate sound principles of  cooperation, distribution, and co-existence – within limits. But since they do not figure in syllabi and in teaching, urban planners have little or no information, leave alone appreciation of their synergy and their creativity. But if they were allowed free rein; if the working people’s imagination was allowed to transcend their solitary atomised lives and respected to be able to socialise their experience; then would we get a different city?

A meeting took place in Indira Camp several years ago. Many of those present were worried about the steady decline in work available. The dialectic was puzzling, “The malik is busy the year round; how is it that we don’t get regular work?” Was it the thekedar who stood between them and work? How can one get to the real customer? Perhaps a contact phone where customers could call with their requirements and connect with the appropriate workers? To ensure fair allotment, the collective could issue job cards and maintain a register on a computer. An attached STD booth would become the contact centre, as also a skilling opportunity for youngsters. The women suggested: why not add a community kitchen for packed food to save money for those leaving for work? Chairs, carpets, a public address system could be kept in a third room for saving more. The men added a fourth room to store their tools for community repairs on work-less days; the children put a crèche and hall above the four rooms; together they voted to put the toilets under the stairs so that everyone could keep an eye on them.

This kind of working class imagination can be extended to the entire city through a bottom-up approach. For that a vital demand is for a wage that not only fulfils basic needs but returns a fair portion of the wealth that the worker generates for society. This was laid down by a 1948 Tripartite Committee on Fair Wages that defined the ‘living wage’[30].  The watershed, though, was the 1957 Fifteenth Indian Labour Conference when worker representatives negotiated the norms for living wage: a working class family of three units; minimum food per unit of 2700 calories; clothing of 18 yards per unit per annum; minimum rent as in the Subsidised Industrial Housing Scheme; and fuel, lighting etc. at 20 per cent of the total. In 1991, the Supreme Court added another 25 per cent for children’s education, medical needs, recreation, old age, and marriage. If these accepted norms are leveraged, not only for the manufacturing sector, but for all services and agriculture, formal and informal, all workers would indeed get back their share and extreme forms of exploitation would cease. In addition, a city administration can, and should, provide for measurement of energy expended by workers in different occupations to revise the food provision of 2700 calories. An attempt has been made in this direction by the Eent Bhatta Mazdoor Union at a brick kiln near Kadi[31] and farmers’ organisations for computing Minimum Support Price for different crops.

Just as the real wages paid are far lower than the living wage or the wealth produced by the worker, and thereby provide the basis for extracting surpluses out of labour’s productivity; similarly there are many other ‘externalities’ that include the unpaid labour in the family; the hidden costs of injuries, accidents, diseases and death at work; the expenditure incurred by workers’ families on housing, services, travel, health, education, recycling, and waste disposal; and the many environmental costs written off for nature to bear. If all these externalised costs were to be computed, compiled, and made internal or visible in the books of account, then surpluses would literally become impossible. This, therefore, is a challenge before workers when designing a labour-use plan for cities. A notable example is the study conducted by the women of Bhalaswa who computed that average annual investment per household was lower at Rs. 50,000 when they were in the slum, but rose to Rs. 60,000 when they were ‘resettled’ for a presumably better life. Such figures expose the dialectic of poverty and inequality in a city claiming to be the engine of growth.

Infrastructure is the backbone of any city. Change its design and the whole city dramatically changes. Thus, land-use planning provides for red corridors throughout the city to convey people and products through mass transit as well as private vehicles; moving from green-coded residential areas to pink-coded commercial zones, dark red industrial areas, blue coloured institutional areas, and back. These roads are also coupled to water pipelines, electricity cables, drainage, and shopping or office complexes.  But a labour-use plan would begin by plotting work locations across the city like, for example, cycle rickshaws waiting at markets to transport goods, and draw circles of five or two kilometre radius around them to fix the limits of biking or walking distance, thus fixing the limits to which work can extend and within which space for home must be provided. Such a plan – and they still exist in every walled city – would not only impact layouts and architecture, but also supplies of water, energy, and food, and the nature of impacts on air, water, and land. In fact, the design of any slum or labour colony encapsulates these elements of sustainable living.

There is a similar dialectic in the tale of the sewer and the soo-ar. For many decades now kindly tech-savvy groups have been building toilets in working class settlements in the city. However, early in the 1970s, seeing one such structure coming up at the entry to Premnagar, the women were curious – and horrified: “A hole to shit in?” “And you have to squat exactly above that tiny hole?” “Oh, there is going to be a room around the hole?” “Fancy that, a whole room to shit in!” “With a bulb to light up the room?” “And a tap, with water, to wash the shit into the hole?!” “Goodness, who will pay for the electricity and the water?” “What happens to the shit after it goes down into that hole? Sewer? What’s that? Oh, the gutter! And the gutter takes it to the sea? Won’t the sea get dirty?” Then they took the kindly souls to the back of the slum where a space had been set aside. “This is where we shit; no holes, no water, no electricity; sheltered and protected; a place for women to gather, chat, share our sorrows. As for your blessed sewer, we have our soo-ar (and they pointed to a sounder of pigs), they eat our shit and we eat them. Can you do something about their nose up our arses; the smell; the flies? No? Then what the hell kind of educated are you, babu?”

Coming back full circle to Gaman:

क्या कोई नयी बात नज़र आती है हम में?

आईना हमें देख के हैरान सा क्यूँ है?

“What new is visible in me, why does the mirror look so surprised?

Indeed, what remarkable new claims to designing the city can this subaltern working class make? If, in fact, the principles of a labour-use plan were applied, would uprooted but socialised labour reveal more surprises than just the McKinseyan ideal of incredible productivity? A city that promises (and delivers) full opportunities for work that is safe, secure, collective and, above all, gives a fair return on all wealth created (not all capital invested) – would that not astonish? A city in which the energy expended by every citizen to co-create the living fabric of the city, including the unpaid work within the family, is measured so that food, clothing, shelter, fuel, lighting, education, health, play, pension, and culture are all available and accessible – would that be a mirror worth looking into? An urban economy in which work and home rub shoulders; surpluses do not go into building palaces and gambling bourses, but into public welfare and comfort – would that make a moral city? Where one man does not clean another’s excreta as it is pushed underground, but faeces decomposes where it should, in air, in light, and without water: as part of public design, so that every citizen is aware of his or her responsibility to deal with visible waste as a natural phenomenon – would that not mark a new ethic?

This would be a truly ‘inclusive’ city. One that takes care of everybody; in which the poor can offer to all a frugal but productive life; where the rich can ‘freely’ choose self-exclusion; the ones in the middle can decide on which side of the fence Dhamma lies; and the earth can once again breathe free.

Anubrotto Kumar Roy popularly known as Dunu Roy is a Chemical Engineer by training, a social scientist by compulsion and political ecologist by choice.


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Previous posts in this series:

Restoring Delhi’s Central Ridge:  Pradip Krishen

Basti basna khel nahin: Narayani Gupta


The changing face of Delhi in travellers’ accounts: Swapna Liddle

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