Reframing the city
23 June 2015
Awadhendra Sharan’s ‘In the City, Out of Place’ might be the most important book on Delhi in recent times.
Awadhendra Sharan’s In the City, Out of Place: Nuisance, Pollution, and Dwelling in Delhi, c. 1850-2000 is without a hint of doubt one of the most important books on Delhi to have come out in the past few years. Sharan is a meticulous researcher, who brings discipline and a wealth of scholarship to bear upon his subject, namely, colonial and postcolonial Delhi. Specifically, this book seeks to understand practices and governance around key arenas of the city. The first of these is water. Sharan looks at the story from both ‘ends’ of the water cycle in the urban settlement – from the availability of water from canals, rivers and underground sources to the variety of distribution networks leading to the city’s various thirsty populations; and conversely, as he terms it, the “flow away” of water from homes and factories as sewage and sullage. In both cases, Sharan notes that valuable opportunities to create an environmentally sustainable regime of water were squandered several times in Delhi, even as an understanding of the state as responsible for both clean water and a city free of sewage was put into place.
Second, Sharan documents changing practices of animal slaughter in modern Delhi, tracing the tortured evolution of the modern slaughterhouse. Complicating the matter are modern notions of the trauma of open animal slaughter, seen as unfit for civilised folk, especially their children; and conversely, the peculiarly colonial phenomenon of the rise of organised community ‘sensitivities’ around slaughtering practices. Since the late 19th century, as documented by historians like Peter Van Der Veer, a vigorous cow protection movement emerged amongst largely upper-caste vegetarian Hindus, led by organisations like the Arya Samaj. This movement, with its many offshoots in places like Awadh, Rohilkhand, Bombay Presidency and Punjab, targeted the ‘evil’ of beef consumption, especially by Muslims. Subsequently, religious processions that included ritual animal sacrifice amongst Muslims, often of the goat and not the cow, attracted these communal mobilisations.
Third, Sharan examines the history of spatial planning in the city – a process that has been framed around anxieties of congestion, chaos, and illegality. He examines the growth of housing, slums and industries in the old and new cities, recording the shifting paradigms of governance that seek to regulate this growth. The final chapter on pollution analyses industrial, vehicular and other forms of pollution in Delhi. He notes the major transformation in this realm from the ideas of congestion, nuisance and crowding that generated exclusively spatial solutions (banishing polluting industries and pollutants from the city to the outskirts) to defining clean air as a fundamental right for all citizens, and finally to the partial establishment of the “precautionary principle” through judicial activism. The precautionary principle – often employed in environmental law – states that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or the environment, then the burden of proof to show that it is not harmful falls on those taking the action.
As Sharan puts it early on in the book, the idea is not simply to see but to see how we see: “The book, thus, considers not only the urban world that is historically available to us, but also the words through which these worlds were made up and seen.” Sharan’s gaze is trained not simply on the material reality of the built structures and practices that mark the three areas mentioned above (sewers and pipes; abattoirs and landfills; industries and vehicles), but also on the ways in which these areas have been understood, imagined and governed in colonial and postcolonial Delhi – the words and concepts used, the forms of knowledge, expertise and terminology developed, and finally, the legal scaffolding erected around it. Indeed, there is practically no domain of urban life in postcolonial Delhi that is left unexamined by this work.
Pollution and purity
In what may be the finest chapter in the book, ‘Contaminated Flows: Water in the City 1868-1956’, Sharan outlines with stark elegance the lost opportunities in water management in Delhi in this period. While the city’s system of canals, pipelines (and sewers at the other end of the water cycle) expanded steadily due to the increase in British military and civilian presence after the Ghadar of 1857, ambivalences about what constituted ‘pure’ or ‘good’ water dogged attempts at instituting a universal system of water supply. There were of course material differences between the colony and the metropolis that defeated a more thoroughgoing modernisation of civic services, including the drinking water supply. For instance, colonial municipalities found themselves strapped for funds compared to metropolitan municipalities, even if some of these difficulties were resolved by centrally administered ‘Improvement Trusts’ for Delhi, Bombay and Calcutta, which came into being in the early 20th century. But these difficulties are well recorded in literature, such as Prashant Kidambi’s work on the Bombay Improvement Trust in his The Making of an Indian Metropolis.
The changing science of water purity and the slippery nature of ‘knowledge’ in this field is what is particularly fascinating. Sharan does an excellent job of recording this, clearly showing the interplay between the expansion of this imperfect expertise on the one hand, and of municipal control over urban water on the other. The outcome of these competing logics in water management has somehow meant that the civic authorities ignored perfectly good sources of water within the city, and colonised water sources far afield. The result has been that Delhi is crisscrossed by heavily polluted and over-stressed riverine systems. The Hindon River, for instance, was brought into service to supplement the unfortunate and now nearly dead Yamuna. But at the end of this ambitious exploitation of water sources, no Delhi resident can open the tap in the kitchen and simply drink from it – an irony that is not lost on Sharan!
