The City is Not a Closed Box: Elphinstone Tragedy and Assumptions in Urban Policy

The 29 September railway bridge stampede in Mumbai compels us to question our narrow and inward-looking focus on cities and conceptualise a language that looks at the broader social and spatial processes that affect social justice. 

The stampede at Mumbai’s Elphinstone Road railway station (recently renamed Prabhadevi) on 29 September claimed 23 lives. It was an “urban disaster” of gargantuan proportions, we were told. It exposed Mumbai’s failing infrastructure and the violence that 7 million commuters endure every day. The passengers know it all too well because they live it on a daily basis. They do not need a dyed-in-the-wool urban expert or a cynical journalist to recount these tired statistics.  

Like our tired statistics, the conceptual tools to solve these problems have become hackneyed too. The prevalent techno-scientific discourse around urban problems tends to privilege a theoretical distinction between a discrete urban and rural, and naturalises the understanding of the city as a static category of settlement. These outdated categorical assumptions of discrete places not only encourage top-down urban planning, but also threaten territorial and spatial justice (Brenner and Schmid 2015). It is high time that we revisit the conceptual assumptions of techno-scientific urban theory and attempt to forge a different language that accommodates heterogeneous iterations of urbanisation. [1]

One should not deduce from this theoretical intervention that all proposed solutions responding to the crisis in Mumbai’s suburban rail network are wrong. No person in their right mind will wilfully ignore the systemic violence in the name of the resilience of common people. If we are empathetic to the woes of the masses and are aware of how things work in India, we would support any reasonable action from the government: be it building new foot overbridges and escalators, increasing the number of trains, or length and width of platforms. But in the long run, these solutions are likely to be redundant, just like the solutions that may have been conceived before this disaster. This is because the language we employ to understand, analyse, and solve this problem has fetishised the city as an inert container where things happen. Furthermore, this language has reified and crystallised the conventional spatial divisions of the “urban” and the “rural.” 

Let me give you an example. Most city governments think that solving Mumbai’s problem of slums means building more affordable housing. This is an easy compromise. It is rather difficult to understand the social processes behind the formation of temporary tenements that turn into slums, or broader still, the conditions behind urban deprivation and distress migration (Parasuraman 2016). If we give in to the trope of thinking of the city as a closed box, with no process or institution affecting it from outside, we will succumb to the myopic vision of city governments described above. By thinking about the city in an isolated manner, we tend to forget that the material and discursive boundaries of the city are porous. The counter-position between a well-defined urban and rural—“us” and “them”—has little purchase in the real world—the form of urban society is determined by an ensemble of different and conflicting settlements, people and institutions.

Conversely, the city could be conceived of as an array of conflicting social processes it is constituted by, and in turn, is constitutive of. It is possible to extricate ourselves from this situation if we try and formulate a language that provides alternate conceptual tools rather than episodic remedies. Here, I will attempt to build an engagement between a new lexicon of the “urban” and everyday experiences drawn from Mumbai and elsewhere.[2] 


Cities Are Not in Competition

Over a year ago, an under-construction flyover collapsed in Kolkata crushing 26 people to death. This flyover, over the congested Vivekananda Road in north Kolkata, was being constructed under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) to reportedly decongest one of the most densely populated residential and trading neighbourhoods of the city. 

The incident amply demonstrates that hastily planned large-scale projects can be as much a source of disaster as decaying infrastructure. Therefore, Mumbai is not an exception in the way urbanisation operates—its size and population perhaps only makes it a superlative manifestation of what other cities are going through. The imaginary chasm between Mumbai and its urban counterparts like Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, or Bengaluru is just that—imaginary. That is the reason why it is so tempting and comforting to read and share articles that suggest that Mumbai is the most unliveable city in India. These listicles, much as they amuse and provoke us from time to time, miss the point—liveability is not an Olympics contest.

Many people have pointed out that the roots of the Mumbai stampede lie in the rapacious and extractive ways in which the government colluded with private developers to turn the defunct cotton mill lands in central Mumbai into glitzy, gated office complexes and luxury enclaves instead of treating it like a public good. There is much truth in that argument. Similar processes of urbanisation have happened in Kolkata too where large tracts of land from deindustrialising areas—such as Joy Engineering Works (which became South City gated community and mall) and Bata Factory in Batanagar (which became Calcutta Riverside)—were hijacked by real estate conglomerates. 

