Governing the urban poor - Riverfront development, slum resettlement and the politics of inclusion in Ahmedabad - A paper published in EPW

Sabarmati Riverfront Development (SRD) project, an urban mega-project in Ahmedabad has been proclaimed as a case based on “flexible governing” of the residents of the riverfront informal settlements. Flexible governing has been claimed to have allowed state authorities to negotiate grass-roots opposition and mobilisation, modify the project to gentrify the riverfront further, and even officially represent the project as inclusive.

The project involved relocation of families from informal settlements and intense negotiations for inclusion in resettlements. It is in this context that this paper casts an eye over the project, from its planning to the initial stages of official resettlement a decade later, and interrogates its politics of slum resettlement and inclusion.

The first part the paper discusses the implications that contemporary forms of urban development and governance have had for the urban poor in Indian cities. This discussion focuses particularly on the politics of dispossession and inclusion to locate subsequent discussions on the SRD case. The second part briefly describes the SRD project. Following this, the paper examines the initial project proposal from 1998 to interrogate its co-optation by inclusion and analyses the practices that constituted the flexible governing of the riverfront informal settlements and their residents over the project’s implementation between 2000 and 2010. In the concluding section, the paper discusses the politics of inclusion implied by this flexible governing and its implications for equitable urban development in Ahmedabad.

The paper argues that the initial project proposal sought to include residents in the project in certain well-defined ways. This politics of inclusion and mode of governing involved an “inclusion by co-optation”. However, the implementation process articulated a very different politics of inclusion, which took shape through a flexible governing of residents. This flexible governing, included ways in which state authorities took an ambivalent and shifting approach vis-à-vis the urban poor as they pursued their primary agenda of beautifying and maximising gentrification of the riverfront.

Rather than committing to or pursuing a particular well-thought-out strategy (violent or benevolent) vis-à-vis the urban poor, the approach of these state authorities fluctuated, and ultimately evolved, in response to changing calculations and pressures. These included financial, political and/or other kinds of calculations (such as the desire to quicken the pace of the project); the pressures came from the grass roots and the judiciary.

The state authorities engaged in ambiguous, shifting and competing practices of inclusion, which included three distinct practices of multiple and shifting terrains of compensation, fragmentary evictions and piecemeal resettlement. This flexible governing allowed state authorities to negotiate grass-roots opposition and mobilisation, as well as modify the project to gentrify the riverfront further relative to what was originally proposed. It also allowed for official representation of the project as inclusive, although questions of social justice were profoundly disregarded and continued to be insufficiently addressed.

The paper concludes that flexible governing and its politics of inclusion as well as the resettlement processes unfolding over the past year contradict official representations of the SRD project as “an inclusive project” and as “shaping Ahmedabad’s future as a city-oriented towards residents’ needs and poised for responsible, inclusive growth”. They also reveal the play of inclusionary and exclusionary processes vis-à-vis the urban poor that are enabling grand visions of city making in contemporary Ahmedabad.

The paper ends by arguing that the politics of inclusion articulated through flexible governing has involved little commitment to notions of participation, equity and social justice even though it is currently leading to the resettlement of large numbers of riverfront slum residents in two-bedroom flats constructed under JNNURM within the city’s municipal limits.

A copy of the paper can be downloaded from below: