Guardians of the Bourgeois City: Citizenship, Public Space, and Middle-Class Activism in Mumbai

By Jonathan Shapiro Anjaria:


This article examines the new phenomenon of “citizens’ groups” in contemporary Mumbai, India, whose activities are directed at making the city’s public spaces more orderly. Recent scholarship on Mumbai’s efforts to become a “global” city has pointed to the removal of poor populations as an instance of neoliberal governmentality as espoused by the Indian state following the “liberalization” of the economy in the early 1990s. However, in this case, it is these civil society organizations, not the state—whose functionaries in fact benefit from a certain element of unruliness on the streets—who are the agents of increased control over populations and of the rationalization of urban space. This article, based on fieldwork-based research, argues that the way in which citizens’ groups exclude poor populations from the city is more complex than a straightforward deployment of neoliberalism, and is imbricated with transnational political economic arrangements in uneven and often inconsistent ways. In particular, this article explores how civic activists in these organizations envision their role in the city, and how their activism attempts to reconfigure the nature of citizenship. For instance, civic activists consider themselves to be the stewards of the city’s streets and sidewalks, and wage their battles against what they consider unruly hawkers, a corrupt state, and a complacent middle-class public. Moreover, civic activists render street hawkers’ political claims illegitimate by speaking on behalf of the abstract “citizen”of Mumbai, thus implying that hawkers’ unions speak only on behalf of the vested interests of a single population. In this way, they mobilize a normative notion of civil society in order to exclude the vast segment of city residents who either sell or buy goods on the street. In doing so, the civic activists transform the discourse and practice of politics in the city, so that, ironically, while on one hand using the rhetoric of citizen participation, they in fact undermine the radically heterogeneous forms of democratic political participation the city offers.

NAGAR NGO Alliance for Governance and Renewal in Mumbai

NAGAR NGO Alliance for Governance and Renewal in Mumbai



The website of Citispace—the NGO most active in the Mumbai hawker issue—shows four photographs under a caption reading “pictures of streets with and without hawkers.” The photos are arranged in two pairs, each depicting dramatically different urban environments. The top pair shows a busy street with hawkers and their customers. In one photo, a young man—a hawker—stands adjacent to a busy sidewalk frying banana chips in a big black kadai. A makeshift table in front displays the finished product, while an overturned old card table protects the man from the heat and flames of the stove, which rests precariously on a thin metal frame. Cooking equipment, boxes, buckets, and bananas are scattered on the ground. A man lingers in front, eyeing the goods, while two others gesticulate with their hands, apparently caught in mid-conversation. In the background, men and women—office workers, judging by their dress—walk by on their way to the adjacent train station. The other photo in this pair shows a fruit juice vendor working on a street corner. The photo is similarly busy, with men walking and hanging about the hawker’s stall. An umbrella and hanging signs attached to the stall further clutter the picture. Beyond the curb, which is barely visible because of the hawkers’ equipment, one sees a man trying to navigate past what appears to be a badly potholed street.

Below these two photos depicting the chaos, dirt, disorder, and infrastructural failure of a street with hawkers are two photos of street scenes without hawkers. Unlike the photos of the hawkers, which are cluttered and busy, these exude a sense of calm, quiet, efficiency. These photos are characterized by bold, straight lines that recede into the background and by open spaces. Both photos show wide, clean, and carefully paved sidewalks clearly bordered by a black wall, on one side interrupted only by windows, and on the other side by a clearly delineated street. Where the first set of photos depicted humbly dressed men lingering and talking, these photos capture well-dressed men either briskly walking to their destination, or dutifully waiting to cross the street or waiting for a bus. Indeed, the very absence of the hawkers appears to have the effect of altering both the built environment and people’s conduct on the street. As the prominently positioned (and rarely seen) garbage pail symbolizes, this street is in working order, because everything is where it should be.

These photos of “streets with and without hawkers” on Citispace’s website serve a pedagogic purpose. They arouse in the imagination of the audience (with the necessary linguistic and capital resources to access the website) the urban future made possible by hawker-free public spaces. In this manner, the photos are an example of the kind of consciousness raising among a complacent middle class that constitutes much of the work of Citispace. They suggest the peculiar relationship between citizens’ groups and the rest of the city, and specifically the newly empowered upper middle-class residents whose interests, expectations, and desires they are often seen to reflect in an unproblematic fashion.


Read article in City & Community 8:4 December 2009.


Just to give you a picture of global city dreams in Mumbai, see:

Video News on Mumbai Redevelopment



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