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Re: <nettime> Saskia Sassen: Cities and new wars: after Mumbai
Prem Chandavarkar on Mon, 8 Dec 2008 00:11:54 +0100 (CET)

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Re: <nettime> Saskia Sassen: Cities and new wars: after Mumbai

2008/12/4 Saskia Sassen <sjs2 {AT} columbia.edu>

> i agree--my starting point, when i try to open a field is: what are we
> trying to name when we use the term: globlaization, citizenship, the
> nationale, etc.
> The project i am developing now asks this about terms like "war" and
> "city."

Should one be looking at terms like 'war' and 'city'?  Or would it be more
productive to start with 'violence' and 'city'?  Particularly looking at
current trends in the imagination of the city, and whether the direction is
conducive to the suppression of violence.  I have been thinking about this
question in the context of asymmetries related to urban land in the Indian
city, particularly how they are created by disciplinary structures – such as
the way the profession of urban planning constructs the city.

Given that in a democratic state, it is necessary to validate systems of
governance by a claim to the 'consent of the governed'; governance has
usually based itself on some form of social contract theory.  That is to say
individuals willingly sacrifice a certain level of liberty in order to
benefit from the order of a rule of law.  Urban planning is also premised on
the idea of a social contract: we give up our absolute freedom over the use
of space, and submit to a system of zoning controls and building codes, in
order to benefit from the potential offered by an ordered city.

There have been several critiques of the idea of a social contract.  Is it a
violation of contract law, given that a basic principle is that a contract
is valid only when both parties enter into it willingly and knowingly,
whereas in the social contract one is born into a situation where the
contract is a 'done deal'?  Is it possible to bring complex entities such as
cities or states under the unitary order that the social contract requires?
Is there a definable concept of the 'public interest', or do we just have
competing private claims to define the private interest?  There have been
many such questions raised; all of them valid, all of them insufficiently
explored and meriting further attention.  Perhaps the writings of someone
like Jane Jacobs define the direction to be explored; where one looks at the
character of the city arising not out of formal planning, but as an emergent
order that comes out of random connections and information flows made
through sidewalk life, through 'eyes on the street'.

While I acknowledge the seriousness and importance of the critiques
mentioned above, in reference to the Indian city (and many other cities in
similar contexts in other nations in the region) I wish to also highlight
another problem related to the social contract: the requirement of crossing
a 'contractual threshold'.  Every contractual system assumes that the
parties to the contract have crossed a certain threshold that allows
possession of the tools and protocols by which participation in the contract
is enabled.  In the case of urban land, a formal master plan assumes a
certain spatial vocabulary for the subdivision and parcelling of urban land.
This defines a threshold for participation in the contracts related to urban
land.  The fundamental problem in the Indian city is that very few people
cross this threshold, given that the Indian city is characterised by high
income diversity, high levels of poverty, and inefficient and/or
over-regulated land markets that create artificial shortages and high land

Let me take the example of Bangalore (the city that I live in).  The
planning authority of the city is the Bangalore Development Authority (BDA),
who have sole jurisdiction over the master planning process, and define all
the new layouts through which city grows.  The smallest parcel of land
recognised in the new residential layouts is 54 square metres.   At market
values prevailing in 2007, the purchase value of this small parcel would
amount to half a million rupees in outlying locations, and in more central
locations could easily cross three to four times that value.  A 2007 survey
of the National Council of Applied Economic Research reports that the
average per capita income in Bangalore as Rs. 23,394 per annum.  At an
average household size of 4.13, this amounts to an average household income
of Rs. 121,397 – out of which over two thirds is spent on day to day
expenses.  These are median figures, and once one factors in the fact that
as per the Indian urban average the top income quintile captures a 48.7%
share of total income, it is apparent that to the bottom three quintiles of
Bangalore's population the smallest parcel of land recognised in the new
layouts of the official master plan is beyond reach; whether one looks at
the capital values of purchase, or the rental values that ensue from these
capital values.  Given the negligible level of publicly funded social
housing, they have no choice but to resort to informal forms of tenure that
do not have formal sanction in the city's master plan.   The master plan by
definition criminalises over half the city's population (data in documents
supporting the latest master plan for Bangalore, released in 2007 and
defining plan projections up to 2015, acknowledges that legal formal housing
forms less than 50% of the housing stock, and the major portion of recent
urban growth has come through unregulated layouts formed outside the regular
process of official master plans and building codes).

