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No Estoppel: Claiming Right to the City via the Commons

The right to the city, an idea mooted by French radical philosophers in 1968, has become a popular slogan among right to housing activists and inclusive growth policymakers. In Indian cities unprecedented and unregulated growth, incremental land use change, privatisation and chaotic civic infrastructure provisioning are fracturing resources created over centuries and reducing the right to the city to mere right to housing and property, thus short-changing the concept's transformative potential. Urban actors need to draw inspiration from the way social movements world over including in India have deployed the notion of the commons as a defence against corporate exploitation of biodiversity. Envisioning the right to the city as the fundamental human right, a demand for a just and sustainable social order where collective resources are respected and regenerated to support life, entails a democratic approach to the creation of knowledge about our cities. Such knowledge creation is necessarily a collaborative effort involving citizens who are differentially located in relation to the commons - policymakers, neighbourhood residents, workers and academic researchers.


No Estoppel: Claiming Right to the City via the Commons

Anant Maringanti

The right to the city, an idea mooted by French radical philosophers in 1968, has become a popular slogan among right to housing activists and inclusive growth policymakers. In Indian cities unprecedented and unregulated growth, incremental land use change, privatisation and chaotic civic infrastructure provisioning are fracturing resources created over centuries and reducing the right to the city to mere right to housing and property, thus short-changing the concept’s transformative potential. Urban actors need to draw inspiration from the way social movements world over including in India have deployed the notion of the commons as a defence against corporate exploitation of biodiversity. Envisioning the right to the city as the fundamental human right, a demand for a just and sustainable social order where collective resources are respected and regenerated to support life, entails a democratic approach to the creation of knowledge about our cities. Such knowledge creation is necessarily a collaborative effort involving citizens who are differentially located in relation to the commons – policymakers, neighbourhood residents, workers and academic researchers.

The author is grateful to the participants of the Urban Commons Workshop 2010 organised by the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru for helping in clarifying some of the ideas in this paper; and to Nithya Raman for valuable feedback.

Anant Maringanti ( is an independent scholar based in Hyderabad.

estoppel, n. Law. An impediment or bar to a right of action arising from a man’s own act, or where he is forbidden by law to speak against his own deed. Oxford English Dictionary. bar or impediment preventing a party from asserting a fact or a claim inconsistent with a position that party previously took, either by conduct or words, especially where a representation has been relied or acted upon by others.

1 Introduction

he right to the city, a transformative idea with a socialist agenda, first mooted by French philosopher Henri Lefebvre in the centenary year of the publication of Capital, has become part of diverse activist mobilisations and transnational policy networks across the world in the last two decades. The uptake of the idea by inclusive growth-oriented policymaking has been remarkably rapid and widespread. Framed by inclusive growth policies, the idea of the right to the city is often circumscribed to the right to inhabit/reside; and concretised through housing and mortgage regulation (Brenner et al 2009). This article aims to contribute to efforts to recover the conceptual ambit and political purchase of the right to the city as a socialist ideal and concretise it in the specific context of degradation and privatisation of commons in Indian cities.

The article draws on the experience of activism around protecting waterbodies in Hyderabad to build an expanded conception of “urban commons”. It suggests that the realisation of the right to the city as a political ideal will require a reorientation of research and activism. In order to appreciate the intended scope of the right to the city, it must be seen in the political context in which it was originally proposed. Writing at a time of widespread unrest in Europe, Lefebvre intended the right to the city not merely as a reform, but as “a cry and a demand”; “the right to occupy and protest”; “a working slogan and ideal”. For Lefebvre, the city was a metaphor for all of society. It was the spatial expression of culture in which the inhabitants were progressively disenfranchised by capital. The right to the city then is a universal statement of collective aspirations. In its broadest sense, it is a right that cannot be bartered away or given up voluntarily. Its proper place is not in the laws enabling housing finance as it is often made out by advocates and critics, but alongside the most fundamental human rights. In David Harvey’s words:

The right to the city is…far more than a right of individual access to the resources that the city embodies: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city more after our heart’s desire. It is, moreover, a collective rather than an individual right since changing the city inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power over the processes of urbanisation.

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The freedom to make and remake ourselves and our cities is…one of the

most precious yet most neglected of our human rights (Harvey 2003: 940).

