India’s Urban Neighbourhoods: ‘The Spatial’ and ‘The Social’

Hans Schenk

This book – argue its editors, the historian Sadan Jha and the sociologists Dev Nath Pathak and Amiya Kumar Das – is about the unique characteristics of each and every urban neighbourhood, as these characteristics make possible the very act of living in cities – in this case, Indian cities. The editors announce the subsequent studies in this volume on specific urban neighbourhoods by stressing these unique qualities.

What do they mean? They intend to unpack social life in an urban area by looking at the component parts of neighbourhoods, which are of a broad societal and spatial nature, in a historical context. The relative power of these parts varies. On the one hand, the editors argue, they come together in an urban area to shape a social atmosphere that is quite distinct from the givenness of the dominance of caste, community ties, religion, and more in Indian society. Hence, there is scope for ‘the spatial’ component. On the other hand, the editors warn against an easy association of the concept of the neighbourhood with geographical, spatial terms. It sounds fair that neither the societal nor the spatial components should set the tone. The neighbourhood has then to be understood as a “coming together of the spatial and the social,” whereby the editors warn that “the social is itself fraught with pluralities, ambiguities, fluid practices and contested circuits of power” (p. 14).

In their introduction, Jha, Pathak, and Das present interesting views of the many ways of looking at the term neighbourhood, from focusing on ‘slums’ or other deprived areas to the basic granular unit in urban planning, as it was developed in the early decades of the 20th century. Their lengthy essay is often deep-going, and not seldomly written in an awe-inspiring baroque style. However, the questioned relationship between ‘the spatial’ and ‘the social’ is hardly a new one. Urban studies in the disciplinary traditions of social geography, anthropology, sociology, human ecology, and more have – in India and worldwide, for innumerable years – focused on the intriguing encounters of ‘the spatial’ and ‘the social’ in an urban setting. Kaiwan Mehta, writing about this “archeological-historical question,” summarizes the contours of the meeting places succinctly and nicely in his study of the Mumbai tenement neighbourhoods for mill workers (chawls): “how space is created and then how [it is] used.”[i]

However, the essay serves also to introduce eleven case studies, displaying the creation and use of space, ‘the spatial’ and ‘the social,’ in real urban neighbourhoods in India. The book ends subsequently with a brief afterword by sociologist AbdoMaliq Simone. The editors write that the case studies have been carefully selected subjected to an intensive process of reviewing and editing. This sounds promising enough, though the proof of the pudding is in the eating.


India’s urban neighbourhoods: eleven case studies

The eleven case studies are organized in four parts. Part II consists of two studies dealing with the formation of Dalit – i.e., Scheduled Caste, Outcaste, untouchables, Harijan – neighbourhoods: (1) in Kanpur and several other North Indian cities by historian Vijay Kumar, and (2) in Delhi by historian Akanksha Kumar. Both authors are certainly aware of the enduring marginal positions of Dalits in Indian society, leading for example to exclusive Dalit neighbourhoods. But it is good to avoid any possible misunderstanding of the term ‘marginal,’ to remind the reader here of its meaning in Indian society. The perverted societal imperative of segregation between Dalits and caste Hindus imposed by the ongoing dominance of Brahmin-Hindu cultural/religious notions of purity has resulted in extremely unequal Apartheid segregation, whereby Dalits have been assigned leftover living sites. Access to, for example, public wells may not be there, they may not even walk on the shadow of caste Hindus. Thus, they are forced to show even a respectful virtual spatial distance in order to avoid the threat of pollution. Notably, though, Vijay Kumar also sees the Dalit neighbourhoods as sites of “protest against the idea of purity, caste, [and] domination” (p. 138).

The chapters of Part IV concern housing and planning from India’s independence onwards. Two papers focus on planning and implementation of housing projects in formal spatial units by (semi-)public agencies for middle- and higher-ranking public servants and some others. Sonal Mithal describes this in the North Indian city of Lucknow, and Sheema Fatima does so in Patna, more to the Northeast. Mithal writes in a rather subdued manner, but the Patna-based chapter is full of juicy details. Both authors describe in detail the mechanisms of patronage, corruption, bribery, power politics, mismanagement, the “capturing of land and funds” (p. 285), and other mechanisms to effectuate proper housing ‘colonies’ for the local elites, often at the expense of slum dwellers, housing projects for lower income groups, and the like.[ii] Eventually, writes Sheema Fatima – perhaps as a consolation – the endeavours to house Patna’s citizens resulted in such “misappropriation and failure… to even build planned neighbourhoods for the urban elite”(p. 296). Mithal concludes that the endeavours to house the elites in Lucknow have served to foster spatially segregated neighbourhoods according to rank and income. This is not new, of course, but it is good to read such policies and practices also in less widely known settings than those which are often described in India’s prime cities.

