Rule by aesthetics: World-class city making in Delhi



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Rule by aesthetics: World-class city making in Delhi

D. Asher Ghertner

Forthcoming in Ananya Roy and Aihwa Ong (eds) (2011). Worlding Cities: Asian Experiments and the Art of Being Global. Oxford: Blackwell.
I. Planning without plans
From 2003 to 2007, news headlines in Delhi closely followed a story pitting a local environmental group against seven of India’s top land developers. In 2003, the Ridge Bachao Andolan (Save the Ridge Movement) submitted a petition to the Supreme Court of India challenging the construction of India’s largest shopping mall complex for being built on Delhi’s southern ridge, a protected green space, in the up-and-coming South Delhi colony of Vasant Kunj. This constituted a land use violation of the statutorily binding Delhi Master Plan. Expert testimony by the Delhi Development Authority (DDA)—the agency that drafts and is legally bound to implement the Master Plan—defended the project in the Court for being “planned” and thus legal because of the involvement of professional builders, its high-quality construction, and its strategic function in boosting Delhi’s architectural profile. Showing graphic models and architectural blueprints of the proposed development, emphasizing the project’s 300 million USD price tag, and describing the mall as a “world-class” commercial complex, the DDA suggested that the visual appearance of the future mall was in itself enough to confirm the project’s planned-ness. How could a project of such strategic importance in Delhi’s effort to become a world-class consumer destination not be planned, the DDA’s lawyer argued. Even after its own “Expert Committee” found the complex in “flagrant violation” of planning law,1 the court concurred in early 2007, allowing construction to go forward based on the mall’s capital-intensiveness and associated world-class appearance.2

During the course of the mall proceedings in the Supreme Court, an adjacent multi-generational slum settlement in conformance with the land use designation listed in the Master Plan was declared “unplanned” and illegal by the DDA for being a “nuisance” to the neighboring middle class residential colonies. Based on a set of photographs showing the “unsightly” conditions in the slum and despite the absence of a survey or scientific evaluation of its so-called “nuisance-causing activities”, the DDA demolished the settlement without compensation, an action upheld by the court.3

In these two examples, “planned-ness,” an attribute of urban space key to the determination of legality, was defined as that which looks planned, regardless of its formal standing in planning law or any correspondence between actually existing urban development and expert paper representations of the city (e.g., the Master Plan).4 According to this aesthetic mode of governing, which I will show to be widespread in Delhi today, if a development project looks “world-class”, then it is most often declared planned; if a settlement looks polluting, it is sanctioned as unplanned and illegal.

In preparation for Delhi’s hosting of the 2010 Commonwealth Games and as part of the government’s officially declared plan to make Delhi into a “world-class city” (see DDA, 2007), public finances in the early 2000s were gradually shifted away from education, public housing, healthcare, and food subsidies toward large, highly visible and “modern” infrastructure developments like the Delhi Metro Rail; more than 25 new flyovers; two new toll roads to Delhi’s posh, satellite cities; and the Commonwealth Games Village—prestige projects built “to dispel most visitors’ first impression that India is a country soaked in poverty” (Ramesh, 2008). In the late 1990s, the DDA also began aggressively privatizing the approximately 35% of Delhi’s land that had been public, much of which had been acquired for, but never developed as, low income housing.5 While these changes in Delhi’s regulatory landscape and public policy priorities have been central to recent transformations of Delhi’s physical landscape, I argue here that the making of world-class cities is not instantiated solely (or even primarily) through an economic calculus of cost-benefit or through a juridical redefinition of property; rather, it also takes shape through the dissemination of a compelling vision of the future—what I will here call a world-class aesthetic—and the cultivation of a popular desire for such a future—the making of world-class subjects.

