My research lies at the nexus of critical development studies, feminist theory and urban geography. Specifically, I study the political geography of postcolonial cities, engaging theoretical debates on: 1) the political economy and cultural politics of development 2) state-space and urban governance and 3) social mobilizations and differentiated subjectivities.
My recent work addresses a frontier concern of 21st century social life: the urbanization of people and capital on a global scale, two phenomena that are transforming the meanings, embodied experiences, and practices of development in politically salient ways. After decades of development interventions have produced successive (and circular) migrations of rural populations into underserviced slums, recent efforts to “redevelop” postcolonial urban spaces into world-class cities through beautification, infrastructure, and real estate projects entail new waves of displacement, conflict, and social change.The central contradiction animating my research is whether and how this clash—between the political impetus to clear slums in order to capture lucrative new economic frontiers and the need for affordable housing and social services for a growing urban working class—is resolved.
However, my approach departs from understandings of development in cities falling under two registers: 1) the “failure of development” approach which puts its faith in new and better kinds of interventions aimed to help Third World cities “catch-up” to First World standards or 2) the “crisis of development” approach which sees capital as a singularly dominant force shaping a planetary urban geography of destitution emblemized by the slum. Rather, I see cities like Mumbai as power-laden sites of struggle and experimentation in citizenship and governance where diverse actors participate on unequal terms. Moments of urban encounter and contestation rework the meaning and practice of development with unpredictable consequences.
My primary research focus, Mumbai is a rich site for studying these dynamic processes. Slum redevelopment there has advanced not only through the brute force of a bulldozing state but also through ostensibly more inclusive resettlement efforts furthered via multi-stake-holder partnerships among state agents, real estate developers, development financiers, NGOs, and neighborhood groups.
The Right to the Slum? Redevelopment, Rule and the Politics of Difference in Mumbai
This ongoing project (based on my dissertation) grapples with how those people who are most intensely affected by development-induced displacement are staking claims to the city and how these movements in turn affect changing regimes of rule. I am inspired by scholars and activists who promote “the right to the city” as a framework for analysis and action in the face of accumulation by dispossession as exemplified by slum redevelopment. However, the meaning of “rights” is vague and contested in the postcolonial context. In Mumbai, some urban residents aspiring to more than “life in a slum” have embraced their own displacement for the promise of development through resettlement. Meanwhile others contend with classed and ethnicized spatial imaginaries that have violently written them out of the city. My work traces these patterns though which urban governance, development and desire remake the city landscape.
Drawing on ethnographic and other qualitative data in a variety of urban spaces, the project’s key contributions include analyses of: (1) state legitimacy and changing modalities of rule associated with the political economic processes of neoliberal urbanization and Hindu Nationalist and regionalist cultural politics; (2) the dynamic political relevance of differentially articulated gender, class and ethno-religious subjectivities in urban politics; and, (3) the ethico-political dimensions of social mobilizations and of claims to the city that both challenge and entrench inequalities.
I compare three cases of slum clearance and social mobilization to investigate whether and how slum residents contest, negotiate and enable redevelopment. One case illustrates how gendered politics of social reproduction, ideals of domesticity, and feminized participation in NGOs shaped resettlement desires and processes in such a way that women slum residents facilitated slum clearance. Elsewhere, conflicts ensued due to exclusionary discourses of urban belonging and market-driven policies that distributed resettlement in a highly uneven manner. In particular, Muslim and North Indian slum residents—depicted as invaders, traitors, and even illegal immigrants in some public discourses—aligned with a national anti-displacement coalition to protest dispossession. Adopting the idioms of citizenship-based rights to the city and nation, these groups connected their opposition to displacement to a broader rejection of neoliberal practices.
Political and cultural processes thus differentially shape slum residents’ experiences of displacement and how they articulate claims to the city. Uneven displacement politics in turn condition how the governance process that I call the “redevelopmental state” retains legitimacy despite mass evictions. This work breaks with neoliberal governance and social movement theories that deploy singular notions of agency and rule and demonstrates how post-colonial and feminist theories—with their focus on difference and embodiment as well as the (dis)connections between desire and narrowly construed interests—disrupt and remake notions of development subjectivities and rule. A focus on differentiated subject formation processes, I argue, reveals the contours and limits of mobilizations while exposing the fragility and constant remaking of the state.
New Project: Critical geographies of corruption
Following mobilizations against displacement in India, I have observed the salience of what Akhil Gupta calls the “discourse of corruption” as an articulation of postcolonial citizenship. The anti-corruption movement has exploded in India and one of the major anti-displacement groups that I have studied—the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM)—has formalized an uneasy coalition with the former. While Indian middle-class and international development discourses tend to posit corruption in classed and racialized terms of degeneracy and bureaucratic excess, NAPM has made a different political claim. NAPM argues that recent development projects constitute forms of “corrupt land grab” whereby state agents unethically privilege the interests of local and transnational capital over those of poor citizens. Through critiquing dispossession, these new discourses of corruption challenge relations of power in ways that exceed the moral boundaries of upper class politics and development knowledges. Meanwhile, other groups are reworking discourses of gender and development to advance new feminized political identities that hail poor women as “honest and altruistic” antidotes to corrupt men and states. Such articulations may serve a contrary purpose of bolstering policy agendas that shift the responsibility for addressing poverty away from state and on to the poor themselves.
These diverse mobilizations raise several questions. How does building thorny cross-class alliances and articulating land struggles in an anti-corruption discourse strengthen and/or compromise social justice goals? How do slum residents, vilified for their informal housing conditions, adopt and rework discourses of corruption? How do middle class activists’ and slum residents’ understandings of corruption intersect and diverge?
This work has evolved into a new collaborative project (with Dr. Malini Ranganathan and Dr. David Pike of American University) that explores narratives of corruption as a lens into the experience, contested ethics and political critique of rapid urban change in cities of the Global South. The project titled, Corruption Plots, Imagined Publics: The Ethics of Space in the Millennial City combines social science methods of ethnography and humanistic analysis of films, novels and other creative work from cities around the world. The project is supported by an American Council of Learned Societies grant.