To grasp the import of such a conception of the right to the city in the Indian context, we need only to consider the 1985 ruling of the Supreme Court in the Olga Tellis case.1 The case, as two generations of housing rights activists in India know, involved the rights of the pavement-dwellers against eviction by the Bombay Municipal Corporation. The petitioner argued that pavementdwellers lived on pavements in order to be close to the places where they could make a living. By evicting them, the Bombay Municipal Corporation was violating their right to livelihood and by extension, it was a violation of Article 21 of the Constitution – the right to life and liberty. In its order, the Supreme Court of India upheld the pavement-dwellers’ invocation of the fundamental right and ruled against the application of estoppel. The operational part of the judgment has been justifiably criticised by many for its ambiguity in defending the rights of residence of the pavement-dwellers. But, on the matter of the pavement-dwellers seeking refuge in the fundamental right to life and liberty, the judgment was unequivocal.2 The Court observed as follows: “No individual can barter away the freedoms conferred upon him by the Constitution. A concession made by him in a proceeding, whether under a mistake of law or otherwise, that he does not possess or will not enforce any particular fundamental right, cannot create an estoppel against him in that or any subsequent proceeding.” In short, the fact is that pavement-dwellers may be violating the municipal law by occupying the pavement. But they are entitled to invoke the fundamental rights to challenge the unjustness of the municipal laws.

The distinction between the right to the city as a fundamental human right and as an entitlement arising from a contractual agreement from the laws of the land is of utmost importance particularly in times of widespread crisis and dispossession such as now. Towards developing an expansive vision of the right to the city as a fundamental human right in the context of Indian urbanisation, this article will proceed in four sections hereon. The second section briefly describes two framings of the right to the city that have come to gain purchase in Indian cities and identifies how neither of them is able to articulate a key issue in India’s urban crisis – the commons. The third section first describes the processes by which a large number of water bodies in Hyderabad have virtually disappeared in a short span of time and outlines the questions of justice that arise from this crisis. Then, it makes the case for articulating the right to the city as the right to the commons rather than merely the right to access individual services and rights.3 The fourth section teases out the challenges encountered in materialising such an expanded conception of the right to the city. The fifth concluding section suggests that the first step towards overcoming the challenges would be the production of new critical knowledges based on principles of collaboration – in short a commoning of knowledge itself.

2 Concretising the Right to the City

To properly contextualise the right to the city is to contextualise it in the numerous competing and converging visions of the city (Mayer 2009). For the purposes of this paper, I will consider two such visions which have found resonance in India. The first is the

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vision of inclusive urban development promoted by UN various agencies with the explicit agenda of promoting the Millennium Development Goals.4 The inclusive growth vision of the city is, in essence, a top-down process which aims at governance reforms that tame resistance to the deepening of markets. It is operationalised through a complex system of transnational policy networks that Peck and Tickell (2002) evocatively liken to a system of interconnected command centres. As has now become the norm even internally in India, the inclusive growth policy is promoted through best practice regimes, creates and circulates model legislations, and sometimes adopts “promise-of-funding-contingentupon-compliance” to overcome resistance at lower scales of state institutions to yield way.5

The second vision of the right to the city coheres around a body of research and advocacy that has come to be known as “insurgent citizenship”. Briefly, insurgent citizenship is the idea that people in urban fringes of large metropolises in countries like India, even as they are disenfranchised by the formal law and structurally excluded, rebel against the unjust system which puts land and housing beyond their reach, through tactical actions that rely on incremental change (Holston 1998). Denied the rights of substantive citizenship, people assemble their entitlements through informal modes, tactically drawing on resources available in the local and lower level bureaucracies. Sometimes they do this by stealth and at other times by taking recourse to transparent exchanges and eventually through networking and exchanging the counter knowledges they produce of urban life (Appadurai 2002; Benjamin 2008; McFarlane 2004). Such populations establish their claims to the city, in particular, the right to residence and to urban services through cycles of encroachment gradually establishing their claims and gaining a certain degree of legality.6 In this sense, insurgent urbanism is a bottom-up vision of the right to the city focusing on subaltern agency.6