The same kind of analysis applies to work spaces, and the spaces of small
scale trade and manufacturing.  In a recently published study by the
Government of India on 'Conditions of Work and Promotions of Livelihood in
the Unorganised Sector', this sector is defined as consisting of small
unincorporated private enterprises where employment does not provide any
social security benefits, and wages are often at subsistence levels or
below.  The study also acknowledges that employment in the unorganised
sector constitutes over 80% of total employment in the country.  While these
are national averages, and the figure for large urban areas may be a smaller
ratio, it is clear that in Indian urban planning the exception to the social
contract is the rule in actual life.  Similar conditions occur in Mumbai, as
well as in other cities in India (as well as in Pakistan).

This high level of displacement occurs even when the smallest subdivision of
land is quite small (54 square metres in the case of residential land in
Bangalore).  If one wished to scale down the size of parcels to increase the
threshold of affordability, one would wind up with subdivisions that are too
small to enable any meaningful form of urban planning (that is urban
planning within the current paradigm that is predicated on land use zoning
and urban design controls applied to individual parcels of land).

So what does all this have to do with violence and terrorism?  The links can
be discovered if one begins to examine the issue in terms of definitions of
citizenship.  Citizenship is a concept that is related to a sense of space:
by saying one is a citizen of a country; one is anchoring oneself within the
space delineated by the boundaries of the nation.  This first level of
spatial anchoring provides a basic level of constitutional and voting
rights.  However, this anchoring is currently available only in an
abstracted and generalised sense of space; and citizenship is complete only
when one also has the option to anchor oneself in space in a tangible
concrete way, anchored in a specific spot at a specific location.  Citizenship,
besides being political, must also be thoroughly spatial.   Spatial
anchoring in the city is achieved through a mechanism of property rights
such as a rental agreement or sale deed.  It does not matter whether this
property right is formally or informally executed; what does matter is that
the territory delineated by the right should correspond with the property
demarcations of the official plan.  When the official plan adopts systems of
spatial subdivision that make recognition of property rights impossible for
large segments of the population, you have a political system where a
majority or urban citizens have political citizenship without spatial
citizenship.  This immediately creates a level of vulnerability that limits
the critical scrutiny of political authority that is essential to democratic

For a long time a crisis has been avoided.  The poor have been able to
survive in the Indian city because of the failures of the master planning
process.  Plans are poorly detailed, and whatever planning does exist is
poorly enforced.  This has provided the space for the informal systems of
tenure that are adopted by the urban poor (the fact that these systems have
no formal sanction, and are therefore vulnerable to sudden disruption, has
kept the quality of the urban environment in a highly degraded condition as
the insecurity of tenure suppresses personal investment in upgrading
building stock).   In further seeking to understand how the poor survive in
the Indian city, there is a useful distinction drawn by Michel de
Certeau between
two ways of dealing with urban space which he called "strategies" (which are
based on place) and "tactics" (which are based on time).  Strategies
represent the practices of those in power, positing a set of "proper" places
that define the 'natural' order of the city.  In contrast tactics are ways
of operating without a proper place and so depend on time. Tactics lack the
borders necessary for designation as visible totalities.  They are
incursions by the weak into the spaces of the powerful.  Without a proper
place, tactics depend on cleverly seized opportunities and rapid movements
that can change the organisation of a space.  Tactics are a form of everyday
creativity and by challenging the "proper" places of the city, this range of
transitory practices constitutes a counter to official urbanisms.  Tactics
can be economic (the hawker, peddler, beggar), social (pavement life), or
political (the rally, procession, riot).  In these terms, the Indian city is
largely 'tactical'; even if one looks at coffee table books on the Indian
city, photographs typically show the tactical city in the foreground and the
strategic city in the background.  The social contract of urban planning is
based purely on stable definitions of space, does not take into account the
role of time in constituting space, and therefore provides a highly
blinkered view of the city.

