The image above is both a place and a placeholder. Flattened into the increasingly global language of digitally rendered landscapes—what South African urbanist Vanessa Watson calls “urban fantasies”—it marks both a mode and a moment of urbanization. As a mode, it is surrounded by familiar language: redevelopment, renewal, transformation. As a moment, however, it captures something more specific.
This particular image is from New Delhi. It shows the first of eight interlinked projects that seek to redevelop 523 acres—over 2 square kilometers, two-thirds the size of Central Park, or about a hundred Manhattan city blocks—of public land in the heart of the city. The “project,” as it is called by those implementing it, is a dramatic departure from the city’s current and historical form. Indeed, its promise lies precisely in this sharp shock of difference. This is newness, modernity, progress. However, it is also a project that most in the city know nothing about. It is neither famous nor notorious. I wrote this essay in election season in Delhi, and the project found no place of either pride or derision in any public discussions. It is grand yet stealthy, bold yet eerily quiet.
This could be an image of any of India’s other megacities, all of whose landscapes are transformed from just a decade ago. The transformations have a pattern: large capital-intensive infrastructure with long spatial and economic lock-ins; new urban and regional forms, from enclaves and townships to zones to corridors; sizeable urban renewal and redevelopment of core city areas; and changes in forms of economic investment, production, and thus employment. To some readers, these will prompt an echo of recognition. Such transformations are today also the story of Cairo, Addis Ababa, Shanghai, Jakarta, Accra, and Yangon, to name just a few. This is, then, a particular urban geography, of what some call the cities of the Global South.
Till now, we have spoken of this geography in a more familiar set of terms in narratives of global urbanization and development. Cities in the Global South are the periphery, marked by the absence of all that the great cities—New York, London, Paris, Tokyo—have. “Here” in Delhi, the city is always yet to come. In the words of urban geographer Jennifer Robinson, these are not “world” or “global” cities, but ordinary ones: older geographies of colonial occupation layered with newer ones of underdevelopment, inequality, and economic dependency. Yet 21st-century urbanization is shifting this narrative. The South, today more than ever, is no simple periphery. The economic rise of India and China, and of the BRIC countries more generally, and the urban expansion of Africa are creating what some scholars call the next wave of global urbanization, after the Industrial Revolution.
What is the nature of this urbanization? The image reminds us that, outside narratives of the periphery and poverty, there are deep structural transformations underway in Southern megacities. These are particular to each city but also show a pattern, a logic, with clear characteristics: rapid expansion, the huge influx of capital, and the unceasing creation and transformation of new built environments. In India, you can see the scale of this change from the sky. Delhi’s built-up area has increased by 48 percent since 2001, Ahmedabad’s by 77 percent, Bangalore’s by 106 percent, Pune’s by 169 percent.1 To put it bluntly: nowhere is urban change as fast, as sudden, as grand as it is here. The geo-spatial maps can barely keep up.
A significant part of this urban expansion and redevelopment of the built environment is, as expected, the transformation of urban landscapes into higher registers of land and capital value. While this is part of all urbanization globally, here it occurs in cities where, in the words of AbdouMaliq Simone and Edgar Pieterse, the majority is economically, socially, and politically vulnerable. Put simply: these are cities with high degrees both of inequality and of destitution and poverty for the majority, a simultaneity that is different from cities of the Global North. What, then, does rapid transformation mean in such cities? What does it mean in and for New Delhi?
The image itself holds many answers to this question. Its pixels are marked by an absence of people, workers, street vendors, and any sign of human-scaled life. Where the new towers now stand used to be low-density, low-rise housing for government workers. In what is to be built lies a different imagination of the appropriate use for a vast body of public land: a world trade center, high-rise apartment housing (some for government workers and some for sale), and commercial complexes for high-end consumption, retail outlets, and high-skill employment. The density of the area will increase manyfold, shaping the geography of traffic, soil, water, and air in what is already one of the most polluted and water-stressed cities on the planet.
The state’s response is to argue that the redevelopment will bring value to the city center and that the housing will remain public and be largely given to government workers. This is true; this is not the tale of a simple private rent extraction. Yet this is also value understood in a very particular way: land prices will no doubt appreciate even as the land remains publicly owned (for now). Commercial transactions will thicken. More slowly, more quietly, this new geography of value will also bring forth a new kind of inhabitant, an ascendant citizen able to occupy, maintain, and live within the altered landscape. In a city where a fifth of all citizens live below the state’s abysmally low poverty line and another two-thirds would not be able to afford even a parking space within the new project, there will be no pathway to partake in the gains of this value. This is also true for the low-income housing for government workers that the project will indeed build. Who is it for in a city where 88 to 92 percent of all employment? is in the informal economy?