On the question of animal slaughter, Sharan begins with the debates on the modern slaughterhouse in the West, and how they came to be mirrored in municipal efforts in Delhi to establish a sanitary and discrete ‘modern’ abattoir. However, the chapter rapidly moves to consider the intricate spatiality of slaughtering practices within the city. In other words, animal slaughter did not exist abstractly, but was concretely spatialised within the city. As modernising communities, largely in urban areas, articulated their identity in the political realm qua rival communities, slaughter became in the colonial period a source of volatility. There was, of course, the essential volatility of blood and meat itself as substances, the former reminding the delicate modern sensibility of the verity of animal slaughter, and the latter prone to rotting and carrying disease, marshaling a sense of civic urgency in the dense modern urban settlement.
But there were other historical forces as well. As several historians have shown, Hinduism as a communal identity since the late 19thcentury became heavily preoccupied with Muslim practice of cow slaughter for Bakr Id, giving birth to the idea of ‘cow protection’ that persists until this date as a rallying call for the Hindu right. The communal nature of this movement derives precisely from the twin dynamic of remembering ceremonial cow slaughter by Muslims, while forgetting widespread and routine consumption of other meat by observant Hindus, not to mention the use and disposal of cow carcasses by outcaste Hindus. Sharan documents the rise of such communal tensions in Delhi, concluding that these inevitably entered the municipal calculus with the problem of slaughtering presented overtly as “nuisance” and “offensive trades”. At the end of this tortured history, Delhi did get a modern slaughterhouse, but on the outskirts of the city, the urban outskirts often being a receptacle for the conflict-laden and the banished of the city.
Placing the rural
The chapter on spatial planning ‘Congestion and Chaos:1935-62’ continues the theme of banishment and accommodation, tracing the regulation of housing, slums and industry through the official urban planning regime in the city, most clearly embodied in Delhi’s Master Plan and its subsequent revisions. Skillfully highlighting the coexistence of legality and illegality in the way the city was governed, in a departure from most narratives on Delhi, Sharan endorses the original Master Plan as “eminently pragmatic”, noting that this nevertheless did not result in a well-planned city. Importantly, he points out that this was not due to a failure of implementation, which many view as the malaise that ails developing societies, but perhaps because in their enthusiasm for enforcing abstract principles of ‘optimal’ size and density, urban planners ignored the multiple needs that constitute the actual social ‘liveability’ of cities. As a result, slums have proliferated outside the Plan, attracting frequent and ham-handed demolition or ‘regularisation’ drives. The regional ambit of Delhi has ballooned, bringing more and more ‘counter-magnets’ into its galloping arc to reduce housing pressure within Delhi. The chapter concludes that the one mode of life that didn’t find space within Delhi’s Master Plan and its legal as well as illegal scope was the rural. This is a conclusion that my own recent research on the regional plan in Delhi contests. It is apparent that the rural was accommodated quite critically into urban Delhi since colonial times through complex spatial imaginaries like the ‘urban village’ and the idea, as Sharan himself mentions, of “noxious” and “village-like trades”. The incorporation of the rural was thus critical to – and yet the disavowed underside of – the imaginary of modern Delhi. In other words, the rural was to supply land, labour and clean air to the city, absorbing its noxious industrial gases and excess population.
In the chapter ‘Pollution: Industrial Landscapes, 1934-2000’ Sharan argues that the confusion of aims between industrial development and pollution reduction in Delhi has been endemic. Since the establishment of the Industrial Area Scheme during the colonial period, zoning and “categorical separation” between various kinds of industry has been used to limit industry in Delhi. However, smaller units have proven recalcitrant in this project while bigger units have used the legal route to stall strict zoning laws. By the 1970s, the idea of a safe environment had begun to gather currency and the discourse split between those who argued that poverty was responsible, and those who argued that development was responsible for environmental degradation. In the 1990s, a spate of critical judgments by an increasingly activist Supreme Court pushed environmental law in a direction that resulted in the large-scale eviction of polluting industries to the outskirts of the city, but not without significant distress and protest by owners and the labour. The ‘evil’ of vehicular pollution was tackled next with the Court directing public transport to adopt fuel believed to be ‘cleaner’ by a section of the scientific community – compressed natural gas (CNG). In both cases, the conflict between livelihood and environment concerns was dealt with through summary decisions in favour of the latter. Of course, in actual practice, the city has continued to shelter livelihood seekers in what urban theorist Solomon Benjamin has termed a “vast economy of hidden practices”.
