Implementing the World-Class City

In any conversation about the DDA—about its successes or its failures, about its inability to serve the poor or (one might argue) its success in making some progress to do so—ethnographic detail is crucial.

The long hallways of metal cupboards stuffed with files; the cramped quarters of the clerks who work behind blue metal bars, communicating with their clientele only through a small 3x10 inch rectangle cut out of the plastic casing; the oppressively hot cafeteria, where cheap meals of dhal or chhole bathuure are served at a counter beneath small white fans; the pervasive feeling of patriarchy, the men occupying virtually all bureaucratic positions, while almost all women inside headquarters are relegated to mopping the floors in blue-sashed uniforms, a visibly Sisyphisean task, as dirty shoes trample over clean floors only to be cleaned again. But even among those privileged male roles, the bureaucracy is not glamorous. Men at the DDA who have worked there for 30 or 35 years may, in the best case, rise to a position where they have a small office with a secretary to fetch them chay whenever they please. But by and large, the human nuts and bolts of this organization are operating deep in the bureaucratic trenches, moving folders and doing paperwork and, more than anything, sitting around in the office heat, not doing much.

I believe that it’s crucial to remember these details because they are easy to forget, easy to blur into one giant State Machine, a common Foucauldian tendency in the academy. In this view, the State moves and thinks and acts and adjudicates; it invades our privacy, signs contracts for the military, evicts its slums, and lines the pockets of the elite. But this aggregated view seems to lose out on some of the most interesting and important questions that we can ask in Delhi:

Who is the State? Who is implementing the World-Class City? And most important, for whom?

 

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            The vision for Delhi is laid out by the DDA’s Master Plan. Back in the first Master Plan in 1962, this vision was of a certain socialistic dream—housing for all, spread out across the expanse of Delhi in affordable, low-rise housing. Over time, this vision has shifted away from this Nehruvian model and toward the one now solidified in the Master Plan 2021. This is a vision of the World-Class City, a Delhi equipped with world-class facilities, world-class infrastructure.

The aspirational element of this rhetoric is as clear as it is (sort of) pathetic: Delhi, ever a bastion of India’s political and bureaucratic aristocracies, is now neck-deep in its PR charge to transform itself into a global metropolis. This seems to be the order of the day; everybody is labeling their services as global, a trophy word hoisted up by IT companies and universities alike. This, of course, speaks volumes to the contemporary state of urban development—if the goal is to become global or world-class, the goal is necessarily to merge with some preexisting international standard, a standard which is most certainly determined by the West. Outside the context of globalization, the concept of world-class is largely meaningless. It is, after all, a completely relative term. So what we see in the Master Plan 2021 is a pretty basic, honest case of a Southern metropolis clawing its way North. In a post-liberalized India, Delhi is chasing its liberalized dream, moving quickly (at least in discursive terms) to renounce a heritage of socialism and embrace the fruits of the private sector. This is absolutely fascinating for me, as an opportunity to examine closely the dynamics of a neo-liberal shift (and the conflicts therein) taking place in my research. I would argue that a careful analysis of the World-Class City—its rhetoric, its strategies, etc.—should provide us with a very important perspective on the dynamics of globalization for both India and the developing world at large.

Nonetheless, the World-Class City remains a very vague concept. What is a world-class city? Does it have skyscrapers and futuristic monorails like Gotham? Is it spread out in a vast expanse, with temples and palaces dotted all around? Or is it all digital, with flashing lights and big electronic billboards? If you scrape around in your mind, you’ll probably find that this concept doesn’t mean much, or even if it does, its connotations are almost entirely aesthetic (as above). But with respect to governance, the vision of a world-class city has very little to say. Is democracy the world-class government? Is bureaucracy the world-class apparatus? Tough to tell, and awkwardly so. Still, even without a direct model of governance, this concept has proved to be quite transformative in Delhi’s urban situation.

