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How Rapid Urbanisation Is Hurting Towns, Agrarian And The Periphery

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To understand the dynamics surrounding urban habitats and the communities residing in them, the Center for Habitat, Urban and Regional Studies (CHURS), Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi, on July 9, 2021, organised a #WebPolicyTalk under The State of Cities — #CityConversations on the topic Engaging the Urban from the Periphery. The session had an enriching panel, involving academicians, anthropologists, professors and researchers.

Engaging the Urban from the Periphery

Rapid And Unchecked Urbanisation

The talk commenced with Dr Ashima Sood, Associate Professor, Anant National University, Ahmedabad, and co-Director of the Centre for Urbanism and Cultural Economics. Her research lies at the intersection of institutional economics, and urban and development studies. It combines qualitative and quantitative methodologies to examine privatised forms of urban governance and informal public spaces in India.

She began by giving the backdrop of the topic of the event, which was the name of the recent issue of The South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal (SAMAJ) (a double-blind, peer-reviewed journal devoted to research in the social sciences and humanities on South Asia, which specialises in the publication of comparative thematic issues as well as individual research articles, review essays and book reviews) with the same name.

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She also mentioned that the year 2022 will mark 20 years of an essay on this topic by Gyan Prakash, Professor of History at Princeton University, USA, and a member of the Subaltern Studies Editorial Collective. He is the author of Bonded Histories: Genealogies of Labour Servitude in Colonial India (Cambridge, 1990) and Another Reason: Science and the Imagination of Modern India (Princeton, 1999), written several articles, and edited several volumes on colonial history and historiography.

Urban growth and city management have become some of the important challenges of the 21st century in the Global South where agglomerations are being formed by the coalescence of urban and rural areas. The scale and speed of transformation have outstripped the capacity of local governments to provide adequate basic amenities. One of the features of the Census for 2001-2011 was that there was higher growth in the urban population than the rural population.

Additionally, there was an increase in the number of census towns, representing about 30% of urban growth in India. Census towns are settlements that, despite having urban characteristics and fulfilling the census criteria of being urban, are not notified by a municipality. In this respect, the growth of census towns has been termed as ‘non-recognised growth’, ‘unacknowledged’ and ‘denied urbanisation’.

She gave us statistics to ponder over, for example, from 2001 to 2011, that is, in just a decade, the number of census towns went from 1,400 to 3,900, but contributed one-third the overall growth.

Periphery As A Concept

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Dr Loraine Kennedy is CNRS Research Director at the Centre for South Asian Studies (CEIAS) at the École des Hautes Études (EHESS) in Paris. Her research focuses on contemporary India and engages with three main areas: state spatial rescaling, the politics of urban development, and metropolitan governance. She is currently serving as the Trustee of the Urban Studies Foundation.

She explained periphery as a concept and problem space as opposed to a spatial category, since urbanisation is driven by the processes playing out in the peripheral regions. Not only do peripheries accommodate large-scale state-driven infrastructural projects, but also small-scale landowners seizing opportunities to leverage plots and buy into the city of future, making peri-urban areas sites of contestation. According to ORF, peri-urban areas “can be described as fringe areas of cities or adjoining rural areas, which are intrinsically linked with the city economy, experience constant transformation, and are characterised by a mix of rural and urban activities.”

Due to the lack of robust governance structures in place in peri-urban areas, their mushrooming complements the poor quality of life, with people living in shanty-towns and other forms of illegal structures. This is followed by evictions in the face of a lack of legal bodies to represent the poor. There is fierce competition for land and resources. Because of the absence of legal structures, the basic infrastructure networks that cover the built-up areas of the city do not reach the outer boundaries of the city.

Political And Economic Dynamics

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Prof Carol Upadhya, Professor in the School of Social Sciences at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bangalore, India, leads the Urban and Mobility Studies Programme. Her research interests include Indian software capital and labour; reconstitution of the Indian middle class; transnational migration and regional diasporas in India; and real estate development and the urbanisation of rural landscapes.

