India: Uncertain State(s)

Uncertainty is typically regarded as externally imposed: as an aleatory encounter with something exogenous to the social. The state – as the collective will of society – is then charged with defence against, or management of, the uncertain. What happens, however, when the state is itself an uncertain entity? How do cities oriented towards the management of external uncertainties – the inflow of foreign capital, the threat of international terrorism, exposure to extreme weather events – respond to uncertainties immanent in the very fabric of the city? Fieldwork in Delhi’s informal neighbourhoods reveals the uncertainty precipitated by uncertain states. I explore two such states: the topological state and the state outside itself.

The topological state
Delhi’s low-income “slum” settlements have faced intense demolition threats since the turn of the new millennium. As property prices sky-rocketed, settlers have had to contend with the disintegration of patronage networks that long allowed them to occupy public land. In the face of a constantly mutating state form – precipitated both by political uncertainty (Delhi, after all, is under President’s Rule today) and new governance configurations – the risks for settlers are high: the inability to intercept a file or pay off the right officer can easily lead to the issuance of a demolition order. Settlers must thus seek sources of influence from an unpredictable network of state actors. Following these experiments offers us a way to read the state not as a fixed hierarchy of order – a topographic state – but rather as a “topological” figure: an entity that functions not through predictable administrative command, but rather through powers of reach that allow actors to draw others into their influence more or less intensely, often in ways quite contrary to bureaucratic hierarchy. A topological view considers how objects function not according to the exact shape or ordering of their constituent parts, but rather in terms of how those parts connect to each other, even if they lack fixed positions. I illustrate how settlers adopt this perspective by tracing three moments in a West Delhi slum’s fight to stay put.

Moment 1 – In 2003, a group of wealthy property-owners submitted a complaint to the Municipal Corporation claiming that around 300 huts in the slum were settled on land officially designated for a road. Learning of this complaint, the settlers mobilised the area’s Municipal Councilor, a politician who sits on the executive wing of the Municipal Corporation, and whom they had voted into power a year earlier. The Councilor requested that the senior bureaucrat who received the complaint bury it in a file. The bureaucrat complied, and the threat against the slum disappeared.

This fairly typical instance of patronage politics maintained the status quo and was operationalised through the predictable authority of “vertical command”: an institutionally superior official used his influence to direct those bureaucratically below him. Such predictability was soon to collapse, however.

Moment 2 – Four years later, the property-owners filed a petition in the High Court claiming that the entire settlement occupied Municipal Corporation land and therefore had to be removed. The High Court called upon the Municipal Corporation to respond to this claim, granting it two months to review its files and present its position.

When the case was resumed two months later, the Municipal Corporation Commissioner claimed that there was no record that the Corporation had ever taken possession of the slum land. He argued that when no records of land transfer are present for a neighbourhood, then the roads are automatically vested with the Municipal Corporation, whereas all other vacant lands remain vested with the initial developer who, in this case, had sold off all the plots in the area and disappeared. The question of whether the slum should be removed or not therefore fell to this absent developer, not the court.

After exiting the courtroom, I asked the property owners, who had previously been quite optimistic that the court would order the slum’s removal, what had happened. They claimed that the slum headman had paid a clerk in the District Office Rs. 5,000 to misplace the possession letter confirming the Municipal Corporation’s control of the slum land, leaving its ownership status ambiguous. I have no idea whether the letter was deliberately misplaced or simply lost, but what is of interest here is the fact that the key arbiter of the slum’s future was not the judge sitting in the High Court, nor the Commissioner at the apex of the Municipal Corporation. Instead, authority emerged through the routine actions of a clerk. Whether deliberately or by accident, the action of misplacing the letter blocked the case against the slum. While the Commissioner apologised profusely to the judge for this unpredictable outcome, he was himself powerless to do anything. The locus of state power in this moment shifted from Municipal Councilor, to High Court judge, and back to low-level clerk.

Moment 3 – While the court dismissed the case against most of the slum, the Municipal Corporation had nonetheless confirmed that it had taken possession of the road on which the 300 huts challenged initially in the 2003 complaint were located. Noting this, the court ordered the Municipal Corporation to construct the road and remove the 300 huts. The Commissioner relayed this order to a senior engineer, who then ordered his field staff to mobilise a demolition team.

The settlers, receiving this news, called upon their elected Councilor again, as they had in Moment 1, to try to get him to block the demolition, but the order from the judiciary went above his reach. The bulldozers moved in, clearing the huts and paving a new road through the slum.

After the Municipal Corporation submitted photographs to the court confirming this work, the case was closed. However, things didn’t end here. After the demolition, the settlers “adjusted” to the new configuration by allowing the displaced households to rebuild their homes on open areas inside the slum. This meant that some of the open spaces previously used for socialising were built up. The slum did not, however, suffer from reduced public space, as the residents simply shifted their public activities onto the newly built road. The road, after all, was nicely paved and offered a contiguous open space, making it much better for public interaction than the smaller pockets of open dirt previously used. The road has since been completely encroached by the slum and is used for open seating, to play cards and cricket, to park motorcycles and store construction supplies, and as an area for vendors to sell vegetables and snacks. In other words, the overall density of the settlement did not change, which was the aim of the property owners who filed the case in the first place.

