India’s urbanisation is dangerously exclusionary and unequal

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In popular imagination, the city is often viewed as a liberating space where rigid social structures make way for secular transformations. Particularly in the global South, the city is synonymous with social mobility and emancipation. Taking into account the transformative potentials of cities and towns, Babasaheb Ambedkar, Dalit icon and key architect of the Indian Constitution, exhorted the oppressed communities to leave the “narrow-minded” villages for city life.

The Dalits and other marginalised sections have not disappointed Ambedkar. The last decade saw an approximately 40% jump in Dalits opting for urban living. Cities have historically remained prime locations for India’s religious minorities, especially Muslims and Christians; compared to 29% of Hindus, an impressive 40% of Muslims and Christians live in urban areas. In short, the socially oppressed and spatially disadvantaged continue to flock to cities and towns to escape degrading social practices of segregation and discrimination, and also, importantly, to move up social mobility ladders.

How are Indian cities placed today in terms of their cosmopolitan character and liberating potentials?

Indian cities, spaces of discrimination

Evidence regarding current forms of urbanisation would leave Ambedkar a disappointed man.

The findings of many recent studies on Indian cities indicate that while cities still remain the best hope for social mobilityfor millions of oppressed and marginalised communities, they increasingly mirror India’s rural social and cultural realities, its entrenched caste system and social customs. Residential segregation and identity-based discrimination are on a steady rise in urban spaces. According to a recent study of spatial inequalities in 10 Indian populous cities (based on ward level census data), rapid growth in cities has not reduced spatial segregation by caste or religion. Dalits and Adivasi are still heavily concentrated within certain geographical areas of cities, mostly in unauthorised settlements and poor neighbourhoods.

Our own study of three Indian cities has taken a deep look at ongoing urbanisation patterns and comes to some key conclusions. “Urbanisation, Exclusion and Climate Challenges” is a unique study conducted collaboratively by scholars from Norway and India of two partner institutions, Peace Research Institute, Oslo, and Observer Research Foundation, India. It examines ongoing climatic events in relation to India’s rapid urban growth.

To untangle the crosscutting themes, the scholars conducted extensive field studies and qualitative surveys stretching over three years. They paid close attention to the dynamics linking various parameters such as household income, socio-religious identity and migration history to levels of participation in civic activities and urban governance processes.

“Black holes” of urban planning

While broad conclusions cannot be extrapolated from the study to apply to every Indian city, the conclusions drawn do potentially present the nation’s urban planners and policy makers with several lessons (see graphs below).

The first lesson the study presents us with is that the poorest neighbourhoods or slums (of the surveyed cities) are overpopulated by Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims and recent migrants. Even cities such as Pune that are more efficiently planned than other cities are not immune to this disturbing trend of residential segregation.

Secondly, the location of a neighbourhood greatly determines the services it receives. Survey after survey found that slums and informal settlements located on city peripheries do not receive basic services such as drinking water, sanitation, healthcare and food stamps. The urban planning processes in place, in the cities surveyed, seem to largely disregard people living in informal settlements – a phenomenon we call “planning black holes.”

Thirdly, location alone is not the sole determinate in accessing services. In fact, neighbourhoods located in the centre of Varanasi and of Ahmedabad are no better off than the ones located on the peripheries of those cities. Deeper probing found that quite often, the socio-religious characteristics of the neighbourhoods in question determine the municipal services available to them.

For instance, our study reveals that settlements with large populations of Muslims and of recent migrants are more likely to face greater levels of discrimination and institutionalised apathy in the context of basic services. A comparison of the neighbourhoods of Juhapura and Yogeshwar Nagar in Allahabad serves as an illustration. Juhapura is a predominantly Muslim ghetto and Yogeshwar Nagar is a slum with an overwhelmingly Hindu majority. We found that the former suffers from a lack of municipal services such as wide, all-weather roads, satisfactory drainage and sanitation and reliable drinking water. Similar trends were observed in Bajardiha, a Muslim ghetto located in central Varanasi.

Of course, Ahmedabad and Varanasi are cities with long histories of communal conflict, and findings about them cannot be said to characterise every city. Even so, the trends observed should serve as a warning for India, a country that is experiencing unprecedented levels of communalisation and polarisation in its politics and society.

The fourth lesson is that exclusion plays out in complex ways. Recent migrants, irrespective of their socio-religious identities, are the most excluded of all groups. This clearly points to the absence of reliable municipal governance and enabling institutional processes to draw new groups into the existing service delivery systems.

To cut a long story short, India’s current mechanisms of urbanisation offer few opportunities for its disadvantaged citizens, especially for its religious minorities, new migrants and poor. Cities are not only mimicking rural social and cultural structures of inequality and exclusion, but they are also creating faultlines for future conflicts. This current form of urbanisation that is producing “urban winners” and “urban losers” should alert urban planners and key policy makers to the necessary reforms.

It is well known in development literature that such unequal access to resources – which are, in India, basic services – can curb human development potentials, lower the quality of life, create conditions for communal political rhetoric and exacerbate development cleavages along religious and ethnic lines.

It must be reiterated that caste and religious differences greatly coincide with social and political mobilisation and can unleash civil strife and social unrest. In short, Indian cities are on slow but sure paths towards crises of various kinds, and it is vital to reverse the current trends of segregation and inequality.

This article is a part of the ongoing study “Urbanisation, Exclusion and Climate Change” supported by the Peace Research Institute, Oslo. This originally appeared in The Wire.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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