All posts by Gautam Bhan

To Elphinstone Road

When a system is forced to run at four to six times its capacity for years on end, it doesn’t break – it was always broken. Elphinstone Road is the story of almost all urban infrastructure in our cities. It’s a template. It’s a warning. It’s our history, our everyday, and our future. It’s horrifying. It’s utterly banal.

When only death can make you think of repair, maintenance, upkeep, and expansion, then the everydayness of our infrastructure is a state of violence. When that death will still not make you change the way you manage that infrastructure, that violence is a siege, and we have Stockholm Syndrome. Not resilience, but a hostage situation.

The real challenge to us – all of us, in all our locations – is to realise the deep insufficiency of our anger if it is anger just at death. Anger is needed as much at the way we live, not just the ways in which we shouldn’t die.

Continue reading To Elphinstone Road

Stop criminalizing academic freedom in Rajasthan: People’s Union for Civil Liberties


 PUCL demands an end to the Harassment of Dr. Nivedita Menon(JNU), Dr Rajshree Ranawat and Dr Vinu George (of JNVU, Jodhpur)

and the

Criminalizing and throttling of Academic Freedom in Rajasthan

 The PUCL is shocked at the harassment of Dr Rajshree Ranawat and Dr Vinu George of the English Department of Jai Narain Vyas University, Jodhpur, by University authorities, Jodhpur police and the BJP/ABVP outifts along with their fellow vigilante groups. The harassment and relentless persecution is for organizing  an academic conference titled “History Reconstrued through Literature: Nation, Identity, Culture”, in which one of the speakers was Prof Nivedita Menon of JNU, whose lecture was mis-reported sensationally in some local Hindi papers on the basis of the claims of one person. Following on this, the university authorities as well as private persons have filed police complaints against all three, and the university authorities have issued show cause notices to Dr Ranawat and Dr George. We condemn this effort of criminalizing and throttling academic freedom. Continue reading Stop criminalizing academic freedom in Rajasthan: People’s Union for Civil Liberties

City as a Site of Trade-Offs

To be truly radical, said Raymond Williams, is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing. Today, his words are both a diagnosis of all that ails the contemporary Indian city as well as the clearest articulation of what we must strive to be in the years to come. Amidst the smart, the inclusive, the global, the world-class, and the sustainable: how does one find the radical city?

This is no easy task. By their nature, cities concentrate both opportunity and risk, hope and despair. If growth rises, so does inequality. If diversity rises, then so does segregation. If infrastructure and built form expand, so do ecological risks. Historically, if cities have held innovation, mobility, and democracy, they have been equally adept at violence, poverty, and inequality. This is then where we must start: to acknowledge the city as a site of trade-offs, not the convenient listing of aspirations where the smart, inclusive or sustainable city can be created at no cost, no price, or without crowding out other visions and alternative futures. As India urbanizes, the only certainty we have is that these trade-offs will become more stark, with the stakes becoming higher for more and more people.

Continue reading City as a Site of Trade-Offs

Welfare Shocks are not “Inconveniences”

I want to make one thing clear. There is a difference in between “short-term inconvenience” or pain or difficulty, however you want to call it, and a welfare shock.

Take a very simple empiric: 80% of families in India that are above the poverty line in one year but fall below it in another, do so because of one illness, to one family member, in one year. Let that sink in please: one, one, one. That’s it. (see Aniruddh Krishna’s excellent ‘One Illness Away‘ to read more). This is the reality of the vulnerability of what is so dismissively called the “cash economy.” You can replace illness with wedding or funeral and the story still holds. Welfare shocks, as they are called, break cycles of very tenuous security and small economic gains, pushing families back into cycles of debt and depleted savings. They do it because we don’t have enough public welfare protections to guard against small risks and life events – domestic savings are the only floor.

The thing about demonetisation done in this way, where no planning accounts for the “short-term” contraction of the cash economy in a place where 60-80% of workers work informally, half get paid in cash, and one in every five of them work in cash on daily/weekly wages (see RBI, NSS data, or the NCEUS report on the unorganised sector), then you aren’t pushing a “short-term inconvenience,” you risk causing a welfare shock.

