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Exclusion, Poverty and Urban Governance

Tanya Jakimow (t.jakimow@unsw.edu.au) is at the School of Social Science, University of New South Wales, Sydney.

Urban Poverty, Local Governance and Everyday Politics in Mumbaiby Joop De Wit, Routledge South Asian Edition, 2017; pp 320, ₹795.

Readers of the book under review will benefit from Joop de Wit’s long involvement with urban governance in India, both as a researcher and development practitioner. His career spans from his first anthropological study of urban poverty and governance in Madras in 1984, followed by stints as the programme advisor of the Dutch-funded urban poverty programme in Bengaluru, and his continued engagement with urban governance and poverty in Mumbai.

The book aims to “assess to what extent Mumbai’s urban poor are affected by processes of social, economic and political exclusion, resulting from current modalities of urban governance, local democracy and related local politics” (p 258). He does so through examining what he describes as “three understudied areas or ‘black boxes’” (p 8). These are “the changing conditions and power position of the urban poor vis-à-vis other governance actors; the nature of local democracy by focusing on the roles of municipal councillors in relation to the urban poor; and the role of the private, corporate business sector as regards local politics and governance” (p 8).

He argues that his own research and observations in these areas highlight the “omnipresence of ‘informality,’” “the critical role of politicians in urban governance” and the ways that local democracy shapes service delivery in ways that exclude the poor (p 10). The impressive compilation of evidence provides a strong case for these claims, while the book’s limitations are an invitation for further research.

Key Actors in Urban Governance

Much of the evidence provided relates to key stakeholders in urban governance and politics in Mumbai. He lists these as the urban poor, corporators (elected representatives, also known as municipal councillors), street-level bureaucrats, the middle class, businesses and firms. One of the successes of the book is to link the dynamics of exclusion and poverty to the relationship between municipal corporators and the different groups that make up the urban poor, while also signalling the declining relevance of non-governmental organisations (NGOs). A further actor is the city itself, and Chapter 2 of the book provides an excellent overview of Mumbai, its economy, and the structure of governance of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC).

De Wit carefully outlines the role and functions of different agencies, particularly in the context of decentralisation. The story is familiar to other parts of India: failure to devolve funds and responsibilities from state governments to municipal corporations, resulting in weak local-level institutions, and a lack of coordination across government and parastatal agencies, in part due to the machinations of political parties. The chapter is, hence, useful to not only understand Mumbai, but also the structure of urban governance in India, and the consequences thereof.

Chapter 3 examines the “urban poor.” De Wit considers three themes: the informality of slum conditions; the processes of inclusion and exclusion (exclusion from public services, inclusion, or what might be better called adverse incorporation [Hickey and du Toit 2007] into the economy); and the possibilities for collective action. The breath of the topics covered, from gender relations, to security of tenure, intra-slum hierarchies, and accessibility of basic services such as water, sanitation, health and education is impressive, and he draws upon a huge array of statistics, reports, ethnographic accounts and other studies to provide a generalised portrait of the everyday lives of the urban poor.

De Wit also provides an account of the historical development of the tenure system, and various government programmes. He makes important observations, including the (constrained) agency of the poor. He does not describe the “poor” as victims, nor does he essentialise this diverse group. But, neither does he fall into the trap of romanticising or overstating their agency within conditions that mostly overwhelm them. In providing a broad and generalised account of the “urban poor” rather than through a narrative approach, de Wit is, however, unable to capture complexity.

The same is true in Chapter 4, which was for this reader more problematic due to the reinforcing of certain stereotypes about corporators, rather than providing a more nuanced account. The chapter again succeeds in bringing together a wealth of research, de Wit’s own, and that from other sources, to provide a detailed account of Mumbai corporators. He describes these actors as political entrepreneurs, using their position in order to make money, but also using that money in order to remain in power. While de Wit is at pains to note the diversity of these actors (there are 226 corporators in Mumbai), he presents a generalised characterisation that is less than complimentary: “I picture them as shrewd operators, as spiders in citywide webs and as ‘political entrepreneurs’ in adjusting to shifting power configurations” (pp 164–65). It is probably not an unfair characterisation in general, and is backed up by other accounts of similar actors (Berenschot 2010; van Djik 2011).