This chapter examines this process in two parts. In the first (sections II and III), I look at how a world-class aesthetic—a distinct observational grid used for making normative assessments of urban space—has been codified through law in Indian cities, making aesthetic judgments like that in the Vasant Kunj case increasingly central to the delineation of state policy and practice. My analysis here draws from three data sources: orders, judgments and petitions filed in the Delhi High Court and Supreme Court of India, observations of court hearings in the Delhi High Court, and newspaper and television reports on land use and slum-related matters. In the second part (sections IV and V), I examine how slum dwellers—those being displaced from public land and thus those with seemingly the least to gain from the world-class redevelopment of Delhi—both oppose and take up the vision of the world-class city, advancing the dream of a privatized city at the same time as they posit their own claims to the global future. Based on extended ethnographic research in a single slum settlement, I consider how the vision of the world-class city establishes clear aesthetic criteria for self-evaluation; that is, how a socially-produced aesthetic—which I define following Ranciere (2004) as “a distribution of the sensible” that lays down boundaries between the beautiful/ugly, visible/invisible, legal/illegal—operates as a normalizing urban quality, inducing a form of self-government among those who identify with the desirability of world-class urban improvements. Through a discussion of the decorative posters residents hang on their walls and the stories of city and self they convey through them, I show, specifically, how residents of this slum have begun to adopt world-class aesthetics as a basis for both locating themselves in the changing city and for framing their own world-class aspirations.

While this world-class aesthetic does offer particular “norm(aliz)ed interpellations through which urban subjects come to inhabit space” (Roy, this volume), so too does it operate as a contested arena, allowing those subjects to fashion new political demands and visions. Just as the urban elite launches ambitious experiments to advance new norms and forms of the urban, so too do the informal poor engage in cross-class appropriations, stepping inside these norms and forms to try to leverage, negotiate, or happen upon improved life prospects. In attempting to carve out a space for the expression of their individual and collective desires—be it by centering the slum as a space of hope or by celebrating their potential to become property owners—these residents too engage in worlding practices. Thus, in contrast to Davis’s (2006, 201) assessment of global slums as mere containers for “warehousing this century’s surplus humanity”, I show slum residents to be integral vectors in Delhi’s worlding efforts, their aspirations central to both the material and symbolic transformation of the cityscape.

Taken together, the two parts of this chapter examine the world-class aesthetic as a form of governmental legibility that (i) provides “an overall, aggregate, synoptic view of a selective reality” (Scott, 1998: 11) enabling state intervention into an otherwise ungovernable terrain, and (ii) is deployed via governmental programs to guide “the population’s” conduct toward certain “suitable ends” (Foucault, 2007: 96)—in this case, a system of private property and a world-class visual landscape. But, rather than reading the world-class aesthetic as either producing or not producing “governable subjects”—that is, rather than seeing slum residents’ appropriation of world-class aesthetics as consent or resistance—I want to, in line with a broader argument of this book, “trouble the subject-power of the subaltern” (Roy, this volume) by considering the contradictory ways in which subjects participate in the world-class city making project. Insisting that slum residents’ desires are simultaneously a constitutive part and an effect of this project, I locate their political agency at the intersection of how they partake in both ruling and being ruled (Ranciere, 2001). This means asking how the world-class aesthetic is made sensible to slum residents—how they step into its field of vision and take up the aspirations it sets before them—but also how they might mobilize that aesthetic for different ends.

II. Calculative deficiencies and the turn to aesthetic norms
By the late 1990s state officials and politicians in Delhi began articulating the goal of turning Delhi into a “slum free city”, giving it a “world-class” look, promoting an efficient land market, and converting the “under-utilized” public land occupied by slum dwellers into commercially exploitable private property (DDA, 1997). These were all part of the policies of economic liberalization initiated by the Finance Ministry in 1991 and concretely implemented in Delhi in the late 1990s (Jain, 2003, Ghertner, 2005). But despite the clear mandate from above to remove slums, the practical means of doing so were limited. Through the 1990s, for example, various programs were launched to upgrade or relocate slums, but the slum population nonetheless increased from 260,000 to 480,000 families between 1990 and 1998 (MCD, 2002 ).