Her recent and ongoing research projects include Speculative Urbanism: Land, Livelihoods, and Finance Capital, a comparative study of real estate-led urbanisation in Jakarta and Bangalore; ‘World-City’ Planning in Andhra Pradesh: A New Model for Urbanisation?; and India’s Changing Cityscapes: Work, Migration, and Livelihoods. She is the author of Reengineering India: Work, Capital, and Class in an Offshore Economy (2016) and co-editor of Provincial Globalization in India: Transregional Mobilities and Development Politics (2018).

She elaborated on three arenas (local to global), namely space, politics and subjectivities. Space signifies how concrete infrastructure relies on financial infrastructure and policy instruments including ad-hoc special purpose vehicles. Politics entails land struggles and tasks, migrants’ right to the city, coupled with lack of agency to fully enjoy the citizenship given to them as handouts. The agrarian dynamics permeate throughout the nooks and corners of the city spaces. Then, there is the shifting of polluting industries to the urban periphery.

A Social Perspective

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Dr Shubhra Gururani is Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology at York University, Toronto, an affiliate of the CITY Institute, York Center for Asian Research, and the Center for Feminist Research. Her current research focuses on the political ecology of urban peripheries and examines the politics of land acquisition, planning, and infrastructure in Gurgaon, India.

She talked about the collective memory of struggles in certain communities. For those who reside outside of normative and dominant culture, narratives of the past can either subjugate or empower, either build pride or shame in individuals. At the end of the day, this erasure in social movements and in turn, academia is a form of cultural violence.

Interaction Among Communities

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Liubing Xie, PhD Scholar (City and Regional Planning), University of California, Berkeley, presented his paper called ‘Assemblages of Living Together: Residential Cohabitation in Peri-urban Areas of Chengdu and Hyderabad’. At a time when China and India are urbanising rapidly, the transformation of urban peripheries has brought into close proximity social groups who previously had little or no contact with each other.

He approached the question of residential cohabitation by investigating similar types of residential areas in Chengdu and Hyderabad, which are emblematic of those found in the urban peripheries.

He identified three key assemblages associated with three distinct forms of residential cohabitation: the interspersion of auto-constructed communities and gated communities, heterogeneity within the same residential communities, and vertical cohabitation of villager landlords and migrant tenants.

Between and within the various assemblages of living together, he observed two main types of relationships between residents: different social groups are physically proximate but socialise separately according to certain norms that often materialise as physical boundaries such as walls, roads and different floors of the building; at times, interdependence between different social groups emerges, but it is based on unequal interactions.

A Case Study

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Pratik Mishra, PhD Scholar (Geography), King’s College London, discussed his paper ‘The Making of Urban Peripheries and Peripheral Labor: Brick Kilns and Circular Migration in and Greater Delhi. His work encircled the emergence and growth of a brick kiln cluster in Khanda village on the periphery of Delhi’s National Capital Region agglomeration. Khanda’s landscape and ecology have been profoundly altered and shaped by brick kilns in what can be taken as a manifestation of extended urbanisation. This urbanisation is not only bound up with the urban demand for bricks, but is also mediated by various situated processes that are not city-centred.

He drew our attention to a number of these processes — Khanda’s history of agrarian decline as a condition of possibility for the kiln cluster, the upscaled metabolism of the soil with changing forms of commodification, and the emergence of new labour processes that alter as well as reproduce historical relations of production particular to brick kilns.

Agrarian Reforms

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Ms Ankita Rathi, Research Fellow, Institute of Rural Management Anand, Gujarat. She shared bits of her doctoral thesis using the case study of two settlements Patran and Dhur located in the Patiala district of Punjab. There are diverse ways in which the rural and its agrarian dynamics affect the differential transition of the two settlements.

She focused on agrarian changes driven by local communities and the state-led development strategy of reforming agriculture through land, technology and the market. This, in turn, showcases the diverse ways in which agrarian regimes of land, caste and capital facilitate the making and unmaking of a non-metro small urban centre and the persistence of agriculture and the rural, so case studies show that agrarian transition and urbanisation in India are mutually interlinked processes that coproduce each other.

The session concluded with a formal vote of thanks.

Acknowledgment: Priyanshi Arora is a Research Intern at IMPRI

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