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P2P Essay of the Day: Urban Affairs in India, the Right to the City, and Planning as Commoning

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
11th January 2012

* Special Issue: Review of Urban Affairs: The Commons. Economical and Political Weekly. December 2011.

This special issue of the Indian magazine focuses on urban dynamics of enclosure and the commons in an Indian context.

From the editorial introduction:

“Framed by a concept note that sets out the significance of the notion of “commons” to urban processes, this set of five articles looks at urban commons in diverse contexts, from the Yamuna in Delhi, hunting, gathering and foraging livelihoods in Mumbai, water bodies in Hyderabad and Bangalore, to the cinema and how it may or may not be understood as commons.”

An excerpt from co-author Anant Maringanti:

“The case for re-envisioning the right to the city via the commons is compelling. Lefebvre’s vision of the right to the city is in a sense about a collective ideal, about shared resources and practices. Yet, the urban space that Lefebvre and much of the critical urban theory that follows Lefebvre’s lead theorise on is the capitalist urban space of north America and western Europe. In much of the world outside of these heartlands of capitalism, however, struggles against neo-liberal capitalism have been waged not in the cities but in the forests where corporate aggression takes the form of mining and intellectual property rights in biotechnology (Harvey 2004: 548). In these places it is not the right to the city but the right to the commons that has been invoked most effectively by indigenous communities.

In cities like those of India, an engagement between the right to the city and the right of commons – the right to oppose enclosure of shared resources in cities can open up several new possibilities for creating better cities. Materialising the right to the city as the right to the commons is however not an easy task. The informal mode of governance and planning described by Roy (2009) is in its concreteness, a battlefield in which the actors ­deploy social power through caste, gender and other privileges and occasionally employ brute physical aggression to resolve competing claims for shared use and appropriation of commons. Once appropriated (occupied in the case of land), ownership of these resources can be further legitimised through formal law. And as a matter of fact, the erosion of commons in cities is an indication of the consolidation of that power which is not merely capitalist but is marked by caste formations as well. What is the just and efficacious political praxis that produces commons in defence against unethical and exclusionary exploitation that facilitates an unjust order of accumulation and social oppression? What kind of praxis can facilitate appropriation that is ­sensitive to a new ethic of the commons and fosters the right to the city, with an Indian sensibility? Such a question assumes urgency at this juncture when rapid exclusionary urban growth threatens to create conditions that are unfavourable for everyone and it is increasingly becoming evident that there is no return to the Nehruvian socialist order with its characteristic ­binaries of public and private. What follows is a further exploration of the challenge of urban commons.

Debates on the commons have been, for the last 40 years, influenced by the Garrett Hardin’s famous essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons”, coincidentally first published in the same year in which Lefebvre proposed the right to the city (Hardin 1993). Hardin’s thesis, under the long Malthusian shadow claims that a resource which is not owned by anyone is likely to be over­exploited and destroyed as each of the users acts in a rational and self-serving manner. Such actors cannot see any point in limiting their use because, there is no guarantee that others will simultaneously limit their use contributing to a general sustenance of the pool. Hardin’s tragedy of the commons formulation has been refuted both conceptually and empirically by many scholars. For example, Roberts and Emel (1992) have demonstrated that the degradation of the resources can be explained better through uneven development theory. Bromley (1991) has shown that it is necessary to distinguish between commons, property and common property regimes. Dietz et al (2003) have shown that institutions of collective action matter to the way commons are governed.

Nevertheless, Hardin’s proposition has had a durable influence on the liberal governance. The liberal strategy to obviate Hardin’s “tragedy of the commons” is to vest property rights for all resources in some agency. Notwithstanding their adversarial positions, advocates of privatisation and of the public sector both appear to converge on this strategy.

Our discussion of waterbodies in Hyderabad shows that the degradation of waterbodies is not dependent on whether formal ownership rests with the state or with private individuals. It has also shown that neither inclusive growth nor insurgent urbanism approaches to the right to the city can address the question of the commons. Any attempt to build a new framework then would have to recognise that commons are not natural objects existing a priori. The waterbodies of Hyderabad are produced over millennia by people who came together through shared meanings and practices of use and appropriation. Such practices which we may call “practices of commoning” draw on diverse sources, from the spiritual (shrines on the lake boundary) through the banal (cattle grazing and casual fishing, to the highly politically/religiously charged (religious processions for immersion of idols during festivals). Water­bodies bear the imprint of the exclusions and inclusions of past social relations – norms and hierarchies of use and appropriation. Exercising the right to the city as a right to the commons, therefore, involves a critical urban praxis that assembles actors who can construct new communities based on principles of collaboration and sharing that are at once aware of the inherited inequities and how the old inequities are incorporated into new dispensations of ­unequal power. In what follows, I suggest that collaborative knowledge production could be a tentative starting point for such an exercise.

One of the key insights that emerges from the experience of the lake protection groups in Hyderabad has to do with the governance of information and knowledge. Control over and ownership of information and data and the power to authenticate and adjudicate the legitimacy of the information is crucial to the reproduction of the informal idiom which makes construction of any meaningful community impossible. Each lake is the meeting point of a number of interest groups with competing interests, and yet none of these groups is compelled to engage with each other. Each operates through stealth, plays for time and manipulates information. Knowledge is guarded and traded in. Nothing illustrates this as sharply as the case of knowledge of FTL markings for lakes in Hyderabad. Among activists in Hyderabad, the FTL data of the lakes till date continues to be a source of mysti­fication as the government agencies responsible for lakes and lands surrounding them have neither released any data nor undertaken any exercise to fix the FTL of each of the lakes or explain to the public what it means. Yet, such data is known to be available in some government agency or the other, only to be revealed when it is tactically necessary to reveal it. This is not surprising because the FTL is key to determining the waterspread in the lake and thus marks the boundaries of the lake. Once revealed, it fixes the boundaries of the lake. However, this is not merely a question of factually ascertainable information from the government. It is also a matter of negotiation as there are multiple ways to arrive at the FTL and each of them is fraught with conflicts over boundaries and entitlements.