Ironically, in recent years, the top-down and bottom-up visions of the right to the city – insurgent citizenship and inclusive growth have begun to converge around the production of new low-end housing markets (e g, Rajiv Awas Yojana). Such programmes recognise the rights of squatters and help them gradually become property owners. A prime example of this would be the development of new slum reconstruction programmes through tripartite agreements between builders, finance agencies and slum-dwellers associations often facilitated by NGOs.7 Such programmes have met with limited success and engendered criticism particularly on the grounds that housing as commodity and as property rights is by definition exclusivist as it rules out models of self-help and incremental development and multiple claims to property which are better suited for the India’s urban poor. Indeed, based as they are on selecting beneficiaries through the criteria of “creditworthiness”, and “length of residence”, many of the new housing programmes cannot but exclude a large part of the ever-increasing numbers of people moving into the cities in India.8

How can we make sense of the role of the Indian state in Indian cities where inclusive growth meets with insurgent urbanism one drawing on formal mechanisms and the other relying on informal networks? Roy (2009) suggests that one of the main conceptual problems here lies in the binary construction of the category of


informality. She suggests that rather than seeing the informal as the domain of the poor and formal as the domain of the elite, we need to understand how informality operates through the entire spectrum of urban life including governance. She suggests that India’s planning regime is itself “an informalised entity, one that is a state of deregulation, unmapping, and exceptionalism” (Roy 2009: 86). This informal idiom of urbanisation, she notes, makes possible new frontiers of development. For example, consider the growth in the number of special development zones in Indian cities. Such zones are created by exempting areas for rapid growth and infrastructural investments from the masterplan in force. (Hyderabad city led the way by creating the Buddha Purnima Project Authority, Cyberabad Development Authority and Hyderabad Airport Development Authority. Each of these was once a parcel of urban territory subject to the planning vision of the Hyderabad Urban Development Authority.)

Once exempted from the masterplan in force, the special development zones are brought under the discretionary powers of the executive with no framework to regulate them. Each of these special development zones may become thriving hubs of commercial growth because decision-making at the highest level is quick and favourable to new investments. However, simultaneously, Roy argues, such systematic informality also renders impossible governance, justice and development in any territorial sense, precisely because such exceptions are systemic and extensive. In short, Roy argues that Indian cities cannot be planned for in the “conventional sense of planning as forecasting and managing growth”. Rather, urban planning in India operates as “a special mode of managing resources, particularly land where the ownership, use, and purpose cannot be fixed and mapped according to any prescribed set of regulations or the law”. As already noted, this impossibility of governance can be seen from one perspective as a sign of vitality and dynamism. Indeed scholars and popular writers alike have celebrated this characteristic of Indian cities. Bollywood productions reflect it time and again. But the cumulative effect of such dynamism is the lack of any coherent social action that can adhere to a collective ethic regarding resources that are shared by everyone or even resolve itself into any clear lines of conflict between social classes. While all of this is well-documented, the consequences of this for cities as collective resource pools – commons – have received scant attention in urban studies. In the following section, I outline the case of water bodies in Hyderabad towards a first attempt to think through how such collective resources can be conceptualised.

3 Commons without Community: Waterbodies in Hyderabad

In order to demonstrate the complexity of the problem of shared resources in Indian cities before attempting to conceptualise the commons, let us first consider the trajectory of urbanisation through two neighbourhoods in Hyderabad city.

Case 1: Ambir Lake

Ambir cheruvu lake is adjacent to Pragati Nagar, an affluent neighbourhood in the north-western urban fringe of Hyderabad, about 2 kilometre (km) from National Highway 9. Until 1990, the area

66 was part of a village in the catchment of Ambir lake. In the year 1990, some workers of Allwyn, a public sector factory, many of whom were union members, pooled their retrenchment/golden handshake money and purchased agricultural land from the village. As a sign of their affiliation to the leftist trade union they named their new housing colony Pragati Nagar (City of Progress). Since then, the area has grown into a bustling township, well connected to the nearby Kukatpally municipality through a road dividing the lake into two halves. When Kukatpally municipality merged into the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation in 2008, the residents of Pragati Nagar chose to retain their status as a village. (Ostensibly to maintain their collective autonomy but also possibly to avoid having to pay higher property taxes.) The area is not connected to the city’s sewage and drainage networks. Nor is it served by the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation’s garbage removal services. In the early years of the colony, Pragati Nagar residents invested in a sewerage treatment plant. But over time it has become dysfunctional and there is no collective will to get it working. Further, as there are no garbage removal services, the municipal solid waste from the colony is burnt on the edges of the lake. Pragati Nagar is not the only neighbourhood in the catchment of Ambir cheruvu. There are a number of neighbourhoods in the area which are directly in the catchment of the lake and obstructing inflows and suffering floods.

