Marginalisation, Contestation and Change in South Asia
edited by Dr Nida Kirmani
Oxford University Press 2022, 224pp

Reviewed by: Ms Fizzah Sajjad, PhD Candidate (LSE)
26 May 2023
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‘Marginalisation, Contestation and Change in South Asia,’ is a welcome addition to the literature on rapid urban transformations taking place in the region, specifically in India and Pakistan. The book not only sheds light on processes of urban change in the South Asian context but attempts to uncover how these changes are being experienced, embraced, and contested by urban residents, particularly those who continue to face various forms of political, economic and social exclusion. For this purpose, the book relies on empirical research by scholars from both India and Pakistan, with an expressed commitment to furthering scholarship that seeks to theorise from the Global South.

Editor Kirmani’s succinct introduction sets the context to the collection and draws attention to the need for additional critical scholarship on South Asian cities. The introduction is followed by nine essays on issues of land, housing, air quality, transport, security and waste, with the authors engaging with questions of resistance, inequality and politics. The book concludes with an afterword by urban scholar Nausheen Anwar, holistically tying together the various themes highlighted throughout the chapters. Anwar raises critical questions on the uncertain futures of South Asian cities, highlighting the importance of pursuing progressive research and planning agendas.

The first three essays, focusing on the politics of land and housing in the cities of Karachi, Lahore and Amritsar, speak directly to one another, offering a glimpse into the varied ways in which land and housing markets continue to disproportionately benefit the already well-to-do. The authors offer nuanced accounts, enriching our understanding of transformations on the ground.

Exploring the emergence of Pakistan’s largest real estate developer, Bahria Town, in the Gadap Town locality in Karachi, Shahana Rajani and Heba Islam write of indigenous Sindhi and Baloch communities who have lived in the region for generations. They challenge the developer’s narrative of the locality as a tabula rasa, or empty, barren land waiting to be modernised. In doing so, their work echoes growing scholarship on new cities across Asia and Africa that finds similar language being employed by developers to facilitate construction. By examining existing physical traces of the previous landscape, Rajani and Islam argue that the transformation of the area remains ‘contested and incomplete,’ leaving open possibilities of continued indigenous relationships with the land. While this is a more optimistic note than I would subscribe to, their essay certainly brings to the fore contestations around future visions of ‘development,’ and the high human and ecological costs associated with current models of private city development.

Focusing on the case of LDA City, an upcoming state-led housing development in Lahore, Hashim Bin Rashid and Zainab Moulvi, bring to light the dispossession and large-scale transformations taking place in the peripheries of Pakistan’s urban centres. They demonstrate the continued importance of colonial practices and laws in determining winners and losers in the land market today. Critically, they complicate familiar understandings of resistance, pointing to the acquiescence of local communities in the sale/transfer of their land, while also noting their internal conflicts in the process. Their work demonstrates how land is now seen as a ‘financial relation,’ by a variety of actors, and offers rich ground for further research on the implications of such changes.

Across the border, Helen Cermeno studies how urban planning initiatives and practices impact the ‘everyday lives’ of ordinary citizens. Using a case study of a low-cost resettlement scheme for jhuggi residents in Amritsar, she finds that the project resulted in ‘further exclusion’ and marginalisation of residents. Her account of the project closely echoes failures of resettlement projects across a range of cities in South Asia: long delays in implementation, inadequate selection and allocation procedures, unfulfilled promises of basic service provision, ambiguous roles of community leaders, absence of employment opportunities, and uncertain futures of ‘beneficiaries.’ Given the similarities with other resettlement initiatives in the region, I found there to be significant scope for fruitful comparative research to solidify evidence of ‘policies that do not work,’ and by extension, more just approaches towards housing for the poor.

In chapter four, Noman Ahmad documents changes in Karachi’s built forms that have come about as a result of growing insecurity in the city, limiting ease of access without in fact significant improvements in safety. While the work builds on existing theorisations of crime and housing inequality, particularly in the Latin American context, it also offers a productive avenue for a conversation with scholarship closer to home, for instance, Sadia Shirazi’s work on the growing securitisation in the city of Lahore in the aftermath of a round of terrorist attacks.

