Does India really live in its villages?

Or in a place outside the national imagination of the city? Gautam Bhan disrupts some neat ideas and introduces some new concepts.

Photo Credits: Yashas Chandra

Gautam Bhan is an urbanist and an LGBTQ rights activist whose work focuses on urban poverty, inequality, social protection and housing. He is currently Associate Dean, School of Human Development, as well as Senior Lead of Academics and Research at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS) in Bengaluru, India. Gautam’s previous research has focused on evictions, citizenship and inequality in Delhi, and at IIHS, he has continued to work on questions of access to affordable and adequate housing. At the School of Human Development, he is building research and practice on questions of the design and delivery of social protection entitlements within urban India. He also has a deep and abiding interest in new urban and planning theory from the South.

He is the author of In the Public’s Interest: Evictions, Citizenship and Inequality in Contemporary Delhi (University of Georgia Press 2017; Orient Blackswan 2017), co-editor of the Routledge Companion to Planning in the Global South (Routledge 2018; Orient BlackSwan 2019), co-author of Swept off the Map: Surviving Eviction and Resettlement in Delhi (Yoda Press 2008), and co-editor of Because I have a Voice: Queer Politics in India (Yoda Press 2006), in addition to numerous academic articles.

In Part One of this two-part conversation with The Third Eye, Bhan discusses the making of the ‘urban’ in policy versus reality, the lack of identity for the urban poor, what urban practitioners should have learnt from the Covid pandemic, and the great disruptor entering urban studies—the Anthropocene.

TTE: As an urban studies practitioner and educator, how do you even define the ‘urban’ in a country like India?

Gautam Bhan: To me, the visual metaphor of Indian urbanisation is those four sariya rods sticking out of a column of a house under construction, and an unpainted red brick wall. This is half of Delhi. Because ghar abhi bana nahin. Bante jaa raha hai. Aur tum usme reh rahe ho. Most people build their house while living in it. This is our urbanisation. It is incremental. So, our practices and solutions have to have the same incrementality.

Photo Credits: Shivam Rastogi

As far as the technical definition of the urban goes, we have a bizarre one. India is the only country in the world that has an employment metric to define the urban. It goes: if there is a population of 5,000, density of 400 people per sq km, and 75% of men are in non-agricultural employment, then a settlement is considered urban. This is how we technically define urban in India. We are the only country in the world to have this kind of definition.

So if you take out this employment criterion, India is already closer to 60% urban. Hum kehte rehte hain na, “We are only 35% urban. India lives in its villages.” No, it no longer does. So, why this strange criterion of male employment to define the urban?

Sometimes I think fundamentally, India has never ever been comfortable with the urban. Train mein baithe ho. You will ask someone, “Tum kahan se ho?” You will say, “Main Delhi se hoon.” They will say, “Nahin par tum belong kahan karte ho?” Because you cannot belong to the sheher.

We (born late ’70s-early ’80s) are the first generation that is urban-born that does not immediately remember the village. And so, this notion that you can belong to the urban, it will take one more generation to become real. You know, when I first did my work in Bavana with the evictions of the resettled colonies from Yamuna Pushta, one thing I couldn’t understand is why were the residents paying three rupees every day to use the Sulabh [public] toilets. They were on the edge of the city. They’re surrounded by mustard fields. I was like, “Why the hell are you paying someone to pee? You’re in the middle of nothing.” And they turned to me and said, “We are not villagers. Shehri hain.” Sulabh ko teen rupaye deke peshaab karenge. Shehri hain. That was the first time I’d heard it and I realised this is us—the first generation born in the city.

With a nostalgia for the rural, you think?

If you’re poor in the city, there is no cultural or economic imagination of where you belong. But you get to be poor in India with at least recognition, if not dignity, in the village. At least log gareebi ko maanenge, usko naam denge. Our entire welfare regime is designed for rural areas. MGNREGA urban nahi banaya gaya. National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) bana diya, urban nahi banaya gaya. Take all your welfare in the rural areas and let cities produce all your output.

Photo Credits: Shivam Rastogi

So, the village gives more dignity to India’s poor?

I don’t think it’s that simple. But I will say that in the village, your mere presence is not a question mark. It has its own challenges, for sure. But in the sheher, your mere presence is a question mark. Matlab, basti me kyun ho tum? Tumne kyun zameen ko kabza kar rakha hai? Tumne kyun banayi yeh jhuggi? The government is always like, you want rights? Go back to your village and take them. Land reform aap at least rural mein imagine kar sakte ho. Slum titling matlab baat hi nahi hai. Now, there is some slow beginning—they’ve just done this in Orissa.

