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City Life: Dichotomies in an Urbanizing India

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City Life: Dichotomies in an Urbanizing India

An Interview with Ananya Roy

By Sonia Luthra
June 18, 2012


The population of the three largest cities in India—Mumbai, Delhi, and Bangalore—totals 32 million; if these cities were one country, they would rank 39th in the world. The total population of the ten largest cities in India would rank at a comfortable 22nd in the world. These metropolises also hold economic might. According to a 2010 McKinsey Global Institute study, by 2030 cities could generate more than 70% of India’s net new employment and produce 70% of its GDP. These numbers reflect India’s growing trend toward, and the power within, urbanization—a shift that cannot be ignored in economic or social policy.

In an interview with NBR, Ananya Roy (University of California, Berkeley) discusses the impact of India’s move toward urbanization on city planning and design, local economies and politics, and what this trend implies for growing metropolises globally.


What are the roles of India’s largest cities in the 21st century?

The 21st century is an urban century, one during which the human condition will also be an urban condition. Much of this urban growth will take place outside of North America and Western Europe, and quite a bit will take place in the emergent economic powerhouses of India and China. In this sense, India’s largest cities anchor India’s place in the global economy. They are sites of global production, consumption, and trade. But it is worth noting that India’s largest cities play this role because they are home to diverse economies, from global real-estate markets to the informal enterprises of slums. As is now well established, slum economies are integrally connected to globalization. For example, slums like Mumbai’s Dharavi are lively sites of economic production, producing a host of commodities for urban, national, and global markets. It is thus worth considering how the global character of India’s cities lies not only in the high-end malls and hotels and residential complexes but equally in their poorer communities.


India’s cities have rapidly expanded in recent decades, as more and more of the country’s populace has emigrated from rural areas. Why does a shift to urban life matter, particularly in India’s largest cities?

The urbanization of India is an interesting phenomenon. Debates continue about the level of urbanization in the country. If we are to take seriously not only India’s mid-sized cities but also its small towns and large villages, then India is already significantly urbanized. Rural-urban migration is an important part of such urbanization, but so is the transformation of the rural periphery of urban agglomerations. This is a process of metropolitan transformation with the rise of city-regions. India’s city-regions are perhaps not as vast as those of China, but they are complex blends of rural and urban territories. Indeed, the term “suburb” may be increasingly relevant in the Indian context, for it signifies the urbanization of the metropolitan edge. From new towns serving the Indian middle classes to vestiges of agriculture to fragile informal settlements of the urban poor to volatile land speculations, peri-urban India is an emergent spatial type that requires considerably more analytical and policy attention.


I have highlighted the new spatial identity of India. But urbanization also possibly entails a shift in the political life of the world’s largest democracy. Quite a bit of Indian politics—including its populist transactions—has been rooted in the intimacies and hierarchies of village life. My research in Kolkata suggests that there is a distinctive urban politics at stake in India’s urbanization, for example in struggles around land, infrastructure, and urban services. These range from social uprisings against land acquisition—take the case of SEZs (special economic zones)—to protests against slum evictions to middle-class Resident Welfare Associations mobilizing around quality-of-life issues in cities.


Your research on Asian urbanism discusses the nature of both “informal” and “formal” cities. What are the key differences, and how would you characterize India’s largest cities?

If we are to think of the 21st century as an urban century, then we must also think about it as a century of urban informality. By this I mean that not only will much of the urban growth of this century take place in the cities of the global South—in Asia, Africa, and Latin America—but also that this growth will be in the idiom of informalization. What is the informal? We can think about it as the illegal, but it is perhaps better understand as that which does not conform to regulation. Thus, the same activity—be it a type of housing or a type of livelihood—can be formal when it meets state codes and regulations but informal when it does not. Informality is crucial for the urban poor, for it makes possible livelihood, access to services, and shelter. Without such life outside the realm of formal regulation, the urban poor would not gain a foothold in the city.


