Categorized | Global Economy, India, World

Urban Development in India: Chasing the Global at a Cost to the Local?

Image by lecercle

Image by lecercle

The observant visitor to the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai is offered two contradictory faces of globalisation. Corrugated iron and blue polythene slums throw the air conditioned modernity of Mumbai’s adjacent airport into sharp relief. Few, if any, of these slum residents will ever board one of the planes that land and depart by the minute. Rapid globalisation and urban development poses a huge contradiction in Indian cities,[ref]Appadurai, A. (2000) Spectral Housing and Urban Cleansing: Notes on Millenial Mumbai. Public Culture. Vol. 12 No. 3, p. 630.[/ref] where global wealth and local poverty increasingly diverge. Mumbai, India’s financial capital and the city with the highest GDP in South Asia, is a city of unmitigated wealth disparities.

Following economic liberalisation policies in the 1990s and a shift from an industrial economic model to one of service and trade, Mumbai reimagined itself as a post-industrial city, attracting global businesses and technologies and concentrating its wealth in a managerial and technological elite.[ref]Chatterjee, P. (2004) Are Indian Cities Becoming Bourgeois At Last? In: Chaterjee, P (ed.) The Politics of the Governed: Reflections on Popular Politics in Most of the World, Columbia University Press. p. 143.[/ref] The proliferation of luxury goods and global businesses housed in Mumbai’s glass and steel financial district underwrite the city’s status as one plugged into the circuits of global capital. But this prosperity belies the reality of Mumbai’s urban poor. A report by the World Bank revealed that Mumbai is believed to have the highest concentration of absolute slum dwellers in the world. 54% of Mumbai’s residents live in slum settlements cramped into 8% of the urban landscape. The issue of housing, or lack of it, is what academic Arjun Appadurai has described as

“the stage for the most public drama of disenfranchisement in Mumbai”.[ref]Appadurai, A. (2001) Deep Democracy: Urban governmentality and the horizon of politics[/ref]

Dharavi is one of Mumbai’s best known slums. Because of its central location, and the soaring demand for real estate, property developers have been quick to notice the potential for development in Dharavi. Proposed developments by the Dharavi Redevelopment Project (DRP) have iterated the public-private partnership formula now commonplace in urban development. Property developer Mukush Mehta was the first to espouse the idea for this sort of development in Dharavi. He proposed this to the Maharashtra Government who appointed him head of the DRP. His initial plans for the slums’ regeneration included a golf course and high rise tower blocks; these proposals were, not surprisingly, criticised by residents, NGOs and academics on the basis that they sacrificed contextual sensitivity for the sake of profit. Mehta was later marginalised to the position of technical consultant to the DRP, however, he still maintains a prominent presence in development plans.

Advocates of public-private partnerships have viewed Dharavi as an opportunity for profit rather than social need. Consequently, these development proposals overlook the needs of the urban poor. Proposed policies only include a limited number of residents in their quota of affordable housing, threatening to displace those who fall outside this remit (partly as a result of the informal nature of housing in Dharavi: actual population numbers are estimated). Moreover, all residents eligible for upgradation will receive the same 21 square foot apartment. This uniform strategy ignores the complex network of different religious cultures, dialects, and sizes of families in Dharavi, supplanting a complex cultural network with a monoaspirational vision for the modern urban landscape.

Logistical challenges that slum development poses, including limited land availability, complex bureaucratic regulations, a lack of clarity surrounding the legal status of slum dwellers, as well as population density and urban growth, have all impeded development in Dharavi.[ref]INDIA. MCKINSEY & COMPANY. (2010) India’s Urban Awakening: Building inclusive cities, sustaining economic growth. India: The Mckinsey Global Institute. p. 53.[/ref] However, this is not a justification for the lack of inclusivity and contextual sensitivity in current development proposals. Such matters are more likely symptomatic of what the academic Partha Chatterjee has described as a shift in urban policy contextualised by India’s changing economic aspirations.[ref]Chatterjee, P. p.144[/ref] The growth of high-technology industries and the decline of traditional manufacturing marked a shift in government policy away from helping the urban poor to subsist and towards the pursuit of global capital, the improvement of infrastructure, and the import of high technology. While Mumbai is increasingly globally connected, it is also increasingly disconnected from its poor inhabitants, who have become functionally unnecessary in a post industrial urban paradigm .

The Sabarmarti Riverfront Development in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, offers a sobering example of the implications of social exclusion wrought in profit biased urban regeneration. The riverfront, once home to a multitude of gritty cottage industries, is now a postcard for urban cleansing, where public-private regeneration has failed to supply affordable housing for the urban poor. As academic Ipsita Chatterjee said, the mass evictions and displacements that occurred as outcomes of Ahmedabad’s beautification have led to a social Darwinism, where economic exclusion has exacerbated ethnic and religious tensions between Hindus and Muslims. In an interview regarding Ahmedabad’s regeneration, Mr Patel, chair of the Ahmedabad Urban Development Authority, claimed that

“Our vision of development is the best for all social maladies: there is no need for specialized attention for any class or community.[ref]Chatterjee, Ipsita. Social Conflict and the Neoliberal City. A Case of Hindu-Muslim Violence in India. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. Vol. 34 Issue 2. pp 143-160. p.44[/ref]

Yet putting complete faith in profit-biased development as a proxy for social justice is clearly an obtuse and homogenising strategy. Urban development policies that ensure inclusion and participation with those whose lives they seek to improve are necessary to avoid situations like that in Ahmedabd, where social and economic exclusion has kindled social unrest.

There is some optimism for better forms of urban development in Mumbai. The independent Urban Design Research Institute (UDRI) in Mumbai hosted a competition in 2014 titled Reinventing Dharavi that sought answers from international, interdisciplinary teams. The winning team was Indian, based in Mumbai. Called Plural, the team proposed a solution that would transfer land ownership to a Dharavi Community Trust. The team hosted workshops with Dharavi residents based around inclusion and participation. This flies in the face of previous development proposals: while proposals for Dharavi’s development have existed since the 1970s, they have generally excluded the voices of resdients in their proceedings, a fact evinced in Mukush Mehta’s model for development.

In the past, India has managed to govern a multicultural, regionally diverse demography with relative democratic success. With regards urban development, it seems to be turning its back on a uniquely Indian model in favour of adopting global neoliberal development strategies. If such strategies displace rather than include, as can be argued by pointing to the case of Ahmedabad, then Mumbai would be better served by drawing on lessons from uniquely Indian solutions of governance rather than fully embracing a one-size-fits-all paradigm of globalised neoliberal urban development.

Image courtesy of lecercle

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About Hettie O'Brien

Hettie is a Political Philosophy graduate from the University of St Andrews. She is interested in national identity, cosmopolitanism, and human security, and is in preparation for an MPhil in Global Politics.

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