Deconstructing the ‘world class’ city


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Kotla Mubarakpur is a densely populated cluster of largely low-income settlements in the heart of Delhi. Its narrow, winding, uneven lanes, cheek-by-jowl houses and mixed land-use contrast starkly with the surrounding elite colonies of South Extension and Defence Colony with their planned layouts, segregated land-use and large open spaces. While the meandering gullies of Kotla had enough nooks and corners for young children to enjoy their hide-and-seek, the older children (mostly boys), wanting to play football or cricket, had little option but to go to parks and grounds in the nearby elite colonies or ‘create’ playgrounds for themselves on public land lying vacant and unused since forever in their vicinity.

By the late ’90s all these parks had become out of bounds for them, for they had been converted, using a range of material and discursive devices, from mass public spaces to privatized public spaces meant for the exclusive use of the ‘bonafide’ residents of these posh colonies. One of the makeshift playgrounds that Kotla children had created with their hard work and ingenuity in the late ’80s was lost in the early 2000s to what was to become the first shopping mall of the city, Ansal Plaza. Another playground cum Dussehra ground near the prestigious All India Institute of Medical Sciences was taken over for the construction of the city’s first ‘world class’ flyover.

The Kotla children are not alone in being dispossessed of resources important for their meaningful and dignified survival in the city. Their predicament is in fact a microcosm of the contested attempts of the ruling elite at neo-liberal reconfiguration of major Indian cities into the so-called ‘world class’ cities characterized by leisure living, high-end infrastructure, a spectacular consumptive landscape and nodal positioning in terms of attracting and controlling the flow of transnational capital. This reconfiguration is undergirded by far-reaching transformations in investment patterns, spatial formations, employment structure, governance paradigm and class relations unleashed by powerful forces of economic reforms in the early ’90s.

Indian cities, especially the metros, are today increasingly sought to be modelled on the image of global cities such as New York, London or Tokyo to function as nodes in the circulation of high finance, information flows, hi-tech productive activities and global tourism.1 This new-found urge to be a world class city, a city which is financially, infrastructurally and visually appealing enough to be recommended by credit rating agencies to be put high on the global investment map, necessitates remapping, packaging and advertising the city in such a way that it is able to realize monopoly rents.


However, in the context of intense inter-urban competition for attracting highly volatile capital flows unleashed by the global hegemony of neo-liberal policies, attempts at exclusivity end up generating a serially reproduced homogenous productive and consumptive landscape across otherwise very different cities.2 A rapid proliferation and reproduction of mall-metro-multiplex kind of city-look across urban India is testimony to the fact that though fairly recent, inter-state and inter-urban competition is heating up in India, what with the state and city governments engaged in a ‘race to the bottom’ to attract investors with deep pockets.

As the beneficiaries of the policies of economic liberalization the property-owning middle classes, especially of metro cities, have been at the forefront of not only ‘demanding’ a world-class city but also helping produce it through organized collective actions via their resident welfare associations. They have been assisted in this endeavour by sundry NGOs and environmental groups.3 These groups attack the affirmative activities of the welfare state as the root cause of corruption, lawlessness and pollution of city life and blame ‘vote bank politics’ for the proliferation of whatever doesn’t fit into their idea of how a city should look like, be it slums or factories.

The ‘legal and aesthetic pollution’ caused by working class settlements and factories, they claim, deny them the fruits of legitimate citizens of the city. So the idea of the reclamation of the rights of the ‘citizenry’ gets directly linked to the dispossession of the working classes.4 Whatever else the implications of middle class activism might be, from the point of view of the working classes it has only meant criminalization of their presence in the city and their consequent eviction.


The world-class city does not descend from outer space on no man’s land. The landscape on which this city is sought to be built is a highly variegated geography fashioned by years of intense struggles over resources. The realization of the vision of building world class cities is also thus an intensely political exercise and depends crucially on correcting ‘distortions’ and ‘leakages’ in land and labour markets, service delivery and decision-making. It is worth emphasizing that what are called ‘distortions’ or ‘leakages’ by the decision-making elite are essential strands by which a large part of the existence of the majority of urban working classes labouring outside the Fordist factory system and living in non-master planned areas is woven.5

In the past decade an estimated two million slum-dwellers have been evicted from city areas in just Delhi and Mumbai. Other cities are also not far behind in this regard. In fact the demolition of slums has become such a routine exercise that it hardly finds mention in the mainstream media any more.