Then the other thing is the idolisation, a kind of patronising caricaturisation of the simple rural person. And in a distinction to that, shehri gareeb ko chunt samajhte hain sab log (there is a caricaturization of the urban poor person as a scheming person).

So, the cities have this relationship with the poor that they’re close enough to take their labour but never close enough to give rights. Yeh dance tumhe constantly karna hai. Bijli ka bill dedoge matlab drain nahin lagao. Itna badane doge phir baad me todne ka haq doge. Bees saal ke liye basti baithegi par tum patta das saal ka doge. Constant manipulation. There is no urban welfare state nor is there urban protection. If nothing else, the pandemic and the migrant crisis exposed this fully. We have no imagination of an urban safety net, nothing.

[Sociologist] Amita Baviskar said something very wonderful to me once, on the lines of, “You know, sometimes I feel the success of some movements around land in rural movements had an unintended consequence. We were protecting it from SEZs, but now it’s become that people can only belong to rural land.” We have no narrative of belonging. This is the thing about being poor in the city.

The fundamental part is that you are outside imagination. You are not just outside policy ki nazar ya ek database jahan cash transfer mil jaaye. You are actually outside imagination. You're not a constituency. You're not a subject. You're not a citizen. We have fought so hard for this.

Tum basti dekhte ho, tumhe sirf woh zameen dikhti hai. You don’t even see the people on that. You know, the courts talk about encroachment, encroacher… All of it is about the land. All of it is about property rights. You don’t even see the people.

Photo Credits: Yashas Chandra

I think this is partly the problem. This very citizenship of someone who’s poor in the city. There is no imagination we have of it. We have it in small amounts in the narrative of the industrial worker, the chawl, the mills, factorywalas. But the chawl-mill-factory worker is not the dominant reality of our urbanisation. Ek toh it’s so masculine. And more than anything else, it is the tiniest fraction of workers who actually live that industrial life. And, you know, a lot of our theories of the urban are theories that come from the Industrial Revolution, and are theories of industrial urbanisation. But we don’t have an industrial urbanisation! Our urban areas are growing without manufacturing, without industrial work, without MSMEs (micro, small and medium enterprises). This bizarre, service-led, high capital finance—matlab urbanisation in industrial times samajh aata tha. Urbanisation in financial capitalism samajh mein nahin aata mujhe. Because if the value is in finance toh employment kahan se laaoge yaar, phir toh informality hi hogi na? Delivery boy hi banoge? Zindagi bhar domestic worker, zindagi bhar construction work, zindagi bhar Zomato delivery because mobility kahan hai tumhari? What is your mobility strategy?

So, it’s not just the definition of the urban but [also] the urban citizen that is fraught. How would you help students arrive at the idea of the urban as an educator, given its numerous entry points?

So, we actually use that question as a way to structure the Commons (a semester in the IIHS Urban Fellows Programme). What the students are meant to do, in the first term, is to constantly ask, week after week: what is the urban? What is the urban when you look at it from identity: it’s a set of social relations, it’s a place that has a certain kind of assumptions about democracy and modernity and cosmopolitanism. One of the big things we talk about is the perception that urban is this place where caste transforms and vanishes and modernises. Which it obviously doesn’t. But does the urban hold caste differently, while the village holds the caste spatially?

Photo Credits: Shivam Rastogi
The spatial question underlies a lot of this. How do you assess caste-based segregation in the village and in the city? What data do you have? The students are doing a GIS (Geographical Information System) skill lab at this point. So, I will say, go to your GIS class and make me a caste segregation map of the city. And they will come back and say, I can’t. I’ll be like, why can’t you? They’ll say there’s no data. I will be like, excellent!

Now tell me why there's no data on caste in the city. Savaal poocho. Socio-economic caste census kiya tha na? Haan. Uska data kahan hai? Public mein nahin hai. Toh public mein kyun nahin hai? Now ask that question in the governance class, why is our socio-economic class data not public? Why do we not know what our caste segregation is?

Then we move to economics. What does it mean to look at the urban as an economic geography? So, for economists, the urban is a concentration of capital. For urban economics, it’s the land labour nexus in what they call agglomeration economics. You teach the students that and say, “Please understand why NCR (National Capital Region) is an economic region, even if the municipal boundaries don’t work.” But then also ask: what is agglomeration in an informal economy? Does it work the same way as the theories of firms and capital?

