Neighbourhoods in Urban India: In between Home & the City

Soumaydip Chattopadhyay, Arjun Kumar

Over the most recent few decades, the worldwide South, particularly India, have seen an enormous growth of urban cities. In India, more than 33% of its population lives in cities. In any case, the metropolitan turn of events, development and extension is not simply about frameworks and expansion of cityscapes.

The book co-authored by Dr Dev Nath Pathak, Founding Faculty, Department of Sociology, South Asian University, New Delhi, centres around neighbourhoods, their particularities and their key role in our interpretation of the metropolitan/ urban areas in India. With an idea to reflect upon the notion of a neighbourhood, a book discussion was organised by the Centre for Habitat, Urban & Regional Studies (CHURS), Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi onNeighbourhoods in Urban India: In between Home & the City”.

The Esteemed Panelists were Dr Arvind Kumar, Assistant Professor, Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy (CSSEIP) at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi; Dr Sumedha Dutta, Assistant Professor, Centre for Sociology, Central University of Punjab, Punjab; Mr Sameer Unhale, Joint Commissioner, Department of Municipal Administration, Government of Maharashtra; Ms Mukta Naik, Fellow, Centre for Policy Research (CPR), New Delhi; Dr Binti Singh, Associate Professor, Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute for Architecture and Environmental Studies, Mumbai.

The chair of the event was Dr Rumi Aijaz, Senior Fellow and Head, Urban Policy Research Initiative, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), New Delhi and the moderator was Dr Soumyadip Chattopadhyay, Associate Professor, Visva Bharati, ShantiNiketan, West Bengal.

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Dr Dev Pathak pointed out that the Indian urban discourse is dominated by the urban planning and governance idea; moreover, it overlooks the notion of the neighbourhood and transforms it into a mere administrative unit. The book highlights the varied connotations of the term ‘neighbourhood’ which goes beyond commonsensical knowledge. The idea of the book is to revisit the earlier understanding of neighbourhoods as physical units which are static and look at it in a more fluid and socially constructed concept. The term neighbourhood is an epistemologically open and flexible entity and not as given by Western societies. The local dynamics of Indian neighbourhoods come into play and thus, the fixity of categories does not work.

Dr Sumedha Dutta believes that the book is an innovative addition to the discourse of urban studies and gives a humane touch to the concept of the neighbourhood which has largely been overlooked to date and does not find a space in the mainstream literature. Dr Arvind Kumar states that neighbourhoods play an important role in maintaining and building cohesion. He also adds the need of considering this aspect while formulating urban policies to address the social issues which exist in urban areas.

Unsettling of things, experimenting, creation and re-creation of ideas is the only key to break down the stereotypical preconceived notions and move forward. Ms Mukta Naik reflects on the characteristics of the neighbourhoods and how people make neighbourhoods and that neighbourhoods do not make people because people migrate and come in and transform things in an everyday fashion and they do not come in with money, power or cultural identity.

This is a subaltern kind of transformation that can be noticed in urban migrant neighbourhoods. Neighbourhoods are a space of encounter but also at the formative influence of neighbourhoods in children. She also points out the binary of urban and rural divide and questions that why the neighbourhoods are always seen in settled urban spaces specifically and not the rural spaces.

Dr Binti Singh believes that it is crucial that the urban planners, conservation architects and designers consider the much-neglected neighbourhood concept. The book highlights the concept of ‘affective city’ that the city is made of people, their emotions, cultural and local ideas and the neighbourhood is the place where placemaking happens i.e. where social life saturates.

The idea of the neighbourhood is not completely incorporated in the urban administration in India, says Mr Sameer Unhale. He goes down the memory lane highlighting the Chawl and the vada culture prevalent in Mumbai and Pune as comparable phenomena to neighbourhoods. He thinks of neighbourhoods as an intermediary platform that connects an individual’s family home with the city as the bigger cities are getting alienated and the relations between the citizens and the city are weak and thus, the concept of neighbourhood becomes essentially important. 

Mr Unhale also questions whether we can connect the cooperative housing societies concept popular in Maharashtra with the broader framework of city governance that exists today. He focuses on the need to facilitate the interaction between the civil society or the neighbourhoods and the government through various mediums like Area Sabhas, Slum Rehabilitation Authorities (SRAs), Co-operative Societies etc.

The author of the book Dr Dev Pathak underlines the spatial individual agency of the term neighbourhood which works and grows upon us in a complex manner. The spatial agency remains intact as neighbourhoods act as a place of belonging while it also acts as a place of contestations. The character of the neighbourhood requires one to be intellectually promiscuous i.e., to feed upon a variety of materials to understand the intricate details and the nuances lying beneath the term called a neighbourhood.  Intellectual monogamy does not work if one needs to understand something as complex as a neighbourhood. In the book, the focus is upon the series of social institutions and patterns of social relationship thus, what is cultural is very well within the social. Thus, we say neighbourhoods are a socio-spatial entity within which culture exists.

The chair of the discussion, Dr Rumi Aijaz, states that most of the social problems that exist in big cities like exclusion, inequalities that have grown over time as the characteristics pointed out in the book are not being looked at appropriately. Thus, there is an urgent need to create mechanisms to create a channel between the neighbourhoods, the people, the government to address the challenges and the problems which arise over time.

Acknowledgements: Tarishi Chaturvedi is a Research Intern at IMPRI and is currently pursuing Masters in Development Policy Planning and Practice from TISS, Tuljapur, Maharashtra.

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