Politics, privilege and post-national urbanism

SANJAY SRIVASTAVA

THIS discussion in the context of what I refer to as post-national urbanism is about new notions of citizenship and emergent relationships between middle classes, the state and the market. I would like to explore this complex terrain through specific ethnographies of urban life in and around Delhi.

In 1999, soon after being elected to office, Delhi’s erstwhile Chief Minister, Sheila Dikshit, ‘called for an active participation of Residents Welfare Associations in governance.’ The rationale for this was the ‘failure’ of ‘civic agencies’ to carry out their normal tasks. The chief minister’s secretary noted that the call to actively involve RWAs in urban governance heralded a new era, marking as it did ‘the first step towards a responsive management of the city.’1 Positing a distinction between the state and the ‘community’, the secretary further noted that the ‘failure’ of ‘civic agencies’ meant that ‘it’s really time for the community to be given direct control of managing the affairs of the city.’2

Subsequently, the government decided to ‘empower’ RWAs to ‘take certain decisions on their own.’ So, it was proposed that RWAs be given control over the management of resources such as parks, community halls, parking places, sanitation facilities, and local roads. A more direct relationship between the state and RWAs was also mooted through the idea of joint surveys of ‘encroached’ land – that is, land that had been ‘illegally’ occupied, usually by slum dwellers – with the possibility that all illegal structures would ‘be demolished in a non-discriminatory manner.’ Finally, it was proposed that RWAs be allowed to impose fines on government agencies that failed to carry out their assigned tasks.

The Delhi Residents Welfare Association Joint Front (RWAJF) was formed in 2005, following a decision by the Delhi state government to raise electricity tariffs by 10 per cent. The Front consisted of 195 separate member RWAs from around the city. The increase in power rates for domestic consumers was the second one since the state owned electricity body was ‘unbundled’ in June 2002 as part of power sector ‘reforms’. As a result, three privately owned companies secured contracts for electricity distribution.3 There was vigorous protest over the price rise and, in addition to the RWAJF, NGOs such as People’s Action and another group known as Campaign Against Power Tariff Hike (CAPTH), joined the campaign.

 

Individual RWAs asked their members to refuse payment of the extra amount, while RWAJF lobbied the government, and organized city-wide protests. The protests gained wide coverage in both the print and electronic media and, echoing Gandhian anti-colonial strategies, the organizers were reported to have deployed ‘the ideas of "civil disobedience" and "people’s power".’4 Indeed, the parallels sought to be drawn between the Gandhian anti-colonial moment and the present times were even more explicit with the Convener of the RWAJF referring to the protests as ‘non-violent satyagraha [resistance]’.5 Eventually, the Delhi government backed down and the price rise was shelved. According to Sanjay Kaul, Presidents of the People’s Action NGO, the success of the protest heralded the making of a ‘middle class revolution.’6

The circulation of the ideas of ‘civil disobedience’, ‘satyagraha’ and ‘revolution’, and the consolidation of the notion of a ‘people’ contesting the state are located in a context that might be called post-national. By this, I mean a situation where the original moral frisson of these terms – provided by anti-colonial sentiment – no longer holds. Indeed, in an era of post-Nehruvian economic liberalization characterized by consumerist modernity,7 the moral universe of the anti-colonial struggle is no longer part of popular public discourse. Within this context, the earlier emphases on the ethics of ‘saving’ and delayed gratification for the ‘national good’ do not find any resonance in contemporary popular discourses on the role of the state. The term ‘post-national’ does not, however, mean to imply that the nation state is insignificant as a context of analysis, or that we now live in a ‘post-patriotic’ era, as is sometimes theorized. Post-nationalism, in my usage, is the articulation of the nationalist emotion with the robust desires engendered through new practices of consumerism and their associated cultures of privatization and individuation.

 

The most significant manner in which the post-national moment resonates within the politics of urban spaces concerns the repositioning of the language of anti-colonial nationalism from the national sphere to the suburban one. This, in turn, also indexes the move from the idea of the ‘national’ family to the nuclear (gated) one, and the translation of the notion of nationalist solidarity to (middle) class solidarity. Gated residential communities are being constructed across 300 or so Indian cities and such topographical transformations are accompanied by broader changes in ideas regarding family life, state, nation and citizenship.

 

It is in this context that the figure of the consuming woman-as-citizen – a significant aspect of the imaginary of post-national urbanism – takes on particular significance. For the ideology of post-nationalism allows both men and women to have an active relationship with commodity cultures. Further, the new woman-citizen is doubly significant in that not only does she take part in the (consuming) business of modernity, but is also able to withdraw from it when required in order to take on the mantle of the ‘traditional’ Indian woman.8 Through exercising ‘choice’, not only does she embody the logic of consumerism, but also agency.