Continue reading Welfare Shocks are not “Inconveniences”

Reaching for the Universe


“Universal” is a tricky word. It has an enormous appeal, an unquestioned romance of taking every one along. Universal human rights, universal access to basic services, housing for all. It is the barometer of inclusion done right. The dark side of the romance is that it’s one of the hardest things to actually achieve. Often the “universal” is a vanishing horizon and, like all horizons, the mirage is what makes you lose sight of the very real trade-off’s and constraints in your way.

This week the Delhi Jal Board announced a new horizon towards the idea of universal access to a basic urban service and human need: water. The “Jal Adhikar Connection” (a Right to Water Connection) promises to let households within slums in Delhi apply for legal, metered water connections “irrespective of the status of their residence.” This move – following the Government of Delhi’s already given pledge to extend water and sanitation services to unauthorized colonies – implies that legal, public and metered water could (like electricity) actually cover the city as it exists rather than as it is imagined in plans and laws.

Continue reading Reaching for the Universe

Outsmarting the Informal City

In an online documentary archive called Delhi Digest, Saleem Shakeel, founder of an e-waste recycling company in the city, speaks to the camera about e-waste. The setting is familiar. Mr Shakeel sits on the single chair in what looks like a small, partially built room of exposed red brick. There are piles of objects which, like the room itself, appear used or discarded. If you conjured up an image of “informal” and “waste,” this is pretty much what you think of. Ashish Nandy would perhaps describe an outsider’s view of it it as he once did for the way we see the “slum”: all that stubbornly refuses to bow out of modernity’s way. It’s hard to imagine technology here, let along big data or smart solutions.

Yet as Mr Shakeel speaks, it is precisely technology and data that flood your mind. He describes how e-waste circulates through circuits and geographies in the city that we rarely see. Sophisticated flows of work and labour are ready when the computer comes, each finely skilled and discerning. Different workers take the different parts – CPU goes one way, the keyboard another. They break further: mother boards, drives, power supply, wires, the iron, the gold chip. Every last bit is used, and its use is determined by the current market’s daily prices. No two days, says Mr Shakeel, are the same; you have to know, and you have to be ready to adjust. Information – that less glamourous cousin of “data” – flows quickly, endlessly, in many modes and forms. The circuits are opaque, but they work.

Continue reading Outsmarting the Informal City

A test of dignity and democracy

Today, as the Supreme Court hears the curative petition on Section 377, it has an opportunity to remember its promise to be the last resort of the oppressed, to let dignity be the domain of all.

In 2015, a student at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bengaluru was blackmailed and threatened with being publicly outed for being gay. When he refused to pay extortion money, the private letters turned into notices pinned on noticeboards on campus. The words were sharp, relentless and inhumane: “I think it’s completely shameful, bad, immoral and disgusting. You should go kill yourself. Why do you think it’s illegal to be gay in India?”

Evading prejudice

For many queer people, this moment is familiar. It is one that many of us have faced or live in a constant fear of facing. In some ways, it is the latter that is worse. We live our lives anticipating prejudice. Even before it comes, we are constantly censoring, moving, and shaping our lives to evade it or, if we can’t, to survive it. Those of us who have the privilege of privacy scan rooms to find allies, weigh what to tell our doctors, measure out information in our offices, and seek safe spaces. Those without this privilege face a much more direct battle to be who they are: an unrelenting and legitimised public violence that falls on working class bodies in our streets, police stations and public spaces. The law is not the only force behind this violence, but it is an important one. “Why do you think,” the blackmailer asks, “it’s illegal to be gay in India?” When petitioners in the Naz Foundation case argued that Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code played an important part in shrouding our lives in criminality and of legitimising violence, this letter was one of many that we wrote against in our heads. Continue reading A test of dignity and democracy

Matters of the Mind and the Agrarian Political Economy in Eastern Maharashtra: Pronoy Rai