During this period, the decision to remove a slum lay almost entirely in the hands of the state agencies upon whose land slums were settled. Thus, if a slum on DDA land was to be removed, for example, the DDA was charged with notifying the slum residents, surveying the households to determine resettlement eligibility, collecting fees from those offered resettlement, purchasing and/or allocating the necessary land for establishing a resettlement colony, obtaining support from the police for protection during the demolition, hiring the demolition team for the appropriate day, and coordinating the resettlement exercise with the Slum Wing of the Municipal Corporation. Not only was each of these steps bureaucratically challenging, but the elaborate patronage relations extending from slums into the lower bureaucracy, what Benjamin (2004) calls India’s “porous bureaucracy”, made the assembly of accurate survey registers—a requirement before a demolition could be carried out at the time—nearly impossible. Surveys were tampered with, false names were appended, and between the time when the survey was completed and when the agency obtained the necessary clearances and land appropriations (usually years), the number of people residing in the slum had changed, thus demanding a new survey and setting much of the same process in motion again (cf. Hull, 2008). Furthermore, through the 1990s, the cost of obtaining and preparing land for resettlement colonies escalated (DDA, 1997), creating a strong disincentive for land-owning agencies to remove slums in the first place. In addition, the legal status of most slum settlements was ambiguous, with various forms of de facto regularization over the years (e.g., state-issued ration and voting cards, state-funded infrastructure improvements, the presence of government run schools) making slum removal a charged political issue. In short, the procedure for removing slums was costly, slow, and contentious.

In the early 2000s, however, there was a huge increase in public interest litigations (PILs) filed against slums by resident welfare associations (RWAs) (Chakrabarti, 2008)—property owners’ associations mobilized around quality of life and neighborhood security issues. Combined with the 2003 announcement of Delhi’s successful bid to host the 2010 Commonwealth Games, this placed the state and municipal governments under increasing pressure from both above and below to “clean up” the city. In the late 1990s, the courts had increasingly begun to take notice of “the dismal and gloomy picture of such jhuggi/jhopries [slum huts] coming up regularly”6 and in 2002 observed that “it would require 272 years to resettle the slum dwellers” according to existing procedures and that the “acquisition cost… of land… and development… would be Rs. 4,20,00,00,000/- [~100 million USD].”7 This set of conditions was incompatible with Delhi’s imagined world-class future, so the courts, in response to the PILs filed by RWAs, began intervening in slum matters and increasingly rebuked the DDA and other land-owning agencies for failing to address the “menace of illegal encroachment” and slums.8 However, when the courts pushed these agencies to act more aggressively to clear slums, judges were befuddled by messy ground realities, missing government records, ambiguous tenure statuses, and incomplete surveys. The courts found themselves in a position where they were unable to even assess the size of the problem, not to mention issuing informed action orders. For example, in a case against a slum in South Delhi, the High Court stated, “There are several controversies, claims and counter claims made by the learned counsel for the parties. The records are, however, scanty and the said claims and counter claims cannot be decided on the basis of existing material and documents on records.”9

Such an absence of cadastral precision is widespread in slum-related cases, which led to the absence of a synoptic vision by which upper-level bureaucrats and the courts could “survey a large territory at a glance” (Scott, 1998: 45) and “govern from a distance” (Rose, 1999). For Latour (1987), such “action at a distance” relies on a “cascade” or relay of measurements and inscriptions (e.g., survey registers) that can be combined and simplified into more generalizable and thus legible re-presentations of the territory (e.g., maps and statistical tables) as they move up the chain of administrative command to “centers of calculation”, like courtrooms and centralized government offices. The absence of accurate baseline surveys in Delhi, however, broke this cascade, rendering knowledge of slum space highly localized rather than abstractly knowable and manipulable from above. As a result, land-owning agencies could easily delay slum-related court decisions for years by postponing court hearings in order to survey and reassess the ground situation. Until accurate visual simplifications of slum space were secured (i.e., until the “cascade” of inscriptions was complete), bureaucrats sitting in state offices and judges in courtrooms had their hands tied, or so it seemed.