Continuing the focus on Karachi, in chapter 5, Kabeer Dawani and Asad Sayeed direct the reader’s attention to related challenges around accessibility in the city. They argue that Karachi’s public transport network remains inadequate not due to the ‘transport mafia,’ as is assumed in mainstream accounts, but the state’s deliberate withdrawal from public transport provision and the subsequent/concurrent liberalisation of the sector. By tracing the evolution of public transport in Karachi after 1947, they offer detailed insights into the decline of the sector, and clearly demonstrate the absence of a transport mafia in Karachi today. Their work not only offers productive and practical entry points for public transport reforms – for example, the need to build state capacity, the introduction of effective financial systems and regulations –- but conveys the importance of understanding the histories and politics of poor service provision in the city as a means to adequately carry out reforms. They rightly assert that it is essential for urban development policies to prioritise ‘socio-economic equity,’ over ‘short-term profits.’

Inadequate public transport and increasing private modes of transport directly relate to growing concerns around air pollution, which the next chapter focuses on in the case of Delhi. Reading the essay on ‘toxic urbanism’, while residing in Lahore on a day that the city ranked worst in the world on the Air Quality Index, is a sombre reminder of the ‘poisonous, unpleasant and risky’ urbanism that authors Rohit Negi and Prerna Srigyan describe. The discussion around the evolution of environmental advocacy in Delhi, with close attention to the diverse actors, offers useful insights into the gains and limitations of such efforts over a period of time. The authors’ close attention to the class composition of advocacy efforts, and critique of ‘individualised solutions’ serves as a critical reminder of the unequal ways in which toxic urbanism affects the rich and poor. It shows that we need more radical solutions.

While early on in the book, Cermeno showed how marginality is reproduced in the case of ill-conceived new housing projects for the poor, in the next chapter, Shahana Sheikh, Sonal Sharma and Subhadra Banda draw our attention to the continued exclusion of informal settlement residents from the ‘planned city.’ They identify limited improvements in basic service provision and curtailed progress around enhanced tenure security despite repeated electoral promises. Through an empirically rich account of electoral activity in six of Delhi’s informal settlements, covering manifestoes, mechanisms of party organisation, forms of campaigning and development works, the authors illustrate the wide-spread presence of political parties in such settlements, yet find that this results in only small, incremental gains for residents over time. They point to a growing cynicism among residents and voters, left at the mercy of their political connections post-elections.

Continuing with the theme of urban informality and highlighting the critical role played by informal waste workers in solid waste management, Pinky Chandran and Kabir Arora direct attention towards Nayandahalli in Bangalore, ‘a plastic recycling hub,’ which now faces the risks of displacement caused by gentrification and rising real estate values. Through extensive fieldwork and participatory research methodologies, the authors provide an easy to read, detailed overview of waste value chains and the range of actors involved. Their work urges readers to rethink existing conceptualisations of waste as something to be discarded, instead relying on the term ‘maal,’ (material) that is used by waste workers to recycle and re-use, saving municipalities millions of rupees each year. The authors also point to recent gains in the legal recognition of informal waste pickers, collectors, and buyers (an impressive feat when reading from Pakistan, where informal waste workers remain on the margins without any recognition under existing laws), while acknowledging that most workers still continue to work without any legal protection. The chapter is mostly descriptive in nature, but of immense value from a policy perspective.

In the last chapter, Muntasir Sattar provides insight into oft-ignored middle-class spaces that have both transformed and are transforming major metropolitan centres such as Lahore. Drawing on ethnographic methods, Sattar studies an ‘exclusive’ male hostel in the city that houses young men from rural Pakistan with aspirations for public service and upward mobility. By doing so, he demonstrates the importance of such establishments in the making of future bureaucrats, offering valuable insights into everyday routines and environments. The chapter, however, appears somewhat out of place in a book about marginalisation and its connections to urban transformation in the South Asian context.

On the whole, the volume greatly contributes to existing knowledge around the multitude of socio-economic and cultural changes taking place in major South Asian cities. While it could have benefitted from additional comparative pieces from other countries in the region (a limitation recognised by the editor in the introduction), its chapters help stimulate productive conversations on urbanisation processes in India and Pakistan – a rarity in existing scholarship despite shared histories and cultures across the two countries. There is, as the volume’s empirical depth demonstrates, much to learn from one another, both in relation to prior policy experiments and interventions, and in proposed efforts to manage pressing challenges around inequality and social inclusion. This remains one of the biggest strengths of the volume and one that provides ample scope for future comparative research and inquiry.

Côté-Roy, L., and Moser, S. (2019) “Does Africa not deserve shiny new cities?’ The power of seductive rhetoric around new cities in Africa.” Urban Studies, 56(12), 2391–2407.
Shirazi, S. (2015) “Lahore: Architecture of In/Security.” The Funambulist Pamphlet 01: Militarised Cities, 14–19.

© Bloomsbury Pakistan 2023


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