Make Way for the “World-Class” City

Inaugurating a new generation of mechanical street sweepers, Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi’s chief minister, heralded the coming of a new era: “If we continue to receive the love and support of the public ...

Inaugurating a new generation of mechanical street sweepers, Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi’s chief minister, heralded the coming of a new era: “If we continue to receive the love and support of the public and the workers, then not in five years, we will make Delhi a world-class city in just four years.”1 By June 2020, more features would swathe Delhi in trappings fit for the city’s “world-class” designation, like highways of “good quality with a lot of greenery.”2 Also underway in Kejriwal’s conjuring: a “world-class” high-tech skills center to upgrade the technical labor force, multiple sports stadiums, and shiny new hotels. Ghertner elaborates on other features of “world-class,” some already in place: “the excitement of stepping into an air-conditioned, stainless steel carriage on the Delhi Metro, or the pride of living near a shopping mall with more marble than the Taj Mahal.”

Aesthetics plays an intrinsic role in the functioning of modern regimes even, or perhaps especially, under conditions of mass poverty. Making things beautiful, or at least decent or nice, facilitates both urban development and mass acquiescence. The positive image of certain elements renders other types of physical matter and some types of human beings out of place. Under the regime of “world-class,” they become in effect weeds that make the city ugly. Such a regime justifies spending resources to upgrade the city while uprooting whatever threatens to mar the landscape.

D. Asher Ghertner’s Rule by Aesthetics invites us to interrogate the beauty and allure of modernization—the aesthetics of “world-class”—as part of the civic system: the intersection of governmental structures and the sentiments of elite and impoverished popular classes alike. In Raymond Williams’s term, it is part of the “structures of feeling,” an internalized sense of inferiority, that brings poor people to defer to their overlords.3 Ghertner similarly points our vision toward closely held hopes and dreams that, however perniciously, cross and link groups.

Ghertner traces the “world-class” sentiment from its birth in late 1990s Delhi through to the contemporary moment. The sentiment gathered strength in a time of hyper-growth, as India’s second-largest metropolis (now over 18 million) burst beyond its borders and raised up new buildings for the rich and well-off. This also meant, as happens, the growth of shanties and effluvia—approximately half of the metropolis looks (and smells) accordingly.

Rampant ugliness resulted in efforts to impose reforms for better land use, rational planning, and higher standards of sanitation. But any action, whether public or private, required dealing with a jumble of rules, parcel maps, titles, quasi titles, zoning, and population counts accumulated from the past. Courts, legislative bodies, and administrators could not make sense of competing versions of statutes, precedents, and data, a mass of detail that begat a “calculative crisis,” as Ghertner calls it. Judges and officials had been trying to think and administer like a proper state, only to encounter enormous backloads of court cases, administrative appeals, incompatible maps, and inconsistent rulings. In effect, the regime was choking on the overgrowth of past state-making efforts. For would-be property developers, whose projects could be an antidote to the slum, the process of gaining approvals and getting bulldozers on the move was unacceptably slow and costly.

Our friend “world-class” to the rescue. Here was a credo offering a way out—a way to mobilize policy and action, as Ghertner explains, “without planning benchmarks or even mutually agreeable definitional criteria.” It was vague, but just the right kind of vague. Defying the cacophony of bureaucracy, political bickering, and social demands, “world-class” could be used to rule. Yes, there were no specifications of what “world-class” was or what it’s opposite, a “slum,” might be, but—says Ghertner quoting Amita Baviskar—“like obscenity or divinity, ‘world-classness’ provokes a response from within, an instant shock of recognition”; or, as in the US Supreme Court lexicon, “you know it when you see it.” Playing the “world-class” card can trump potential confusion.

As a consequence, “slums were deemed illegal because they looked illegal.” Judges and administrators, otherwise at wit’s end, had the capacity to discern the difference between nuisance and beauty. They ruled against the former and on behalf of the latter. “Don’t bother me with the facts,” they seemed to be saying, because the facts simply cannot be made to add up. In his analysis of a proposed Paris transit system, the French sociologist Bruno Latour insisted that any ambitious urban project can happen only where there is enough “love.”4 In these terms, Delhi has love. Its diverse communities enrolled in the idea of “world-class.” Knowing by seeing forged a “community of sense” (a term Ghertner borrows from Rancière5) insulated from counter-evidence or mundane legalism.

Under the city’s prior codes and rulings (as elsewhere in the country), there could be no clearance of poor people without first providing high-standard replacement housing. If not the shelter itself, then a substantial resettlement payment had to be made. Ghertner points to actual cases where judges utterly ignored such rules and invoked “world-class” to justify clearance. Gradually, as he documents, “nuisance,” a legal term to designate land uses that required urgent abatement, broadened to include land uses under which the poor often had to live. With the “nuisance” ideology, outside bathing or defecating became not evidence of imposed deprivation requiring government amelioration, but disgusting acts demanding a single remedy: clearance. Ironically enough, each act of clearance, by pushing people into smaller and denser spaces, intensified the need for public display of such bodily routines.

