Guardians of the Bourgeois City: Citizenship, Public Space, and Middle–Class Activism in Mumbai

Anjaria, J. S.

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Anjaria, J. S. (2009). Guardians of the bourgeois city: Citizenship, public space, and middle‐class activism in Mumbai. City & Community, 8(4), 391–406.

This article examines the new phenomenon of “citizens’ groups” in contemporary Mumbai, India, whose activities are directed at making the city’s public spaces more orderly. Recent scholarship on Mumbai’s efforts to become a “global” city has pointed to the removal of poor populations as an instance of neoliberal governmentality as espoused by the Indian state following the “liberalization” of the economy in the early 1990s. However, in this case, it is these civil society organizations, not the state—whose functionaries in fact benefit from a certain element of unruliness on the streets—who are the agents of increased control over populations and of the rationalization of urban space. This article, based on fieldwork-based research, argues that the way in which citizens’ groups exclude poor populations from the city is more complex than a straightforward deployment of neoliberalism, and is imbricated with transnational political economic arrangements in uneven and often inconsistent ways. In particular, this article explores how civic activists in these organizations envision their role in the city, and how their activism attempts to reconfigure the nature of citizenship. For instance, civic activists consider themselves to be the stewards of the city’s streets and sidewalks, and wage their battles against what they consider unruly hawkers, a corrupt state, and a complacent middle-class public. Moreover, civic activists render street hawkers’ political claims illegitimate by speaking on behalf of the abstract “citizen” of Mumbai, thus implying that hawkers’ unions speak only on behalf of the vested interests of a single population. In this way, they mobilize a normative notion of civil society in order to exclude the vast segment of city residents who either sell or buy goods on the street. In doing so, the civic activists transform the discourse and practice of politics in the city, so that, ironically, while on one hand using the rhetoric of citizen participation, they in fact undermine the radically heterogeneous forms of democratic political participation the city offers.

Main finding
The author's investigation of the politics of street vending in Mumbai showed that there was not only conflict over the use of public space but over the idea of citizenship itself. Middle-class activists in favor of regulating and restricting street vending argue that vendors litter, block water drains and pedestrian space, spread diseases, and facilitate harassment, crime, and drunkenness. However, citizens and even activists continue to buy from street vendors. Even public officials refuse to challenge street vendors' claims to public space, likely because they receive paybacks from bribes to operate illegally, but also because vendors are viewed as an essential component of trade in Mumbai. The calls of middle-class activists to restrict street vending represent a minority view of public space and accessibility that struggles to elicit broad-based support.

Description of method used in the article
The author uses informal interviews with civic activists between 2005 and 2006 and field work to investigate the way activists perceive the issue of street vending in Mumbai’s public spaces.

Of some practical use if combined with other research

Organising categories

Economic Transactions
Field Observations Interviews
Physical types
Geographic locations