But Indian cities teach us something else about urban informality—that it is also the domain of the middle classes and the wealthy, not just the marginalized and poor. My research, as well as that of my colleagues and students, demonstrates how much of the commercial and residential urban development of Indian cities is in fact informal—that is, it violates the city’s master plan or fails to comply with key environmental or land-use regulations. When these developments are modern malls, gated condominium estates, or elite farmhouses, their informality is ignored and condoned. But the informality of the urban poor is condemned in Indian cities—slums and squatter settlements are vilified and singled out as encroachments. I would argue that what matters most in Indian cities today is not the divide between the formal and the informal systems (since much of these cities are in fact informal), but rather, how the informality of the rich is legalized and normalized while the informality of the poor is criminalized. This means that Indian cities need a new generation of policies that will stop targeting the informal practices of the poor and instead consider the violations of the rich. Clearly the criminalization of urban poverty has to end—and the slum-free cities framework is an important step in this direction. But if Indian planners are concerned with creating spatial order in Indian cities, then they would be wise to turn their gaze toward the numerous elite informalities and encroachments that until now have been condoned and even encouraged.


What are your thoughts on the characterization of urbanization as a “problem”? What types of issues should large Indian cities like Mumbai, Bangalore, and Jaipur address to better function and meet the needs of their populations?

Urbanization per se is not a problem. But there are urban problems, and Indian cities have their fair share of such problems. As far as I am concerned, the greatest challenge that Indian cities face today is the question of equity and social justice. In Indian cities the urban majority is the urban poor. But the urban poor in India have been marginalized; their livelihoods and strategies of shelter have been criminalized. Urban planning and economic policy in India has barely cast a glance at the urban poor. Deprived of affordable housing, decent schools and healthcare, and basic human infrastructure, India’s urban poor are outcasts in India’s global cities. This is an intolerable situation and it must change. For example, recently Indian policymakers have articulated a vision of slum-free cities. How such a policy unfolds remains to be seen, but it may be the harbinger of change. The policy is suspect in its efforts to create property titles for slum dwellers, for even if this were feasible it may lead to the rapid commodification and gentrification of slum lands. But the policy is laudable in its efforts to recognize the Indian slum as a key driver of economic growth and social inclusion and to thus create a set of social-protection policies for slum dwellers. Indian cities need many more such creative policies, underwritten by those with an eye on the urban majority. Cases like Brazil (discussed below) may provide some interesting options. Cases from the global North, such as San Francisco, may also present a model. Cities like San Francisco are experimenting with urban-level social protection and citizenship policies. These are often much more inclusive than national policies and include such things as universal healthcare for urban residents.


What can Indian metropolises learn from other megacities in Asia, such as Seoul, Tokyo, Shanghai, Taipei, or Manila, to inform their own urbanization agendas?

My most recent research is on what I call inter-Asian urbanism, that is, how cities in Asia reference one another through models of urban planning, blueprints of design, and circulations of real-estate capital. Cities can learn a great deal from each other. Indian city builders and planners have often looked to other Asian cities like Singapore, Dubai, and Shanghai, and sought to replicate their spatial order. Indeed, it is in the name of “Shanghaification” that thousands of slum dwellers have been evicted in Mumbai. By Shanghaification, I refer to the future-oriented visions for Mumbai that imagine the city as the next Shanghai. Perhaps other lessons can be learned from these cities. For example, Singapore has one of the most robust public-housing policies in the world. Such policies have allowed it to provide economic security for its urban majority, and indeed, public housing has been the foundation of economic prosperity for this city-state. Can Indian urban planning make public housing a priority?


In the Asian context, the India-China comparison dominates. It may be worthwhile for Indian cities to set aside this comparison—after all, China’s political economy is starkly different than that of India—and to instead turn to more relevant comparative cases such as Brazil. In Brazil, an ambitious set of urban policies prompted by social movements and political democratization has institutionalized the “right to the city” for urban residents. This is a conceptualization of urban citizenship, one that is fundamentally concerned with the right to participate in the city. It is a form of citizenship that is appropriate for the urban century and one that is worth taking up in India.


Sonia Luthra is Assistant Director for the National Asia Research Program (NARP) and Outreach.


This is part of a series of Q&As produced by NBR for the Senate India Caucus.



Ananya Roy is Professor of City and Regional Planning and Distinguished Chair in Global Poverty and Practice at the University of California, Berkeley. Dr. Roy teaches in the fields of urban studies and international development. She also serves as Education Director of the Blum Center for Developing Economies and Co-Director of the Global Metropolitan Studies Center.