Guest post by PRONOY RAI

I interviewed Santosh Daune (name changed), a landless agricultural laborer in the interior drylands of Yavatmal district in Maharashtra last week for my dissertation research. Santosh’s village is about 15 kilometers away from the main road in Yavatmal, 25 kilometers from the nearest Public Health Center, and the nearest railway station is about 90 kilometers away (or two and a half hours by bus). I met with Santosh, who is around 50 years old, at his home – a one room and one kitchen set – built right next to his father’s two-room house in the dalit basti in his village. I wanted to understand Santosh’s views on changes in the village resulting from increased labor migration over the last couple of decades. A lean man with a head full of grey hair, Santosh spoke some Hindi and fluent Vidarbha Marathi. Santosh was unsure about his response to my questions. He wasn’t shaking but he seemed nervous, in a basti where dalit villagers didn’t mind pulling me in to their homes in a hope that I would let the state government know about poverty in the village. I would perhaps be more convincing than the villagers to implore the state government to address extreme poverty in the village.

Continue reading Matters of the Mind and the Agrarian Political Economy in Eastern Maharashtra: Pronoy Rai


The thing about violence is that it is very hard and very easy to talk about. Describing it is simple, empirical, instinctive. There are facts, logistical details to hide behind. Motives to be ascribed, an “incident” to be explained. Mohammad Akhlaq. Dadri. A mob. A(nother) Muslim (dalit/trans/worker/woman’s) body. Meat that is not beef. A murder. A lynching.

Facts are useful. But they also hide things from us. They make violence about its incidence. It’s not. The act is banal. Ordinary. Expected.

Mohammad began to die a long time ago. When violence against particular bodies becomes legitimate, becomes a series of “misunderstandings,” it is not violence at all. It is the order of things. It is not prejudice but probability. Beef, property, a panchayat election, love jihad, a job, an argument, a WhatsApp message – these are not causes, they are just modes. The last circuits in a motherboard whose pattern is set in place.

Mohammad began to die at least as early in 1992. When we speak of his death in September 2015, it is already too late. The violence is not his death. The violence is that his body lost its right to be murdered because it has slowly been stripped of its life, bit by bit, for years.

Continue reading Untitled

Who can build Housing for All?

Policy slogans are usually fragments of a sentence. Make in India. Housing for All. Swatch Bharat. What’s usually missing in the fragment is that the verb has no subject to agree with. For slogans to become statements, missions, policies and actions, someone has to make in india, keep it swachh and build the housing. The big elephant in the room is: who?

For housing, this is a particularly important challenge. The numbers are daunting: a shortage of 18.78 million housing units in 2012. Over 95% of this shortage is for low-income households that make less than Rs 2 lacs total household income per year. Taking the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation’s own formula that a household can afford a house five times its annual income, this means “Housing for All” needs to make nearly 17 million houses all under Rs 10 lacs. That’s the finish line.

So: who should build this housing? Continue reading Who can build Housing for All?

Rattling the bag – Language Knowledge and the transformation of the university in South Africa and India: Dilip Menon

[Note: Recent events in South Africa – from raging student movements across university campuses to xenophobic violence in the streets of Durban – seem to echo so many struggles both inside and outside the university “here.” This is the second post from South Africa that seeks to listen and travel across. The first, by Richard Pithouse, is here.]

Guest post by DILIP MENON 

Susa lo-mtunzi gawena. Hayikona shukumisa lo saka
Move your shadow. Don’t rattle the bag

JD Bold, Fanagalo Phrase Book, Grammar and Dictionary, the Lingua Franca of Southern Africa, 10th Edition, 1977

In the bad old days in South Africa, whites spoke English or Afrikaans, the languages of command. When they did engage with those that did not speak English, there was Fanagalo, a pidgin based on Zulu peppered with English and some Afrikaans. Fanagalo was developed in the mines and allowed directives, if not conversation. The struggle against apartheid produced its freedoms, its heroes and heroines and new dreams of equality. As Richard Pithouse in his article shows, twenty years down the line the sheen has worn. Unemployment, xenophobia, violence, crime and a seemingly entrenched inequality dog our dreams. We live with the constant premonition of becoming an ordinary country, a nation like any other. Continue reading Rattling the bag – Language Knowledge and the transformation of the university in South Africa and India: Dilip Menon

