The Politics of Community Making in New Urban India - Transcript

Kenneth Bo Nielsen [00:00:14]

Welcome to the Nordic Asia Podcast, a collaboration sharing expertise on Asia across the Nordic region. My name is Kenneth Bo Nielsen. I'm a social anthropologist based in Oslo and one of the leaders of the Norwegian Network for Asian Studies. In this episode, we discuss a brand new book on the relationship between new urban spaces and the making of urban communities in India. It's titled 'The Politics of Community Making in New Urban India: Illiberal Spaces, Illiberal Cities', And it's authored by Das and Nilotpal Kumar. Today we are joined by co author Ritanjan Das, who is a senior lecturer at the University of Portsmouth, specializing in development studies. Welcome returned and thanks so much for joining us.

Ritanjan Dan [00:01:05]

Thank you for having me, Kenneth. It's great to be on this podcast with you.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen [00:01:09]

So first off, Ritanjan, tell us, what's the book about?

Ritanjan Dan [00:01:13]

Right. Let me try and stay clear of the typical academic trope of giving long winded explanations of our work and see if I can give you to start with the elevator pitch instead. So briefly, the book explores how different communities are formed in a new city. And what I mean by a new city is an urban space that in itself is being developed. So we try to understand how the processes of urban development and community making intersect as different communities express their claim to the same city or to the same space in very different ways. Now we do this by exploring three specific communities in this book. They are urban middle classes, dispossessed villagers and migrant laborers. And what we do by looking at each of these communities is to try and develop a better understanding of the internal dynamics of each community, what brings them together, what are the fissures, what are the contestations, how they interact with each other, as well as the relationship in between the different communities. How one community looks at another, how the judge one another and so on. The work is based in a North-Indian city called Noida, which is just adjacent to New Delhi, and it's based on research that has spanned from 2017 till about 2020. So three years work in the field and then the book is now about to come out. I'm not sure if this qualifies as an elevator pitch ... Maybe in a really tall building, like the ones we describe in the book.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen [00:02:51]

I think it's close enough to an elevator pitch. We'll get back to the substance of the book very soon. But there's another thing I wanted to ask you first. I do my best to stay updated on new books coming out on India, especially those that deal with my interests, questions of political economy, development, democracy and so on. And it seems to me that there's been a real surge in books on urbanization and urban development in India, and that Delhi and also surrounding areas have received an enormous amount of attention from scholars in recent decades, some might even say disproportionate attention. In your view, what's the reason for this growing focus on urban India and urban development? So that's a great observation. Can it? And yes, you're absolutely right. We can probably do just a one hour podcast on this question alone. And I agree with you that there has been maybe too much at times attention in the sort of Delhi and surrounding areas. But there are so many issues here. And let me try and unpack this somewhat. This one might be a slightly longer answer. So first of all, in terms of the surge of books and research on urban development itself, not just in India but in the global South, let's say now the pace and scale of city making, urban development across the developing world has grabbed a lot of attention of late. To put this in perspective, just a simple statistics. Nearly two thirds of the global population will be urbanized by 2050, which is up from a mere 13% in 1900. So in just over 100 years, 125 years, you know, imagine from 13% to two thirds of the population being urbanized. It's an astonishing rate. So essentially what we have been witnessing across the world is an extremely rapid concentration of people and activities within a small part of available land surface. I mean, at the end of the day, cities or urban spaces are still only 5% of the available land surface. So it's an extremely high concentration of people, resources, processes, activities within that space. And this is happening even more so in the global South. So it seems that the world is. Going through what is often described as planetary urbanization, which is the urbanization of everything and everywhere. However, having said that, you know, when you think about it, there is no single global urban project. Cities are not made in the same way. So city making involves a wide array of processes which can be abrupt, which can be contrasting, and they all constitute, again, in the global South, particularly profoundly asymmetric arrangements of economic power and political influence. So for academic researchers, whatever your disciplinary orientation is, I mean, you might be coming from a planning perspective, environmental perspective, what we do political economy, development studies, anthropology perspectives, law, legality and so on. There is a lot to be explored here. So that's sort of why there's been an explosion of urban studies in recent decades. Now, coming to India, it's right up there with this trend in the last three decades. In other words, in post economic liberalization, urban development in India has exploded. There's been, of course, the much celebrated renewal of older metropolises, renewal, quote unquote, older metropolises like Calcutta, Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore, Hyderabad. Think of the metro lines. Think of the flyovers that are being built, the JNURM or the Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission. That has really made an impact in the way the older cities have changed. At the same time, there has been a massive growth in satellite cities around these older metropolises cities like Noida, where we have worked Goregaon, Ghaziabad and the entire area around Delhi, but also in other states like Gandhinagar in Gujarat, rather hard in West Bengal, Navi, Mumbai in Maharashtra and so on. So the satellite city growth, that's another trend. And another example also is the recent push towards smart cities. You know, the current government has been pushing that agenda quite aggressively. So, cities like Bhopal, Udaipur, which are becoming apparently the first smart cities. And then lastly, you have the mushrooming of what's known as census towns, numerous census towns which are not really cities, but agglomerations with urban characteristics, population about 5000. However, given this growth and unsurprisingly, given the current political environment as well, there is a lot to be said about this growth, these kind of developments, and not always in a very celebratory manner either.

