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In the Public's Interest: Evictions, Citizenship and Inequality in Contemporary Delhi


Millennial Delhi is a city whose landscape has been scarred by a series of evictions of the homes of some of its most vulnerable citizens. These evictions are different not just in degree but in kind from those that have come before. Evictions at this scale last occurred in Delhi during what is known as the Emergency from 1975-77 when democratic and fundamental rights were suspended. Unlike evictions within the Emergency, however, contemporary evictions have occurred through democratic processes rather than in their absence- they mark a different set of negotiations, legitimations, processes as well as horizons of resistance. A further factor makes contemporary evictions distinct: they were ordered not by the sarkar -the institutions of the executive across local, state and federal scales that govern the national capital - but by the adalat, the Judiciary. They were, in fact, ordered by the Delhi High Court and the Supreme Court of India within a unique judicial innovation in India called the Public Interest Litigation that had been established, ironically, to enable the poor to access justice in the highest courts of the land.

To understand how the evictions of the poor can be read as acts in the "public interest," this dissertation argues that we must first locate the basti in the particularity of the production of space in Delhi. The Hindustani word "basti" comes from basna which means to settle or inhabit. It is the term used most often by the poor to describe their homes that are often marked by some measure of physical, economic, and infrastructural vulnerability. The basti is often reduced to the slum, a marker of illegal occupation of land and, more broadly, the dysfunctional landscape of the megacities of the global South. Yet this dissertation argues that more than just a `slum,' built environment, material housing stock, or planning category, a basti is, in fact, a territorialisation of a political engagement within which the poor negotiate their presence in as well as right to the city. It is a spatial manifestation of the negotiations of citizenship. Its eviction then represents not just the demolition of a built environment but the transformation of precisely this political engagement- an erasure of the poor's presence within and right to the city. Put another way, contemporary evictions represent an altered urban politics where a set of familiar referents- development, order, governance, citizens, and the public- are redefined to not only enable evictions but also to see them as acts of good governance, order and planning.

Read this way, evictions allow us to access the central theoretical and ethical concern of this dissertation: the politics of the production and reproduction of poverty and inequality in the contemporary Indian city and the negotiations of citizenship that underlie it. Broadly, this dissertation argues that evictions make visible make visible a juridicalisation of politics in the Indian city. This juridicalisation is marked by the emergence of new frameworks, discourses and practices in urban politics that instantiate themselves in the city through the judiciary rather within the more familiar institutional compacts between institutions of representative government and urban residents. The juridicalisation of politics marks the expansion of the jurisdiction not just of the courts but also of the realm of the law within urban politics. As the sphere of authority of the Courts widens in the city, a series of questions, concerns, interventions, processes and debates within urban politics come to be come to seen, articulated, and addressed as juridical questions - they speak and are spoken about within the frameworks of law.

Following its concern with the politics of poverty, inequality and citizenship, the dissertation traces juridicalisation along one particular vector: it shows how evictions were made to make "legal sense" within public interest litigations. Four key frameworks thus emerge: (a) planned illegalities; (b) planned development and/as crisis; (b) the impoverishment of poverty; and (c) the juridicalisation of resistance.

The dissertation first constructs a spatial history of inhabitation in the city to challenge the assumed relationships between "illegality," planning and the settlements of the poor, arguing that the "illegal" production of urban space in Delhi comprises not just the `slum' but the production of illegal housing by the middle and upper middle classes as well. It does so by problematizing the familiar and commonsensical narrative of the "failure of planning" in the Indian city and showing that the traces of planning ensure that the city may not be as it was planned but it is an outcome of planning. It argues that illegality is the dominant mode of the production of housing in Delhi and that it is within illegalities that the production of urban space in the city must be understood. Questions of urban politics must thus look not at the dichotomy of the legal-illegal but instead at the ways in which planning and planned development produce illegality. Equally, they must interrogate the processes by which particular kinds of urban practices and actors are framed as "illegal" relative to others and what work such a framing is meant to do.

Having established the relationship between illegality, planning and planned development in the city empirically, the dissertation then analyses a body of case law in the Delhi High Court and the Supreme Court of India to show that the Courts misrecognise illegality in their twin understandings of "encroachment" and "encroacher" when they portray the former as the visible manifestation of what they see as the crisis of the city and the latter as one of the actors primarily responsible for this crisis. Showing how the courts use narratives of the failure of "planned development" and what they call "Government" to justify their interventions into the city, the dissertation describes their attempt to make the city into a governable space using the "Plan in its legal position" to represent an idealized spatial order. Intervening in the crisis of the city towards this idealized order thus becomes not only the primary definition of public interest but also an ethico-moral imperative that acts as a rationality of judicial government.

Further, the dissertation argues that the case-law on evictions makes visible the impoverishment of poverty, drawing upon Upendra Baxi's concept of impoverishment as a dynamic process of public decision-making in which it is considered just, right and fair that some people may become or stay impoverished. The Courts enable impoverishment by through the creation of the category of the "encroacher" that binds the identity of the poor to a spatial illegality and becomes the basis of a disavowal of their rights. Additionally, through the discursive erasure of the vulnerability of the poor and the emergence of a new "urban majority" as the subject of urban politics, they transform the poor into improper citizens thereby legitimizing a regime of differentiated citizenship.

Using interviews with activists in urban social movements in Delhi, the dissertation further shows how the emergence of the judiciary as the site and object of resistance has resulted in the juridicalisation of resistance: the impact of the presence of the Court within the calculus of negotiation and confrontation as modes of engagement and resistance to evictions. The presence of the Court challenges the choice of strategies of urban social movements, introduces new actors and decision-making processes into movement spaces, alters the content of right-claims and forecloses certain kinds of claimants just as it shapes the political identity and history of basti and its residents themselves. Finally, in conclusion, the dissertation explores how new forms and claims to the city can emerge in response to these challenges that will be not just impassioned, but equitable and effective.

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