But where is the core of this book? The reader learns something about the creation of spaces for the mentioned cities, but not much, to say it gently, about how spaces are used. The third paper in Part IV offers a core, in the unusual manner of an algorithm of the relative costs of buying a house versus renting it. The authors, economist Yugank Goyal and architect Harini Shah, offer the quantified logical expectation that a high buying-renting ratio indicates an attractive neighbourhood. Goyal and Shah assess this expectation in five Delhi neighbourhoods: four planned rich (or at least rather rich) areas and one (Jahangirpuri) inhabited predominantly by the “lower economic class” (p. 266). All neighbourhoods produce a high ratio and are hence attractive for prospective homeowners. But does such a rough overall ratio indicate an attractive neighbourhood to live in? The authors relativize the meaning of an attractive neighbourhood in terms of price levels in a sudden statement at the end of their paper: “the richer the neighbourhood, the more individualistic and private its members are, with greater independent living exhibited. Mediocre neighbourhoods have far closer-knit societies, with some form of community engagements and interactions” (p. 267).

The first part of the case studies is devoted to the role of religion in the uses of spaces. Members of the Jain community in Ahmedabad struggle between group allegiances and the neighbourhood where they once lived, as architect Gauri Bharat brings to the fore. Sociologist Abhijit Dasgupta focuses on the gossip in a Christian neighbourhood in Kolkata regarding an ‘outsider’ priest causing a schism in the neighbourhood. Sociologist Anakshi Pal provides an intriguing paper on an ashram in the sacred North Indian city Varanasi. The ashram serves as a hospice for those Hindus who prepare to die – or rather “practise the so-called art of dying“ (p. 63) – by detaching all forms of material, social, and emotional bonds with the hope of attaining moksha (salvation). It is in this manner a negation of the concept of neighbourhood. However, Pal describes a flourishing social life, including some infighting factions. Some residents see the ashram as a place that offers free food and medical facilities to poor women. She concludes – in some despair? – that the ashram as a neighbourhood is “fraught with complexities and cannot possibly be read through a singular prism of understanding” (p. 87).

In a part devoted to gender issues (Part III), Jha tries to de-spatialize the neighbourhood and even its neighbours through the introduction of the parosan. This stands for affection and is used by Jha as a dialectic Hegelian synthesis between the spatial forces (thesis?) and the social forces (antithesis?) that characterize living in neighbourhoods. Sociologist Joyashree Sarma paints an interesting picture of neighbourhood narratives in a village (administrative part of a small town) in Northeast India, very close to the Bangladesh border. Women use the neighbourhood lanes as semi-public sites to chat and avoid politically sensitive issues related to the unruly border, which are brought to the fore in the intimate sphere of the household. The men go elsewhere – to the market or grocery shops in the town– to meet friends and neighbours. This constitutes an extended neighbourhood, according to Sarma. A quite opposite setting is given by sociologist Rashi Bhargava and Anglicist Richa Chilana in their interesting analysis of the position of single migrant professionals renting accommodation in Delhi. Notably, single women meet suspicion, caution, and above all indifference in the neighbourhood despite all neighbourliness, though of course the rent makes up for a lot. Bhargava and Chilana show the ‘placeless’ practices of tenants who engage with their friends and colleagues ‘somewhere,’ instead of fostering social contacts with place-based neighbours. This paper shows the pains of transition as well when ‘the spatial’ and ‘the social’ do not meet anymore in a fixed locality. Is then placemaking a practice of the past, practised by just those who have no other option, while those who can afford to be choosy can ignore the power and also the bonds of neighbourliness?



Elsewhere, I have argued that the meeting of ‘the spatial’ and ‘the social’ in urban neighbourhoods in several East and Southeast Asian cities should not easily be glorified and seen as an essential condition for living in cities.[iii] Crowded inner-city alleyways are not necessarily a proof of successful and happy community life, though it is often readily put forward as such. It may also mean that houses bordering the alleys are old, cramped, and small, while inhabitants are forced to move out and live in the open courtyard or a semi-public alleyway without the prospect of better housing. What may hold for cities in East and Southeast Asia will be equally or even more relevant for neighbourhoods in India. In an Indian city, exposure to the semi-public arena of a neighbourhood is (also) a socio-economic matter and related to the size and quality of a house. What matters even more in Indian cities is the powerful existence of purdah, the religiously/culturally based rules regarding the (restricted) exposure of women to the semi-public and public arena, according to caste or class. I missed in this volume a serious effort to discuss these socio-economic and gender dimensions of the use of neighbourhood spaces. Some remarks were there in some papers, but only marginally. Such mentions were almost casual. Spatial behaviour for women was only discussed for a special category of young single female professionals, and not for the rank and file of ‘just ordinary’ women in ’just ordinary’ urban neighbourhoods. This is certainly a missed opportunity when focusing on India’s urban neighbourhoods.


[i] Kaiwan Mehta, The Terrain of Home, and within Urban Neighbourhoods (a case of the Bombay chawls), p. 82, in, Neera Adarkar (ed), The Chawls of Mumbai, galleries of life, Delhi, ImprintOne, 2011, pp. 81-88.

[ii] Councillors who demanded funds for slum improvement were reprimanded by the housing officials for having an “illusion of the inexhaustible purse of government” (quoted by Fatima, p. 281).

[iii] See my review of: Marie-Gibert Flutre & Heide Imai (eds), Asian Alleyways, an urban vernacular in times of globalisation. Amsterdam University Press, 2020. IIAS Review Section, Posted February 2022.