Case 2: Errakunta

Errakunta lake is a smaller waterbody, in the north-east of the city 3 km from the Osmania University. The nalas connecting it to lakes upstream and downstream were broken about 20 years ago as construction activity began to grow in the area. By 1999, local land sharks broke the surplus weir draining the lake bed except for a small body of water which was used by washermen. As the lake began to gradually shrink, the land became available for purchase by low income housing cooperative societies (comprising mainly scheduled caste employees of Osmania University) who started their construction work. As the lake area began to visibly change, one of the older residents of the area, began mobilising the washermen to physically resist the encroachment in the lake bed and moved the court. Using his engineering knowledge, he accessed satellite imagery of the lake and moved the court through a public interest petition. The litigation took nearly 10 years to wind its way all the way up to the Supreme Court. Two of the main respondents in the public interest litigation were housing societies formed by scheduled caste government employees who had invested their life’s savings to own a home. As matters stand, even though the Supreme Court ordered that the housing constructed on the encroached lake bed be removed after due process by the revenue officials, the orders remain unimplemented at the local level even three years after the judgment.

The washermen’s association meanwhile has come to an understanding with the housing societies. As per their informal understanding, once the government begins the process, the washermen will limit their claim to a small plot of land where they hope to install two borewells so that they can carry on their work. The housing societies can continue to exist. Even as these understandings

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are being reached, the remaining lake bed is currently primarily being used by the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation as a local dumping ground where the garbage collected by private sanitation workers is heaped up before being transferred to the municipal garbage transportation facilities.

Urban Waterbodies as Commons

Ambir and Errakunta lakes described above are only two of the hundreds of waterbodies in Hyderabad which can be called urban commons in a profoundly geohistorical richness. The geomorphic backbone of these waterbodies was formed out of a basaltic flood 65 milion years ago. The chaotic drainage patterns of the Deccan plateau created by this event set the context for the gradual emergence of a network of man-made waterbodies in the 12th century. Between the 16th and 19th century, a very large number of water bodies got added to this network to serve the needs of settled agriculture as well as human habitations. Within the jurisdiction of the Hyderabad Metropolitan Development Authority of 7,100 square kilometres, it is estimated that there are over 3,000 large and small waterbodies most of which are interconnected to each other. Even though the Nizam state undertook modern engineering interventions in the form of irrigation dams, flood balancing reservoirs on a priority basis in the early 20th century, it left institutional arrangements intact for governing the smaller traditional structures – earthen dams, stone masonry, etc, and simple stone weirs.

Multiple and complementary use patterns, customary entitlements, oversight by village level stewardship institutions and funds from the government continued, as agricultural production which sustained the state’s economy was critically dependent on these waterbodies. The gradual decline of these systems began with the rise of the modern and modernising techno-bureaucracies of the post-independence Indian state. The new regime’s imagination, beholden to the large irrigation dams (e g, Nagarjuna Sagar) on the anvil, had little room for the networks of small waterbodies and gradually, the village level social relationships and structures of authority began to break down. To complicate matters further, as the Nizam state’s official languages were Urdu and Persian, languages that the new bureaucracy was not trained in, the accumulated knowledge of governance gradually fell into disuse and became inaccessible. According to estimates by former officials of the irrigation department, between 1950 and 1990, nearly 7 lakh acres of land lost irrigation due to the drying up of the networks of waterbodies in the Telangana region.