Then they go to Governance Week. In governance, urban becomes a governmental category. What is this statutory town, a census town? What is a nagar panchayat? Is it rural? Or is it urban? What does it mean to think of these categories? But then they will say “Sab kuch spectrum hai, sara continuum hai, sab kuch mixed hai,” and then I’ll be like, “Boss no, because NREGA sirf rural mein milta hai aur NREGA urban mein nahi milta toh tumhara spectrum is theoretically fascinating, but NREGA sirf technically governmental, classified rural mein milta hai.” So, my stand is very clear. While I appreciate that spectrum between urban rural as a continuum, in India, governmentally, urban and rural are distinct categories. And you have to deal with that, which is what matters. It matters whether you have a panchayat or a municipality. It matters when you pay property tax or not. It matters whether you get NRHM or NUHM (National Urban Health Mission). It matters if you get NREGA or jack shit.

Photo Credits: Yashas Chandra

Then they’ll do ecology. And the ecologists will say, “Humko koi farak nahi padta, because water and air disrespect urban rural boundaries, and you can only understand resource geographies. Toh Bangalore ka paani Cauveri se aa raha hai. Is water ko follow karo. Yeh tumhara water geography hai.” So they will say, “Kuch urban kuch rural humein kuch farak nahi padta.” The infrastructure guys will say the same thing. For transport boundaries don’t make sense but for sewage boundaries make a lot of sense, right? So, for us, the urban is precisely this object that is created through these multiple ways of bringing together what it is.

So you know, whenever students tell me, “Aap kyun urban bolte ho? Urban rural saara spectrum hota hai.” I am like, “Sure, but I study social protection and welfare. Mere liye spectrum nahi hai. If you study ecology, tere liye spectrum hai. Fair enough.”

The urban in Kerala is not the same as the urban in Karnataka. Karnataka has a nature of urbanisation where there is one single metropolis. Kerala has a diffused urbanisation where the rural-urban material or infrastructural distinction is unnoticeable. Now, Tamil Nadu is a better example. If you’re migrating within Tamil Nadu, you can go to Erode, Salem, Trichy, Coimbatore, Chennai. If you’re migrating within Karnataka, you go to Bangalore. Those are two completely different structures of urbanisation, right? Tamil Nadu has medium-scale manufacturing cities. It explains so much about why the states work very differently, right?

So, every time someone comes and says, “What is the urban?”, we say, don’t answer the question. Ask it in interesting, intersectional and interdisciplinary ways. Keep asking it. But ask yourself, why do you care? If you care because of social protection, different answer. If you care because of urban economics, different answer.

Photo Credits: Shivam Rastogi

The pandemic actually brought all these entry points together into a hot mess. There has been a recurring feeling that urban studies, as a discipline, failed to contribute to the cities and their citizens in a time when this expertise could have been used to save lives and livelihoods. Do you think it was because we replicated Western methodologies to very local geographies?

One is that we have misrecognised Covid too narrowly as a health crisis instead of a health and livelihood crisis. This word, misrecognise, comes from the French political philosopher, Etienne Balibar, and misrecognition to him is a very different act than just not understanding something. To misrecognise it is to deny its social power structures. Kis nazar se dekhte ho defines kya dekhte ho. So, it’s very much that misrecognition we were talking about when ‘stay at home, work at home’ took place. Stay at home is a response that imagines a certain city.

But eight out of 10 workers in India work in the informal economy. Four of those eight work in public space: they work on the streets, on landfills, on construction sites, on transport exchanges and bus stations. So, there is no logic of stay at home, when there is no work from office. The logic of stay at home should never have been so easily translated.

The second part, which people did talk about, that two-thirds of urban Indians live in housing units of less than 1.5 rooms, which means that the notion of adequate distancing by staying at home was also a misnomer.

Now, with the particular urban structures and urban histories the Global South carries, what could be the alternative? For example, you know that the space outside the house, the gali, is effectively a semi-private space. It is shared by four or five households: you wash your dishes there, you dry your clothes there, the kids play there. No one lives inside the unit.

You live between the unit and the outside. If it’s a chawl, you live between the door and the corridor. Now, where communities started responding and saying ‘stay within the gali,’ the sanitisation bucket and soap was put at the entry of the gali and the exit of the gali, and you were able to move within the gali—those containment strategies worked.

So by this logic, the unit of isolation should have been the gali not the house.

Photo Credits: Shivam Rastogi

So, particular histories of urbanisation matter. We should have been looking at the international experience of Sierra Leone, Kenya and the people who fought ebola in contexts similar to ours. There were such brilliant community quarantine models developed during [the Ebola outbreak]. But hum to superpower hai aur hum sirf London or New York se seekhenge. Hum nahin seekhenge Sierra Leone se.

Was this thought the entry point to the pedagogy behind the IIHS’s Urban Fellows Programme?