In many instances, the ownership of the land occupied by slums was itself ambiguous, putting the court in the strange position of being prepared to order a slum demolition, but not knowing which agency was obligated to carry out the order. In a case that ultimately resulted in more than 2,800 homes being razed in 2006, one party claimed that the land in question belonged to the Municipal Corporation, but “Thereafter it was difficult to find out as to who was [sic] the owner of the land as all the land owning agencies abdicated their responsibilities and none was prepared to own the land.”10 This recalls Roy’s (2004, 2002) discussion of the “unmapping” of Calcutta and the regulatory ambiguity/informality to which it gave rise. But, whereas the absence of maps and numbers in the Calcutta context increased the state’s ability to arbitrarily and selectively deploy power, distribute benefits, and dodge previous duties and promises, in Delhi such a calculative deficit or absence of map-based legibility rendered slums ungovernable, for it limited both the court and the upper-level bureaucracy’s ability to see and manage slum space and left the implementation of court orders and state mandates to the “porous” lower-level bureaucracy that slum residents have historically been able to “work” through cultural and political ties (Kaviraj, 1991, Benjamin, 2008).11

The ambiguity in property records in Delhi is even more complicated by the fact that, according to the Municipal Corporation, 70% of Delhi is “unauthorized”, meaning it violates land use codes or building bye-laws in some way or another.12 What is more, as the former Commissioner of the Slum Wing of the Municipal Corporation told me, “the rich have unauthorizedly grabbed far more land in Delhi than the poor. The total land under squatters and slum dwellers is far less than the illegal land held by the rich and famous, it’s just that nobody sees those violations.”13 If the court were to begin removing all unauthorized land uses, most of Delhi would have to be razed, including those developments central to Delhi’s worlding strategy—for example, the Vasant Kunj shopping mall complex discussed in the introduction. Thus, strict enforcement of the Master Plan or development codes, which had been avoided for almost fifty years since the first Master Plan was implemented in 1962, would lead not just to a “slum-free” city, but also a business-, mall-, and industry-free city. Recognizing this dilemma, the Municipal Corporation submitted in the High Court that the problem of unauthorized constructions and slums is “mammoth in nature - and cannot be controlled by simply dealing under the existing laws or under the provisions of [Delhi's] master plan” (Biswas, 2006).14 That is, it called upon the judiciary to exceed existing law, i.e., to exercise the rule of exception (Schmitt, 2006), in carrying forward what had become the agreed upon telos of Delhi’s development: a world-class future.

The courts did so by abandoning the previous bureaucratic and statutory requirement that land-owning agencies create calculative, map- and survey-based simplifications of slum space. Through the 1990s, government surveys were conducted to summarize slums according to the duration of the slum population’s occupation of the land in question, residents’ eligibility for resettlement, the land use category of the occupied land, and the density and size of the population settled thereupon. Only then would summary statistical tables and maps that simplified messy ground realities into compact “planes of reality” (Rose, 1991: 676) be relayed up the bureaucratic chain so that state decision makers and judges could assess their legality. But, as shown above, assembling such calculative and “scientific” simplifications was slow, inefficient, and contentious. So instead of requiring these complex calculative procedures, the courts started using a surrogate indicator to identify illegality: the “look” or visual appearance of space. In lieu of accurately assessing (i.e., creating paper re-presentations that correspond to) physical space, a set of visual determinants began to be used to render slums legible and locatable within the new, predominantly aesthetic “grid of norms” (Rose, 1991). How was this transition from a calculative to a more aesthetic regime for evaluating physical space carried out?