The space given to tactics and informal systems of tenure has given some
semblance of spatial citizenship to the urban poor.  And political
citizenship was granted by the fact that slums and working class trade
unions were wooed as sites for mobilising the single-cause constituencies
that provide critical swing votes in elections.  But the situation has begun
to radically change with the changing narratives of Indian urban modernity,
affected by the recent wave of globalisation, and the shift in economic
policy that began in India in 1991.  A highly regulated and inward focused
economy began to seek a new form as a market driven economy seeking global
integration: a metamorphosis that reshaped the imagination of the Indian
city (and I am largely talking about the large metropolitan cities here).  To
begin with the Indian city had always had an ambivalent status; with most
definitions of cultural authenticity being located in the village.  If one
looks at the topics of anthropological research on India between the 1950's
and 1980's one sees an overwhelming leaning toward the village.  This was
exacerbated by a sense of historical discontinuity caused by the
post-colonial condition.   At the time of independence (in 1947) how could
one construct a historical continuity moving from past through present to
future if the previous two centuries could not be considered as a part of
one's own history?  The resultant development discourse (which was prevalent
in the first five decades of independence) could not dispel a state of
suspension between the memories of a glorious past and an anticipated
technological modernity.  The elite were not united by any concept of the
city, and worked on the basis of behind-the-curtain negotiated transactions
with political authority.  Rule of law has supported this, and its goals
have not been reliability or reproducibility but are written to encourage a
dependence on interpretation.  Building codes, tax laws, land use planning,
all require negotiation to move forward.  And this negotiation has been a
major source of political fundraising.  Therefore the elite achieve economic
clout, but less control over electoral outcomes, have learnt to hedge bets
and developed an ability to negotiate with whoever comes to power.   The
upper middle class winds up being somewhat left out of this process.  They
do not have the purchasing power to have access to the negotiations of the
elite.  And while some of them can be mobilised along single cause issues
such as the communal card, they are largely uncomfortable dealing with the
city in terms of tactics, perhaps because they have crossed the threshold of
spatial citizenship, and would rather deal with the city in terms of

With the shift to a market driven globalised economy, the ambivalent state
of suspension of the Indian city was largely dispelled.  The lifting of
stifling controls led to a amazing wave of Indian entrepreneurship with
global impact.  With the resultant success of Indian industries,
particularly emerging industries such as software and biotechnology, the
Indian metropolis now had a raison d'etre – it was now significantly
anchored in global production.  Modernity did not have to be awaited any
more; it had arrived.  Centred on a belief that "globalisation equals
modernity" there is now increasing intolerance for the poor level of master
plan enforcement and a call for the construction of a city whose modernity
is demonstrated by its cleanliness, efficiency and global imagery.  This is
evidenced by increasing mention by public officials and media coverage of:

   - The claim that India has now arrived as a significant player on the
   global stage, and the Indian identity must be constructed and politically
   sought in those terms.
   - Mention of cities such as Singapore and Shanghai as paradigms that the
   Indian city must aspire towards.
   - A growing wave of middle-class activism driven by local residents'
   associations, which is pushing towards better master planning and better
   enforcement of master plans.
   - A wave of judicial judgments (especially in the Supreme Court) based on
   the ideal of the ordered and efficient city.
   - An increasing tendency of cities to prefer brandable projects such as
   stadiums, airports, special economic districts, and flyovers over
   non-brandable projects such as public housing or the creation of a civic