Occupational Hazard- Militarisation and Disaster Vulnerability in Jammu and Kashmir: J&K Coalition of Civil Society


Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society recently released a report called ‘Occupational Hazard: The Jammu Kashmir Floods of September 2014. The full report is available at The following is a short executive summary. 

The Jammu and Kashmir floods of September 2014, occurred in the most densely militarized occupied territory in the world, located in one of its most ecologically fragile– the Western Himalayan region—called the ‘third pole’ for its enormous glacial reserves of fresh water. Warfare, armed conflict and prolonged occupations are widely considered among the most environmentally destructive activities known to mankind. Yet the role of the massive military deployment, and the militarised governance structures of Jammu and Kashmir has not received much attention in this analysis. The military occupation of J and K has included the expropriation, and weaponization of huge areas of land, the building of large scale permanent military installations, and the creation of militarised infrastructure in the ecologically fragile Himalayas, which have contributed directly to the region’s disaster vulnerability. The occupation of civic amenities, public buildings and community spaces has also had a direct impact on emergency preparedness, evacuation and humanitarian response. Using official documents, news reportage, case studies, and oral narratives, the report explores the causes and impacts of the flooding, and local community responses, in terms of survival, rescues and relief. It also presents an analysis of the dominant media framing of the disaster, and the local resistance to media narratives of the militarised humanitarianism of the Indian occupying forces. This report thus raises questions of accountability, governance, media representation, political participation and democracy in the backdrop of a militarised occupation, at the disputed borders of a security state.  Continue reading Occupational Hazard- Militarisation and Disaster Vulnerability in Jammu and Kashmir: J&K Coalition of Civil Society

Letter of Solidarity with Greenpeace India: A Statement

The move by the central government to freeze Greenpeace India’s bank accounts and block sources of funds, is a blatant violation of the constitutional rights to freedom of expression and association. It also seems to be an attempt to warn civil society that dissent regarding development policies and priorities will not be tolerated, even when these are proving to be ecologically unsustainable and socially unjust. These are dangerous signs for the future of democracy in India.

Specific allegations of legal violation contained in the Ministry of Home Affairs’ notice are aspects Greenpeace India needs to respond to. However, the notice also charges the organization with adversely affecting “public interest” and the “economic interest of the State”. These charges give the impression that Greenpeace India is indulging in anti-national activities, using foreign funds. However, dissenting from the government’s development policies, helping communities who are going to be displaced by these policies to mobilise themselves, and generating public opinion for the protection of the environment can by no stretch of imagination be considered anti-national, or against public interest. Quite the contrary, any reasonable policy of sustainable development (which the government claims to adhere to) will itself put into question quite a few of the mining, power, and other projects currently being promoted. ”

Civil society organisations in India have a long and credible history of standing up for social justice, ecological sustainability, and the rights of the poor. When certain government policies threaten these causes, civil society has a justified ground to resist, and help affected communities fight for their rights. This is in fact part of the fundamental duties enjoined upon citizens by the Constitution of India.

Continue reading Letter of Solidarity with Greenpeace India: A Statement

My Name is Suzette Jordan

Our panel was a queer one in all the wonderful senses of that word. At trainings with lower court judges on sexual violence laws in the Saket District Courts in Delhi, the five of us would find ourselves next to each other every few months. On a dais surrounded by that distinctly sarkari flower arrangement, first sat Suzette, a survivor of a brutal rape in a moving car in Park Street in Kolkata. Then in line: a survivor of an acid attack; a representative of a sex workers union; a well known hijra activist and I, speaking as a gay man. We were usually on the third day, right after lunch, when we would face nearly a hundred slightly sleepy judges from the region. They had been updated on new sexual violence laws, gone through a case exercise on how to apply them, been given a CD, a folder, the requisite handouts. The boxes were ticked. Technically, they were up to date. Ours was a different job: to animate, if such a thing is possible, a sense of empathy in the judges, to shift even slightly the way they thought of the rainbow of dubious morality that we represented.