In the 1970s, as Hyderabad city began to grow a number of new physical and social processes set in gradually leading to fragmentation and erosion of this system of waterbodies. In particular, reckless disposal of industrial effluents, sewerage and municipal waste into waterbodies, encroachment by real estate interests and marginalisation of established customary land use and stewardship practices in the last three decades have led to the virtual disappearance of many of the waterbodies with the result that out of the nearly 500 waterbodies that lay within the core city area, the Hyderabad Urban Development Authority could identify only 169 which could potentially be restored in 2001. Since then, questions of who should be managing these

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lakes and how the efforts should be funded have been appearing regularly in newspapers even as agencies (revenue department, municipal corporation, water and sewerage board and the planning and development authority) keep passing the buck and engaging in the blame game.9 And since then many of these 169 have fallen into further disrepair (Ramachandraiah and Prasad 2004).

Environmental activists in Hyderabad identify a number of processes which have led to the disappearance of waterbodies in Hyderabad. Prime among them is changed use patterns and incremental establishment of claims to residence – primarily through modes that can be called insurgent citizenship tactics. The process is multifarious and usually involves two stages: occupation and legitimation. For example, occupation could start in the command area where cultivation is abandoned and farmers are willing to sell it. Or it can start in the shoulders of the waterbody where land is categorised as poramboke, leaving room for inflows and general maintenance. It could start in the nalas which feed the waterbody with flood overflows from upstream lakes or carry water downstream to other lakes. Once the inflow and outflow are damaged, the lake bed is isolated from the network of waterbodies and dries up. Sometimes, local land sharks can deliberately lower the surplus weir so that the water level in the waterbody goes down and dry land emerges at the farther edge of the lake. Sometimes there are rocky outgrowths or islands in the waterbody where birds nest and perch undisturbed. There are small shrines or trees which become accessible in some seasons. These elevated pieces of earth in the waterbody are isolated through a small pathway or bund connecting the edge of the lake to the rock on both sides and thus first creating a sort of lagoon separate from the main waterbody which can then be dried out and filled up.

Once occupancy is established, legitimising ownership involves working through the bureaucracies of land management. Given the complex history of land parcels and the continuance of older claims into the present, it is always possible to construct multiple claims to the land using various kinds of documents (some of which may even be entirely forged). For example, during the second world war the Hyderabad state gave special annual leases to farmers to augment agricultural production through cultivation in lake beds and in the catchment areas. In many cases, washermen, cattle rearers had rights to a section of the riverfront for washing clothes and growing fodder respectively. Documents relating to such provisional entitlements which are no longer practised have an ambiguous status in land management and are open to interpretation at the lower levels of bureaucracy. Over the last three decades, literally millions of such documents have circulated through land administration bureaucracies and litigation and have played a crucial role in contestation and compromise to stablise ownership claims.10

As these processes of gradual/incremental occupation and legitimation course their way through the complex terrain described above, residential areas get established, real estate values go up even as infrastructure and services sewage, water supply, drainage and garbage clearance take time to be extended. It is under such circumstances that many residential areas


improvise and find cheapest ways to procure services and create infrastructure – often by disposing of waste water into the waterbody and burning solid waste on the edges of the waterbody as happens in the case of Pragati Nagar and Errakunta. Instances of the municipal corporation itself using the dried up water body as a transit dumping ground from where larger municipal vehicles pick up the waste are numerous.

At the current juncture, from an insurgent citizenship perspective, such processes are claims to the right to the city. From the inclusive growth perspective, these are claims which need to be brought into the ambit of formal market mechanisms and finance arrangements. But what of the long-term consequences of this urbanisation? The process described above can often take many years and may be ongoing even after the entire lake disappears. The new occupants of the lakes, who now comprise the entire spectrum of real estate – gated communities, affluent middle class neighbourhoods, corporate houses and squatters – continue to suffer the consequences of contamination due to municipal solid waste dumping and untreated sewerage discharge; flash floods inundating houses; mosquito breeding; groundwater depletion and contamination. Both the rich and the poor suffer many of these consequences, as lake beds are increasingly occupied by not just squatters but by affluent housing societies. Algal blooms, organic and inorganic wastes kill fish. As water is unclean and fish catch becomes rare, birds stop visiting. And finally, as each of these waterbodies is a node in a network, changes in the structure of one waterbody can have consequences for the rest of the system both upstream and downstream far beyond the city itself affecting particularly marginal farmers.

