In the 1960s a report for the Indian Planning Commission titled “Our Cities Do Not Present an Urban Picture” echoed a widespread assumption about colonial and postcolonial cities. The author of this report, Jal Feerose Bulsara, having undertaken a study of nine Indian cities, claimed: “Some are cities in name only. Most cities are urban only in part. They present the worst features of overgrown and ugly villages. In many places, they present foul-smelling slums, where municipal services are conspicuous by their absence or scarcity and where overcrowding is intense. The density is equally appalling.”1Jal Feerose Bulsara, Problems of Rapid Urbanisation in India, report submitted to the India Planning Commission Research Programmes Committee (Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1964), 155. Here, Bulsara drew a striking distinction between urbanism and cities, making it possible to claim that there were in fact cities in India but that they were not sufficiently urban because they contained “unsightliness, populous villages, slums” and “overcrowding.”
Bulsara’s distinction between the ideal “urban” city and India’s actual slummed cities came on the heels of decades of social invention that went into producing the city in the first place. Bounding and demarcating the space of the city was central to colonizing space in the nineteenth century. City-making, through census categorizations of both people and places, served to manage crises of capital and labor reproduction, as well as of colonial legitimacy.“Distinguishing between villages and towns was difficult: It required deploying what could seem an arbitrary criterion of distinction.”
But the actual practices of city-making were not straightforward and required constant reworking. For example, distinguishing between villages and towns was difficult: It required deploying what could seem an arbitrary criterion of distinction. Historical records reveal these ambiguities. In British India, some rural and coastal districts were just as or even more dense than parts of cities, such as Bombay (now called Mumbai). But these areas were neither classified as “city” nor governed as such, i.e., not even density constituted city-ness. Such difficulties were definitionally resolved by deciding, for the 1872 census of India, that a town was a place with greater than 5,000 people, even though many districts over 5,000 people were based entirely on agriculture.
By the 1980s, the occupation of residents was used to define a village, a town, or a city—the latter two defined as having predominantly “nonagricultural” laborers. However, this has not solved the problem of classifying space. Many workers continue to belong to networks of seasonal migrants who switch between “sectors” of the economy; furthermore, functions and relations thought to be “agricultural” can be found in the city, and vice-versa.
India’s criteria for defining who and what counts as urban are ever-evolving: population size, population type, dwelling types, and occupation have all been used at various times. However, each new regime of classification derives from the fundamental division between legitimate and nonlegitimate residents which has long been central to the idea of the city in the first place. The selective exclusion of different people from what counts as the city raises a central question, “For whom is the city a border?”2Ananya Roy, “Who’s Afraid of Postcolonial Theory?” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 40, no. 1 (2015): 200–209. Conversely, for whom is the city open, or for whom is it profitable and productive? Finally, what purposes does “bordering” the city serve?
Constructing colonial cities: The Bombay case
During the colonial period, distinguishing the urban from rural was no disinterested desire. Containing agricultural crises—positioning them as distinct from what happened in the space of the city—was central to maintaining the legitimacy of colonial rule. Doing so made it possible to position the city as a space of progress, the success of the colonial civilizing mission, even as crises of social reproduction in agriculture caused famine in every decade.
By 1900, some 30 million people had died of famine-related causes in colonial India.3New York: Verso, 2001More Info → During the famines of the 1870s, migrants fleeing starvation in the countryside were literally blocked out of the city. In Bombay, relief camps were set up on the Sion Causeway, which led into the city, to keep migrants outside, as there was fear that such migrants would become permanent dependents on relief works provided by the municipality rather than return to industriousness. When physical roadblocks were no longer possible, distinctions between skilled and unskilled labor, industrious as opposed to dependent populations, and “slum”—that particular object of urban reform—versus makeshift housing—that could be ignored—served to sort migrants in the city and sort city-space. The demarcation and renewal of the city served the interests of both colonial and Indian capital, in particular during crises.“The categorization of “slum” had served to legitimize projects of renewal and reform, but also to secure alliances and links between capitalist classes and institutions of spatial governance.”
