A place in the city


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WHAT makes a city ‘liveable’? There are of course some international standards that are used to describe liveability. For instance, the Mercer global rankings of quality of living are based on annual assessments of the political, social, economic and cultural environment; standards of education and health care; quality of public services and transportation; recreation; consumer goods; housing and the natural environment.1 

Mercer acknowledges that these rankings do not necessary translate into an assured quality of life for every inhabitant of the city: ‘One may live in the highest ranked city in terms of quality of living and still have a very bad quality of life because of unfortunate personal circumstances (illness, unemployment or loneliness, etc).’2 

Mercer’s primary clients are transnational corporations and governments who use these rankings to calculate ‘hardship allowances’ for their employees. For a majority of those outside this exclusive club, the ‘etc.’ in Mercer’s caveat is swollen to bursting with possibilities – homelessness, exclusion, exploitation, drudgery, violence – that keep the mind focused on survival rather than any thoughts of quality of life.

In a city like Delhi, those at the ‘survival’ end of the quality of life continuum are likely to be migrants. According to the latest data, Delhi is home to more than 3.8 million people who come to the city from other states and stay on for a variety of reasons – the possibility of jobs in Delhi’s fast-growing economy; the hope of better facilities and life chances for their children; the lure of anonymity and the chance to slough off inconvenient caste or religious identities; the impossibility of making a living back ‘home’ or simply the fact that ‘home’ no longer exists.

Unlike their privileged counterparts at the upper end of the scale – expats and government employees who take pride in their ability to straddle the insider/outsider boundary with ease and confidence, ‘fitting in’ and ‘standing out’ on their own terms – many millions of migrants remain perpetual outsiders to the city, struggling to make a place for themselves both literally and metaphorically.

From finding a physical space to live in, to locating work and securing the basic necessities of life – migrants at the lower end of the scale are constantly aware that it is their labour rather than their constitutional rights as Indian citizens that provides them with some semblance of legitimacy if not security in the space of the city. For many, even this fragile security is conditional on their remaining in the grey zone between legality and illegality. Living in ‘unauthorized’ bastis or squatter settlements; working for employers who duck both taxes and wages; setting up clandestine factories using hazardous materials; selling goods of dubious provenance on roads and pavements; operating unlicensed vehicles; putting their children to work – in most of these situations, survival for the working poor depends on the ability to duck under the surface of the law or slip into the cracks and crevices of the system and become invisible at short notice.3 


It is not that planners are blind to these ugly realities of urban life for migrants at the bottom of the pile. Nor are they unaware of the fact that these circumstances are not accidents of fate, but may well be created by the way that cities are conceived and planned. For instance, the Delhi Declaration on Inclusive Urban Planning issued after a recent international conference organized by the Ministry of Urban Planning and Poverty Alleviation acknowledges the policy challenge posed by ‘the pace, pattern, nature of urbanization and urban poverty including the proliferation of slums, informality and social inequities that have accompanied urbanization’ and concludes that ‘urban planning, and its related processes, regulations, institutions and funding must recognize the needs of the poor in terms of their spaces for livelihood, living and working as valid and crucial concerns of planning.’4 

It gladdens the heart to know that the delegates to this conference ‘reject discrimination in urban planning, either in form or process’ and feel that urban planning should include ‘women, children, the disabled, the aged and other socially disadvantaged groups to ensure that they have equal access to opportunities, infrastructure and services that urban areas offer.’ If urban planning were to operate on these principles, one can imagine cities making place for all those who live and work in them, and becoming places where everyone can aspire to and strive for a decent quality of life.

Unfortunately, the history of the last few years gives us little reason to believe that these commitments are anything other than ritual genuflections to the quaint notion that planning must start from principles. Real life works differently.


The road map for urban development in India is already in place, in the form of the Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM). The mission is two-pronged, with one component focused on strengthening urban infrastructure and municipal reforms, and the other on expansion of social housing and universal access to basic services. The first phase of the mission has officially been declared a success, but the fact is that it has fallen short of every one of its ill-conceived goals.5 

If anything, the situation of the urban poor with regard to ‘space for livelihoods, living and working’ is today worse than it was when JNNURM was inaugurated with much fanfare in 2005.

In the case of Delhi for instance, even official estimates admit that almost 40% of the population continues to live in substandard housing in bastis and resettlement colonies,6 and at least 300,000 people are homeless.7 Although the government would like us to believe that homeless people are recent migrants, the truth is that much of this homelessness is created. According to human rights groups, at least 100,000 families were rendered homeless in 2009 and 2010 – their homes demolished to make way for more important priorities such as athlete housing, parking lots and recreational areas that were meant to spruce up the city for the Commonwealth Games.


Not everyone who sacrifices their home for the larger public good is eligible for resettlement. Only the lucky few are offered tiny plots of bare land in one of the dismal relocation sites clustered on the extreme edges of the city, with minimal investment on roads, water supply, sanitation and drainage. Commuting to and from work is a major drain on the household budget, already stretched by the expenses of relocation and construction. Unsurprisingly, many of those who moved to these resettlement sites soon sold off their plots to local land sharks and moved back to rented rooms closer to their places of work in the city.

