India’s writing of the urbanised middle-class symphony
The occasional journal Agenda (published by the Centre for Communication and Development Studies) has focused on the subject of urban poverty. A collection of articles brings out the connections between population growth, the governance of cities and urban areas, the sub-populations of the ‘poor’ and how they are identified, the responses of the state to urbanisation and urban residents (links at the end of this post).
My contribution to this issue has described how the urbanisation of India project is being executed in the name of the ‘urban poor’. But the urban poor themselves are lost in the debate over methodologies to identify and classify them and the thicket of entitlements, provisions and agencies to facilitate their ‘inclusion’ and ‘empowerment’. I have divided my essay into four parts – part one may be read here, part two is found here, and this is part three:
A small matrix of classifications is the reason for such obtuseness, which any kirana shop owner and his speedy delivery boys could quickly debunk. As with the viewing of ‘poverty’ so too the consideration of an income level as the passport between economic strata (or classes) in a city: the Ministry of Housing follows the classification that a household whose income is up to Rs 5,000 a month is pigeon-holed as belonging to the economically weaker section while another whose income is Rs 5,001 and above up to Rs 10,000 is similarly treated as lower income group.
Committees and panels studying our urban condition are enjoined not to stray outside these markers if they want their reports to find official audiences, and so they do, as did the work (in 2012) of the Technical Group on Urban Housing Shortage over the Twelfth Plan period (which is 2012-17). Central trade unions were already at the time stridently demanding that Rs 10,000 be the national minimum wage, and stating that their calculation was already conservative (so it was, for the rise in the prices of food staples had begun two years earlier).
The contributions of those in the lower economic strata (not the ‘poor’ alone, however they are measured or miscounted) to the cities of India and the towns of Bharat, to the urban agglomerations and outgrowths (terms that conceal the entombment of hundreds of hectares of growing soil in cement and rubble so that more bastis may be accommodated), are only erratically recorded. When this is done, more often than not by an NGO, or a research institute (not necessarily on urban studies) or a more enlightened university programme, seldom do the findings make their way through the grimy corridors of the municipal councils and into recognition of the success or failure of urban policy.
And so it is that the tide of migrants – India’s urban population grew at 31.8% in the 10 years between 2001 and 2011, both census years, while the rural population grew at 12.18% and the overall national population growth rate was 17.64% with the difference between all three figures illustrating in one short equation the strength of the urbanisation project – is essential for the provision of cheap labour to the services sector for that higher economic strata upon whom the larger share of the GDP growth burden rests, the middle class.
And so the picture clears, for it is in maintaining and adding to the numbers of the middle class – no troublesome poverty lines here whose interpretations may arrest the impulse to consume – that the growth of India’s GDP relies. By the end of the first confused decade following the liberalisation of India’s economy, in the late-1990s, the arrant new ideology that posited the need for a demographic shift from panchayat to urban ward found supporters at home and outside (in the circles of the multi-lateral development lending institutions particularly, which our senior administrators and functionaries were lured into through fellowships and secondments). Until 10 years ago, it was still being said in government circles that India’s pace of urbanisation was only modest by world standards (said in the same off-the-cuff manner that explains our per capita carbon dioxide emissions as being well under the global average).
In 2005, India had 41 urban areas with populations of a million and more while China had 95 – in 2015 the number of our cities which will have at least a million will be more than 60. Hence the need to turn a comfortable question into a profoundly irritating one: instead of ‘let us mark the slums as being those areas of a city or town in which the poor live’ we choose ‘let us mark the poor along as many axes as we citizens can think of and find the households – in slum or cooperative housing society or condominium – that are deprived by our own measures’. The result of making such a choice would be to halt the patronymic practiced by the state (and its private sector assistants) under many different guises.
Whether urban residents in our towns and cities will bestir themselves to organise and claim such self-determination is a forecast difficult to attempt for a complex system such as a ward, in which issues of class and economic status have as much to do with group choices as the level of political control of ward committees and the participation of urban councillors, the grip of land and water mafias, the degree to which state programmes have actually bettered household lives or sharpened divisions.
It is probably still not a dilemma, provided there is re-education enough and awareness enough of the perils of continuing to inject ‘services’ and ‘infrastructure’ into communities which for over a generation have experienced rising levels of economic stress. At a more base level – for sociological concerns trouble industry even less, in general, than environmental concerns do – India’s business associations are doing their best to ensure that the urbanisation project continues. The three large associations – Assocham, CII and FICCI (and their partners in states) – agree that India’s urban population will grow, occupying 40% of the total population 15 years from now.
[Articles in the Agenda issue, Urban Poverty, are: How to make urban governance pro-poor, Counting the urban poor, The industry of ‘empowerment’, Data discrepancies, The feminisation of urban poverty, Making the invisible visible, Minorities at the margins, Housing poverty by social groups, Multidimensional poverty in Pune, Undermining Rajiv Awas Yojana, Resettlement projects as poverty traps, Participatory budgeting, Exclusionary cities.]