The politics of the city


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DELHI, on the morning of 30 January 1995, was waking up to another winter day. In the well-to-do colony of Ashok Vihar, early risers were setting off on morning walks, some accompanied by their pet dogs. As one of these residents walked into the neighbourhood ‘park’, the only open area in the locality, he saw a young man, poorly clad, walking away with an empty bottle in hand. Incensed, he caught the man, called his neighbours and the police. A group of enraged house owners and two police constables descended on the youth and, within minutes, beat him to death.

The young man was 18 year-old Dilip, a visitor to Delhi, who had come to watch the Republic Day parade in the capital. He was staying with his uncle in a jhuggi along the railway tracks bordering Ashok Vihar. His uncle worked as a labourer in an industrial estate nearby which, like all other planned industrial zones in Delhi, had no provision for workers’ housing. The jhuggi cluster with more than 10,000 households shared three public toilets, each one with eight latrines, effectively one toilet per 2083 persons.

For most residents, then, any large open space, under cover of dark, became a place to shit. Their use of the ‘park’ brought them up against the more affluent residents of the area who paid to have a wall constructed between the dirty, unsightly jhuggis and their own homes. The wall was soon breached, as much to allow the traffic of domestic workers who lived in the jhuggis but worked to clean the homes and cars of the rich, wash their clothes and mind their children, as to allow the delinquent defecators.

Dilip’s death was thus the culmination of a long-standing battle over a contested space that, to one set of residents, embodied their sense of gracious urban living, a place of trees and grass devoted to leisure and recreation, and which to another set of residents, was the only available space that could be used as a toilet. If he had known this history of simmering conflict, Dilip would probably have been more wary and run away when challenged. Perhaps he would still be alive.

This incident goes to the heart of a major environmental conflict that has remained relatively unexamined in the Indian context. Scholars of environmental issues have primarily studied struggles over nature in rural India, focusing attention on the loss of land and livelihoods due to dams, forestry and other development projects. This rural bias has led to the neglect of the urban context where clashing claims to the environment are becoming sharper-edged. In this brief essay, I shall outline why urban environmental conflicts demand our attention and how they challenge our understanding of ecology and equity in Indian environmental movements. In particular, I want to draw attention to the increasingly powerful presence of bourgeois environmentalism as an ideology shaping the landscapes and lives of millions of Indians. The city of Delhi is the point of reference for my observations.



The last three years have been marked by two sets of processes, each an extraordinarily powerful attempt to remake the urban landscape of Delhi. Through a series of judicial orders, the Supreme Court of India has initiated the closure of all polluting and non-conforming industries in the city, throwing out of work an estimated two million people employed in and around 98,000 industrial units.

At the same time, the Delhi High Court has ordered the removal and relocation of all jhuggi squatter settlements on public lands, an order that will demolish the homes of more than three million people. In a city of twelve million people, the enormity of these changes is mind-boggling.

Both these processes, which were set in motion by the filing of public interest litigation by environmentalists and consumer rights groups, indicate that bourgeois environmentalism has emerged as an organised force in Delhi, and upper class concerns around aesthetics, leisure, safety and health have come to significantly shape the disposition of urban spaces.

The scale of the ongoing displacement is staggering. Hundreds of thousands of people have lost their homes and work within the space of a few months, entire colonies of working class homes have been razed to the ground within a day and the areas immediately taken over for construction, road-widening and other ‘public purposes’. Talking to rickshaw pullers, vegetable vendors, domestic workers, courier delivery men and even ‘Class IV’ government employees – the working class as routinely encountered by the bourgeoisie – reveals how most people live with persistent insecurity about losing their homes. And yet, curiously, this trauma has remained invisible to the more affluent city dweller.

The English language media has largely approved of the factory closures and slum clearances, and even the usual crocodile tears about ‘painful but necessary steps’ have not been shed. The prevailing consensus considers clean air and green spaces (never mind that the land reclaimed after slum evictions is mainly used for commercial and infrastructural purposes) more important than food and shelter for the working poor.



The virtual absence of voices of protest can be partly attributed to the weak political organization of workers in Delhi. While cities such as Mumbai and Kolkata, with long histories of unionised labour, have witnessed important working class struggles for housing, which have led to significant public policy responses, Delhi has somehow not undergone any systematic attempt at organizing the poor around issues of shelter and habitat. Perhaps it is this lack of action on the ground that has allowed bourgeois visions of the city to prevail unopposed. But what exactly does this bourgeois vision imagine as its ideal?

For the bourgeois environmentalist, the ugliness of production must be removed from the city. Smokestack industries, effluent-producing manufacturing units and other aesthetically unpleasant sites that make the city a place of work for millions, should be discreetly tucked away out of sight, polluting some remote rural wasteland. So must workers who labour in these industries be banished out of sight. Even people whose services are indispensable for the affluent to live comfortable lives – domestic workers, vendors and sundry service providers, should live where their homes do not offend the eyes, ears and noses of the well-to-do.