The contemporary city
This work is marked by a subtle but palpable affection for the city – nothing less could sustain this degree of examination and exploration of matters best forgotten by most of its citizens, including the excellent academics and scholars who call Delhi home. Sharan takes some pains to ensure that the language is as jargon-free as possible. There is no reason that urban studies and urban governance should be saturated with jargon, or remain the domain of experts and policy makers. But he resists the temptation to generate a lazy discourse regarding the city; to hook into existing narratives – both scholarly and popular – choosing instead to pull out the file and start from scratch. This means that the book often doesn’t yield its treasures easily, and therefore its most important contribution is also its most subtle – a record of the human and non-human interface, or in other words, between the ‘social’ and the ‘environmental’. The book and its concerns have the overall effect of breaking down the walls between environmental and social science. As a result, we literally have materials that speak in the book, and humans that can be viewed as so much material as far as their environmental effects are concerned. The distance between body, space, odour, mass, and ideas, to just take some of the categories, is not as marked as one might imagine.
The worry with this level of detail and subtlety, however, could be that the theoretical framework in a particular discussion is not always well established or obvious. To name just a few of the theoretical themes that run through the book – the world of the ‘social’ and how it exists in Delhi; the spatial as expressed in urban planning; the idea of expertise as an authoritative mode of intervention in the modern city and elsewhere; the registers of “pain and prejudice” in the enactment of certain imaginaries and laws about the city; and finally and most importantly, the specificity of our (postcolonial) modernity, marked primarily by the striking co-terminality of discourses and practices of urbanism that ‘legitimately’ belong to different epochs in the West.
It is quite apparent that one of Sharan’s preoccupations is the eternal question of continuity and change within our ‘provincial’ modernity, to twist Dipesh Chakrabarty’s formulation somewhat. The project of tracing continuities and discontinuities is undertaken at two levels in this work. At the obviously temporal level, Sharan examines urban governance during colonial and post-colonial eras, raising the critical question of whether the moment of independence dramatically alters the landscape of the urban in India, both literally and metaphorically. At another level, there are also shifts that are produced by the journey in a single historical moment from the metropolis to the colony. Urban studies literature is so overwhelmingly dominated by examples and theorisation based on the putatively ‘standard’ Western city that it is important to accord Indian cities their own specific historicity. As Sharan puts it, “The contemporary Indian city is thus neither a deferred Western city nor the anticipated East Asian metropolis. It is a different configuration of things and discourses that merits its own account. It is an account that must, for this reason be a historically situated one.”
Thus Sharan seeks to neither subsume contemporary urban phenomena within the universal narrative of (Western) progress, nor to posit sweeping generalisations about the Indian city with little regard for the actual concatenation of constituent forces. Here Sharan’s work is in continuum with a number of historians of Empire, who have argued similarly within and outside the study of the urban (for the first, Jyoti Hosagrahar and Stephen Legg are good examples; for the latter, consider Anthony King on the colonial bungalow as a hybrid architectural form). Sharan’s work makes a significant contribution to this body of work. However, he does not engage directly with this literature, choosing instead to let the facts speak for themselves – which may or may not happen, depending on the readership that will determine the afterlife of this publication. On the other hand, some of Sharan’s arguments appear already digested, expressed with an ease and familiarity that accompanies a conversation between co-experts in a field. A concluding chapter would have been a valuable opportunity to consolidate some of these arguments together, but the book only contains a postscript, which merely carries the discussion in the previous chapter on pollution forward, especially with regard to the evolution of the precautionary principle.
But this is a minor quibble with an otherwise brilliant study. More and more of us will choose to live and think and work in the city in the coming century than ever before. The city thus forms not merely our background, but the active habitat upon which we make sense of our lives as modern subjects. More urgently than ever we need to look closely at our environments and our agency as city dwellers. We need to build bridges between how we walk – or in the case of Delhi, cycle, drive and are driven – in the city and the way we talk about the city, the scholarship produced in and about the city, and our Delhi and the Delhi that exists out there, in our individual and collective imaginations, devoid of us. We need research so that our actions and agency may no longer suffer from the schizophrenia that attacks us when we speak of ‘the problem of pollution’ or ‘the problems of the city’ as if we are outside the polluted city! In the City Out of Place is a pioneering effort to speak to and as a commoner and ordinary resident of the city, while amply demonstrating the myriad treasures that painstaking research can yield.
~Sunalini Kumar is an Assistant Professor at Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi University. Her most recent publication, on the planning of the National Capital Region, appeared in a volume titled Critical Studies in Politics: Sites, Selves, Power (Orient Blackswan, 2014).