As D. Asher Ghertner (2011) has shown in his fieldwork in Delhi, the aesthetically-charged concept of the world-class city has lent legitimacy to a number of DDA evictions of Delhi’s slums. Under the world-class regime, the slum has become a “nuisance” in the eyes of the courts, an “offense to the sense of sight, smell or hearing” in Delhi. As the Delhi High Court has taken up the DDA’s vision, so it has become easier for the DDA and other organizations to move against Delhi slum-dwellers. Ghertner notes: “Today, courts ask for little more than a demonstration by a petition” in order to take action to clean up the slum. If you can make a case that the poor are working against the world-class project, the state is willing to pay attention. At the same time, on the other side of the socio-economic spectrum, there are many projects underway that are flaunted under the world-class banner. Delhi’s major shopping malls, its new metro system, its highways and flyovers—all of these factor into Delhi’s resume as an emerging global city. And it is to these projects that bureaucrats in my fieldwork point time and time again as evidence of Delhi’s greatness and global relevance (and yes, this has been a major rhetorical theme in my conversations at the DDA).

Ultimately, what the above transformations tell us is that the world-class city is an operative term, insofar as it is playing an active role beyond simply the rhetorical in shaping the city both for the poor and for the wealthy.

Now, given that the DDA has come to embrace the world-class mandate, we come across a very difficult and very important question to answer within the context of my summer research:

Who are the citizens of the World-Class City?

 

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            If I haven’t been exactly clear as to how the above two sections fit together, I want to come right out and say here that I am trying draw our attention toward what I find to be an absolutely fascinating phenomenon with respect to bureaucracy and governance, that the DDA is essentially building the Pyramids of Giza, crafting a world-class city to which they do not necessarily belong, or matter, many of them left to defend this program—to me and to their constituencies—even as they are diminishing their own power as citizens in this increasingly liberalized city. And I will submit further that this has vast implications for organizational studies at large: here is an organization in which a majority of its members are pursuing a mandate that will not only produce skewed outcomes that will hurt the, in the long-run (increased privatization, disproportionate access to the very wealthy) but in the short-run as well, as the process of land privatization squeezes the lower-level bureaucrats out of the DDA itself, as fewer and fewer employees are necessary to maintain this privatized urban landscape.

So, how does the sense of “mission” at the DDA, embodied by the world-class city, diffuse through the organization? What is the relationship of the top-tier bureaucrats to their street-level inferiors? And most importantly, what is the relationship of the top-tier bureaucrats to their private sector peers, responsible for ushering in this new mandate of world-class city-making?

 

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Here are some findings/musings that help to answer these questions:

The world-class city, as I have shown above, is a sort of vacuum for the urban imaginary—the term is so sexy that it draws all of the aspirations of city-dwellers into it. It is a dream metropolis, so the next question is: who is dreaming?

As far as I can tell, this urban imaginary is largely constituted by the middle class. This is the only real aspirational class that I can see in India. For much of the very-poor in Delhi, poverty feels so entrenched that upward mobility is illusory, even in the neoliberal, high-growth era of the last decade. These are the people who are often manipulated by political leaders—promises made, pre-election gifts given—in order to elicit votes, only to have these promises fade away post-election. Or, more often, they are completely ignored, swept off of the world-class map. These are usually not the dreamers, but the pragmatists: they work they systems they have to, pursue gains when they can, and subsist. On the other hand, there is the very-rich, for whom downward mobility is simply a joke. Money in Delhi tends to be largely dynastic—kids take over dad’s business; money breeds money. It is almost impossible rare to find a kid in Delhi (as we sometimes see in America) who have renounced his family’s wealth, choosing instead to pursue x, y, or z less lucrative path.

So the real constituency for us to consider here is the emerging middle class. This middle class has been the topic of much contemporary literature in India, portrayed in many cases with great hope and in others with great despair. But what is obvious to me is that these are the dreamers, the people hungering for the world-class city. These tend to be the people who visit most often Delhi’s massive shopping malls or mill around in its upscale outdoor areas—it is a growing section of Delhi’s urban populace that has seen some of the gains of globalized growth, and look to the future in that American dream-y sort of way. These tend to be people who have managed to find work in the formal sector, at calling centers or large IT branches. They have seen visible raises in their wages, and they believe in Delhi’s private sector. In short, these tend not to be Delhi’s bureaucrats.

As such, I wonder how deeply the world-class ideology has permeated the DDA. After all, it must be difficult to dream from inside the iron cage. This is a bureaucracy start to finish—hire from the bottom, promotion-to-promotion, retire, and collect pension. It’s a well-worn infrastructure, but not one that breeds vibrant dreams of penthouses and swimming pools and shopping malls. If anything, it’s an infrastructure that is most threatened by Delhi’s neoliberal transformations.