When the Rajiv Ratan Awas Yojana, the Delhi government’s scheme to provide houses to the poor was announced in 2007, it sounded like every basti dweller’s dream.8 A lakh of flats in four-storey blocks were to be constructed, consisting of two rooms, a bathroom and kitchen, with a floor area of 25 square metres. Half of the cost of two lakh rupees would be borne by the government, and loans would be arranged for the rest, repayable over 15 to 25 years. Licenses would be issued in the joint names of husband and wife for an initial period of 15 years. The flats would be earthquake-proof and the complex would have parks, schools, shops, community centres, round the clock water, electricity and public transport at the doorstep.


Five years and many twists and turns later, fewer than 100 of the 14,000 flats constructed under this scheme are occupied – mainly because the government has still not decided who the remaining should be given to. Eligibility criteria have been defined and redefined, thousands of people have applied and reapplied, court cases have been filed and heard, but there is still no resolution of the issue. Meanwhile, the 87 families who had moved to the flats in 2011 are reportedly desperate to escape.9 They are disgusted with the isolation, lack of amenities and poor connectivity to the city. The promised schools, shops and parks have not come up. The nearest school and hospital are three kilometres away. The government primary school refused to enrol their children in the middle of the year. Some children have dropped out, others leave home at five in the morning to go to school in Delhi. There are no jobs for women in the Bawana Industrial Estate. Commuting is expensive so men who have jobs in the city are coming home to their families only on weekends. Water is supplied for only 30 minutes a day. Women are finding it difficult to climb up and down the steep and narrow stairs. The construction is of poor quality – peeling walls, leaking roofs – and there is no one to attend to complaints.

Poor housing is only one side of the story. Despite the hype about Delhi’s booming economy, the economics of survival is becoming increasingly precarious for the working poor. Official figures show an employment rate of almost 95 per cent, but these do not reflect the quality of employment.10 Casual work in the informal sector is usually the only other option available to most workers in resettlement colonies. Studies show that this kind of work cannot even provide a decent living wage, far less a sustainable livelihood in the long-term.11 


Informal sector occupations can provide sustainable livelihoods only if they are linked to the larger economy of the city and are supported by the purchasing power of privileged citizens. Such niches as exist are fast reaching saturation point. Supply is well in excess of demand in occupations such as domestic work with the inevitable impact on wages. Occupations like street vending and petty trading are under attack from the entry of corporate players into the retail market and are in any case increasingly marginalized by the changing lifestyles and upwardly mobile aspirations of their customers. Ragpickers and junk dealers are also under threat from some Indian retail chains who now offer shopping coupons in exchange for recyclable items like old newspapers, cans and bottles. Most entrepreneurs in the informal sector are left to compete against each other, dividing and subdividing the same meagre opportunities and moving further and further away from any possibility of crossing the line between destitution and mere poverty.


The situation of workers in the formal sector is little better. The aggressive push towards a ‘flexible’ workforce – simply put, workers who cannot make long-term claims and can be hired and fired at will – has impacted all sections of industrial workers. Even large automobile companies like Maruti Suzuki have re-engineered their recruitment policies to reduce the number of permanent workers. Almost 80 per cent of the workers on the factory floor in the Maruti’s Manesar factory are hired through labour contractors and have no direct contract with Maruti. Many of them are ITI graduates but are taken on as apprentices and paid only a stipend, even though they work independent double shifts on the assembly line. The pace and conditions of work are unrelenting, with workers switched around from point to point on the production line to remind them that they are easily replaceable.

Significantly, almost all of the workers in Maruti Suzuki and the other big factories in the Manesar area are from outside Delhi, mostly from the Hindi-speaking states but some from as far away as Orissa and Bengal. This is an unwritten but inflexible policy – for instance, Maruti did not hire ‘local boys’ even when workers downed tools and stopped the production line for more than a fortnight. Company recruiters were sent out to ITIs in small towns in western UP and Rajasthan to hire young men who had not even completed their training but who were taken on as temporary hands and dropped without notice when the trained workers came back.

Migrant workers are never allowed to forget that they are ‘outsiders’ in Haryana, with no patrons, no family networks and no support systems to fall back on. They live in villages in and around the industrial zone where the local Jat farmers have built multi-storeyed stacks of small rooms which they rent out to workers. Rents are exorbitant and tenants are required to buy their provisions from shops owned by the landlord (set up conveniently on the ground floor of each tenement) at prices 20-30 per cent higher than the market price. Entries and exits are monitored, and the rules are strict (no drinking, no women, no sitting on the roof). The few people who are brave enough to venture onto the main road and look for cheaper places to buy essentials, are liable to find their possessions thrown out on the street and their doors sealed when they come back.12 


The situation is worse for those who bring their families to the city. Women and children spend their days in the narrow corridors and landings outside the rooms. Their husbands have little energy for anything except eating and sleeping when they come home after an extended ten hour shift. Sexual harassment by the landlord or his male relatives who enter the rooms at will on the pretext of ‘checking’ if everything is in order, is a constant threat. These women’s lives are governed by a sense of impermanence and insecurity. The liberating effect of anonymity in the big city that young women in Delhi bastis describe: ‘No one knows us here, so we can do what we want’, is not something they feel able to test.13 They speak of being constantly under surveillance; their usual defence is to shrink into near-invisibility, blending into the background and leaving a minimum imprint on their environment.

