ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Pavement Dwelling in Mumbai

People Out of Place

An examination of the circumstances in which a set of pavement dwellers in Mumbai came to the city, allows one to link their imperiled urban material and political circumstances to the green revolution and the changes it wrought both in the relations of social reproduction and the form of electoral politics. Methodologically, their life stories also suggest that the space of rural poverty in India cannot be coterminous with the village border. Thus, the hinterland is not a physical location but a relational one, a configuration of historical and spatial relations that could as easily be found outside a city’s limits, as it can be found inside a city.

In December 2004, the newly elected Maharashtra state government that had come to power at least in part by promising to provide low-income housing to the insecurely housed residents of Mumbai, proceeded to embark on a three-month orgy of violence against the slum and pavement dwellers of the city. Their actions were widely applauded by the middle class. In one month alone, 72,000 slum dwellings were razed to the ground, leaving 3,50,000 people completely without any form of shelter (see Koppikar 2005). All across the city, families were living on the rubble of their former homes. In one of the newspaper reports of these demolitions was the story of Ranjani Vetale, a slum dweller, who pleaded with the demolition crew as they razed her house: “amhala pay theyvala teri zaaga dhya” (give us some place to stand on at the least), before wondering aloud where she was to go now (Cybernoon 2005). 

When we consider Vetale’s predicament and more generally, the abject living conditions of the city’s poor, it is quite apparent that those compelled to live on the pavements and in slums of the city are quite literally a people who have run out of place, who have routinely been denied a place on which to carry out the business of reproducing life. It is to this task of explaining how pavement dwellers were historically produced as the “other,” as a people out of place, that this paper attends to. This is done by historicising the fragile living conditions of a set of pavement dwellers in Mumbai, that is, by examining the circumstances by which they came to live on the pavements of the city. In the process, what becomes clear is that the social relations that produce, and are in turn reproduced and transformed by, the spatial politics of Bombay (now Mumbai) cannot be understood within “city limits.” Rather, this paper suggests that analyses of urban India must be located within the political economy of agrarian change and processes of de-peasantisation, for it is only then can we apprehend the direness of the situation confronting Vetale. By doing so, this paper offers a methodological intervention into the efforts to conceptualise the relationship between the rural and the urban, and locate the hinterland by drawing attention to the importance of developing a relational analysis of the spatial categories being invoked. The hinterland is not a physical location but a relational one. It is a configuration of historical and spatial relations that could as easily be found outside a city’s limits as it can be found inside a city. The relentless evictions of the urban, poor and their production as a people out of place, prompt a conceptualisation of the hinterland and its constitutive spatial relations, where the figure of the pavement dweller as the city’s limits comes into view.

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Updated On : 28th Mar, 2018

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