The reaction to the Mumbai attacks was also in line with this new narrative
– for the choice of targets led to it being construed as an attack on Indian
modernity.  The wave of mass media frenzy and middle and upper class anger
was far beyond anything seen before, even though terrorism is not new to
India, and there have been earlier incidents with far more casualties.  The
newly claimed modernity is based on an imagery of the clean and ordered
global city, whose lines are clearly delineated (the lines dividing spaces
in the Indian city have typically been extremely fuzzy).   The difference in
this attack was that it was a systematic and deliberate violation of the
spaces of the new modernity.  It is significant to note that in mass media
coverage of this attack, the percentage of television time and print space
allocated was disproportionately weighted towards the attack on the symbols
of the global city: the Taj and Oberoi/Trident hotels.  In comparison, the
attack on CST Station and Cama Hospital (which do not fit so easily into
this narrative) received far less attention; even though the attacks began
here, and accounted for close to one third of total casualties.  Voices
raised in protest against this disparity in public attention have been few
and far between.

We are on a collision course here.  On the one hand we have a planning
paradigm based on the social contract that fails to conceptualise how it can
allocate space to a majority of urban citizens.  And on the other hand we
have a new narrative of modernity which is intent on pushing the current
paradigm more forcefully.  The cards are stacked on the side of the latter.
It is not just that they constitute the elite and are therefore more
powerful.  It is also to do with the fact that this new narrative has
mobilised a totally new single cause constituency; giving political voice to
the middle class, and uniting the upper and middle classes in a way never
seen before.  And given that single cause constituencies often have the
capacity to swing elections, the politicians have begun to woo them.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that this narrative of
modernity is tied to globalisation.  As Manuel Castells has pointed out, a
distinguishing feature of the current wave of globalisation is that
technology now permits the coordination of distant locations in real time,
leading to economies that are fundamentally predicated on non-local
geographies.  As a practicing architect in India, I have had first hand
experience of the perception of these non-local geographies, where
discussions with senior executives of Indian software companies over the
design of their facilities have revealed that they are more concerned with
how their campus is perceived in California than from across the street.  The
perception of citizenship is radically different in this new narrative: it
is equally tied to spatiality and to mobility.  And when a significant
percentage of people (the majority when it comes to the Indian city) are
deprived of both space and mobility, then what are their choices when it
comes to claiming citizenship?  Is there anything beyond violence or death?

What I have sought to highlight here is only a direction that is beginning
to emerge, and there are many ways in which the earlier political paradigms
still hold sway.  But we are not heading in the right direction, and if we
do nothing it is going to get worse.  I also acknowledge that the situation
is more complex than my description, and there are many other factors to be
considered.  The emerging clashes of spatiality in the Indian city are not
enough by themselves to incite violence.  But just as the right temperature
range can radically alter the breeding capacity of an organism, in the
failures of urban citizenship in the region we have the right environmental
conditions to breed violence.  Add a few other elements to the mixture:
superpower aggression and the acceptance of vigilante justice at the global
scale of nation states; divisive communal politics for short term political
gain at the local level; and the speed and information overload of
globalisation depriving us of sheltered spaces for reflection thereby
shifting religion away from empathetic ethics and towards orthodox canon.

Resistance based on political mobilisation is necessary but insufficient.  We
do not have the institutional structures or conceptual paradigms for an
alternative.  The social contract has lived its life, and we have to
recognise the historical imperatives from which it emerged.  It was a
necessary construct when the need of the hour was to replace feudalism with
a doctrine of democracy and human rights; and it was appropriate at the time
that the ideal of 'reason' was the tool for critique.  But in its emphasis
on rational order, the social contract has privileged product over process.
It has led to a perception of the public interest as something that is
definable, rather than something that needs to be continually negotiated.  And
when it comes to cities, it has led to a planning paradigm that only sees
space and fails to perceive time.  Scholarly critique is not enough, we need
to move beyond analysis and also tackle synthesis by not only reconstructing
our notions of justice, governance, citizenship, locality and public space;
but by also designing the new institutional structures and processes that
are required.  Perhaps the need of the hour is for like minded scholars,
thinkers, and researchers to come together in this quest.

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