NON-FICTION: PROCESSES OF URBAN CHANGE

Published January 23, 2022
Promotional Facebook post for LDA City. According to the book under review, the acquisition of land was not even complete when files of the plots were being bought and sold | LDA City Facebook page
Promotional Facebook post for LDA City. According to the book under review, the acquisition of land was not even complete when files of the plots were being bought and sold | LDA City Facebook page

There is a need to understand urbanisation from the viewpoint of those who are marginalised in the process and contest this exclusion. There is also scope to throw light at the urban processes from the perspective of the global South, as most work in urban studies has been done in the context of developed countries. Sharing the contestation over expanding urban spaces and its link to air, water, waste, displacement and politics in Pakistan and India is also required.

Marginalisation, Contestation and Change in South Asian Cities, edited by Nida Kirmani — associate professor of sociology at the Lahore University of Management Sciences — does all this and much more.

The book has nine chapters: five on Pakistan and four on India. It begins with a precise yet analytical introduction by Kirmani. Professor of city and regional planning at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi, Nausheen H. Anwar pens a well-thought out ‘Afterword’ in the context of the new millennium, though it misses an overt discussion on marginalisation.

Amongst the Pakistani case studies, three are on Karachi (Bahria Town, securitisation and urban transport) and two on Lahore (Lahore Development Authority [LDA] City and men’s hostels for middle-class visitors from small towns). The case studies on India feature two on Delhi (toxic air and electoral politics in informal settlements), one on Amritsar (access and cityscapes) and one on Bangalore (waste infra-economy).

An interesting semantic factor is kept in mind in titling the chapters; they are often labelled by the specific site of contestation within these large cities, rather than boxing them in with the names of big cities. For example, the Bahria Town displacement chapter is called ‘Entangling the “Global City”: Everyday Resistance in Gadap, Karachi’, as this was the place where indigenous Baloch and Sindhi communities had been uprooted with the imposition of the gated Bahria Town community.

A collection of essays argues that Pakistan and India’s urbanisation is leading to dispossession, marginalisation and displacement, interwoven with resistance, negotiation and struggle

Similarly, the chapter on waste economy politics and marginalisation is titled ‘City Boundaries and Waste Frontiers: Exploring Nayandahalli as an Ecosystem Where Waste is Transformed into Resource’, naming the locality as the specific site of garbage recycling rather than the city of Bangalore. The names of places where communities live have been privileged over larger city identities.

The book’s central concept is that rapid urbanisation in Pakistan and India is leading to dispossession, marginalisation and displacement, yet those processes are interwoven with resistance, negotiation and struggle. The negative developments of displacement are actively contested and there are glimmers of hope in the way the poor negotiate with these processes.

Another important element is that there are diverse responses to dispossession, ranging from resistance to ambivalence to co-option, and one cannot box them in binary constructs. As Kirmani writes in the ‘Introduction’, the many ways of negotiating with marginalisation range from “organised and everyday resistance, quiet encroachment, forced acquiescence, overt acceptance and even an embrace of neoliberal models by some, depending on circumstances.”

In other words, those who are subjected to displacement have agency. They either resist displacement or become part of it, but they are not passive bystanders.

Neoliberalism-induced changes and the gentrification of cities is leading to the establishment of enclaves for the upper classes in the form of gated communities, and other changes that are leading to dispossession and creating new forms of informality. Neoliberalism and informality are the most discussed and common denominators in the book.

Shahana Rajani, assistant professor at the Indus Valley School of Arts and Architecture, Karachi, and anthropologist Heba Islam discuss how the neoliberalism-induced sanitisation of Gadap through Bahria Town is leading to “erasure” and “forgetting” of indigenous communities, their way of life, livelihoods and customary and legal entitlements to land. In order to create the “world city”, the “smart city”, it is being treated as if there were nothing there before the setting up of Bahria Town.

Economist Kabeer Dawani and researcher Asad Sayeed bring forth a strong critique of the neoliberalism-propelled market forces that were given control of transport in Karachi by winding down the public sector, but which have been unable to meet demand since Karachi has one of the highest passenger-to-bus-seat ratios.

