In Catal Huyuk, at the site of present day Turkey, regarded by many as the world’s first true city, communities began to form where some did not produce any of the food that they ate. This seemingly simple fact is actually the beginning of all that we recognize as being “urban.” Cities evolved, to put crudely the words of those in the know of such things, when people got efficient enough at agriculture to produce enough for all to eat, and to do so while staying put at one place. These new developments led to new needs – vessels to store food in, people to build more permanent settlements, tool makers, carpenters, brewers [evidence of making beer is as old as the history of cities] etc. Tied together by need, these people – producers now in every sense of the word rather than just farmers – stayed near each other in dense settlements that became the world’s first cities. Academics point to the evidence of a shift in life and society because archaelogical evidence shows that most telling sign of urban life: the first known jewellery, a sign of complex social systems, and an awareness of status and symbolism, that, one could conjecture, represent an evolving society that has the time to create culture rather than simply survive.
In some ways, the story of cities remains unchanged today. Questions of borders and citizenship have emerged, as have those of belonging. No longer able to simply take on those that could find some purpose, increasingly cities have become sites of contestation. This fight is, literally, for physical space, employment and livelihood, but also for notional citizenship – the right to be urban, to belong not just to cities, but often to a city, and the identity that such belonging lays claim to. When we speak of urban citizenship, we must therefore speak not just of land, but of a space in the city’s imagination of itself. Conversely, when we judge a city by the dignity of its poor, we must also assess if cities are able to imagine the poor as city residents. Physical and notional citizenship are intrinsically interlinked – cities that can imagine poorer [read: marginalized on any axis: gender, race, sexuality, class, caste, religion] residents as part of their city space are more likely to organically grow into cities that make space for these residents. Notions of citizenship and city identities critically impact both the organic and planned growth of cities.
How do we determine the notional citizenship of a city’s residents? How do we assess the impact of this citizenship on the way different city residents live in the city? How do we change notional citizenship, and the ways in which city identities evolve? In Catal Huyuk, ancestors were buried under the floor of the family house. Families, literally, could prove historical ownership of land and, conversely, their right to the land by the remains of those that came before them. Today, claims to belonging are more subtle, and a lot more contested. In Mumbai, the city where everyone comes to make their dreams come true, there are today voices that consistently call on curbs to migration on the basis of language, ethnicity, regional identity, and wealth. In Delhi, decades of demolitions of slum communities mean that, like the city, there is little subtlety in our communication to those that we believe don’t belong.
In London recently, I saw a billboard called “We are Londoners.” The signage is the work of the city’s Mayor [who, just to complete the signage system is the “Mayor of London”]. To many, this would seem gimmicky. A branding exercise – “brand” being a word many I know would usually use disdainfully, much like corporate and capitalist, to which it is linked inextricably. Perhaps it is a branding exercise. But it has an impact. Post 7/7 bombings in London and given the current debates in the city about the veil and Muslim communities, London, like the rest of England, is involved in a bitter battle about the definition of who is and is not “British.” The city is fighting its own battle – and the government is staking a claim. Now, how people will become “one” is another matter, but the point I want to make is that the necessity of fighting the battle for city imagination has been recognized. Beyond infrastructure, beyond roads, beyond housing, we must take home the importance of fighting this battle in our own cities – making citizens believe that others different from us have a right to live in our cities.
In Delhi, this city that I love and hate with equal passion but that is profoundly under my skin, it is a battle that we have not fought. For the first time, city residents, the courts, and the Great Indian Middle Class have become open about their contempt for the poor, and openly convey this contempt through their words, actions, and judgments. In Delhi, demolitions occur not just because of Supreme Court orders, but because many affluent city residents believe that they are justified – that the poor are illegal and dispensible. Their citizenship in the city is negated. Thirty years of life wiped out in a moment by both legal and social censure. As we fight the battles in the court, we must also fight the battles in the streets. We must create a new identity for Delhi to make it a city that believes that poor people have a place in the city we imagine and desire to live in. We have lost this imagination. We judge our cities not by their basic services, but by the number of Subways and McDonalds there are. Not by the number of chai stalls, but by the number of Baristas. Our markers of progress, pride, and community are altering. Our definitions of what is urban, and who city residents are, have reached a crossroad. It is these that we must reclaim.
Part of this fight is language. It is branding, though not in the sense that we know it when it is used to sell products. It is making the middle classes see that slum dwellers as entrepreneurs, firefighters, bankers, insurers, producers, makers of culture, and, more than anything, ingenuous survivors and producers of knowledge. We make logos for Commonwealth Games, the Times of India will coin a slogan for “World City” and the cities they imagine will slowly begin to take shape, as they are. On its front page three days ago, the Times of India claimed that Delhi’s emerging “transformation” was in part inspired by its Challo Dilli campaign. Could we, if we wanted to, brand Delhi differently? Make slogans about the dignity of the poorest? Make signage that shows open doors to new migrants? Let us change our notions of citizenship and challenge others to a debate on what this city is meant to represent. We can fight the Master Plan all we want, but we must also fight the mindsets that created it in the first place. It is only then that the planned and unplanned evolution of the city will be one that is based on equity.