Ritanjan Dan [00:07:44]

So putting the hat on of a researcher, there is actually a lot of work that still needs to be done in this area, and it has been attracting scholarly attention for right reasons. Now, coming to the third part of your question, why the area around Delhi in particular, which is known as the National Capital Region or the NCR? Now, a simple answer to that is that region is possibly the fastest growing urban region in the country and within a very short time, maybe second only to Mumbai, for instance, in 2011, more than a decade ago. Forbes India had reported that the Noida Greater Noida region has become the second largest real estate destination in the country, coming a close second only to Mumbai. Plus, the fact that all of this is happening right at the doorsteps of Delhi, the centre of political power. That also draws a lot of analytical attention. And this has led to a really rich body of academic work. So this work of Michael Levin, Asha Gardner, Sanjay Srivastav on Delhi, people like Chopra guru Rani, Thomas Cohen's work on Gurgaon, Nandini Gupta, Darshan Mahadeva, Leela Fernandez's work on the middle classes in these areas, Vinod anthropological work in Noida itself. And I'm surely missing out on a lot of names here. So for somebody who's stepping into this domain to begin with, there is this rich body of work to build upon. Personally, though, just to finish off, it has been a new area for us. As you know, I've been working mostly in the eastern part of India. And my co-author, he has been working in south in Andhra Pradesh. So for us coming to North India was actually quite a change and quite a new challenge and deviation from our past work. But it has been an interesting experience and there is still a lot that remains to be said.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen [00:09:30]