Slum eviction is of course only one of the most visible and brutal ways of refashioning urban landscape. However, there are other related processes effecting eviction of the poor and re-making of the urban space. These include closure of small-scale manufacturing and commercial units; zoning laws, regulations and court orders against informal sector workers such as rickshaw-pullers, hawkers and waste-pickers; gentrification of older areas earlier occupied by low-income households; regulating access to basic services like water, electricity, sanitation, health and education to those who can afford to pay through privatization and commercialization; cordoning off public spaces such as parks and streets for private use of middle and upper middle classes and bringing about wholesale changes in the legislative and administrative framework of urban development to make it corporate-friendly.


It was in the mid-90s that the progressive-welfarist, physical planning-based, plan and budgetary allocations-directed and municipal bureaucracy-controlled Nehruvian urban development paradigm began to come under intense scrutiny by pro-liberalization forces. The spectre of crumbling cities was created to push for market-based solutions to problems of allocation of urban land and services. This scenario of decay was attributed to infrastructural deficiencies generated by the pouring in of ‘endless streams of migrants’ coupled with the misuse of resources because of under-pricing.


The Expert Group on Commercialisation of Infrastructure headed by Rakesh Mohan in 1996 projected a requirement of $57 billion (2,50,000 crore) in urban infrastructure for the next ten years.6 This, according to the Expert Group, necessitated opening up urban infrastructure to private capital and exploring ‘innovative’ forms of financing such as municipal bonds, since of course, the government simply did not have enough money to keep the cities alive! It was also argued that to make cities better prepared for attracting private investment in infrastructure and service delivery it was crucial to bring about a major overhauling of the governance, legislative and administrative framework of cities. Subsequently, in a series of coordinated efforts by agencies such as FICCI, CII, USAID, ADB and World Bank in ‘partnership’ with various central ministries of the GoI thrashed out a comprehensive agenda of urban reforms.

Urban development in India being a state subject, proponents of urban reforms realized early on that the central government would have to adopt a ‘carrot and stick’ approach to force state and city governments to adopt the reform package. Thus initiatives such as Urban Reform Incentive Fund (URIF), City Challenge Fund (CCF) and State Pooled Finance Development Scheme were launched in 2002 to encourage states to carry out reforms, to fund transactional costs in moving to a new system of municipal management and service delivery and to assist municipalities in accessing capital markets for funds. The same year government also permitted 100 per cent FDI in real estate, the norms for which were relaxed even further in 2005.


This process reached its high point with the introduction of Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) and Urban Infrastructure Development Scheme for Small and Medium Towns (UIDSSMT) in December 2005. The JNNURM, with a total investment of over one lakh crore for 63 cities over a period of seven years, is by far the most ambitious programme of the central government in the field of urban development.7 The UIDSSMT, similar in nature to the JNNURM, will cover all the cities not covered under the JNNURM.

Building on earlier reform initiatives the JNNURM has been designed as a reform-linked incentive programme. Under the JNNURM the central government will provide funds to state governments and urban local bodies for projects on urban infrastructure and governance and basic services to urban poor. But the catch is that they will be given funds only when they agree to carry out certain ‘reforms’ within a definite time-frame.

The key items of the reform agenda are (a) Liberalization of real estate market through repeal of urban land ceiling acts, pro-landlord changes in rent control acts, development of a strong mortgage market, granting 100 per cent FDI in housing and real estate, introducing property title certification and simplifying the procedure for conversion of agricultural land to non-agricultural purposes, etc.

(b) Privatization and/or commercialization of basic services through PPPs in infrastructure and service delivery, introducing user fees, etc.

(c) Financial and administrative restructuring of municipalities through implementation of 74th CAA, cut down in municipal staff, making disbursement of funds to municipalities contingent on performance as judged by credit-rating agencies, linking up municipalities with capital markets, implementing e-governance for urban services, etc.

(d) Mobilization of middle classes as custodian of urban reforms through the right to information, public disclosure law, citizens’ participation law, area sabhas, reduction in stamp duty, etc.

(e) Integrating sections of the poor through pay-and-use mechanisms such as user fee for accessing basic services and security of tenure at ‘affordable’ prices.


The urban reform agenda, as enunciated in the JNNURM, the UIDSSMT and several other programmes, policies and legislations, is widely perceived to be one of the key instruments for keeping the country on the path of high growth. It might well be the case. But whether this growth will primarily be the result of a real increase in productivity or whether it is going to be based on ‘accumulation by dispossession’,8 i.e. privatization of public assets, enclosure and privatization of urban commons including land, monetization of not yet formally monetized realms of urban existence, etc. (as has been happening currently) remains to be seen. A quick analysis of the reform package clearly shows the latter to be a much more likely scenario.