So, for example, within gated communities – where the ‘street’ is not the street and, for precisely that reason, is a site of intense middle class activity – ‘public’ woman can be both the guardian of tradition and take part in the sexualized presentations of the self. In keeping with this, it is not uncommon to observe elaborately dressed women within gated communities perform the religious rituals of karva chauth (for the welfare of husbands) at night and pace the condominium grounds on their exercise rounds dressed in skin-hugging clothing next morning. And, unlike the constraints placed on women at public celebrations of holi, at the Bacardi sponsored holi mela at one of the gated communities that has been the site of my research, men and women dance together to Bollywood songs on an open air stage. Consumerism here is the grounds for the making of a moral middle class: one that is not determined by modernity, but is able to pull in and out of it; it is both effortlessly western as well as traditionally ‘Indian’. This is also the resolution of the woman question in the context of consumerism where the consuming woman – in opposition to the self-sacrificing one – has been a site of anxiety.

 

Post-nationalism is also about a redefinition of the idea of the ‘people’. The making of the ‘people’ in a time of consumerist modernity has specific consequences: it unfolds through differentiating the ‘good’ consumers from the ‘bad’ ones, in turn identifying the ‘good’ citizen from his or her antithesis. The most visible signs of this are, of course, inscriptions upon urban space – the various acts of gating – that announce the presence and work of an RWA. ‘Urban fear’9 – the slum dweller-turned-criminal is the most frequently invoked threat – is a significant motivation for the proliferation of gated communities in India. However, RWA discourse in Delhi also acts in other ways to produce the ‘uncivil’ other. The ‘power’ agitation referred to above is a case in point.

Various studies points out that electricity privatization in India has had the effect of drastically reducing the already low levels of access for poor sections of the urban population and ‘reform’ in the power sector has mostly benefited the well off. With the consolidation of the idea of the consumer-citizen as the ‘people’ and the broader context of consumerist-modernity, issues of social equity – such as those relating to access to energy resources – come to be evaluated in terms of the logic of consumerism; they become an issue of ‘good’ consumers versus ‘bad’ consumers. So, a frequent justification for the agitation against an increase in electricity charges was that the hike could have been avoided had the government been more vigilant against slum dwellers who obtained power through illegal, and unpaid for, means. And that ‘power theft’ meant that ‘honest’ citizens were subsidizing dishonest ones.

 

There are two other aspects to the post-national moment of middle class activism in Delhi. The first concerns the accumulating discourse on ‘village India’. The ‘imperial construct’ of ‘village India’ (to use historian Ronald Inden’s words10) has found a new life through contemporary consumer culture. Through a number of contexts, the Indian village has become a significant site of the urban middle class imagination. So, discourses of leisure, aesthetics, spirituality, health, and housing – among others – draw upon romanticized images of ‘village India’; there are purpose-built ‘ethnic villages’ to experience ‘authentic’ rural food and entertainment, ‘living museums’ to watch ‘tribals’ producing handicrafts, clothing designed to reflect rural exuberance, and gated enclaves that promise rural idyll.11

The earlier colonial and anthropological preoccupation with ‘village India’ has, more recently transformed into newer enterprises of the middle class imagination. A significant consequence of the middle class idealization of the ‘rural’ manifests in the hostility towards ‘debased’ villagers: the urban working classes and slum dwellers who do not fulfil their vocation as material for the urban imagination. The slum dwellers are, in this sense, ‘improper’ and ‘inauthentic’ villagers, out of place, threats to civic life, and hence, not deserving of sympathy. Hence, the slum is not so much ‘the reinvented "compassionate" village’ (as Ashis Nandy suggests12), as the site of an urban anger at the dismantling of its rural imaginary.

Second, there is in train a process whereby capital actively produces its own citizens such that the notion of separate and autonomous spheres of the state, citizens and capital becomes untenable. What we are left with, in fact, is a simulation of autonomous spheres. Gurgaon in Haryana – now transformed into a satellite suburb of Delhi – has been the site of intense real estate activity by a number of major construction conglomerates – such as Ansal’s, DLF, and Unitech – since the early 1980s. Among these, the DLF corporation is India’s (and one of the world’s) largest real estate company, and the one that has built the 3000 acre DLF city in Gurgaon.

 

Many services within the privately developed sections of Gurgaon continue to be provided by the developers, rather than the Municipal Corporation of Gurgaon (formed in 2008). This includes maintenance of roads, garbage collection, external security and repair of electricity sub-stations. The fees that residents pay for these are known as ‘maintenance charges’. These are paid to the developer that has constructed the locality. Hence, residents of ‘plotted’ localities constructed by DLF and Unitech pay maintenance charges to DLF and Unitech respectively.