Limits of Present Activist Strategies

Against this backdrop, middle class activist networks (Forum for Better Hyderabad, Forum for Sustainable Hyderabad, Hyderabad Greens, Save Our Urban Lakes, to name a few) in the city in the past two decades have largely relied on litigation and lobbying with government agencies to protect water bodies against what they perceive as the main problems: “encroachments and pollution”. Such groups are often moved by a nostalgia for remembered social geographies of Hyderabad, or by an aesthetic that is often tinged by spirituality and resentment against the rapid changes or by a desire for a more orderly life. Angry and resentful writings against encroachments on Husain Sagar, the largest waterbody in the centre of the city, often cite the following passage attributed to Husain, the protagonist thug in the novel confessions of a thug written by Col Philip Meadows Taylor in 1839 (Taylor 1988).

…and as we passed it a strong breeze had arisen, and the surface was curled into a thousand waves, whose white crests as they broke sparkled like diamonds, and threw their spray into our faces as they dashed against the stone work of the embankment. We stood a long time gazing upon the beautiful prospect, so new to us all, and wondering whether the sea, of which we had heard so much, could be anything like what was before us.

Images of the shrinking of such a magnificent waterbody, once the site of religious coexistence as on its banks, the Shia Muslims mourned the death of Husain in the Karbala Maidan, and the Hindus celebrated the Vijayadashami festival with small groups of committed activists. As the activists discover time and again, however, the disappearance of waterbodies is not exclusively due to insurgent urbanism, or due to private corporate greed. The Government of Andhra Pradesh is centrally implicated in some of the most extensive encroachments into lakes, most conspicuously in the case of Husain Sagar, the pride of Hyderabad city, by omissions such as not marking full tank levels (FTL), and by commissions such as reclaiming land for constructing memorial parks for departed political leaders.11 Yet, the strategy adopted by activist groups for a very long time has been to look for an effective policing agency which can ensure boundaries, an agency that simply has not come into being. Urban waterbodies like those in Hyderabad transcend property boundaries, extend in time and are implicated in the quality of air and health and adequate access to safe water for every one. In short the commons actually do not figure in current debates on the right to the city simply because the current conceptions of the right to the city in both top-down and bottom-up versions have no room for a sense of community.

4 Right to the City via Urban Commons

The case for re-envisioning the right to the city via the commons is compelling. Lefebvre’s vision of the right to the city is in a sense about a collective ideal, about shared resources and practices. Yet, the urban space that Lefebvre and much of the critical urban theory that follows Lefebvre’s lead theorise on is the capitalist urban space of north America and western Europe. In much of the world outside of these heartlands of capitalism, however, struggles against neo-liberal capitalism have been waged not in the cities but in the forests where corporate aggression takes the form of mining and intellectual property rights in biotechnology (Harvey 2004: 548). In these places it is not the right to the city but the right to the commons that has been invoked most effectively by indigenous communities.

In cities like those of India, an engagement between the right to the city and the right of commons – the right to oppose enclosure of shared resources in cities can open up several new possibilities for creating better cities. Materialising the right to the city as the right to the commons is however not an easy task. The informal mode of governance and planning described by Roy (2009) is in its concreteness, a battlefield in which the actors deploy social power through caste, gender and other privileges and occasionally employ brute physical aggression to resolve competing claims for shared use and appropriation of commons. Once appropriated (occupied in the case of land), ownership of these resources can be further legitimised through formal law. And as a matter of fact, the erosion of commons in cities is an indication of the consolidation of that power which is not merely capitalist but is marked by caste formations as well. What is the just and efficacious political praxis that produces commons in defence against unethical and exclusionary exploitation that facilitates an unjust order of accumulation and social oppression? What kind of praxis can facilitate appropriation that is sensitive to a new ethic of the commons and fosters the right to the city, with an Indian sensibility? Such a question assumes urgency at

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this juncture when rapid exclusionary urban growth threatens to create conditions that are unfavourable for everyone and it is increasingly becoming evident that there is no return to the Nehruvian socialist order with its characteristic binaries of public and private. What follows is a further exploration of the challenge of urban commons.

