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Public Culture

An interdisciplinary journal of transnational cultural studies

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The Field of Struggle, the Office, and the Flat: Protest and Aspiration in a Mumbai Slum

Michael McQuarrie, Naresh Fernandes, and Cassim Shepard

This essay recounts a struggle over the demolition of Golibar, a slum in Mumbai. Such struggles are not uncommon in contemporary India. Urban space is being reorganized across the country, both to meet the needs of economic growth and to take advantage of rapidly growing real estate values. The struggle in Golibar situates global capital and state actors in opposition to slum dwellers who occupy land that has suddenly become extremely valuable. The Slum Rehabilitation Act of the state of Maharashtra provides Mumbaikars with better tools than other Indian slum dwellers have to make their voices heard in urban redevelopment. In contrast, for example, Delhi slum dwellers are often simply evicted violently. But the case is not simply interesting as an example of such struggles. Instead, we are interested in the case because it represents a challenge to the way we think about cities and the struggles that take place in them. Today urbanists think about cities not as integrated wholes but as agglomerations of balkanized communities, economies, and ways of life. Among these, the poor are often thought to be characterized by narrow materialistic concerns with few aspirations for the city as a whole.

The case of Golibar challenges this thinking and suggests that slum dwellers are potential agents for realizing a universalist, liberal, and egalitarian city, an ethos that rests on an aspiration for inclusion in the Global City, not simple economic well- being. It is often assumed that the expanding middle and professional classes will be the agents for realizing such an integrative and cosmopolitan urbanism. However, in Mumbai, civil society organizations representing the expanding middle and professional classes are engaged mostly in a cultural war to define civility in ways that marginalize the practices of the poor. Urban planning firms often propose plans for attractive public spaces that bear a striking resemblance to Central Park in New York on a slow day as if these are the only appropriate uses of public space (of course the costs of constituting such a space in crowded Mumbai are not represented in the proposals or planning documents). Protests against the government have been shifted from the street to a pen next to the Press Club in the name of moderating noise levels near middle- class residences. At the same time, the wealthy are increasingly barricading themselves in luxury concrete towers — turning their backs on the city even as they endeavor to remake it in the image of their enclavesth.

In modernist accounts of the city, the city was presented as a whole in which the various components, whether ecological, cultural, or economic, contributed to the creation of a distinctive and holistic entity. Contemporary urban theory, for the most part, disrupts this classic account of the city. Today’s cities are no longer amenable to overarching urbanisms or developmental narratives. Contemporary urban geography is “postmodern” or “medieval” in its fragmented form (Soja 1989; Alsayyad and Roy 2006). Within cities themselves, the varying and layered historical geography of the city reflects different developmental stages and different modes of economic and social integration (Massey 1984; Brenner and Theodore 2002). Alongside this social and geographic fragmentation is a theoretical fragmentation. Because of the variety in urban space, different urban spaces must be analyzed using theories that account for their particularity in order to achieve analytical coherence and credibility. While this approach certainly tells us more about the city than overly general systemic theories like urban ecology do, and also breaks out of the problems that come when analysis proceeds from a tacit developmental narrative, there are costs. Most importantly, theoretical fragmentation tends to overemphasize the distinctiveness of different urban spaces and simultaneously justifies abandoning efforts to integrate spaces and populations into general political and social accommodations that sustain urban social solidarity (Amin 2012).

Mumbai, and more specifically the slum of Golibar, is useful for thinking about these theoretical assumptions. Mumbai, the largest city in India, is overrepresented in literatures on poverty, international development, megacities, globalization, and, perhaps most of all, informal settlements (e.g., Mehrotra 2011). There are two sides to this discourse and, indeed, two sides to the city itself. Mumbai — long a center for trade, manufacturing, and finance — is increasingly a global city. At the same time, many have noted that becoming a global city does not entail a wholesale realization of affluence and modernity. The historical geography of Mumbai is complicated, and the population is spread across territories with very different resources and opportunities. The city is home to five of the ten wealthiest Indians; it is also home to tremendous poverty and deprivation. Pavement dwellers, street hawkers, and informal slums abound. Practically across the street from Bandra Kurla Complex, a corporate office space that houses Dow Chemical, Citibank, and the US consulate, is “Asia’s largest slum,” Dharavi. Because it symbolically represents urban poverty in the global South, Dharavi attracts so much of the attention of scholars and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that it has produced “Dharavi fatigue” among activists and commentators in Mumbai (Patel 2012). As Arjun Appadurai quipped, in Mumbai one “can have breakfast in Dharavi and dinner at Indigo,” one of South Mumbai’s flashiest restaurants (Mahadik 2007:31). This polarization between (and proximity of) wealth and poverty is difficult to overlook. Nonetheless, the ways slum dwellers are constructing an integrative urban imaginary — even while elites seek to render them invisible — complicate this binary. Slums like Dharavi and Golibar, the latter the focus of this essay, are global slums wherein “the advanced economies and large cultural sectors of global cities have developed a range of working connections with slum dwellers . . .[because] parts of the traditional small enterprise sector and of the informal economy service particular components of the advanced sectors in a city” (Sassen 2011). This social position on the territorial edge of a globalized urbanism is the site of the construction of new urban subjectivities that are not reducible to communal attachments or socioeconomic position alone (Sassen 1999; cf. Rancière 1989; Calhoun 2012, chap. 5).

