A Republic of cities

Independent India was built, imagined and judged by its villages; by gram swaraj. The nation was rarely, if ever, imagined by its founders to be led (Chandigarh aside) by its cities. Cities were spaces of the other of colonial empires and cantonments, of a modernity that had come first in the garb of colonialism separate from the "inner" nation, which, authentic and unsullied, lived on in the villages. As Nehru once famously said: "we want to urbanise India's villages; not take away the people from villages to towns."

This ambiguity over the city and the reductive stereotypes it inhabits has had a long innings; and yet has begun to change. The urban has begun to rise not just demographically but politically, electorally, socially, culturally and economically to become the defining problem space of the "new India".

What Mumbai's taxi drivers remind us of, however, is that this emergence is a deeply contested and fraught one.

This is only the latest contest in a series that will continue as

India urbanises. A long-held myth holds that urban conflicts are economic and technical

ones over resources and infrastructures while rural conflicts centre more on identity and community politics. The corresponding myth is that urban challenges require better technical planning and governance, not political or cultural interventions. It is time to put these myths to rest.

As resident welfare associations lead public interest litigations against the poor for being "dirty" and "criminal"; as Mumbai's taxi drivers must learn Marathi; as the Sri Rama Sene polices southern Karnataka's streets to ensure cultural purity; as anti-migrant, anti-Bangladeshi and anti-poor campaigns dot our urban landscapes; as malls are allowed to encroach on protected forest areas and protected forest areas are allowed to encroach on the homes of the poor; as imaginations of the world-class city transform built environments and budget lines, it is time to realise that politics has come to the city.

... contd.

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