Interview: Gautam Bhan on the “Encroacher” Versus the “Citizen”

In conversation with Gautam Bhan on his new book, In the Public’s Interest: Evictions, Citizenship and Inequality in Contemporary Delhi.

Gautam Bhan's new book tackles issues related to urban planning and infrastructure. Credits: Screenshot from Youtube video

Gautam Bhan’s new book tackles issues related to urban planning and infrastructure. Credit: Youtube

Gautam Bhan is known both as an activist as well as an academic, with a deep interest in urban housing. His new book, In the Public’s Interest: Evictions, Citizenship and Inequality in Contemporary Delhi examines the planning of urban infrastructure, how it leaves the majority of its residents in “unplanned housing” and how the courts have stepped in to define what is to be allowed and not allowed. The book begins with a deep dive into what “failure” means when it comes to urban planning in Delhi and how some of that “failure” is, in fact, the direct consequences of the Master Plans of Delhi.

He spoke to The Wire about some of the more interesting details of the book.

Some excerpts from the interview:

You begin with the surprising numbers – the fact that only a quarter of Delhi lives in “planned” residences – does this make the vast majority of Delhi’s residents illegal, or at the very least, outside law and planning?

In a sense, yes. I think it’s important to recognise that a majority of the city’s residents, for a long time now, have settled and inhabited the city in some form of tension with planning and law. We all know this instinctively as residents – it’s why we have this bewildering array of terms to understand housing in the city. Unauthorised colonies, JJ (jhuggi-jhopdi) clusters, slum designated areas, regularised unauthorised colonies, resettlement colonies: these are all ways to describe housing that is either grappling with formal planning and law or did at one time before it “post-fact” found a way to become legal. It’s important to recognise this for two reasons. The first is to let go of this fiction that illegality and the “informal settlement” is the domain of the poor and the slum – it is as much the elite’s game. The difference is that the consequences for different kinds of transgressions aren’t the same – one gets evicted, the other “regularised”. The second is that we must historicise what we think of today as “violations” and “encroachments” today and not see them in black and white terms so we may understand how to move from here to a better functioning and more equitable city. We have to work with the way our city is, not the way we wish it were.

 There is, as you document, the DDA’s (Delhi Development Authority) failure to build enough residences, most acutely for those of lower income groups – to what would you attribute this?

It depends very much on the time period. The DDA in the 1960s, the 1980s and today has had very different struggles while fulfilling its mandate and for very different reasons. Urbanists have debated intensively on what all could be behind where we are today. It’s hard to pin down exact reasons but there’s a set of things that are certainly at work. Chief among them would be questions of capacity, those of political will that are linked to the agency’s insulation from democratic accountability, an uncertainty within the political system as to what the DDA must prioritise and deliver and the inability of the institution to adapt to changing political economies as the city has changed around it. In the 1960s, the DDA struggled to build enough quickly enough and, in the process, lost the public’s trust that the promised construction would ultimately take shape. In the 2000s, it faces a tough challenge, as does any public agency trying to intervene in and regulate a radically accelerated and skewed urban land and housing market where it has to find its own toehold. I still believe it could do so – it still is the largest landowner in the city, after all, and owns the land on which most of the city’s slums sit. But to do this, it will have to be both supported and challenged into showing the kind of leadership and the willingness to engage with other actors and citizens, which have been missing for some time now. It would also need – just like the courts – to be embedded in a broader social understanding that the workers who built the city have a right to the city that has to be protected and strengthened. 

Gautam BhanIn the Public’s Interest: Evictions, Citizenship and Inequality in Contemporary DelhiOrient Black Swan, 2016

Gautam Bhan
In the Public’s Interest: Evictions, Citizenship and Inequality in Contemporary Delhi
Orient Black Swan, 2016

Then, there is the surprising failure to allocate land for residential areas. Delhi grew quickly, so why this myopia about the need for housing?