One outcome of all of this attention is that Mumbai’s slums are often understood in terms of readily available narratives about the urban poor. Slums are ghettos that concentrate social dysfunction and criminal behavior; slums represent an illegal appropriation of land for personal use; slums are occupied by rural migrants whose “village” practices — superstition, political clientelism, and subsistence production — maintain backward and antimodern identities and behaviors. At a more basic level, urban modernity represents “civilization” in Western discourse in opposition to “nature” (Gandy 2003; Kaika 2005). In this regard, slum living prevents people from constituting themselves as individuals free to develop aspirations and identities that go much beyond simple biological reproduction. Bourgeois individualism can be said to depend on confining bodily necessities to specially demarcated private spaces separated from spaces of sociability, yet slum dwellers are rarely able to separate the biological and the individual in the spaces they occupy. Slum society, it is assumed, does not incubate a civil society beyond the development NGOs that regularly take up residence in them. Even if “global slums” incubate new political subjectivities, the assumption is often that these don’t reach far beyond the imperatives of survival or populist politics. Slum dwellers represent the continuing presence of an uncivilized “nature” in the global city, one that is not capable of reasoned deliberation or liberal political subjectivities. These narratives sustain the territorial stigmatization of slums and slum dwellers, such that in some Indian cities the mere existence of a slum has been legally constituted as a “nuisance” that is subject to removal irrespective of demonstrated harmful effects (Ghertner 2008).

At the same time, another prominent discourse inverts this stigmatization. Mumbai’s slums do not actually look like the ghettos or banlieues of the West. Walking through them at night, one does not worry about personal safety since the streets are often filled with people of all ages. The slums sustain retailers, manufacturers, temples, mosques, and schools. There is indeed much to celebrate about many of Mumbai’s slums. Above all, the fact that they seem to work so well even though they are created and sustained mostly through the autonomous activity of the poor has caused them to be celebrated as “Wikicities,” to borrow from an urban planning firm headquartered in Mumbai (Srivastava and Echanove 2009). Slums incubate the creativity and entrepreneurship of the poor, practices that sustain a discourse of “human potential urbanism.” In light of such celebratory perspectives, the political action of slum dwellers does not appear as backward or communal; rather, slum dwellers’ defense of their authentic and autopoietic communities is entirely rational. The slum, therefore, sustains an alternative way of life that potentially produces mobilizations to defend it against the intrusions of the state and the market.

Critics of this all- too- easy romanticization note that the isolation of the poor sustains the stigmatization of impoverished spaces and their populations, justifying disciplinary strategies of governance instead of efforts to secure their social welfare (Wacquant 2008; Amin 2012). At the same time, the struggles of the urban poor are often assumed to be in pursuit of their distinctive values rather than waged in the name of integration into the city as a whole. Theories of urban protest often see contention as resistance to the disruptions of community caused by the “restless flow of capital” (Harvey 1989: 238). In a related but distinct argument, Partha Chatterjee argues that the politics of the poor in India is an expression not of civil society but of “political society.” In political society, government accommodates the moral criticisms of the marginalized through localized agreements that provide resources rather than through the passage of universal legislation or an expansion of representation and rights (Chatterjee 2004). In contrast, the “normative values of modernity” are only possible among the cultural and economic elite in a city like Mumbai (Chatterjee 2004: 41). While they have many differences, all of these theories situate the poor as active agents, but as particularistic ones, limited by their social and geographic positions in the city. Universality is a characteristic of either capitalist urbanization or a transnational cultural and economic elite. The idea that we can learn much about the possibilities of the city from slum dwellers is not widespread. Other accounts of similar struggles are only marginally concerned with the aspirations of the poor themselves and instead focus on either the organizational capacity of the poor or emerging forms of more inclusive governance (Appadurai 2002; Roy 2009; Weinstein 2009).

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Public Culture is a reviewed interdisciplinary journal of cultural studies, published three times a year in Fall, Winter, and Spring for the Institute for Public Knowledge by Duke University Press. The journal's full archives are available online at

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