Consider the case of the Urban Land (Ceiling and Regulation) Act (ULCRA). The ULCRA was passed in 1976 to prevent concentration of urban land in the hands of a few, thereby checking speculation in and profiteering from land, socialization of urban land to ensure equitable distribution amongst various social classes and orderly development of the built urban environment. The act provided for putting up a ceiling on the possession and ownership of vacant land in urban areas and acquisition of excess land for creating housing stock for the poor. The total estimated vacant land in excess of ceiling limit was over 2,20,000 hectares which could have been used to build over 40 million houses for the poor.9

Though the central act was repealed by the NDA government in 1999 itself, there were states such as Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Maharashtra and West Bengal who continued with the ceiling acts. However, with the JNNURM putting the repeal of the act as a mandatory condition for accessing central government funds under the mission, all these states are one by one repealing land ceiling acts. If we see this in conjunction with the green signal given to 100 per cent FDI in real estate sector in February 2005, it becomes clear that in the near future we will see massive concentration of urban land in the hands of domestic and foreign real estate firms. In fact, already the percentage of FDI in real estate as a proportion to total FDI inflows increased from 4.5 per cent in 2003-04 to 26.5 per cent in 2006-07.10 With the demand for scarce urban land increasing from corporate players there is going to be increased pressure to ‘free’ the land occupied by slums in cities.


Similarly, forcing the urban local Bodies to become financially self-reliant and not depend on plan or budgetary allocations from the state or central government, will not only severely curtail their political capacity to respond to the needs of the poorer sections of the society but also create newer inequalities as only a few large municipalities in the country have the ‘creditworthiness’ to raise funds from the capital market. Even if the municipalities are able to raise funds from the market the logic of repayment often forces them to take up only those kinds of projects where returns are higher, faster and assured. The ‘viability’ of whatever projects are implemented for the urban poor is sought to be ensured through imposition of user charges and full cost recovery.

It is a moot question if the urban poor, faced as they are with a rising tide of evictions and insecure employment, would be able to pay user charges which are adequate to ensure full cost recovery of services, and that too when it is stipulated that the funds under the JNNURM cannot be used to create wage employment. It is clear that the poor will either be forced out or priced out of the system of municipal service delivery. It is not surprising then that a large number of the 63 city development plans, prepared under the JNNURM, have as one of their objectives, removal of all public hand pumps by 2011.

In the absence of transfers from higher levels of government the local bodies also resort to large-scale sale of public land to highest bidders to generate resources. This becomes another instrument for the eviction of the poor from prime locations in the city. According to the National Urban Housing and Habitat Policy, 2007, 99 per cent of housing shortage in India is for economically weaker sections. In this context the promised 22.5 per cent of developed land in new housing sites (even if it materializes, the chances of which are slim given the abysmal track record of private sector in building housing for the poor) would still be woefully short of the requirement.

The supreme irony of the reform agenda is that for all its tall claims about strengthening local governments, all the critical decisions regarding urban development are being centralized in the hands of non-elected technical and managerial bodies, while the elected bodies such as the ULBs are being left to deal with the repayment of debts taken to create so-called ‘world class’ cities.


The urban reform agenda represents a concerted and multi-scalar attempt at corporate takeover of Indian cities. While there is a section of citizens sensing an opportunity for upward mobility in this takeover, for a much larger number of urban residents this could only mean dispossession of their belongings earned through decades of hard work and physical as well as notional eviction from the city. For the city as a whole this would mean a plunder of its resources by a tiny minority and banishment of its most productive residents to the periphery. A spectre is indeed haunting India – the spectre of apartheid cities!



1. S. Sassen, The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2001.

2. D. Harvey, Spaces of Capital: Towards a Critical Geography. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2001.

3. Amita Baviskar has described this phenomenon as bourgeois environmentalism. See A. Baviskar, ‘Between Violence and Desire: Space, Power and Identity in the Making of Metropolitan Delhi’, International Social Science Journal 55, 2003, 89-98.

4. P. Chatterjee, The Politics of the Governed: Reflections on Popular Politics in Most of the World. Columbia University Press, New York, 2004.

5. See S. Benjamin, ‘Touts, Pirates and Ghosts,’ Sarai Reader, 2005.

6. Expert Group on Commercialisation of Infrastructure Projects 1996, The India Infrastructure Report: Policy Imperatives for Growth and Welfare. NCAER, New Delhi, 1996.

7. htm

8. D. Harvey, The New Imperialism. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2002.

9. Urban%20Land%20Ceiling%20Act.pdf

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