I have questions, however, as to how such characterisations are formed from this diversity. That is, is greater attention placed on those municipal corporators who exhibit these characteristics, or are those characteristics that conform to the stereotype more likely to be those that are noted? And are marginal, less successful municipal corporators written out of the story on the assumption that they do not influence governance?

Decisions as to what to include and exclude in order to provide a coherent narrative within a single book are unavoidable, but sometimes the loss of complexity can be harmful. I found the discussion of women corporators problematic. The reader is left with the impression that women corporators are almost always proxies for male relatives, and have little involvement in the day-to-day activities of the ward.

I do not know the context of Mumbai, but I know that in other parts of India many women stand on their own accord, and even when standing on behalf of their husbands or sons, these “proxies” often become actively involved and are political leaders in their own right. I would have to defer to de Wit’s experience working with Mumbai’s women corporators (Peltenburg et al 2000), but I find his use of evidence to support his claims a little problematic.

For example, he cites an “unmarked informant” as claiming: “Male corporators are the boss; they have the power, the inside knowledge and know the tricks” (p 169). The value of such evidence needs to be considered in a context in which the accounts of male municipal councillors prove to be an unreliable source to understand the activities of women municipal councillors. De Wit seemingly overlooks evidence that would suggest otherwise. He cites Mary E John (2007) several times in the text, but not in relation to the issue of women corporators, despite her article providing a highly nuanced account of women corporators in Delhi and Bengaluru that would dispel, or at least raise questions about de Wit’s conclusions.

While de Wit succeeds in providing a highly detailed, interesting, and informative account of these actors, it is not comprehensive. In particular, the broad brushstrokes do tend to lose some of the complexity of these actors, and misses those who do not conform to the general, or more stereotypical model. His accounts of the urban poor, the middle class, the corporators, and the relations between them, tend to be a little generic.

De Wit partially overcomes this through the use of long excerpts from more ethnographic accounts, such as Katherine Boo’s (2012), Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Normally this would disrupt the flow, but de Wit is able to maintain a consistent writing style so that these excerpts augment rather than detract from the text. It is also important to keep in mind what he attempts to achieve in this book, which “paints a broad canvas and covers dynamics not or only poorly charted to date” (p 293). He acknowledges the limited evidence base for some assertions that are based on years of observations, rather than research methods that rigorously test particular propositions. “Hence the book is also a research agenda where many assumptions—listed or not—and observations need to be verified with more evidence” (p 293). Reflection on his positionality, the ways it resulted in seeing things a particular way, would help further unpack where these assumptions may lie, and which require more testing.

A Variation of Democracy

In addition to a highly valuable source of detailed information about urban governance in Mumbai and its actors, de Wit also makes several contributions to understanding democracy. He contributes to an established area of study that examines vernacular democracies (Michelutti 2007), arguing for the “urgent need to understand ‘new’ or postcolonial democracies in their own terms” (p 285) and be “more open to the variations of assumedly democratic systems—as well as their factual merits and demerits” (p 286).

He, therefore, assesses democracy, governance and its influence on urban poverty on its own terms, rather than through a Western normative framework. Critically, this means going beyond the celebration of India’s democracy on account of the country holding peaceful elections. Indeed, the success of the formal mechanisms of elections is held in contrast to the weaknesses of what is largely an informal modality of governance.

Chapter 5 deals with this question most explicitly with a fascinating account of the 2012 BMC elections. Rarely is a reader accorded such a vantage point through which to examine the closed-door manoeuvrings that take place for being elected as a corporator. Here, de Wit’s experience, contacts, and meticulous research provide a wealth of information, anecdotes, observations, and statistics.

