Independent India was built, imagined and judged by its villages; by gram swaraj. The nation was rarely, if ever, imagined by its founders to be led (Chandigarh aside) by its cities. Cities were spaces of the other — of colonial empires and cantonments, of a modernity that had come first in the garb of colonialism — separate from the “inner” nation, which, authentic and unsullied, lived on in the villages. As Nehru once famously said: “we want to urbanise India’s villages; not take away the people from villages to towns.”
This ambiguity over the city and the reductive stereotypes it inhabits has had a long innings; and yet has begun to change. The urban has begun to rise not just demographically but politically, electorally, socially, culturally and economically to become the defining problem space of the “new India”.
What Mumbai’s taxi drivers remind us of, however, is that this emergence is a deeply contested and fraught one.
This is only the latest contest in a series that will continue as India urbanises. A long-held myth holds that urban conflicts are economic and technical ones over resources and infrastructures while rural conflicts centre more on identity and community politics. The corresponding myth is that urban challenges require better technical planning and governance, not political or cultural interventions. It is time to put these myths to rest.
As resident welfare associations lead public interest litigations against the poor for being “dirty” and “criminal”; as Mumbai’s taxi drivers must learn Marathi; as the Sri Rama Sene polices southern Karnataka’s streets to ensure cultural purity; as anti-migrant, anti-Bangladeshi and anti-poor campaigns dot our urban landscapes; as malls are allowed to encroach on protected forest areas and protected forest areas are allowed to encroach on the homes of the poor; as imaginations of the world-class city transform built environments and budget lines, it is time to realise that politics has come to the city.
How should we think of this urban politics? There is an old frame long applied to the nation that offers itself for a much needed urban reclamation: citizenship. Cities were the original sites of citizenship long before the nation-state. In its essence, citizenship implies a sense of belonging and membership to a community. It is an identity to be constructed and exercised, not simply to be passively possessed. Constructing citizenship in the city means asking difficult questions of inclusion, exclusion, equality and belonging — the very same ones we asked for the nation through the Constitution. It is these questions that we must now ask instead of looking to new and different versions of planning. There is no Master Plan, no matter how technically competent, that can fix a city without a sense of itself because there can never be a solely technical answer to a political question.
Our cities today lack a shared imagination of what and who can belong to them, what our urban vision is. They are often just a collection of fragments pitched against each other — and our debates are thus, in turn, fragments. We do not speak of housing, but instead RWAs file legal petitions against settlements. We don’t think about ways to integrate different kinds of land use and different uses of the built environment, we simply “seal” those who innovate and try and work and live out of the same space. We don’t think of sustainable use of our urban environment, we create museum-like parks and find culprits and communities we simply declare “dirty”. We do not speak of the need for different classes of public and private transport, but make an effort like the BRT become about cars versus buses, as if the riders of each do not live in the same city. We are unable to speak of the city with each other, so we speak simply to our fellow city residents through and within the courtroom.
We must instead think of an urban citizenship — one where presence in the city, work and contribution to the city, a claim to city identity based on a sense of belonging are extended to all who are here and all those who come. No city in history worth remembering has ever prospered by closing its doors and denying itself to those who seek it. An urban citizenship is not an equality of assets or resources — equality is never that simple. It is about the right to have one’s own story in the city. The right to migrate to the city. The right to aspire, innovate and grow within the city and the right to be infrastructurally, culturally, economically and politically supported towards this aspiration. Urban citizenship is given to all those that are determined to be here. It is a testament to presence, not a test of it. We must, 60 years into the Republic, remember to earn our citizenship once again, this time in a new urban battleground.