On that note, let's return to the book itself. As you mentioned now, a few times it's based on fieldwork in the north Indian city of Noida, which is, strictly speaking, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, but which lies very close to the national capital of Delhi. And as you said, now, both you and your co-author worked in other parts of India before turning to Noida. Why did you choose Noida as your focus and how was the actual field research carried out? So yeah, it's quite an interesting question as to how we ended up in Noida. And yes, it's technically in the state of Utter Pradesh, at the very western fringe of the state bordering Delhi, and it's part of this region, the national capital region, that has seen a lot of money coming in. And the growth of cities such as Gurgaon, which has been talked about a lot. Now, when we entered this area, we weren't sure that Noida is a place we want to work in Gurgaon. We are kind of thinking that a lot of work has already been done. So we are looking for something slightly different now. Noida actually caught our attention for three main reasons. Now it is among those very few Indian cities that combine two different post-colonial urban realities. Unlike most of the other cities in the NCR region which were conceived or which kind of grew in the post liberalisation environment, Noida was conceived as a planned industrial town in 1970s, but it subsequently not much in the 80s, but 90s and 2000's. It transformed into this very different kind of a city following the predictable, somewhat part of global city making. We found this transition rather intriguing that a small scale industrial town like there are other towns in India such as Billa Jamshedpur, for example, a city that was conceived along those lines, how it completely transformed its character in doing so, how planning, quote unquote, planning as an instrument in the hands of the state turned into a very flexible apparatus to absorb these shifts, the changing priorities. That was a very intriguing transition and transformation that caught our attention. Secondly, the second reason, the governance of Noida. It's very strange, which also caught our attention. Unlike having a municipal authority, as most cities do, Noida is run by an authority without any public representation. It's headed by a CEO, effectively, it's a CEO run city. That, again, is rather unique, especially going back to the 1970s and 80s. The whole history of urban planning in Noida is rather strange at times, and tracing this history tells us a lot about the evolution of urban development in India. And the third factor that makes Noida stand out for us is the way the city has very distinct and different parts. On one hand, there's the gentrified urban middle class landscape skyscrapers, massive real estate projects. On the other hand, there are two prominent habitation forms in the city: Villages which continue to exist within the city; and the slums or chuckdees Now, I mean, you'd find slums and maybe remnants of villages in several Indian cities or new Indian cities, But the extent of these habitational forms close to half the population of the city by official estimates, are still in the villages and slums. At the same time, the city is being celebrated as one of the most lucrative real estate destinations. So the combination of all of these, the combination of the three distinct spaces made Noida a very intriguing landscape of juxtaposing contestations for us. So we wanted to explore that. And in response to your question on the field research, we are anthropologists. That's our normal methodological approach. So what we did was a process of explorative ethnography. So between 2017 and 2020, we spent several months in Noida, kept coming back and going and coming back. We conducted more than maybe 120 in-depth qualitative interviews. There was a huge amount of participant observation and numerous conversations. At various points, we found ourselves walking alongside protest marches. We participated in demonstrations. We even found ourselves distributing flyers at factory gates. And the other component of the research was archival work. And in a situation where there was hardly any official archives, we spent weeks, months, maybe rummaging through retired bureaucrats' personnel files stored away in their attics, unearthing maps that were literally crumbling in our hands.

Ritanjan Dan [00:14:10]

At one instance, we were chased by some local villagers in the middle of the night, as they suspected we were trespassing and might destroy their crops. So it was quite an experience. And maybe someday we'll sit and reflect back on it. But it was enriching and interesting.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen [00:14:24]

So we'll get back to some of the findings and analysis based on the fieldwork very, very shortly. But there's another thing I wanted to bring up, and to be honest, of course, I've had the pleasure of talking about this book with you before. And also I've heard you present based on this book, various conferences and seminars. What struck me and what I found particularly compelling in addition to the Rich empirics, is that the book also has, I think, quite clear conceptual mission. It draws on a wide array of concepts urban development, community making illiberalism and so on and so forth. How do these quite diverse concepts come together in the book?

Ritanjan Dan [00:15:07]

You're right. And I believe or we hope, that therein lies the main contribution of the book in terms of adding to a rather interdisciplinary set of academic scholarship. So broadly speaking, we draw from the mainstream urban studies literature that have taken shape over the last hundred years or so, as well as the broader sociological literature and community making. These are the two starting points for us. But putting the two together, the argument we are making is somewhat novel. So what you're trying to say that community making in these new cities and again, when I say new cities, we are particularly talking about post liberalisation environment. We're trying to say that community making in new cities is a distinctively different process than that in older cities. And to understand this difference, we are using the idea of illiberalism. So what you have tried to do is to draw particular attention to the everyday exclusionary practices and worldviews in each of the three communities that in a way almost denigrate individual and group diversity, democratic deliberations and equal rights, and rather favor a strong and culturally homogeneous communities. So basically, the book demonstrates a tries to demonstrate how urban space making or new urban space making creates or can potentially create a fertile ground for certain kind of exclusionary politics that each community produces in its own way. Therein lies the conceptual mission, as you put it, off the book. It brings in two existing strands of scholarship, but in putting them together, we find new ground and a new theoretical intervention to explore some of these concepts.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen [00:17:03]