Following the outbreak of bubonic plague in Bombay in 1896, Indian capitalists allied with colonial rulers to restore what was called the “sanitary credit” of the city. Plague had caused capital and labor to flee, threatening to halt commerce out of India since Bombay was a commercial hub and port. In spite of immense riots against plague officials surveilling, quarantining, and forcefully hospitalizing suspected native plague victims, Indian capitalists became city leaders and agreed that “the city” was necessary infrastructure for revenue generation and restoring world commerce. Together they formed the City of Bombay Improvement Trust in 1898, which would provide them risk-free loans and financing to invest in creating more durable structures and widen thoroughfares. This was when vertical tenements in the central districts of Nagpada and its vicinity were identified as the very first “slums” of Bombay. Comparable and commensurable to “slums” in the North Atlantic world, these central tenements became targets of town planning and reform in the 1900s. Shortly thereafter, the Trust’s limitless financing caused a property boom, pricing migrants and workers out of the very forms of shelter essential to theirs and the city’s survival. Trust officials wanted to expand into what were called Bombay’s suburbs. They started naming certain suburban locales “slums” to justify their intervention even though those landscapes looked very different from districts like Nagpada. Rather than the densely inhabited vertical tenements or “chawls,” suburban locales presented a more sparse built environment. The categorization of “slum” had served to legitimize projects of renewal and reform, but also to secure alliances and links between capitalist classes and institutions of spatial governance.
Rather than solve socioeconomic problems, such as the ongoing agricultural crises that continued to produce famished migrants in almost every decade, a consensus formed across the colonial divide. Both British officials and moneyed men in Bombay coalesced to devise methods of containment. Agricultural crises and their famished migrants were contained as “local” problems while the Trust inaugurated widespread projects of city improvement to integrate the city within world commerce. Worlding the city through projects of renewal was the counterpart to localizing agriculture. Such strategies made addressing the “slum question” seem like a distinct task from addressing the “agrarian question.” The former required specialists on the city—town planners, architects, developers, and legal experts—while the latter justified Malthusian rationales. Both colonial officials and Indian capitalists were convinced that only more opportunities to enter markets could liberate peasants from poverty and civilize the population all at once, since commerce was seen as a civilizing force. While waiting for that outcome, migrant workers continued to seek out the city for opportunity while millions died of starvation.
Since India’s independence from British rule in 1947, Bombay has been perpetually in crisis. There is either a housing and land shortage, a demographic surplus, or flooding. Stories of corruption abound. Real estate developers, city officials, and neighborhood dadas (bosses) constrain and control access to land, labor, and money. The city has flooded almost every year over the past decade during the monsoons. Paradoxically, tales of drenched urban roadways and railways are accompanied simultaneously by stories of parched earth not far from city limits and dried pipes even inside the city.4→Samyukta Shastri, “‘We Don’t Get Water, You Do’,” People’s Archive of Rural India, July 6, 2017, https://ruralindiaonline.org/.
→Shraddha Agarwal, “‘Clean Water is a Luxury We Cannot Afford’,” People’s Archive of Rural India, June 28, 2019, https://ruralindiaonline.org/. These “crises” of both scarcity and plenty are ritually attended to by city officials carefully performing good governance.
One particularly compelling ritualized enactment of good governance is the destruction of “illegal” structures, ranging from housing settlements in sprawling shantytowns to “illegal” water pipes that residents have procured into those settlements. To assert the illegality of building such structures, their poor residents are “portrayed as not actually being of ‘the city’ at all.”5Stephen Graham, Renu Desai, and Colin MacFarlane, “Water Wars in Mumbai,” Public Culture 25, no. 1 (2013): 115–141, 116. But just as in the colonial period, these slums are designated based on arbitrary and interested motives; “slums” are not a self-evident form of housing.
By the time of India’s independence, it had become increasingly common to exclude migrants and laborers from what counted as the city, especially by stigmatizing dwelling types. This practice served both economic and political ends. In the 1970s, developers and city officials pointed to overcrowded conditions of these tenement districts to justify building Bombay’s twin, “New Bombay” or Navi Mumbai, on the mainland, promising housing to the urban poor. Instead, most of the new development when to civil servants and the middle class. Over time, as new regimes of privatization were deployed, what were once legal settlements in Bombay descended into being called a “slum.”“In both cases, what is missed is that seasonal laborers and laboring networks that span the spaces of city and village or industry and agriculture keep city life and capital moving.”