The transformation of Mumbai's mill lands into corporate enclaves and similar instances of urban redevelopment in other cities shows that the conversion of public resources to private goods is now a routine affair that has been naturalised by the government–corporate nexus. Putting private over public interest is now commonplace, and infractions are often overlooked. The infractions are often discrete and take many forms—systematic neglect of essential public services to the point of collapse, a rising wave of gentrification and creation of enclaves, and the involvement of domestic corporate companies and international financial institutions. 

The coalescing of varied, but common interests of the state–corporate nexus has meant that cities, as material entities, have become entrepreneurs where each one has to be better than the other. In India, this narrow vision of competition, sometimes known as place-marketing, was institutionalised by the JNNURM and later the Smart Cities Mission. In effect, it is a zero-sum game. If cities are competing against each other to attract more and more private investment, then cities emerge as showpieces, not as places that are instructive of how urbanisation manifests as a social process. It is against this backdrop that a holistic view of urbanisation takes a back seat, and a rigid, provincial vision of our cities gains currency (Banerjee-Guha 2016).

Instead of looking at settlements and social processes as distinctive, self-contained wholes, we need to recognise that they are part of a continuum. If we collaborate, learn, and share locally-grounded empirical knowledge, we will observe the patterns emerging in the process of urbanisation. Better still, we will learn more if we enquire how urbanisation is reshaping our social processes, and not just the space we call the city.

Binaries of Space

It is well known that Mumbai’s rise to prominence and prosperity was predicated on a systematic neglect of its surrounding areas, especially Ratnagiri district. The British administration as well as the post-Independence one, followed a policy of systematic neglect of socio-economic development of the region, which led large numbers of men to seek employment in the cotton mills and industrial units of Mumbai (Savur 1982). Implicit in this is an acceptance of the binary between “urban” and “rural” and a primacy of the city over the village that informs policy making.[3] In a world such as ours, these categories, if indeed they were relevant at a time, are losing their conceptual edge for understanding the interactions between a spectrum of spaces and processes, ruralisation and urbanisation, that operate between the urban–rural binary (Krause 2013). 

Even after so many years, planners of big-ticket infrastructure projects perpetuate a rigid binary between the rural and urban. The much-touted Navi Mumbai International Airport is being built in the outskirts of Navi Mumbai with the aim of decongesting the choked Mumbai International Airport. The construction plan includes flattening of some hills and changing the course of the Ulwe river in the ecologically-sensitive areas of the Raigad district. Of course, the environment impact assessment reports are likely be rigged to show that ecological damage will be mitigated and the surrounding villages and settlements will not be affected. However, experience makes us cynical—we are aware of the consequences of changing the course of the Mithi river to facilitate the new terminal and runway construction of the Mumbai international airport (Das Gupta 2010). 

Once we stop thinking about the limiting ways in which urbanity and rurality are employed to nurture and deepen social fault lines, we will open our senses to the multiple possibilities of conceptualising human habitations. This is not academic jargon—think about the radical and subversive possibilities of a public art project like the Mumbai River Photo Project by Aslam Saiyad on Instagram (Karkare 2017). This evocative project, documenting four rivers originating in Mumbai Metropolitan region, shows not only how several worlds—tribal villages, slum settlements, and middle class cooperative housing societies—exist along the river, but also how the same river exists in different forms (as a stream, rivulet, or sewer) within the urban milieu of Mumbai. It serves as a useful example of how we can challenge our dominant understanding of social settlements where different distinctions of socio-economic processes have been collapsed under the categories of urban and rural. 

Long and Short Term

The tragedy at Elphinstone station, deeply unfortunate as it is, has opened possibilities to think of the everyday violence that the city and the village are capable of. In Mumbai, people routinely live and die near garbage dumps, railway tracks, and in slum settlements. But it will be even more disheartening if we let this moment go and if we fail to question our assumptions about the urban and the rural, and counter exclusionary visions of social justice.

I repeat: the short-term goals are vital and necessary, but let us not allow ourselves to be prisoners of the language of short term goals. Once we have spent our short-term anger on addressing the immediate aftermath of this tragic disaster, let us channel our long-term anger towards reshaping the framework that has led us here. 

Must Read

Do water policies recognise the differential requirements and usages of water by women and the importance of adequate availability and accessibility?
Personal Laws in India present a situation where abolishing them in the interest of gender justice also inadvertently benefits the reactionary side.   
Back to Top