He makes a convincing case for the centrality of money politics, the need for a councillor to be able to prove that they are able to mobilise funds, and its actual disbursement. De Wit notes the implications of money politics, or patronage democracy, for the influence of the private sector and big business in Mumbai’s governance, as well as how it limits the overall capacity of the poor to mobilise for better services. This leads to one of his most important conclusions, that examples of “effective, sustainable common action is actually rare” (p 274).

He identifies the “vertical orientation towards useful personal and hierarchical relations [as] the key impediment to horizontal collective action.” He does not agree with other scholars who have spoken of the dispossessed struggling for their entitlements through agitations and protests, perhaps again raising questions for scholars working in this area of de Wit’s positionality and the evidence he did and did not have access to. De Wit’s significant experience does, however, provide this reader confidence in his claim that “there is not much significant action beyond or unconnected to electoral party politics, by and large the only game in town” (p 276).

De Wit is in conversation with scholars who examine Indian democracy through the three lenses of: patronage democracy (Chandra 2004), mediated state (Berenschot 2010), and political machine (Scott 1969). These lenses have proven particularly fecund and robust to analyse the clientelism and patronage that are seemingly so widespread across India.

For de Wit, these lenses allow him to reveal the way “relations between the poor and city agencies are marked by (and cannot escape) a pervasive patronage logic, which ultimately affects all efforts aimed at ‘empowering’ the poor” (p 40). De Wit’s greatest contribution is emphasising, with double underscore, the importance of informality for the lives of the poor, as “not a separate part of characteristic of the local state or its subjects but in fact an integral, if not dominant, trait of power-driven politics and governance” (p 7). De Wit was inspired to undertake this book project due to his observations of how money and business seem to drive politics in Mumbai. The evidence provided to demonstrate the increasing power and influence of (big) business, partially as a result of the importance of money for winning elections, is a significant contribution.

As de Wit stays within the same analytical frameworks as his contemporaries, this book does not, however, offer a different way to view democracy in India. Rather it reaffirms what we know, or think we know, through the dominant accounts; dominant in the sense of accepted interpretations and dominant figures on which those interpretations are based. For a book with such an impressive breadth, it is perhaps inevitable that the generalised account reaffirms, rather than surprises. It is a comprehensive account, rather than an innovative one. This is not to detract from its value, however. As a detailed account of an important city, it is a useful reference that should be on the bookshelf of scholars and students of urban governance, democracy, and urban poverty in India and beyond.

References

Berenschot, Ward (2010): “Everyday Mediation: The Politics of Public Service Delivery in Gujarat, India,” Development and Change, Vol 41, No 5, pp 883–905.

Boo, Katherine (2012): Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in Mumbai Undercity, New York: Random House.

Chandra, K (2004): “Elections as Auctions,” Seminar, http://www.india-seminar.com/2004/539/539%20kanchan%20chandra.htm.

Ghosh, Archana and Stéphanie Tawa Lama-Rewal (2005): Democratization in Progress: Women and Local Politics in Urban India, New Delhi: Tulika Books.

Hickey, Sam and Andries du Toit (2007): “Adverse Incorporation, Social Exclusion and Chronic Poverty,” Chronic Poverty Research Centre, Working Paper 81.

John, Mary E (2007): “Women in Power? Gender, Caste and the Politics of Urban Governance,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 42, No 39, pp 3986–93.

Michelutti, Lucia (2007): “The Vernacularization of Democracy: Political Participation and Popular Politics in North India,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol 13, pp 639–56.

Peltenburg, Monique, Joop de Wit and Forbes Davidson (2000): “Capacity Building for Urban Management: Learning from Recent Experiences,” Habitat International, Vol 24, pp 363–73.

Scott, James (1969): “Corruption, Machine Politics, and Political Change,” American Political Science Review, Vol 63, No 4, pp 1142–58.

Van Dijk, Tara (2011): “Networks of Urbanization in Two Indian Cities,” Environment and Urbanization, ASIA, Vol 2, No 2, pp 303–19.

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