What tactics must be employed to challenge public “projects” of urban transformation that proceed with scale, pace, and stealth?
The truth is that this is a public project that will be experienced by most as displacement, as closure, as a lost opportunity for what could have been done with a vast body of publicly owned land in the heart of the city. We are instead left with an ironic paradox: a public gated community that may not even require physical gates to signal and perform its exclusions. An informal settlement stood on part of the land the image shows transformed, its residents long evicted and resettled over 30 kilometers away on the periphery of the city, an erasure seemingly well within the purview of the public interest.
This, then, is the story I choose to tell from this image: the recognition of a particular way of reproducing inequality in the contemporary Southern megacity, one that is entirely public in its structure and its representation of itself but occurs in a quiet opacity of information that raises critical questions about who speaks for the public and what public interest is meant to embody. Inequality produced this way is related to but also different from the creation of unequal cities through the dominance of particular forms of private real estate capital.
One of the key markers of this difference is in the way a public project must be answerable, can be answerable, to the public itself and to what it means for our democratic politics that it is currently not. A private real estate redevelopment on 523 acres of land need not justify to the public in any direct manner what it chooses to build. The same project led by a postcolonial developmental state that still speaks of welfare and equity, however, can and must be questioned. So why hasn’t it been until now? How could this change? How could we, as citizens who seek to resist such transformations, to hold on to other imaginations of the public in our cities, act? What must be our practices, our modes of resistance? The next part of this essay shifts to these questions, arguing that new modes of the reproduction of inequality require new narratives, forms, and practices of resistance.
Indian sociologist Satish Deshpande has argued that in recent times, the political victories won by subaltern groups against capital have been rural and those won by elite groups largely urban. To observers of Indian cities, this feels intuitively as well as empirically true, and it compels us to ask difficult questions of politics in our cities. Here I ask a particular one: What tactics must be employed to challenge public “projects” of urban transformation that proceed with scale, pace, and stealth? I argue that the tactic we need to learn is how to stall.
By stalling, I mean a range of actions that seek to quickly block, interrupt, derail, or slow down specific projects. Stalling is a more active mode of resistance than evading, subverting, or ignoring, yet it is not participation, either invited or invented, to use Faranak Miraftab’s very useful framing. Its goal is not to redirect, reframe, or redesign. It is a mode of action undertaken when one believes that certain forms of discussion and negotiation are not possible (perhaps, for example, simply because of the suddenness with which action has to be taken).
When the New Delhi redevelopment project did finally hit the newspapers, it was because it came to light that nearly 11,000 trees were to be cut, causing an uproar. By then, the foundations for the largest of the sites had already been dug, plans for the project finalized, contracts and tenders wrapped up, and millions of rupees of public money already spent. Negotiation or redesign within the executive branch of government was impossible at this late stage, so a set of citizens did the only thing they could do. They went to the Delhi High Court to get a temporary injunction, not to challenge the project but to prevent tree felling. They succeeded. The project stands temporarily paused today as hearings continue. It stands, in other words, stalled.
Here we begin to see the ways stalling works as a political practice. As Mumbai-based urban activist Hussain Indorewala frames it, stalling cannot be an end of its own. It is instead a crucial intermediate political tactic that plays at least two key political roles.
One, it buys time. Especially when knowledge about projects comes suddenly and often deep into the project’s implementation cycle, stalling creates delays that enable at least the possibility for more organized resistance to form, groups to engage, people to be mobilized, and strategies to be developed. In cases where projects can entail displacements and forced evictions, this time is also crucial for those whose housing, land, or livelihoods are directly affected. Any delays become opportunities to minimize welfare shocks, protect assets, prepare alternatives, or gather resources to build some immediate resilience.
Two, in a context where urban governance offers little opportunity for meaningful participation, or within any broader social setting where deep power imbalances mean that fair engagement is nearly impossible, stalling can also be the only way to force public debate and discussion or open up the possibility of negotiation and participation. It can thus seek not just to derail a project but also to create the possibility of reimagination, to force a public coproduction even if that was never the state’s intention in the first place.