The key concern here is with control over space, ordering urban (and rural) spaces so that the threat of disease, crime and being assailed by unlovely sights and smells, is minimized. Of course, the profound irony in seeking to make invisible the people and processes that are indispensable for affluent consumption, is rarely acknowledged.

For the bourgeois environmentalist, urban spaces should be reserved for white-collar production and commerce, and consumption activities. Commerce and leisure are fused together in the new shopping malls, amusement parks, cineplexes and other developments sprouting across the city, frequently on land vacated through slum demolitions. That this ordered landscape is underwritten by an ugly real estate mafia with links to politicians and city authorities is another inconvenient fact that is conveniently forgotten.

The concern with an ordered environment, that is safe, hygienic, unpolluted, green and uncongested, is in some ways an extension of the concern about bodily well-being. Personal health, physical and mental, is linked to ‘quality of life’ and the affluent are more able to address their anxieties about crime, disease and other stressful urban characteristics. Parks for morning walkers, temples and ashrams where they can seek spiritual succour, the ‘green’ magic bullet of ‘plant more trees’ are ingredients in imagining cities in ways that exclude basic concerns of shelter, sanitation, water and transport as they affect the lives of the working class.



The supreme unconcern of the bourgeois Delhi-dweller about the plight of working class citizens is not unexpected. What is, however, curious is that bourgeois environmentalism has gone largely unaddressed by commentators as well as activists working on environmental issues in India. Although Ramachandra Guha, in his essay on the ‘authoritarian biologist’ (Seminar, June 1998) and Mahesh Rangarajan, in his writings on the history of wildlife conservation in India, have discussed the elite origins of wildlife enthusiasts in the country and their love for natural habitats artificially created by excluding poor forest dwellers, such coercive conservation has been perceived as a minor stream in the more progressive flow of Indian environmentalism.

In Madhav Gadgil and Guha’s influential formulation, endorsed by scholars as well as activists, Indian environmentalism is distinguished by its emphasis on marrying issues of ‘ecology with equity’. Drawing upon a range of environmental conflicts across the country, Gadgil and Guha and others such as the Centre for Science and Environment show that the main cause of ecological degradation is the deeply unequal structure of Indian society, where elites have pursued a form of development that has intensified resource extraction at the expense of the environment and the subaltern classes who depend on it for subsistence. Social movements against such extraction combine a quest for ecological sustainability with social justice. This ‘environmentalism of the poor’, with its focus on nature as the means of production of both material and symbolic value, is contrasted with Green movements of the North, where nature has primarily been valued as a site of consumption.

Now that we are forced to confront the existence of this consumption oriented environmentalism in our midst, how does it affect analysis and action with respect to Indian environmental movements? Bourgeois environmentalism forces us to rethink the assumption that ecology and equity are always intertwined in the Indian case. The notion of the ‘environmentalism of the poor’ has been powerful because it does describe the ideology of several social movements, but we need to remind ourselves that all environmental movements do not necessarily lead towards social justice. In fact, bourgeois environmentalism directly threatens the survival and other interests of the urban working class.



Workers, on the other hand, are unable to muster the collective strength to assert that their quest for remunerative, safe and secure work which allows them to live with dignity, in surroundings that are not dehumanising, is also about claiming the environment as human habitat. When we consider the very different environmental values and attributes that have priority for different, unequally situated, social groups, our understanding of what an environmental movement is stands challenged.

The lens of political ecology enabled us to believe that ecological concerns would be addressed once the ecologically virtuous – adivasis, hill women, artisanal fishers – gained rights to their resources. This focus on rural small producers, with its neat resolution of red and green issues, has led us to avoid the question of where Indian environmentalism stands with respect to the numerically large section of propertyless rural and urban workers who are poor but whose livelihood practices may be ecologically dubious.



The quarry workers, metal workers, glass manufacturers, small-scale dyers and printers and others who make possible the myriad steps of industrial processing are trapped in low wage, hazardous work. Yet cleaning up these industries in many cases requires a move to more capital intensive technologies that would render the poor jobless. How does one re-concile these conflicting concerns? Environmentalists in India need to examine more closely the complicated, and often contradictory, connections between ecology and equity.

Bourgeois environmentalism also challenges us to examine the issue of political legitimacy and the ability to make claims in the public sphere. Why have the urban poor been unable to voice their vision of the city? What is the politics of place within which poor migrants into cities are stigmatised and disenfranchised, unable to claim civic rights (just as the same politics of place and identity enables adivasis to claim rights to resources as indigenous inhabitants)? How is the public sphere – the realm of collective practices that include the law, judiciary, capitalist media and NGOs – configured such that it excludes the most basic concerns of a majority of city dwellers? These preliminary questions are posed as an entry point into the urgently needed exercise of rethinking environmentalism.