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Right to the City as the Basis for Housing Rights Advocacy in Contemporary India
Funded By: Ford Foundation
Duration: Ongoing. Started in March, 2016

In India, rising urbanisation has led to large scale socio-economic and spatial restructuring, and in the process has substantially altered the prospects of excluded groups in accessing the city and its resources. These changes are prompted by viewing urbanization as a new strategy for development, enhancing the economic competitiveness of cities and using infrastructure as leverage for this. On one hand, this multi-scalar programme of restructuring has created several new categories of vulnerable and excluded groups; on the other the avenues and forums for assertion have changed considerably. While we see greater than ever before acceptance of housing claims for urban poor groups, particularly slums, it has also generated, new threats in newer domains, such as access to services, work spaces, social services and participation.

The discourse of housing rights, which has been the conventional base for organising the urban poor, has emerged as an extremely slippery terrain in this context. In an atmosphere where terminology of activism has been incorporated into mainstream developmentalism, there is a thin line between genuine participation and pseudo forms of involvement. Furthermore, groups working on ground tend to be highly localised and fragmented in an increasingly polarised society, left with few tools when countering the state-market alliance. There is therefore an urgent need to identify the contours of a new, broad based discourse that can strengthen the voice of the excluded in urban affairs and identify new strategies for struggle.

The Right to the City – introduced by Henri Lefebvre and elaborated by David Harvey as not only the right to the city’s resources and services but also the right to remake the city can potentially strengthen the discourse of housing rights and broaden democratic space in the city. The concept has multiple dimensions such as right to land and housing, right to access services, right to public spaces and right to work. As Harvey elaborates, however, it is not just an individual right to partake of the city’s resources but has a collective dimension as well, including a right to plan and participate in governance.

Based on this conceptual understanding, the project seeks to build a knowledge base that can actively support groups working on issues of urban poor and contribute to clarifying contested policy debates on conceptualising and realising the right to the city in a diversity of urban situations in India.