Debates on the commons have been, for the last 40 years, influenced by the Garrett Hardin’s famous essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons”, coincidentally first published in the same year in which Lefebvre proposed the right to the city (Hardin 1993). Hardin’s thesis, under the long Malthusian shadow claims that a resource which is not owned by anyone is likely to be overexploited and destroyed as each of the users acts in a rational and self-serving manner. Such actors cannot see any point in limiting their use because, there is no guarantee that others will simultaneously limit their use contributing to a general sustenance of the pool. Hardin’s tragedy of the commons formulation has been refuted both conceptually and empirically by many scholars. For example, Roberts and Emel (1992) have demonstrated that the degradation of the resources can be explained better through uneven development theory. Bromley (1991) has shown that it is necessary to distinguish between commons, property and common property regimes. Dietz et al (2003) have shown that institutions of collective action matter to the way commons are governed.

Nevertheless, Hardin’s proposition has had a durable influence on the liberal governance. The liberal strategy to obviate Hardin’s “tragedy of the commons” is to vest property rights for all resources in some agency. Notwithstanding their adversarial positions, advocates of privatisation and of the public sector both appear to converge on this strategy.

Our discussion of waterbodies in Hyderabad shows that the degradation of waterbodies is not dependent on whether formal ownership rests with the state or with private individuals. It has also shown that neither inclusive growth nor insurgent urbanism approaches to the right to the city can address the question of the commons. Any attempt to build a new framework then would have to recognise that commons are not natural objects existing a priori. The waterbodies of Hyderabad are produced over millennia by people who came together through shared meanings and practices of use and appropriation. Such practices which we may call “practices of commoning” draw on diverse sources, from the spiritual (shrines on the lake boundary) through the banal (cattle grazing and casual fishing, to the highly politically/religiously charged (religious processions for immersion of idols during festivals). Waterbodies bear the imprint of the exclusions and inclusions of past social relations – norms and hierarchies of use and appropriation. Exercising the right to the city as a right to the commons, therefore, involves a critical urban praxis that assembles actors who can construct new communities based on principles of collaboration and sharing that are at once aware of the inherited inequities and how the old inequities are incorporated into new dispensations of unequal power. In what follows, I suggest that collaborative knowledge production could be a tentative starting point for such an exercise.

5 Commoning Knowledge, Claiming the Right to the City

One of the key insights that emerges from the experience of the lake protection groups in Hyderabad has to do with the governance of information and knowledge. Control over and ownership of information and data and the power to authenticate and adjudicate the legitimacy of the information is crucial to the reproduction of the informal idiom which makes construction of any meaningful community impossible. Each lake is the meeting point of a number of interest groups with competing interests, and yet none of these groups is compelled to engage with each other. Each operates through stealth, plays for time and manipulates information. Knowledge is guarded and traded in. Nothing illustrates this as sharply as the case of knowledge of FTL markings for lakes in Hyderabad. Among activists in Hyderabad, the FTL data of the lakes till date continues to be a source of mystification as the government agencies responsible for lakes and lands surrounding them have neither released any data nor undertaken any exercise to fix the FTL of each of the lakes or explain to the public what it means. Yet, such data is known to be available in some government agency or the other, only to be revealed when it is tactically necessary to reveal it. This is not surprising because the FTL is key to determining the waterspread in the lake and thus marks the boundaries of the lake. Once revealed, it fixes the boundaries of the lake. However, this is not merely a question of factually ascertainable information from the government. It is also a matter of negotiation as there are multiple ways to arrive at the FTL and each of them is fraught with conflicts over boundaries and entitlements.

Given this scenario, waterbodies (and more generally all of urban space) are sites where multiple communities each with its own tacit knowledge and accumulated lived experience are at work. The first step, therefore, is to develop systems of collaboration where such complex repositories of information and knowledge can be brought together into conversation on a collaborative basis rather than on competitive basis. In other words, at least one point of departure towards the exercise of the right to the city as right to the commons is the creation of appropriate knowledges and development of practices and norms for sharing and reworking those knowledges. Research on the commons particularly in the context of their invocation as defence against corporate aggression has shown the importance of understanding and sustaining knowledge systems centred around the commons (Hess and Ostrom 2007; Escobar 1998).