III. World-class aesthetics and the nuisance of slums
In the early 2000s, the courts began making widespread mention of Delhi as a “showpiece”, “world-class”, “heritage”, and “capital” city. In a landmark judgment from 2000, the Supreme Court stated,
In Delhi, which is the capital of the country and which should be its showpiece, no effective initiative of any kind has been taken by the numerous governmental agencies operating there in cleaning up the city…. Instead of “slum clearance” there is “slum creation” in Delhi. This in turn gives rise to domestic waste being strewn on open land in and around the slums. This can best be controlled… by preventing the growth of slums.15

The court thus established the presence of slums as the clearest obstacle to Delhi becoming a clean, showpiece, or world-class, city, a link made even clearer when the Delhi High Court noted that at the current pace, it would “require 1,263 years to demolish the illegal constructions carried out over the last 50 years, and convert Delhi into a world-class city.”16

Court documents from this period show that the growing concern for the city’s world-class appearance increasingly came to be expressed through an environmental discourse of cleanliness and pollution (cf. Baviskar, 2003). Popularized through the phrase and public campaign launched by the Delhi Government called “Clean Delhi, Green Delhi,” this discourse tied deficiencies in environmental well-being and appearance to the presence of slums, largely through the legal category of “nuisance.” For example, in 2001, the Delhi High Court stated: “Delhi being the capital city of the country, is a show window to the world of our culture, heritage, traditions and way of life. A city like Delhi must act as a catalyst for building modern India. It cannot be allowed to degenerate and decay. Defecation and urination cannot be allowed to take place in open at places which are not meant for these purposes.”17 Before 2000, nuisance-causing activities like open defecation or unhygienic living conditions did not provide sufficient justification for demolishing a slum. Unsanitary conditions in slums and general slum-related public nuisances were legally considered the responsibility and fault of the municipal authorities through the 1980s and 1990s: slums were dirty because the state did not provide them with basic services.18

However, as I have argued elsewhere (see Ghertner, 2008), the early 2000s introduced a new legal discourse of nuisance that reconfigured the parameters and mechanisms by which slum-related nuisances were to be remedied. The juridical category of “nuisance” is broadly considered any “offense to the sense of sight, smell, or hearing” (Jain, 2005: 97) and is as such directly linked with aesthetic norms. In Indian law, nuisances are of two types, public and private, where the former is an “unreasonable interference with a right common to the general public” and the latter is a “substantial and unreasonable interference with the use or enjoyment of land” (Ibid.). Because slums are almost entirely settled on public land, slum-related nuisances have always been addressed through public nuisance procedures. The definition of public nuisance, according to statute and precedent, had until this time included only particular objects possessed or actions performed by individuals or groups that interfered with a public right. Aesthetically displeasing, annoying, or dangerous actions or objects could only be addressed by improving municipal services or fining individuals for their violation.19

The inability of the DDA and Municipal Corporation to improve, clean up, or remove slums, as well as the court’s failure to efficiently provide order to the city by removing slums through existing statutes, led to two gradual shifts in how public nuisance was interpreted in the early 2000s. First, the courts increasingly began accepting petitions under public interest litigation from private parties (mostly RWAs, but also hotel and business owners) claiming that neighboring slums were interfering with their quality of life and security. That is, concerns of a distinctly private nature were granted legal standing as matters of public purpose, or, as Anderson (1992: 15-7) noted of colonial jurisprudence in India: “Propertied groups were able in many instances to invoke public nuisance provisions against anyone threatening the value of their property”, making nuisance “the coercive arm of property rights.” This elevation of the concerns of propertied residents, or blurring of public and private nuisance, was based on the High Court’s 2002 distinction between “those who have scant respect for law and unauthorisedly squat on public land” and “citizens who have paid for the land.”20 This ruling established land ownership as the basis of citizenship as such, thus rendering the preservation and security of private property a public priority and setting the conditions for a broader reworking of nuisance law.

The second shift in the interpretation of public nuisance made the appearance of filth or unruliness in and of itself a legitimate basis for demolishing a slum. This change took place by redefining the categories of nuisance such that not only objects or actions, but also individuals and groups themselves could be declared nuisances, a shift carried out by equating slum-related nuisances with slums themselves (see Ghertner, 2008)—i.e., slums do not just improperly dispose of “matter” (e.g., trash, sewage), but are themselves “matter out of place” (Douglas, 1966). This vastly expanded the range of procedures that could be administered to remove nuisance: no longer by stopping nuisances through imposing fines and penalties, but by displacing entire populations.

