CFP: Rethinking Urban Democracy in South Asia

SAMAJ: Southasia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal

Since the 1990s, one observes in several South Asian countries a simultaneous implementation of political decentralization (granting a larger role to civil society, in a broad sense)1 and of urban reforms, mostly influenced by a neoliberal agenda. In parallel, many South Asian megacities have recently been the site of mobilizations around issues of land use (Hasan 2004, Masako 2009, for instance),2 housing, urban services, environmental preservation and working conditions (conflicts around wages, street vending activities), which take various forms from voting to street demonstrations and riots, participation in consultations (Coelho & Venkat 2009, for instance), recourse to the judiciary (Dupont & Ramanathan 2009, for instance), press campaigns (including through the internet), etc. There is a need to explore critically how these three processes intersect. This special issue of SAMAJ aims precisely to explore the relationships between urban restructuring and urban mobilizations in the subcontinent.

In this regard, one line of thought favours the idea of dissent as an intrinsic force to explain the materiality of South Asian cities, which are often seen as sites of chaos and inefficiency (Dewan Varma 2002). Whether it relates to infrastructure provision, urban planning or changes in land use, contestation appears to increase along with urban transformation, thereby undermining the program of urban reforms.

A less common, but equally important question, relates to the extent to which the functioning of this ‘insurgent’ urban democracy (Roy 2009) affects the functioning of the city. Indeed, the diverse sites of urban democracy must be explored not only per se, but also to understand whether they are a source of strength for cities by fostering public debate or a weakness by preventing the emergence of minimal consensus, if one looks at them as sites of economic development and social mobility.

Yet another strand of research focuses on the constitution of a coalition of elites and middle class groups to push for urban projects and changes in land uses that promote cities as sites of growth and tend to exclude poorer groups through a denial of their citizenship rights (Fernandes 2007, for instance).

Are these propositions mutually exclusive, or can they be seen as ongoing parallel processes? To answer this question, we need to compare and analyse case studies of mobilizations around specific urban projects or reforms, exploring the reasons for their success and/or failures. Such a comparison would contribute significantly to our understanding of the nature of urban democracy in South Asia, which has to be distinguished from the notion of local democracy. The latter notion does not seem adequate to evoke the multiple, partly overlapping jurisdictions that define the arena of decision-making concerning big cities:  the ‘urban’ is much larger than the ‘local’. Moreover, while ‘local democracy’ often refers to local politics in a restricted sense (i.e., local elections and municipal government), the notion of ‘urban democracy’ encompasses a variety of types of mobilization including, but not restricted to, electoral participation. Thus the notion of urban democracy aims to articulate democracy (i.e., people’s participation in decision-making through voting and other means) and the urban (i.e., changes in the material conditions of living that characterize agglomerated inhabited space).

  • 3  Bombay/Mumbai in particular has been the focus of much attention, see Heuzé, (1989) and Blom Hanse(…)

As far as the existing literature is concerned, the diversity of mobilizations in cities is not an unknown territory for social sciences:  it has already been studied in South Asia from various perspectives,3 and most lately in a series of works that can be qualified as ‘urban governance studies’ – insofar as they focus on the relationships between the many types of actors who take part in the management of urban affairs (Ruet & Tawa Lama-Rewal 2009, Baud & de Wit 2009). However one can discern lacunae in this body of work, several of which concern the type of actors that have attracted attention.

Firstly, governance studies usually distinguish between government, the corporate sector, and civil society. But recent cases of urban protests suggest that such categories need to be further deconstructed, so as to understand better the role of less studied (at least at the urban level) actors, such as the judiciary, trade unions, political parties, or the media. Indeed the focus has usually been on the most visible actors and movements, whose rising influence is linked to urban reforms (for instance neighbourhood activism, activism around the right to information, environmental organizations). As these were mostly initiated by the State, less attention has been given to mobilizations from below.

Secondly there is a need to question the validity of influential theories that tend to privilege binary models conflating a group of actors with a type of expression, thus pitting ‘political society’ against ‘civil society’ (Chatterjee 2006), or ‘old politics’ against ‘new politics’ (Harriss et al. 2004). Are these categories sufficiently robust to explain power relationships in the city and their transformation? Are they able to capture the reality of those urban protests and mobilizations that result from unexpected coalitions of actors? Do studies that shift their attention to less visible actors provide a more nuanced understanding of the city inhabitants and their institutions?

Moreover, governance studies have highlighted the strong dependence of local government on other levels of government, as well as its proximity to private actors such as the corporate sector. It appears today that this analytical framework has neglected, to some extent, the political dimension of decentralization. Indeed an international academic debate has emerged around the unresolved location of democratic control in a context where elected governments seem to be marginalized among the various actors involved in decision-making processes (Hermet 2004).

  • 4  The focus on quotas for women in local government (in India and Pakistan) is an exception in this(…)

This special issue of SAMAJ would like to contribute to this debate with a focus on South Asian megacities, where decentralization has been analysed to date in a perspective that is more managerial than political.4 In other words, this issue wants to question the existence, specificity and manifestations of urban democracy in contemporary South Asia. In order to address this research agenda, and to initiate a comparison, we invite papers focusing on city-based protests around specific urban projects in one or several of South Asia’s large cities, as these constitute a privileged prism through which to observe the materiality of democratic expression in South Asian megacities today: Who gets mobilized? For what? How? And with what measurable impact? Does the materiality of democratic expression take a similar shape and have the same content all over South Asian megacities? And if differences prevail, what factors are to be taken into account in order to explain them?

Articles dealing with understudied actors and processes, such as the traders’ communities, trade unions, or the increasing role of the media, would allow a more incisive depiction of the state of urban mobilizations, and would therefore be most welcome, particularly if they concern Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. It might also be interesting to focus on the genealogy of the observed forms of expression, highlighting the circumstances of their rise and/or decline, in order to better understand changes in mobilizations in relation to the urban changes of the last two decades.

Issue Coordinators:
Stéphanie Tawa Lama-Rewal (Research fellow, CNRS-CEIAS, Paris) and
Marie-Hélène Zérah (Research Fellow, IRD and CSH, New Delhi).

The coordinators encourage contributions covering the whole of South Asia (contributions on Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka would be particularly welcome).

Proposals (100 to 150 words) by February 28, 2011; articles by May 31st, 2011.
Final articles should be of 6,000 to 8,000 words.

To submit an article, please contact: and/or