The book focuses on these three communities that you mentioned earlier, the urban middle class residents dispossessed villagers and also migrant laborers. What are the kinds of narratives that you derive from your work with these three different communities? These narratives are understandably different, but they also somehow intersect.

Ritanjan Dan [00:17:26]

Oh, absolutely. In fact, it becomes more interesting when they intersect and how they intersect. Each of these communities come together in the first place. What are the common grounds on which they converge and how it develops? And once it converges, it doesn't stay like that. Fissures or contestations develop inside almost instantly and then how it shapes things up moving forward. But that's inside each community and the narratives of each community. But the intersections are more interesting, for example. Let me just give you maybe 1 or 2 intriguing incidents we encountered. So the migrant laborers, the places where they lived, the slums and the middle class residential enclaves couldn't be more different. Right. And you think that the narratives are very different in the two places, And they are, but they also intersect. And almost on a daily basis, women from the slums come to work in the middle class residences as housemates. Now how are they to be controlled and how do both of these groups of people make sense of each other? So what has happened from the middle class point of view? What has emerged is that whole ritual of security, biometric checks, whole set of protocols. In fact, the book opens with an instance from a few years back, 2017, I think, where a very small local skirmish between a housemaid and her employers quickly turned into a conflict where slum residents broke into the sort of middle class enclave and started pelting stones and the enclave. Residents immediately built a narrative of secular Indians living in those middle class high rises were being attacked by mobs of illegal Bangladeshi infiltrators. That became the narrative within 24 hours. And that was fascinating the way the two sets of narratives intersected and to completely different color. Another example Many migrant laborers live in the villages. They rent a tiny room maybe, and they live there. And a rent based economy is the primary income source for villages because agriculture, of course, has pretty much ended. And yet there's a constant accusation on the part of the villages that the villages are becoming, quote, impure unquote, spaces because of these people who have come from elsewhere look different and speak differently. And then there's a counter-narrative from the migrant side. So you have constantly intersecting narratives and one tries to make sense of the other and judge another. And these are some of the things we explore, and they are honestly the most fascinating parts of the book, we hope.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen [00:20:01]

You mentioned the concept of illiberalism earlier. It's in the subtitle of the book, and in that sense, it's an important concept in your work. Both, I would suppose, as an empirical fact, but also as an analytical prism through which you make sense of some of these urban processes. How and perhaps more importantly, why do you work with these ideas about illiberalism in the book? Yeah, you're right. Liberalism is both an empirical fact as well as an analytical lens for us. Now, it was an interesting choice, and we actually spent some time debating this because there has been a lot of attention or quite a bit of increase in scholarly attention on the idea of illiberalism. But it remains a fluid concept, one that gets used in quite varied settings. And that was quite a challenge for us. For example, in recent times, academic articles or popular articles in the media have lamented the growth of illiberal tendencies in democracies as varied as the Philippines, Germany, Brazil, the USA. In Europe, there's been a lot of discussion. In Hungary, for example, Viktor Orban, he was a self-confessed apostle of illiberalism. There's Marine Le Pen in France, Poland's Law and Justice Party, Putin in Russia in 2019 said the liberal idea is obsolete. And in the Indian context, there's so much stuff on discussing the BJP and the current regime which point to the decline in Democratic freedoms and the rise of illiberalism. But having said that, there is a problem there for us because normally in the literature the discussion of illiberalism tend to conflate illiberal with undemocratic, and we didn't really want to go down that route. We have consciously avoided that for us or the way we have approached the liberalism and try to define it. It is more of a worldview that permeates community lives at all levels. It renders an ideological coherence to the politics of exclusion. It might not necessarily be undemocratic. In fact, instances of a illiberalism thrive quite well in democratic contexts. It's an ideological setting that exists in subtle ways, which equates majoritarian ideas with universal values. That is sort of the analytical prism for us. And empirically, we have built upon the idea of what's commonly described as the illiberal potential of the people showing how illiberal practices exist in everyday lives.