Continue reading My Name is Suzette Jordan

South Africa in the Twilight of Liberalism: Richard Pithouse

[Note: Recent events in South Africa – from raging student movements across university campuses to xenophobic violence in the streets of Durban – seem to echo so many struggles both inside and outside the university “here.” This is the first of hopefully several posts from South Africa, that seek to listen and travel across.]


South Africa was supposed to be different. We attained our freedom, such as these things are, after everyone else but Palestine. It was late in the day but the afternoon sun was glorious and the best people, people who had passed through the long passage of struggle, told us that we would be able to avoid the mistakes made everywhere else.

There was a mass movement that, whatever its limits, had won tremendous popular support and carried some noble ideals through its travails. Its leaders cast long shadows. Our Constitution, we were always told, was as good as they get. Liberalism, apparently vindicated by history, had its evident limits but there was, it was said, lots of room for deft manoeuvre within those constraints. We were assured that there was room for everyone at what Aimé Césaire had called the ‘rendezvous of victory’.

For a long time the presence of all kinds of features of the past in the present was widely understood as something that would be resolved in time. Land would be redistributed, schools would flourish, houses would be built, there would be jobs – the kind of jobs that reward hard work – and universities would emerge, bright and bold, from their cocoons spun by settler culture. Time, it was generally believed, was on the side of justice and the eventual redemption of the suffering, striving and struggles of the past.

Continue reading South Africa in the Twilight of Liberalism: Richard Pithouse

Come and see the blood on my skirt: Statement from Organisers

Statement from the organisers of this campaign in University of Delhi : SHAMBHAVI VIKRAM, RAFIUL ALOM RAHMAN, DEEPTI SHARMA, DEVANGANA KALITA

No more Whispers!
No more Murmurs! No More Silence!

Its time we scream!
Come and see the blood on my skirt.
Come and see the blood on my skirt.

All these years we have been taught to hide or hush up the fact that women bleed. And yet, despite all the hushing up and all the bleeding blue that society, media and our families have been piling upon us, women still continue to bleed and bleed they shall till the end of ‘man'(!)kind. This blood that has been marked ‘impure’, marked ‘dirty’, marked ‘shameful’, has brought many of us much pain and here we are not talking just about menstrual cramps.

lal salaam

Continue reading Come and see the blood on my skirt: Statement from Organisers

Dealing with ‘sexist pigs’? Reflections on the feminist protest against AIB’s Avish Mathew at National Law University, Delhi: A Statement

A statement from concerned students and teachers

What does one do sitting in the middle of an audience roaring with laughter at jokes that one might find downright humiliating? Laugh along, retire hurt, or ask people to stop? It’s a dilemma that many of us on the ‘wrong’ side of various lines of privilege (caste, class, gender, race) and those sensitive to these divisions often find ourselves in. Some students at the National Law University, Delhi seem to have been put in a similar situation when during their annual college fest, comedian Avish Mathew of AIB Roast fame would not stop amusing his audience with one offensive joke after another. They first decided to walk out and then came back with a placard saying, “Get out you sexist pig!”

Continue reading Dealing with ‘sexist pigs’? Reflections on the feminist protest against AIB’s Avish Mathew at National Law University, Delhi: A Statement

Halting the Demolition Derby

My piece (linked to and pasted as text below) in The Indian Express today, takes stock of AAP’s order to halt evictions and the possibilities it opens up to intervene into Delhi’s housing inequalities. I link it here in order to place it together with one additional frame that is necessary to the argument in the piece.