This “adjustment” was made possible through negotiations with the Municipal Corporation field staff, who on their first visit to the slum after the demolition noticed the slum-dwellers’ re-appropriation of the road. On this occasion senior residents approached him, saying that the homes were removed, the road was built, what more was needed – the court’s order had been fulfilled after all, and the Municipal Corporation had completed its duty. The senior field officer was at first reluctant to allow things to proceed, but the headman begged him to return in 30 minutes, and called on residents to remove their motorcycles and pushcarts from the road. When the officer returned an hour later, the headman handed him a 500 rupee note, and sent the officer off, saying “Look, the road is still here.” The motorcycles and pushcarts were re-installed immediately after his departure. The authority of the court’s demolition order was upheld, but the spirit of that order – and the authority to determine the ultimate mix of land use in the slum – fell to local field staff. While both the locus of state decision-making and the ultimate state decision were uncertain, settlers here “adjusted” to shifting conditions, revealing a topological state prone to twists, bends and continuous deformation.

The state outside itself
I now turn to a second figure of state uncertainty, this time in an unauthorised colony (UC), a type of settlement that differs from slums in that UC residents own the land they occupy. By their very definition, UCs live in a state of uncertainty. Built on land beyond the development area of the Delhi Master Plan, these settlements house up to a third of the city’s population and form as developers consolidate rural farm land and cut plots for private sale. Varying drastically in their size, density and income level, the category “unauthorised colony” encompasses everything from peripheral neighbourhoods with services worse than in slums to vast, manicured enclaves composed of elite “farmhouses.” Although UC owners possess formal documents that show detailed payments for their flats, these transactions cannot be registered with the local authorities because UCs fall outside the Master Plan. UCs hence blur the line between the de jure and the de facto. While their tenure security is all-but-guaranteed by the sheer number of people who inhabit them, they cannot receive municipal services such as water or sewerage.

For lower-income UCs, this poses challenges similar to those found in slums: household budgets are stretched to pay for private water delivery, and communicable diseases are higher than they should be due to such neighbourhoods’ reliance on open sewage drains. For wealthier UCs, however, the absence of state water and sewerage is lamented for its impact on land prices and prestige. Grand, three-storey estates clad in marble contrast with unpaved roads and sewage “suckers”, huge trucks that pump septic tanks and make visible the UC’s disconnection from state infrastructure. Serene gardens tended by armies of malis (gardeners) are disrupted by wafts of diesel exhaust billowing from generators used to power the bore wells that supply them with water. Residents of these elite enclaves, drawn by cheap land and unenforced building codes, chafe at these everyday scenes; a reminder that, despite their lofty status, they must share with the poor the uncertainty over whether state services will ever arrive.

Housing a large number of retired state bureaucrats, and armed with resources far greater than their poorer counterparts, elite UCs therefore improvise infrastructure. Delhi has a rapidly declining water table, and to discourage the formation of new UCs, the Water Board (Delhi Jal Board) has imposed a ban on the construction of new bore wells in UCs. Yet, in wealthy UCs, new wells are dug weekly. In one such UC, we observed seven, 400-foot deep bore wells pumping water 24 hours a day. (Study undertaken alongside Dr. P. Randhawa, Jawaharlal Nehru University.) Each of these illegal wells is operated by Water Board engineers, who control a series of “gate walls” that switch the flow of water from one lane to another according to need. How have Water Board engineers come to operate bore wells in neighbourhoods that the Water Board has barred from bore well construction? How are we to understand the fact that the state undoes its own legal standing in such a quotidian manner?

The engineers have what they consider a well-reasoned answer to this question, one in which they – the face of the state – are considered simultaneously inside and outside of the state. The local Member of the Legislative Assembly, a politician elected into Delhi’s state government, who represents this UC, pays the Water Board engineers using his discretionary fund, a non-Water Board source. As Water Board employees, they operate the bore wells legitimately, in the sense that, as state engineers, they have the know-how and status to run wells. The Water Board can claim non-involvement, however, by noting that none of its funds are allocated to UC wells. As state officials who first exit the formal employ of the state, but then reconstitute a cloak of state authority around their practices, these engineers improvise a vast, informal infrastructure that provides reliable ground water to thousands of households. In the High Court case discussed earlier, we saw how the Court’s order to build a road was formally upheld while the contents of that order were completely reinterpreted such that the “road” became just another area of the slum it was intended to replace. Similarly, in Delhi’s UCs, a state “truth” is upheld – the rule that the Water Board shall not maintain bore wells in UCs – but state practice operates outside the space of that regulatory truth and goes on making a city that, more or less, works. As UCs build these improvisational infrastructures, they simultaneously improvise the state.

Slums and unauthorised colonies house more than half of Delhi’s population. If the types of scenes I’ve just described do indeed characterise the urban majority’s normal struggles for shelter and social reproduction, then we can safely say that there is no stable regulatory order upon which one can stake out a predictable path to development. Residents, rather, display a powerful capacity to adapt to uncertain state form. Their negotiations and manoeuvres allow us to regard the state not as a fixed regime for educating rules-and order-respecting subjects, or for responding to exogenous uncertainties, but as itself a mutating and uncertain figure that acquires form in response to the pressures and demands placed upon it.

D. Asher Ghertner is Assistant Professor in Geography and Director of South Asian Studies at Rutgers University.