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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Rule by Aesthetics: World-Class City Making in Delhi

  • Author(s): Ghertner, David Asher
  • Advisor(s): Watts, Michael J
  • et al.

This project addresses the cultural and environmental politics of slum demolitions in the making of a "world-class city." If "modern" cities are supposed to be built through techno-scientific procedures of urban planning and government--such as maps, censuses, and surveys--the conspicuous absence of such techniques in the world-class redevelopment of Delhi raises the question of how rule there is achieved. Based on an ethnography of the judiciary, state, and property owners' associations, I find that what I call a world-class aesthetic--an idealized vision of a privatized, "green," and slum-free city assembled from transnationally circulating images of "global cities"--has replaced these techniques as the key instrumentality of rule in contemporary Delhi.

To explore how this aesthetic regime of planning operates, I begin by demonstrating how the city's new "good governance" initiative, called Bhagidari, has reconfigured state space, providing property owners' with privileged channels of access to the judiciary and bureaucracy. By tracing the circulation of key representations of the slum through and beyond these channels, I show how discourse depicting slums as "nuisances"--i.e., as illegal environments--constructs an aesthetic grid that demarcates the "world-class" on the one hand, and the "polluting" on the other. I further reveal how the judiciary has codified this world-class aesthetic through a reinterpretation of nuisance law, recalibrating the axes of legality and planning such that those spaces appearing polluting and dirty (e.g., slums) are deemed unplanned and illegal, regardless of their statutory basis in planning law or actual environmental impact. Conversely, spaces that have a world-class "look" (e.g., shopping malls, sports stadia), despite violating land-use codes and environmental standards, are deemed planned and legal.

More than just reconfiguring state power, this aesthetic regime of planning alters how citizens see and engage the state, as well as how they envision their place in the city. Based on a year of ethnographic fieldwork in a Delhi slum, I show how residents have begun to shift the basis on which they advance citizenship claims away from an earlier idiom of historical entitlement to public land and toward one of potential self-improvement via home ownership. This shift, however, cannot be reduced to an overarching neoliberal rationality, but must rather be located in residents' changing affective ties to place and city. Specifically, I trace how a series of political technologies--including government-run slum surveys, media campaigns, and a broad set of changes in the meaning of landscape--train slum residents to see the city through the lens of world-class aesthetics. In arguing that projects of rule are secured as much through embodied practices and aesthetic dispositions as through reason or ideology, the dissertation argues for the importance of everyday aesthetic practices as a key terrain on which political possibilities and urban visions are produced.

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