Ritanjan Dan [00:22:29]

For example, some expressions of everyday illiberalism can include using public spaces for Hindu festivals, but actively opposing Islamic ones when buying a property. Potential buyer. A Hindu buyer, let's say, tend to inquire. And we found this in many instances they would inquire whether there is a muslim neighbour and if yes, they might not buy the property. In fact, this has led to Muslim only apartments in Noida, which is quite an interesting thing in another instance. Wrestlers, indigenous wrestlers called pylons were brought in from villages to do a parade march in the city or in the urbanized parts of the city, protesting against the free mixing of genders. These are everyday acts which are normalized in the society, yet deeply exclusionary. So in analyzing these sort of practices, we use the lens of a illiberalism.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen [00:23:22]

Given these clear theoretical ambitions of the book, I suppose it would be fair to say that it's first and foremost a book that's written for an academic audience in the sense of being written for scholars and readers of Indian politics. What's in it for a wider readership, which may have only a more sort of general interest in contemporary India? Yes, that's right. It's primarily an academic book, but we do hope that it finds a wider readership based on a number of reasons. First of all, the scope of the book, in the first part, it takes quite a detailed historical account of the growth of a city spanning over a period of four decades. It's a story, and that's the way we write it. We have written it in almost like manner of a narrative which connects the dots from the emergency period in the 1970s, the subsequent economic reforms, corruption, political patronage, clientelism, migration, agrarian distress and so on. Anybody with an interest in the history of urban India or post-colonial urban trajectories in India would find a lot there to relate. And it's consciously written in the first part in such a way that it's not theory heavy, it just tells a story. Secondly, also the way the book is structured, the core of the book, the three main chapters on the three communities tell three different stories that of course are a part of a bigger narrative, but they're also quite self-contained. So let's say if somebody is interested in the middle classes, how they live, what they do, or in the migrant laborers, what are their daily lives like, they can just read that one chapter and that would give them quite an insight on the bits they're interested in. So there's an overarching theoretical arc, yet lots of stories that can be read just for their own sake. And finally, the book is about urban development. Of course, at the same time, it's also about post agrarian societies. It's about migration. It's about issues of citizenship. It's about exclusion. It is also sort of lays out a ground level analysis, a very detailed close look at how rightwing forces create their networks, how they recruit foot soldiers, how a certain kind of ideology permeates different communities in different ways.

Ritanjan Dan [00:25:45]

The strategies are quite different. So this is a very close examination of all of that. So these are some issues that are critically important in contemporary India, not just in terms of urban development. So therefore, we are quite confident that the book will speak to anybody who's interested in contemporary India and its people and their lives.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen [00:26:08]

So let me just throw final challenge at you. Now that we are approaching the end of this conversation, if you could identify one main point that you would like your readers to take away from this book, what would that be?

Ritanjan Dan [00:26:22]

Yeah, that is quite a challenge, especially given the conceptual divergence of the book. If there is one thing, though, and I would like to maybe take a step back from the individual theoretical ideas that we spoke about earlier, but broadly, I would hope that the book would make the readers pause and rethink the grand and abstract ideas of growth and development that the political class tends to go on about and eulogize is that India is in a part of development and so on, and instead reflect on the times that we live in, how we connect to each other and how we are separated. Beyond the theoretical ideas and empirical granularity. It's that reflection or that maybe giving people a little bit of food for thought to reflect on our times and our lives. I hope that would be the main takeaway of the book. Thank you.

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