These experiences find a strong resonance in the writings of urban theorists who combine academics with activism, such as Mike Davis who warns that present urban trends are creating a growing underclass of workers,14 and Neil Smith who warns of a global state-corporate nexus that uses violence to force compliance to the dominant neo-liberal order.15 


The policy consensus on the future of cities as key points on the global value chain, presented by neo-liberal orthodoxy as the only option to economic ruin, provides policymakers, governments and urban planners with the justification as well as the instruments for the radical reordering of cities. The steady leaching of politics from the discourse and practice of urban planning is perhaps the most insidious and dangerous of these instruments.

The depoliticization of the city is clearly visible at many levels – in the positioning of urban planning as a purely technical exercise, in the sidelining of elected representatives in the JNNURM process, and in the conception and organization of public space. For democracy to function, public spaces have to be political arenas where multiple actors and world views engage with each other in ways that make political interests and power hierarchies visible, thus opening them to questioning and challenge.16 Such a ‘dialectic of public space’ is increasingly hard to imagine in our cities, where the space for the expression of political protest is shrinking both physically and symbolically.


According to the Spanish scholar-activist Miguel Amoros, the struggle to liberate urban space will be the new class struggle. He warns of an imminent end to the present fossil-fuel dependent model of capitalism, and the cities it has spawned and sustained. He calls for a complete rejection of the idea of urban growth, and a radical re-imagining of the city – one where it is possible for every individual to achieve and enjoy not just well being, but freedom.

‘A radical programme must oppose urban development and demand a return to the city, that is, to the agora and the assembly. It must propose to set limits to urban space, to restore its form, to reduce its size, to put brakes on its mobility. To reunite the fragments, to rebuild homes, to re-establish relations of solidarity and fraternal bonds, to recreate public life. To de-motorize, to live without haste. To leave the market behind, to re-localize production, to preserve equilibrium with the countryside, to demolish three-quarters of what has been built, to make the territory less crowded. The economy must once again be a simple domestic affair. Put anonymity behind us. The individual must develop until he finds his place in the collectivity and puts down roots. The city must generate an atmosphere that, when breathed by its inhabitants, will make them free.’17



1. <http://www.mercer.co.in/press-releases/quality-of-living-report-2012> Accessed on 13 May 2013.

2. International Making Cities Liveable Conferences. ‘The value of rankings and the meaning of livability’. <http://www.livablecities. org/blog/value-rankings-and-meaning-livability> Undated. Accessed on 13 May 2013.

3. See for instance, Aman Sethi, A Free Man, Random House India, 2011, and Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Granta Publications, 2012, both works of narrative reportage describing the realities of life for the urban poor.

4. Delhi Declaration on Inclusive Urban Planning, 19 February 2013 <http://pib.nic.in/newsite/erelease.aspx?relid=92316>

5. Governance NOW. Interview with Arun Maira, Member Planning Commission, 18 June 2012. <http://www.governancenow.com/gov-now/bureaucracy/jnnurm-great-success> Accessed on 13 May 2013.

6. Estimates by the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (30 lakhs in bastis and 40 lakhs in resettlement colonies, out of a total population of 1.67 crore).

7. Estimates from Indu Prakash Singh, IGSSS.

8. See, for instance, news report at <http://www.projectsmonitor.com/detailnews. asp?newsid=14561>

9. See, for instance, Ambika Pandit TNN ‘Dream Home a Far Cry, New Flats Barely Liveable’, Times of India, 7 March 2011.

10. Ministry of Labour and Employment, Second Annual Employment and Unmployment Survey 2011-12. Government of India, Delhi, 2012.

11. Kalyani Menon-Sen and Gautam Bhan, Swept off the Map. Yoda Press, New Delhi, 2009.

12. Authors personal notes and reports in Gurgaon Workers’ News No 55. <http://gurgaonworkersnews.wordpress.com/gurgaonworkersnews-no-955/#fn54>

13. Author’s personal notes of conversations with women and men in workers’ tenements in Kapashera on the Delhi-Gurgaon border.

14. Mike Davis, Planet of Slums. Verso (New Left Books), UK, 2006.

15. N. Smith, The Endgame of Globalisation. Routledge, New York, 2005.

16. Don Mitchell, The Right to the City: Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space. Guildford Press, New York/London, 2005.

17. Miguel Amoros, ‘City Air: The End of Freedom.’ Transcript of talk given at Ateneo Libertario of El Cabanyal, Valencia, on 16 June 2007. Translated version <http://libcom.org/library/city-air-end-freedom-generalization-urban-space> accessed on 15 May 2013.