Structural violence and structural coercion is reflected throughout the book in the way the poor are dealt with. The fact that the poor do resist it, or try to capitalise on whatever limited opportunities there are, is the other side of the coin, but they are up against unjust and loaded dice. In this regard, Aasim Sajjad Akhtar and Ammar Rashid’s work documenting the struggles of slum-dwellers on Islamabad’s peripheries is worth including in the book’s future editions.

There are many amongst the subaltern groups who benefit from this process of urbanisation that marginalises the poor. Whether it is numberdars [village headmen] in LDA City who act as intermediaries by convincing farmers to sell their land to the housing society, pardhans in the jhuggi [semi-permanent settlements of tents and mud constructions] communities of Amritsar who play the middleman’s role, the property dealers in LDA City, hostel owners in Lahore providing cheap accommodation to visitors from far-flung cities, “air entrepreneurs” who sell gadgets such as air quality monitors, purifiers and masks for personal protection in Delhi’s toxic air — many benefit and prosper in these new urban ways of restructuring, and become co-opted agents of the new change.

American professor of anthropology and geography David Harvey’s concept of “accumulation by dispossession” is also discussed in a few chapters, where the struggle is not only between the peasants and urban capital, but there is a whole range of “rentiership” that benefits from the process.

Speculative capital and speculative urbanism is also highlighted. In the case of LDA City, the acquisition of land was not even complete when files of the plots were being bought and sold. By creating this “fictitious” capital, the value of the peri-urban rural hinterlands is increased manifold just by turning them into profitable housing societies.

One advantage of bringing out an edited book of Pakistani and Indian cities is that it allows readers to compare similarities and differences between the two countries. The marginalised garbage collectors picked up from jhuggies in central Amritsar and given small accommodations in faraway housing colonies faced similar issues of lack of access to water and sanitation that the urban poor in Pakistan deal with when they are dispatched to some far-off housing colony where they don’t enjoy full ownership rights. The processes have so much in common in both countries.

Likewise, the patronage politics described in Delhi’s informal settlements has lots in common with similar practices in Pakistan. The urban facilities of water and sanitation are provided conditionally, in exchange for electoral votes, and in an incremental manner. Some election promises are fulfilled and many forgotten till the next election cycle and the role of evergreen political intermediaries in the form of pardhans in India and such similar political entrepreneurs in Pakistan allows for plenty of joint reflection.

Exclusion is also a prevalent issue throughout the book. The contributors make note of Gadap’s indigenous communities who have been excluded from their land because of Bahria Town, and jhuggi dwellers in Amritsar who have been excluded from city life because of their far-flung housing colony.

We read of Delhi’s poor and lower-middle classes who have been shifted away because of the “toxic urbanism” and air pollution that has raised calls for social justice and participatory governance-oriented environmental activism. Then there are the waste-pickers of Bangalore, who collect and process “maal” [material]; instead of being recognised for their crucial service to the city, they have been made to move further into periphery areas.

Similarly, because of the politics of securitisation and erecting physical barriers everywhere, Noman Ahmed, professor at NED University of Science and Technology, Karachi, writes how pushcarts and street vendors are excluded from reaching middle- and upper-middle class places. This emphasis on security comes as a result of the crime and terrorism in Karachi.

In terms of weaknesses, the book does not have a note on contributors. Seeing that they are from both Pakistan and India, this would have helped.

Also, the chapter ‘Studying in the Mahol: Middle-Class Spaces and Aspiring Middle-Class Male Subjects in Urban Pakistan’ — on men from small towns living in a Lahore hostel — does not quite gel with the rest of the book. Additionally, there is no exclusive discussion on how dispossession and marginalisation impacts women and, as said earlier, a chapter on urban slums would have been welcome.

Having said that, the book was a joy to read, with each chapter based on primary long-term fieldwork and analysis on some aspect of marginalisation, displacement and dispossession in the two countries, and how it is leading to resistance, co-option and negotiation and contestation with elements of hope moulded by the everyday struggles of the poor.

The reviewer is an Islamabad-based social scientist. She tweets @FoqiaSadiqKhan

Marginalisation, Contestation and Change in South Asian Cities
Edited by Nida Kirmani
Oxford University Press, Karachi
ISBN: 978-9697340125
218pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 23rd, 2022

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