Given this scenario, waterbodies (and more generally all of urban space) are sites where multiple communities each with its own tacit knowledge and accumulated lived experience are at work. The first step, therefore, is to develop systems of collaboration where such complex repositories of information and knowledge can be brought together into conversation on a collaborative basis rather than on competitive basis. In other words, at least one point of departure towards the exercise of the right to the city as right to the commons is the creation of appropriate knowledges and development of practices and norms for sharing and reworking those knowledges. Research on the commons particularly in the context of their invocation as defence against corporate aggression has shown the importance of understanding and sustaining knowledge systems centred around the commons (Hess and Ostrom 2007; Escobar 1998).

Urban commons, however, are places and resources where knowledge is deeply riven with power struggles is privatised in the form of data and expert knowledge or is in the custodianship of unaccountable government agencies. Geographically, the challenge of sharing and collaborating is not easy, because of multiple layers of jurisdictions which do not coincide and stakeholder groups who are not necessarily living in close proximity. Given this complexity, information and insights are not amenable to research practices that are oriented towards a few experts working in isolation from the community. Rather, it is precisely through generation of knowledge that new communities must be constituted and the communities so constituted must generate information that is oriented towards a new ethic of commons. It is only through such critical knowledge that the right to the city can be claimed genuinely as a right to the commons, “as a precious human right”, against which there can be no estoppel. Such new vistas of research would have been inconceivable barely a decade ago. Yet with the availability of new communication ­technologies, online mapping services and social media application, a new window of opportunity may just be opening up. Whether practitioners, researchers, activists, technologists and policymakers are ready to seize it, is a question for practice rather than for theory.”

More information about the Contents:

* Urban Commons, Vinay Gidwani, Amita Baviskar

From an understanding of the commons as a rural artefact, the concept has expanded to include urban spaces and practices. The destruction of common resources and the communities that depend upon them is a long-standing outcome of capitalist expansion. It is also a cause for concern, given the ultimate centrality of the commons to the reproduction of urban populations and ecosystems.

* What the Eye Does Not See: The Yamuna in the Imagination of Delhi, Amita Baviskar

This article traces the shifting visibility of the river Yamuna in the social and ecological imagination of Delhi. It delineates how the riverbed has changed from being a neglected “non-place” to prized real estate for private and public corporations. It argues that the transformation of an urban commons into a commodity is not only embedded in processes of political economy, but is also driven by aesthetic sensibilities that shape how ecological landscapes are valued. However, the commodification of the riverbed must confront the fact that the Yamuna is an ecological entity with dynamics that can defy attempts at domestication.

* Hunters, Gatherers and Foragers in a Metropolis: Commonising the Private and Public in Mumbai. D Parthasarathy

Mumbai is in reality a city of places that are not a part of the current set of fantasies that rule the minds of urban planners but are yet integrally linked to capitalist processes, to urban practices of place-making and to urbanism itself. From this perspective, this enquiry seeks not only to better understand and explain the processes that are forcing out the city’s less privileged from its commons, but also imagine how a more inclusive future could be achieved.

* No Estoppel: Claiming Right to the City via the Commons. Anant Maringanti

The right to the city, an idea mooted by French radical philosophers in 1968, has become a popular slogan among right to housing activists and inclusive growth policymakers. In Indian cities unprecedented and unregulated growth, incremental land use change, privatisation and chaotic civic infrastructure provisioning are fracturing resources created over centuries and reducing the right to the city to mere right to housing and property, thus short-changing the concept’s transformative potential. Urban actors need to draw inspiration from the way social movements world over including in India have deployed the notion of the commons as a defence against corporate exploitation of biodiversity. Envisioning the right to the city as the fundamental human right, a demand for a just and sustainable social order where collective resources are respected and regenerated to support life, entails a democratic approach to the creation of knowledge about our cities. Such knowledge creation is necessarily a collaborative effort involving citizens who are differentially located in relation to the commons – policymakers, neighbourhood residents, workers and academic researchers.

* Planning as Commoning: Transformation of a Bangalore Lake. Jayaraj Sundaresan

The transformation of human settlements over time can affect the relationship between communities and commons when, for example, social geographies change from rural to urban, or from traditional systems of management to modern bureaucratic systems. Communities that were dependent on particular commons could become less dependent, or abandon those commons. New communities of interest might emerge. Examining the transformation of a lake in Bangalore, this paper argues that in the community struggle towards creating and claiming commons, claiming the sphere of planning is fundamental. Further, the making or unmaking of the commons involves the making or unmaking of communities and vice versa. In the case of the Rajapalaya Lake studied here, this occurred and occurs at the interface where democratic struggles and bureaucratic systems meet.

* Three-Town Revolution: Implications of Cinema’s Politics for the Study of Urban Spaces. S V Srinivas

The point of convergence between cinema and constituents of the urban commons is the crowd and everything that the crowd connotes at any given point of time and in any discourse. Popular Telugu cinema is replete with examples of the crowd and what cinema does with it. This phenomenon of constituting and naming social formations and the misrecognitions it gives rise to are most instructive in a discussion of the urban commons. This paper analyses Eenadu, a 1982 Telugu film that is centrally concerned with crowds, to illustrate how cinema brings the mass gathered before the screen face-to-face with a version of itself on the screen, framing a new mode of political participation pivoted on the popular appeal of larger-than-life superstars.


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