Ghertner pays a lot of attention to the less than 25 percent of Delhi residents who were property owners and thus eligible to serve as political intermediaries (he confusingly identifies them as the “elite,” never mind the developers and their finance allies in this radically unequal nation). Far out of proportion to their numbers, they became the legally entitled movers and shakers of land-use policing. New institutional arrangements gave authority to their neighborhood associations’ fight against nuisance. Ghertner carefully and skillfully shows how such organizations were, through new governmental rules, connected into local bureaucracies. Their members were required to have a seat at the table when local decisions were being made; they were given direct access—with names and telephone contacts—of administrative officials. A zeal for “propriety,” as well as property, became integrated into the day-by-day operations of public agencies, the better to harass the offenders. Provided with both insider standing and enhanced access to public media, the property-owning class came to represent the citizenry overall. It amounted to a “gentrification of state space,” in Ghertner’s apposite phrase.

The “world-class” regime justifies spending resources to upgrade the city while uprooting whatever threatens to mar the landscape.

In perhaps the most striking argument of the book, Ghertner claims—through ethnographic reporting—that slum dwellers themselves bought into “world-class” as justification for the very events that would do them in. At best, they would be compensated with housing on the far periphery; at worst, given nothing at all (as happened in some of the cases Ghertner describes). But in the meantime they marveled at the emerging Delhi skyline and were impressed with the shiny housing projects and malls impinging on their own settlement.

Their assent presents the ultimate test of the modernization seduction. Orderliness attracts; a Western sense of decency (not so Western at all, perhaps) inspires dreams even among the very deprived. In one poignant example, residents show Ghertner a picture on their wall of a “hybrid American ranch and Swiss chalet styled home” in which they will one day reside (it looks to be a watercolor, but I could not tell from the reproduction in the book). In the meantime, and on their way to such a suburban fairyland, they understand themselves as obstacles to the grand and good. The victims, to be sure, recognize the impending loss of their livelihoods, friends, family, and neighbors. They seem to resign themselves to being cleared out, but with an element of hopefulness, Ghertner asserts. They want to be part of the future of the greater India to come, even if that means demolition of the places they now make their lives.

The slum residents take part in the advanced and ambitious “world-class” narrative—talking about it and in some ways helping build it. For them, a “world-class” Delhi would be an “accomplishment.” Such self-positioning helps them toward “an infrastructure of hope” that Ghertner likens to a mix of “fate and luck,” “kismat” in Hindi. In whatever language, I won’t be the only reader dubious of this yoga-like reach to escape the unhappy conclusion that India’s poor suffer from a deep and shared disability—a culture of poverty in the troubled anthropological articulation. However much grounded in past and current oppression, a lingering cultural passivity may make them especially vulnerable to the emerging “world-class” ideological order. It sits with other aspects of caste in contemporary Delhi. Rightly or wrongly, Ghertner doesn’t for a minute take up any such possibilities. However we explain the origins or specifics of attitudes among the poor, it is more than plausible that “world-class” is a new mode of hegemony, reaching far beyond the Delhi situation.

On the other hand, in regard to class as well as caste, politics do happen and consciousness can shift. As Ghertner reports, the Delhi ground is apparently now moving again. Rules requiring the state to compensate slum residents in advance of relocation have resurfaced, presumably much to the consternation of developers and neighborhood associations. Perhaps in service to a more inclusive agenda or perhaps in cynical counter-response, some Delhi rebranding is happening again. The phrase “The Caring City” has emerged from a high-ranking city official. Wittingly or not, the Delhi move follows the use of the slogan by Glasgow, a network of South African cities, and the town of Caspian, Michigan (population 871). More tales of the city gone global. Wherever and however applied, the revised agenda may or may not have any real consequence. The constant is not the content of policy, but the relevance of aesthetics to making and enforcing it. icon

  1. “Delhi to be World Class City in Four Years: Kejriwal,” Business Standard, June 4, 2015.
  2. “Better Roads to Make Delhi World Class,” Times of India, July 26, 2015.
  3. Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (Oxford University Press, 1975), p. 12.
  4. Bruno Latour, Aramis; or, The Love of Technology, translated from the French by Catherine Porter (Harvard University Press, 1996).
  5. Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, translated from the French by Gabriel Rockhill (2004; Bloomsbury, 2013). See also Beth Hinderliter et. al., eds., Communities of Sense: Rethinking Aesthetics and Politics (Duke University Press, 2009).
Featured image: Urban slum in Delhi. Photograph by Sistak / Flickr