IIHS is, in one way, part of an urban theory moment that is thinking from the cities of the Global South. Southern urban theory was born by a realisation that the dominant theories of urban came from the experience European and American industrial urbanisation are particularly disjunctive for the Global South. In fact, all the urban theory that I was taught in my PhD (from University of California, Berkeley) was taught from cities in Europe that grew during industrialisation. Although, as the Black Lives Matter movement reminds you, these theories of urbanisation never really worked in North America either, right?

A lot of our pedagogical work, my work, has always been to say there is a particularity about the urban histories of what we call cities of the South. And these Southern urban histories have created our current cities.

For example, our cities are post-colonial. You can't wish that away. We have certain spatial forms. New Delhi and Old Delhi are different. There is a footprint of those legacies. Our cities are also dominantly informal, right? They're economically and spatially informal. In Delhi, three out of every four people live outside something called a planned colony. Just listen to our city nomenclature: unauthorised colony, regularised unauthorised colony, urban village, rural village, slum area, JJ (jhuggi-jhopri) cluster…

Photo Credits: Shivam Rastogi

Yet we talk about ‘city planning’ as if we are in full control. The Delhi Master Plan 2021 had this zone called urbanisable area. The day they notified that area, every inch of that urbanisable area was already built. It was all of what we call West Delhi. The Blue Line runs through the urbanisable area and aap usko project kar rahein ho future growth ke liye.

And secondly, we need to look at the psychology of the city inhabitants in the Global South. The argument we make is that for many people, the distinction between their everyday and this crisis is not nearly a paradigm shift; it’s not nearly as dramatic for a majority of urban Indians. This is the reason why in 2020 when people started walking in droves on highways, and all the reporters showed up on those highways and asked, “Why?” And they were like what has happened, jaana hai toh jaana hai. The banality of their response was also saying, “Why is this so shocking to you? We always make these trade-offs. We have always had to make these trade-offs.”

The distinction they were making is this; there is death from Covid, and then there is death from non-Covid illness. Then there is death from hunger and lack of livelihood. But all three are death. Our job is to avoid death. Our job is not to not die of Covid. Our job is not to die at all. And if our job is to not die at all, walking home to my village—where there is some possibility of dignity and subsidy as we previously discussed—makes complete rational sense.

Besides the particularity of our cities in the Global South, what else are urbanists and allied educators thinking about?

We are now thinking about the urban in the Anthropocene. We are in a place in history where the very logic of urbanisation as a possible expansion will cover the planet one day: it’s what’s called planetary urbanisation. It’s environmentally impossible, right? It will be suicide.

So, we have the Anthropocene, which is unsettling urban theory everywhere—Global North, South, all architecture schools, etc.

And then, we have this other challenge, which is that we are dealing with thinking about the urban in a different mode of production: digital and financial capitalism. The spatial logics of that are totally different from the industrial logics that we are used to. Industrial capitalism was a form that built cities of a certain kind—the factory, housing around it, transport structures, the way local and global spatialities were made. Digital and financial capitalism doesn’t have the same footprint—when money is bundled and sold as a purely financial asset, it is not clear how it lands into particular places and shapes them. That’s why even the US can have a housing crisis because its debt was financialised so severely that it literally lost connection with actual homes and loans and mortgages that then defaulted as the dominoes came crashing down.

Photo Credits: Shivam Rastogi

So between the Eurocentric industrial hangover, the Anthropocene, and the new capitalist economy, we certainly are at a kind of precipice where we need a new theoretical formulation. And people are trying: ‘sustainable development’, ‘environmental economics’ are all ways to try and bridge these seemingly insurmountable gaps.

And, for us, here in the new curriculum, we ask ourselves: what should we be teaching urban practitioners in 2020? We keep coming back to this. We keep coming back to an insistence on interdisciplinarity, an insistence on work and thinking across scales from the local neighbourhood to the planet, an insistence on rooting ourselves in Southern conditions. And then an honest acknowledgement that we are at a place where there are more questions than answers, because we don’t know how to resolve this pull of what it means to be a megacity in the Anthropocene. You take Delhi. Delhi is going to be 25 million people. There is no historical precedent of a settlement that large at a time of climate change. Where do we learn from? The only other large urban agglomerations like this are Tokyo, New York and Mexico City. All three of them have five times Delhi’s per capita income. Main Tokyo se kya seekhoon? Everyone keeps saying best practice but Tokyo is like another planet. I cannot learn from Tokyo. Eighty per cent of my population makes less than Rs.20,000 a month. Kya Tokyo dekhu main?

Part II of this conversation will continue in our Education Edition, where we discuss the limitations of anger in pedagogy, the need to move towards empathy or even radical joy, and the core ideals around which the IIHS Urban Studies course is designed.
Shabani Hassanwalia is the Editor of The Third Eye.

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