I don’t think the myopia was just about the need for housing. It was more fundamental than that. Planning itself lost its way in the city. When Master Plans that already have 20-year cycles (most cities in the world have shifted to much shorter planning frames) overlook any practices of periodic review, are issued in a totally opaque manner divorced from the people of the city, with each being issued five to eight years late; and do not integrate the multiple layers of the city (how does one make a Master Plan that does not account for transport, for example?), then the ability of planning to engage with shaping a city’s urban development itself is absent. As a result, multiple myopias set in. Our planning systems still come from an outdated imagination of rational, modernist planning that seek full control of the city. But the fallacy and indeed the danger of that way of thinking has been long acknowledged. We need planning but planning that is dynamic, flexible, participatory and democratic. That’s the only way for it to respond quickly to the city as it changes, to move it towards more rather than less equity and to have people in it consider planning as a way to create cities they want. Otherwise, all our plans will — and indeed should — fail.

You have mentioned a fascinating dichotomy in the book, of the citizen versus the encroacher, in the language of the court, or more precisely, the “unscrupulous citizen” versus the “honest citizen”. Given the almost planned nature of the illegality, where does the court derive such language?

In the book, I’ve tried to look at sites of power in the city – the urban elite, the courts, planning authorities – from the city’s metaphorical and real peripheries. I think when you do that, when you ask what evictions tell us about our notions of each other as citizens, you realise that the “citizen” and the “encroacher” are everywhere. They are in the courts, on our billboards, in our televisions, in our budgets, in our policies, in our school curriculums, in our fables, in our gossip, and in our everyday life. The walls of the court are porous – they take from social beliefs around them and, in turn, strengthen and reproduce those beliefs. I believe that it becomes possible to focus on the illegality of one citizen making the slum but regularise the illegality of the other making the unauthorised colony precisely because they are seen as citizens of unequal worth. It is imperative we recognise this basal inequality, the ways in which it continues to be inherited generation after generation, and how powerful it is in our cities today. Older and persistent inequalities such as caste, gender, religion are being met in contemporary urban India with newer ways to produce and reproduce inequality that we must be attentive to. The language of the courts is just one site in which to read these new mechanisms of inequality — there are countless others. What’s important is that being specific about these new mechanisms gives us one more moment, one more way, to challenge them in ways that are effective and surefooted.

Maybe the most fascinating legal point you make is that there is little objective metric for regularisation, in other words legality is what the government says it is, nothing more. Could you comment on how this plays out in the lives of activists and the legal system?

In the everyday life of most citizens, both planning and law have “sold” a good story about themselves. They are technical, evidence-based, objective, powerful and complex and thus left best to experts. They are not “messy” or “subjective” like government or politics. What I am trying to do in this book is to challenge this notion and show that planning and law are (and indeed must be) deeply political rather than technical spaces. This means that questions of power and accountability are central to how we understand and engage with them. For planning, this means a return to debates on normative visions of development, trade-offs and deepening participation rather than treating planning like a scientific exercise confined to experts behind closed doors. For law, this means facing the uncertainty that has come with judicial entryways into governance where it is unclear how to participate and engage outside the legal process of cases, appeals and appearances that are hardly suited to deep participation.

Lastly, this problem is now also a legal problem, primarily because the courts have defined it, and have actively taken part in it. So how does one take on the judiciary?

This is one of the most challenging parts of the emergence of judicial governance. Activists have long honed strategies to fight the sarkar – fighting the adaalat is a very different thing. I think that in the last two decades in India the knowledge of how to take a political struggle to the courts and hold them accountable to citizens has grown, but we are still a long way away from being where we need to be. The judiciary will only let you come to it on its own terms, in its own language and there are – even in a post-PIL world – a hundred barriers of different kinds, which means our engagement with it will never be akin to our ability to protest, strike or hold an elected government responsible. This is also what gives the judiciary the power, of course, to act for more just outcomes but, as evictions remind us, the question of balance is critical. In the book, I try to begin these reflections by following the activists fighting against evictions in Delhi, and hope that this propels us to take more seriously the need for new tactics and new claims in an altered governance framework. 

Gautam Bhan is senior consultant at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Bangalore