Who has the Right to City? Moving beyond the celebration of ‘City Beautiful’, by Navprit Kaur

[The facts and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and have not been verified or endorsed by the project team in any way.]

Chandigarh was in the national and international spotlight when the French President Francois Hollande began his India visit from the city of Chandigarh in February this year. Once again, the local bureaucracy and media was in mood of celebration of the idea of Chandigarh. After a few days, the same bureaucracy and local media sunk into a pensive mood as the city could not make it to the list of ‘Smart Cities’ issued by the central government. Irrespective of these highs and lows, the idea of the city needs a deeper engagement from the perspective of the most marginalised of its inhabitants. The city of Chandigarh is an artefact of Nehruvian modernity as Nehru imagined the city to be one of the epitomes of his grand project of post-colonial nation-building. The city was envisioned to be a site of emergence of a ‘modern’, ‘individuated’ and ‘rational’ citizenry through planned urbanisation. This dream of a new citizen and a new nation was sought to be achieved through the modern architecture of Le Corbusieur. Hence the built form of the city contained and represented a deeper essence. This essence was the vision of an enlightened society built by its rational citizens who would move beyond the parochial and narrow constraints of traditional identities such as caste and religion. More than half a century later we need to ask as to what happened to the idea of the city during these last 65 years? Are we truly a city where the ideas of post-colonial Indian modernity have taken their root into the fabric of city-life? Has urban planning achieved what it was supposed to?  Or does the core of the city remain embedded in the religious, casteist and patriarchal norms like any other north Indian city? Is there anything to celebrate about the essence of this city apart from its built form? Our answer perhaps lies in that crucial question once asked by the famous French Marxist philosopher and sociologist, Henri Lefebvre. The question that made Lefebvre a towering figure among the European intellectuals of last century is ‘Who has the right to city’? For here lies our own answer to the riddle of the project of Chandigarh. Does the city of Chandigarh belong equally to all of those inhabiting it – its ultra-rich, its middle classes, slum-dwellers, women, queer populations, displaced native villagers, migrants, differently-abled and its homeless? Do all these have the same right to shape the city and its policies; its present and its future?

To answer this, let’s begin from the beginning. The city was never built on a clean slate as it is made out to be in its popular and academic discourses. Thousands of the protesting villagers were forcibly uprooted from their native lands. The history of the city of Chandigarh contains a history of forcible land acquisition. 28 villages got completely erased from the map forever and the remaining 22 had to protest vehemently in order to save their homes. With meagre amount as compensation, these agriculturists were left to fend for themselves in the newly built city. Once we are ready to speak about the tainted past of our cherished project of Chandigarh only then our discourse about the city will do some justice to the lost voices of its original inhabitants- its uprooted villagers whose third generation has aged while fighting tiresome legal battles for adequate compensation. So Hotel Taj in Sector 17 where Hollande will be meeting the Prime Minister stands on the fertile agricultural land of a once thriving village called Rurki Parao.

If the Nehruvian era was about uprooting the rural and tribal populations to build modern cities and big dams, the neo-liberal age is about cities becoming the centres of consumption rather than production. Chandigarh is no exception. It’s consumption culture is celebrated in the popular Punjabi songs while its most marginalised and poorest of the poor have been evicted out of their homes through regular slum-demolition drives by the city administration. According to a rough estimate of activists of Ghar Adhikar Sangarsh Morcha, who work for the rights of the slum dwellers in the city, approximately one lakh slum dwellers were uprooted from twelve city slums during the last five to six years. These working class, poor migrants are the backbone of the city. They run its life as workers in its service sector and as domestic labour in its middle class homes. Most often these people work for long hours, without due holidays and minimum wages. Similarly, when it comes to decreasing pollution and managing traffic on city roads, it is the poor who are called to sacrifice their livelihoods to ensure clean air and accident-free roads for its wealthy classes. The city administration banned the diesel autos in 2014 in order to curb the rising pollution levels. The harried auto-wallas raised the issue of the government owned public transport being run on diesel. In 2014, Chandigarh topped the per Capita Vehicle Count in India. Its 12 lakh population owned 10 lakh vehicles and the number keeps increasing with each passing year.  It sounds ridiculous when the city administration brings out proposals to challan its poor rickshaw wallas in order to diminish the level of accidents in the city. It has always been red versus green when it comes to the issue of livelihood versus protection of environment in India. Can we think of the rich and middle-class of the city offering to give up their car-comforts while commuting to their work places?

With the city administration having failed to provide a round the clock public transport system for the city, it is the lower-middle class and the poor of the city who are left to fend for themselves to access cheap modes of public transport. With so much of hue and cry being made when the city lost in the race for Smart City status, its policy makers need to remind themselves that civic amenities and public services are not just an end in themselves. The proper provision of civic amenities is crucially related to issues such as gender and caste. Street lights do not just light the dark streets at night but also provide sense of safety to its women users. Women feel encouraged to go out and be part of the city- life in the presence of amenities like public toilets, well-lit bus shelters and safe public transport. When the student activists all over the country launched ‘Pinjra Tod Campaign’ (Break the Cage) last year, a handful of brave women from city colleges and university came forward to protest against the gender bias in city hostels for imposing ‘curfew hours’ on women students. These patriarchal norms that ban the free movement of young women in the city are a testimony of our ‘modern’ city not being safe for women at night. Will our modernities, be that of the Nehruvian era or the neo-liberal ones of smart city variety, ever provide all the inhabitants equal rights over the city? The rights whereby the most marginalised of its inhabitants  actively own, use and imagine the city spaces according to their specific needs.

About the author:

Navprit Kaur is currently a post-doctoral fellow at School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) Mohali. She did her PhD from Delhi University on “Dalits and the Politics of Exclusion: Caste, Class and Gender in Chandigarh.”

Dr. Navprit Kaur, EI-103, Panjab University Campus, Sector-14, Chandigarh.

Ph: 9041011970 (M),  0172-2541970 (L)

Text by Navprit Kaur

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