As I have mentioned above, the DDA has diminished by incredible numbers in the last two or so decades. There used to be 32,000 employees; now there are close to 16,000. This is because of a large-scale transformation in the organizational mandate. Of course, no one at the DDA will admit these large-scale changes—almost everyone I spoke with has told me that “nothing has changed” and that “the rules and regulations remain the same since 1957.” Yet the DDA has transformed its mode of acquisition and development entirely, shifting in the early 90s away from an in-house mode of state development to a highly commercial land sales-driven model. If there is any evidence of this shift, it’s in the money—land sales skyrocketed from about $5 million in 1981 to about $500 million in 2003. In effect, the DDA is giving its land away at an increasingly fast pace, and to an increasingly private set of players. This is the essence of neoliberal transformation, and the primary reason why the DDA is such a fascinating and important case study for India’s current developmental shifts.

The effects of this transformation have been studied in a number of forms—many scholars have examined the effects on the urban poor; others have studied the skyrocketing wealth of the nouveau riches. Yet for some reason, most academics shy away from studying the state apparatus itself. Even if they focus on the practices of the bureaucracy, they fail to see the bureaucracy as its own actor, or its own set of actors, as people who are working under a mandate and interpreting that mandate and also feeding their children and sending them to school etc. And when we do focus on these bureaucratic actors, we find this strange cannibalistic pattern: here is an organization working actively for its own demise. From an organizational point of view, this seems entirely irrational. If economic self-interest is the guiding motive here (as Econ 101 tells us), then organizations should all be working to occupy a larger and larger state space, attracting more and more state funding. Yet with the DDA, we see a massive inflation in its budget—$5 million to $500 million—even as the organization shrinks by half. What is driving this organizational transformation? How is this transformation trickling down from the top? And most importantly, why is the DDA so keen to implement it?

 

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If I haven’t bored you to death already, awesome. Follow me into the depths.

There are two major interpretations of this transformation, and they fall pretty evenly into two major camps of developmental state theory: (i) the Clientelistic State, and (ii) the Benevolent State.

The argument for the former is simple, if a bit overly skeptical: the DDA is controlled by a handful of politically- and economically-connected elites, who have transformed the organization in the wake of India’s 1990s reforms to match the new neoliberal orientation. They’ve got golf buddies who are developers, and support private sector takeover of state responsibility. These people explain away this transformation in one of two ways. Either they say that private intervention was the “order of the day”—a la mode or somehow politically appropriate—thus giving the DDA no responsibility for its adoption of these policies; or they say (and this has been said to me) that the DDA is shrinking because the job has been done, Delhi is developed, so it’s time to sell the land and close up shop, an argument that seems to hold as much water in the context of Delhi’s massive deficiencies as George Bush standing underneath the “Mission Accomplished” banner.

The other interpretation, however, complicates this portrait significantly. In a recent interview with an ex-DDA bureaucrat, I asked about these transformations and the diminishing role of the DDA. He said that there is a dual explanation for this. First of all, the whole idea of the state owning all of the land is colonial in nature, and the DDA is really just a colonial hang up. What the DDA is doing now is “giving the land back to the public,” finally relinquishing its authoritarian hold over Delhi. Second of all, the sale of all of this land is a way of curing the DDA of its corruption plague. When the DDA holds the land, then its residents must always approach them for signatures and approvals, etc., giving low-level DDA bureaucrats opportunities to conduct serious rent-seeking. Now that they can hold the land privately, they no longer require these signatures, and the DDA can get rid of all of the leech-y low-level workers sucking funds away from the public and into their own pockets.

My hypothesis is that it falls somewhere in the middle, and one of my major goals in this project to trace out clearly the sources of this transformation, putting aside the Foucault as well as the state apology. In both cases, though, it’s interesting to see how different a portrait of the DDA we get when we disaggregate the state and see its fault lines. For in both of these cases, there is a clear disjuncture between upper-level players and their lower-level compatriots, who are suffering intra-organizationally (this seems remarkable to me; maybe I’m just nerding out a little).

Anyway, I think I have lost even myself a little bit, but perhaps that is only because the DDA has proven to be such a whirlwind of fascinating possibilities. Off I go, into the Delhi night, to clear my thoughts and eat some ice cream.

 

—David Adler, New Delhi, 14/07/2013