Once the interpretation of nuisance was expanded to include categories of people or entire population groups, the legal (and calculative) basis for slum demolition was simplified. Demolition orders no longer require complex mapping and survey exercises to determine the nature of land use or demand even the confirmation of land ownership in slum cases. Today courts ask for little more than the demonstration by a petitioner (who is usually a neighboring RWA) that the slum in question is (i) on public land (which is the definition of “slum” and has never been a sufficient condition for demolition orders in the past), and (ii) a nuisance. Evidentially, this is most commonly and effectively done by furnishing photographs that show the slum’s “dirty” look and poor environmental conditions: open defecation, overcrowded living conditions, children playing in and “taking over” the street, stagnant water, municipal waste, etc.21 Since approximately 2002, the courts have considered such photographs sufficient evidence to confirm that the slum in question does not conform to the aesthetic and civic codes deemed “normal” in Delhi and have, in the majority of such cases, issued demolition orders. For example, in a case in South Delhi, an RWA prayed to the High Court “for better civic amenities and for nuisance caused by open wide drain [sic]” without making a single mention of the neighboring slum in its petition. Only in the petition’s annexures containing photos with such captions as “Jhuggi [slum] dwellers defecate in nallah [drain]” was it revealed that a slum existed beside the drain. Nonetheless, the court observed that “Photographs were filed of the area showing the filth at site and encroachments in and around the nallah” and ordered that “The area should also be cleaned and the encroachments removed.”22 Without initiating an inquiry into the settlement’s size, location, history, or legal basis—not to mention the settlement’s contribution to water pollution in the drain—the court ordered the slum’s demolition.



Over the past ten years, close to a million slum dwellers have been displaced in Delhi23, the vast majority thanks to court orders equating slum clearance with environmental and visual clean up (Ghertner, 2008, Ramanathan, 2006). This new aesthetic ordering of the city, in which the legality and essential features of space can be determined entirely from a distance and without requiring accurate survey or assessment, marks a clear shift away from the previous approach to carefully surveying, monitoring and assessing the land use status of areas under question. In this new, more aesthetic framework, the law crafts fields of intelligibility by disseminating standardized aesthetic norms. Spaces are known to be illegal or legal, deficient or normal, based on their outer characteristics. A shopping mall, even if in violation of planning law, is legal because it looks legal. A slum, even if its residents have been formalized at their current location, is illegal because it looks like a nuisance. Here, the visuality of urban space itself is a way of knowing its essential features and natural standing within the “grid of norms” on which government can operate. The ability to look at a building, plot of land, or population and immediately locate it within such a grid is an entirely different way of knowing and evaluating urban space than the calculative, inscriptive approach typified in much of the governmentality literature. This more aesthetic approach allows government to overcome the (political and bureaucratic) difficulty of translating messy “reality out there” (e.g., population densities, land use designations, territorial area, settlement history, etc.) into a numerical or cartographic legibility. Thus, instead of having to inscribe the population and its complex relation with things into standardized, abstractable forms that can be aggregated, compiled, assorted and then calculated24, this “aesthetic governmentality” (Ghertner, 2010), or rule by aesthetics, works to ascribe an aesthetic sense of what ought to be improved and what ends achieved. Governmental legibility is achieved today, then, not by (statistically) simplifying territory into easily intelligible re-presentations, but rather the reverse: it takes an idealized vision of the world-class city gleaned from refracted images and circulating models of other world-class cities (a little Singapore here, a little London there) and asks if existing territorial arrangements conform to this vision. But, while world-class aesthetics effectively establish norms for urban life and order, these norms are only effective (under a consent-based and not purely coercive form of rule) to the extent that they produce corresponding desires and subjectivities for directing Delhi residents to “do as they ought” (Scott, 1995: 202, citing Bentham). It is this domain of the everyday experience of world-class aesthetic discourse to which I now turn.

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