In 1986, some residents of a particular plotted locality combined to form a Residents Welfare Association (‘RWA 1’). One of RWA 1’s most consistent demands was for the developer to hand over its townships to the government. According to the Haryana Development and Regulation of Urban Areas Act 1975, the developer must hand over a privately developed ‘colony’ to the government after five years of its development. RWA 1 mounted considerable agitation over this issue. Its members filed court cases, petitioned the government and even fought in assembly and council elections.

 

An office holder of RWA 1 (the older of the two bodies) described the situation as follows:

‘…developers do not want to hand over their townships to the government and the government is not interested either: for as long as the developer has control, it can use the land within its areas in an arbitrary fashion… by simply changing original planning agreements. So, it can build a commercial building on a plot that was earlier indicated on planning documents as a community centre or a dispensary. The government does not wish to change anything because of the massive amounts of under the table money that it gets from private developers. If the colonies were handed over to the Municipal Corporation of Gurgaon, it would be more difficult to make money. It’s easier to make money from the private sector.’

In the early 2000s, another RWA – ‘RWA 2’ – appeared on the scene. RWA 2 is an umbrella body and claimed that nearly 200 different Gurgaon RWAs were affiliated to it. RWA 2 was, in fact, created by one of the key real estate companies in Gurgaon to counter what it perceived to be an association of residents (RWA 1) that was hostile to its interests, in particular the demand that the company hand over the township to be administered by the Haryana government. The company-sponsored RWA has a comfortable air-conditioned office in the same building as many of the company’s offices in a central part of ‘new’ Gurgaon. A RWA 1 office holder told me that in the early 2000s the company initiated moves that led the Haryana government to appoint an administrator to oversee RWA 1’s affairs. In the wake of this, RWA 1 is unable to function. The company-sponsored association, on the other hand, appears to be flourishing. It is headed by retired corporate executive and primarily acts – as an office holder put it – ‘as a bridge between the real estate company and residents of the locality built by it.’

 

In this way, post-national urbanism – a time of significant ongoing renegotiation of the relationship between the state, private capital and the citizens – is the context within which RWA activity redefines notions of ‘civil society’. The term may no longer signify a realm that either interrogates the state,13 or one characterized by a series of formal mechanisms of law and governance.14 Rather, contemporary discourses connected to RWA activity – such as those that relate to Delhi’s Bhagidari scheme and Gurgaon’s RWA 2 – tell us that ‘civil society’ is increasingly the realm where the idea of the ‘people’ (‘ordinary’ citizens) is being produced through the changing relationship between the state and private capital. And that the notion of ‘ordinariness’ has very specific dimensions that relate to the new cultures of corporatization of the state and the state-like transformations of private capital in India.

 

Footnotes:

1. Abhilasha Ojha, ‘RWAs Will Soon Have Direct Control Over Sanitation and Community Halls’, The Indian Express, 12 January 1999 (www.indianexpress.com/res/ple/ie/daily/19991201). Accessed 11 December 2007.

2. Ibid.

3. Aman Sethi, ‘The Price of Reforms’, Frontline 22(19), 10 September 2005, pp. 5-6. For a more benign view of privatization, see Ravi Kanbur, Development Disagreement and Water Privatization: Bridging the Divide, 2007. (http://www.arts.cornell. edu/poverty/kanbur/WaterPrivatization.pdf Accessed 18 January 2009.

4. Aman Sethi, ‘The Price of Reforms’, op. cit., p. 5.

5. Tanvi Sirari, Civil Uprisings in Contemporary India. Centre for Civil Society Working Paper No. 161, 2006, p. 5.

6. Ibid.

7. See, for example, William Mazzarella, Shoveling Smoke: Advertising and Globalization in Contemporary India. Duke University Press, Durham, 2003; Leela Fernandes, India’s New Middle Class: Democratic Politics in an Era of Economic Reform. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2006; and, Christiane Brosius, India’s Middle Class: New Forms of Urban Leisure, Prosperity and Consumption. Routledge, Delhi, 2010.

8. Sanjay Srivastava, Passionate Modernity: Sexuality, Class and Consumption in India. Routledge, Delhi, 2007.

9. Setha M. Low, ‘Urban Fear: Building the Fortress City’, City and Society 9(1), 1997, 53-71.

10. Ronald Inden, Imagining India. Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1990.

11. Véronique Dupont, ‘The Idea of a New Chic Delhi Through Publicity Hype’, in Romi Khosla (ed.), The Idea of Delhi. Marg Publications, Mumbai, 2005.

12. Ashis Nandy, An Ambiguous Journey to the City: The Village and Other Odd Ruins of the Self in the Indian Imagination. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2001.

13. See, for example, the contributions in Sudipta Kaviraj and Sunil Khilnani (eds.), Civil Society: History and Possibilities. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2006.

14. Partha Chatterjee, The Politics of the Governed: Reflections on Popular Politics in Most Parts of the World. Permanent Black, Delhi, 2004.