The counter to eviction is also a second object: a 25 sq m flat that is increasingly the primary choice of our housing policies to replace self-built house. This is seen as progress, an easily legible move from kuccha to pucca, from basti to flat. Complexes of these flats – often built in the thousands with a characteristic green stripe of the National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) at the bottom – have begun to emerge across Indian cities. Many more are on their way.

Who doesn’t want such a housing unit? It turns out, in fact, many people. Occupancy rates of units built in the first decade of JNNURM are as low as 30%. Why do families leave? Well, because life on very low incomes isn’t possible far from work, schools and transit. New housing units need land – far more land than the dense, self-built bastis ­– which means they are most often, especially in the bigger cities, peripheral. Far precisely from work, schools, and transit.

It isn’t just the distance. Housing decisions by the income poor are not made on the basis of the quality of a flat but on the ability to integrate housing with work by using homes as workspaces and living near jobs. This is why bastis are built where and how they are. Even if the new units weren’t peripheral, they remain a form unsuited to these multiple lives of housing: they can’t be incrementally changed and moulded into godowns, warehouses, tailor shops, or restaurants, or grow with families. They are houses, not housing. Moving beyond evictions will also need re-imagining the 25 sq m unit.

Link to the main piece here.  Text after the break.
Continue reading Halting the Demolition Derby

Mumbai’s Docklands – Cutting the Cake: Hussain Indorewala


In the early 1970s, a conservative government in the UK set up a study group for the London Docklands. Its report, which focused primarily on exploiting the commercial potential of the docklands, was torn up and thrown out by local community groups and the local boroughs. Later, in 1974, a strategic-planning authority called the Docklands Joint Committee (DJC) was set up to plan the area. This committee included, along with central and local government representatives, the Port of London Authority and trade unions; it was also associated with the Docklands Forum, which was a group that represented various sections of the public, including “militant community groups.”[i] The DJC along with the Docklands Forum adopted a radically new approach to planning: it instituted a bottom-up process, working with communities entailing a “delicate, even tentative, negotiated style of planning.” The planner was now the “servant of the public” and the “large-scale, top-down, professionally oriented planning” was replaced with its opposite.[ii] Significantly, the DJC came up with a comprehensive plan – the London Docklands Strategic Plan of 1976 – that was based on the preservation of manufacturing, creation of social housing, and social programs for residents of the area. So progressive it seemed, that it never got realised. In 1979, Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister of the UK, drowning any little hope that remained.

Continue reading Mumbai’s Docklands – Cutting the Cake: Hussain Indorewala

What does one write today?

It’s the kind of moment that makes you reach for poetry, for words that convey what can scarcely be written. It’s the kind of moment where you must write for it is writing that is itself at stake.

The debates on Charlie Hebdo are wide and varied. There is, as Joe Sacco so beautifully drew, before anything else, a deep yet horrifically dull sadness. Few and fewer in the world have the privilege to still be “shocked” by violence, to not have its banality be its true horror. There is solidarity, some of the most meaningful of which comes from cartoonists in the Arab world.  There is a wide agreement that no justification is possible for returning any measure of offence with death yet there is an insistence on the ability to critique even that which one defends. As Teju Cole eloquently argues: “moments of grief neither rob us of our complexity nor absolve us of the responsibility of making distinctions.” There are important, vital debates about what it means to “insult everyone equally” when everyone is not equal, reminding us that we must begin and ask our questions in place, in history; that we must remember that the power to criticise is a freedom but also a privilege. There are the universal debates on the limits to absolute speech, pointed to by Sandip Roy who reminds us that the French Government itself banned the earlier incarnation of Charlie Hebdo for printing a mock death notice of the then French PM De Gaulle. There are fears of the Islamophobia this violence will re-incarnate as, that Hari Kunzru argues is one intent of the attackers.

I write with a different intent today. I write not to enter these debates about Charlie Hebdo but to insist on what these deaths must provoke us to do: to translate our solidarity, our empathy, our fear, and our resolve into the real work of protecting the freedoms of speech, satire, offence, and expression in India. That is the tribute to Charlie Hebdo that matters, that transcends all our debates.

Continue reading What does one write today?