How one should stall, who can stall, and how effective and possible stalling will turn out to be are all determined by particular political economic contexts. This is where the changing nature of the “public” becomes essential. Since 2005, Indian urban governance has undergone a transformative change. Regardless of which party is in power, the urban has become the center of policy attention in a country long regarded as living in its villages. For million-plus-population cities, it has done so through two particular modalities: the mission and the project. Missions are thematic: housing, sanitation, services, and infrastructure each get their own. Through them, funds are transferred for specific purposes from the center to state governments and to cities. Within missions, projects proliferate, embedded into plans. These then range in scale from the site-based redevelopment of individual slums under the housing mission, to area-based redevelopment of large central city portions under the mission for “smart cities,” to the city-scaled installation of infrastructure under the service delivery mission, to name just a few. Each intends to transform built environments, ranging in scale from the household to the urban region. The project whose image we began with is part of a larger Smart City redevelopment.
What do the mission and the project have to do with stalling? Each, in their own way, breaks the form of the state that is accessible to political claims, blurring the lines between recognizably democratic institutions (elected representatives, municipalities, public utilities) and an array of public, semipublic, and private entities working in “project” mode that is confusingly related yet unrelated to statutory and democratic processes. It isn’t incidental that citizens in Delhi went to court rather than to their elected representatives to fight the redevelopment. Within a postcolonial context, where making claims was based precisely on the ability to use democratic process with and against the state, the “project” changes the game yet again.
One example of how stalling can give us new modes of practice is to imagine resistance being rooted in the minute, mundane, and deeply technical rules of the project.
Bypass and exception, then, dominate urban governance. Master plans, city development plans, and state policies—subject to confirmation as well as protest—get undercut by temporal, time-bound but budget-rich missions with their own plans, forms, modalities, and complexities that meet a hurry to get things done. Rights claims are not denied; they can simply be evaded because, often, the same public institutions are meant to both protect statutory processes and bypass them for the latest mission. A splintering occurs that is at once an exception, a supersession, and a fragmentation.
Take the heralded Smart Cities Mission. The mission creates a special-purpose vehicle that is and is not public (its composition is a confusing representation of various levels of local, state, and central government), operates largely through private contractors, seems to supersede previous statutory and development planning for the areas it includes, and creates its own new set of plans, mission documents, budget lines, appointed experts, and technical terminology. At any point, it is unclear whether to take it seriously or not. Yet what happens when activists and residents faced with evictions run to the state’s urban development authority, and then to its municipality, only to realize that the planned urban transformation is under the city’s Smart City Special Purpose Vehicle?
Put simply: it is not clear whom to fight anymore, let alone how to fight them. Modes of resistance that imagined claims against the developmental state must rethink how to take on the project as well as the institution, and how to direct their resistance to actors beyond the familiar facades of the public-facing state. They must understand how the “state” itself is being undone and put back together in different ways.
One example of how stalling can give us new modes of practice is to imagine resistance being rooted in the minute, mundane, and deeply technical rules of the project. This is something we don’t do enough in urban social movements. Our challenges are still largely within the language of constitutional provisions and rights, or more abstract claims to justice.
What would it mean to shift our repertoire of resistance in this way? We would take minute violations of process in notification and surveying seriously when fighting evictions; would demonstrate real participation through conducting open public hearings in place of more sanitized, “participatory” public consultations; could insist on community consent clauses that can be leveraged to shut down projects that refuse to account for the full extent of their impact on diverse communities; would access the judiciary on these procedural grounds to get delays and injunctions; and, finally, would imagine and propose projects of our own, counterimaginations that were technically viable and feasible.
It can feel at times that not much has been done in this direction, because too many contemporary urban movements in India have not seen institutional reform, policy changes, planning, and the law as sites of what is commonly understood as “resistance” or “politics.” Until recently, they have not had reason to do so. Everyday urban life in Indian cities—in many cities of the Global South—often seems utterly disconnected from the formal worlds of projects and plans, few of which are implemented at all, let alone in the way they were written. The space to fight for justice, then, has long been seen to live beyond the formal world of institutional civil society, outside planning, projects, and the world of “policy.” Its home is the space of democratic rather than technocratic politics. This is a division that we perhaps need to rethink.
Stalling is just one reconceptualization that seeks to take the current forms of urban transformation in cities of the South seriously. It reminds us that buying time, enabling more organized resistance, and forcing negotiation and a more public debate while holding on to the status quo are vital political acts that often need to precede more organized resistance and activism in order to make the latter truly effective within rapid urban transformation.
- Teja Malladi, Nilakshi Chatterji, and Arindam Jana, India Urban Atlas 2017: Visualising and Understanding Urban Growth and Expansion (Indian Institute for Human Settlements, 2017). ↩