Urban commons, however, are places and resources where knowledge is deeply riven with power struggles is privatised in the form of data and expert knowledge or is in the custodianship of unaccountable government agencies. Geographically, the challenge of sharing and collaborating is not easy, because of multiple layers of jurisdictions which do not coincide and stakeholder groups who are not necessarily living in close proximity. Given this complexity, information and insights are not amenable to research practices that are oriented towards a few experts working in isolation from the community. Rather, it is precisely through generation of knowledge that new communities must be constituted and the communities so constituted must generate information that is oriented towards a new ethic of commons. It

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is only through such critical knowledge that the right to the city can be claimed genuinely as a right to the commons, “as a precious human right”, against which there can be no estoppel. Such new vistas of research would have been inconceivable barely a decade ago. Yet with the availability of new communication

Notes References

technologies, online mapping services and social media application, a new window of opportunity may just be opening up. Whether practitioners, researchers, activists, technologists and policymakers are ready to seize it, is a question for practice rather than for theory.

Policy, Action, No 13, Vol 2 (3): 362-74.

1 Olga Tellis & Others vs Bombay Municipal Council [1985] 2 Supp SCR 51.

2 To illuminate the principle of estoppel, consider the case of a tenant disputing the ownership claims of the landlord. So long as he is paying rent to the landlord, he cannot challenge the landlord’s claim to ownership because such a challenge would be inconsistent with the fact that he is paying rent to the landlord. In such a case, the landlord can claim estoppel against the tenant’s challenge.

3 I use the case of waterbodies as commons because they are intuitively recognised by people as commons. But the arguments I make in this paper can hold for any other type of material or nonmaterial commons.

4 The UNESCO and the UN-Habitat co-sponsored a policy research programme in 2004 entitled “Urban Policies and the Right to the City: Rights, Responsibilities and Citizenship”. The 2010 session of the World Urban Forum has adopted the slogan as its theme: “Right to the City: Bridging the Urban Divide” (see: asp?cid=6490andcatid=584andtypeid=24andsu bMenuId=0; accessed 4 September 2009).

5 The implementation of Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) including the mandatory Basic Services for Urban Poor component aimed at inclusive growth, is a case in point. Under the JNNURM cities are selected for funding in a mission mode, based on eligibility criteria framed in two categories: mandatory and optional reforms.

6 The scale of this process is indicated by the number of applications that the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation received since 2007 for its Lay Out Regularisation (LRS) and Building Penalisation Scheme (BPS). The municipal corporation has received till date 80,608 applications under LRS, and 2,05,022 applications under the BPS. The LRS alone fetched Rs 330 crore for the municipal corporation as regularisation fee (Times News Network 2011).

7 The Mumbai Housing Rights Alliance formed by SPARC, Mahila Milan and National Slum Dwellers Association with its international networks is the most celebrated experiments of this nature (Appadurai 2002 and McFarlane 2004).

8 For a theoretical discussion of how dispossession from the rural areas and the exclusionary urbanisation patterns together produce a unique urbanisation process marked by coexistence of affluence and squalor, see Bhattacharya and Sanyal (2011). For a discussion of housing models for India’s urban poor see Smets (2000 and 2006).

9 See Times News Network (2003, 2008 and 2010) and The Hindu (2007).

10 Not surprisingly, one of the most common weapons in the hands of poor people fighting against evictions is the claim that the government is the biggest encroacher.

11 Hyderabad’s experience with the waterbodies is not unique. In Bengaluru, the Lake Development Authority’s attempts to lease out lakes to private parties on the grounds that the government is understaffed and does not have the finances for maintaining lakes on an ongoing basis has met with stiff resistance from activists and disapproval from the high court. As in Hyderabad many lakes have been converted into bus stands, stadiums and in one instance into a golf course apart from being converted into residential layouts and industrial layouts.

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March 5, 2011
India and the ILO in Historical Perspective – Sabyasachi Bhattacharya,
J Krishnamurty, Gerry Rodgers
India, the ILO and the Quest for Social Justice since 1919 – Gerry Rodgers
Indian Officials in the ILO, 1919-c 1947 – J Krishnamurty
Employment in Development: Connection
between Indian Strategy and ILO Policy Agenda – T S Papola
Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work: India and the ILO – Kamala Sankaran

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Economic and Political Weekly,

320-321, A to Z Industrial Estate, Ganpatrao Kadam Marg, Lower Parel, Mumbai 400 013. email:

december 10, 2011 vol xlvi no 50

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