In the following decades, land developers, city officials, and even international development agencies have labeled the city’s most shelter-insecure either “squatters,” to be criminalized for land “theft,” or “entrepreneurs,” to be celebrated for their ingenuity in procuring a livelihood in the city. In both cases, what is missed is that seasonal laborers and laboring networks that span the spaces of city and village or industry and agriculture keep city life and capital moving. Laborers who do everything from industrial work, cultivation, petty commodity production, domestic servitude, construction work, and municipal and transportation services reside in housing that can be stigmatized and demoted at the will of developers, city officials, and neighborhood improvers. Yet, then as now, migrants build Mumbai.6Sapana Jaiswal, “How Mahabubnagar’s Migrants Build Mumbai,” People’s Archive of Rural India, December 19, 2014, https://ruralindiaonline.org/.
In the rise of violent neoliberal Hindu nationalist politics, Muslims and Dalits struggle the most to be included in the ephemeral borders that administrators and middle class residents call the city. Muslims and Dalits are most likely to be excluded from legitimate and legal city-space, most likely to be targeted for removal from “illegal” urban settlements, and most likely to be stigmatized as not deserving of “modern” urban amenities like piped water, title over land, or the legitimation that would come from regularizing, and thus formalizing, their labor.
Mumbai’s ongoing crises
Since 1990, over 300,000 farmers have committed suicide in Western India because of crushing debt born of the privatization of all inputs into agriculture.7Palagummi Sainath, Everybody Loves a Good Drought, 20th anniversary ed. (Penguin Books, 1996). Such privatization has also resulted in higher rates of rural to urban migration but rather than find opportunity in the city, the laboring poor have encountered a regime of exclusion that unites officials, capitalists, and the middle class under the benevolent goal of securing the health of their city. Hundreds of thousands of city dwellers have been evicted from or demoted within Mumbai.
Tracing the power of capital in the making of Mumbai similarly suggests that from its lack of proper housing to its “water wars,” the city’s many “crises” are in fact not “natural” but both materially and narratively manufactured. Mumbai does not have a land or housing shortage; instead, the shortages are produced by private developers who build unaffordable and even unoccupied housing by displacing poorer residents.8Hussain Indorewala, “Does Mumbai Really Need 11 Lakh More Houses?,” Scroll.in, March 22, 2016. Further, the city is not naturally prone to flooding; it is planned to flood.9Hussain Indorewala and Shweta Wagh, “Here’s Why Mumbai Floods Year After Year,” The Wire, July 20, 2018. Neither are its droughts inevitable. Recent studies of “hydrological apartheid” in Mumbai reveal that the city’s class-segregated infrastructures provide water in ways that “systematically dehydrate and profit from urban slum communities, while water wastage by the affluent…goes unchecked.”10Graham, Desai, and MacFarlane, “Water Wars in Mumbai,” 116.
The ongoing farmer suicides and slum evictions are two sides of a common logic of alienation, dispossession, and management that produce city and agrarian space. As the People’s Archive of Rural India painstakingly documents, migrants across India continuously reconstruct the rural in the urban. The manufactured “crises of urbanism” have their counterparts in repeated crises of agriculture, each a result of intensifying capitalist relations that crisscross colonial and postcolonial space. Yet they are treated as distinct by administrators and officials, that is, if they are treated at all.“Public housing was systematically underfunded and thus designed to fail.”
Cities were and are spatial expressions of the crises endemic to racial capitalism—their logics of segregation and gentrification divide laborers and working classes in time and space. This is true not only of postcolonial cities but also of North Atlantic ones. For instance in 1972 when the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex was destroyed in St. Louis, Missouri, one of the excuses given was that the Black residents who lived there were essentially ruralites, having migrated northwards just decades prior from the US South.11Katharine G. Bristol, “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth,” Journal of Architectural Education 44, no. 3 (1991): 163–171. But neither the residents’ rural origin nor the design of the buildings caused the abandonment of public housing in the United States. Public housing was systematically underfunded and thus designed to fail.
Undergirding the more visible and violent urban exclusions, like slum demolitions and water wars, lies the seemingly banal and technical act of continually bordering the city—by drawing boundaries between laboring bodies, dwelling types, practices of social reproduction, and even “sectors” of the economy. Such bordering, both classificatory and real, has long served as a subterranean form of class warfare designed to manage populations and keep capital flowing.
Banner image: Sapana Jaiswal / People’s Archive of Rural India. This photo was featured in the excellent story “How Mahabubnagar’s Migrants Build Mumbai.”