Introduction: The city in South Asia

Crispin Bates*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Globalisation has deep historical roots in South Asia, but economic liberalisation has led to uniquely rapid urban growth during the past decade, and this urgently requires scholarly attention. Previously, cities such as Mumbai (Bombay) grew by accumulating a vast hinterland of slum dwellers who depressed wages and supplied cheap labour to the city’s industrial economy. However, the new growth of cities such as Bengaluru (Bangalore), Hyderabad and Chennai (Madras) in the south of India, or Delhi and Kolkata (Calcutta) in the north is more capital-intensive, export-driven and oriented towards the information technology and service sectors (Ahmed 1991, Heitzman 2004). These cities have attracted a new elite of young, educated workers with money to spend and an outlook on life that is often a complex conflation of vibrantly modern ideas and conservative tradition (Baviskar & Ray 2011, Brosius 2010). They have also attracted a large inward migration of less skilled workers from outlying districts in order to service the needs of the new urban middle classes. To understand the drastic changes currently taking place in cities in South Asia, it is necessary to look at the historical development of social, cultural and political lives within cities. Over centuries South Asian cities have experienced various and sometimes contradicting forms of urban transformation, from Islamic urbanism to colonial and modernist urban planning (see Cheema 2007, Kalia 1999, Patel 2005, Sengupta 2007, Nair 2005, to mention a few). Migration from villages to cities and overseas has also characterised the lives of South Asians for generations (Bates 2001, Verkaaik 2004). Tracing the genealogies of cities will give a useful insight into the historical conditioning that determines how cities negotiate new changes and influences. The importance of the new style of urban growth to government finances means that the middle classes associated with it now dominate political and economic decision-making across the subcontinent to an extent that is vastly disproportionate to their numbers. The physical geography of South Asian cities is also being transformed (Ashraf 1989, Hosagrahar 2005). Problems of congestion, combined with the improvement of mobile telecommunications, have led to a reverse process of decentralisation in many cities, with businesses and offices relocating to suburbs and satellite towns. Such towns have thus been transformed from dormitories into centres of employment. The new class of single, mobile IT workers who have re-located to growth centres across India bring with them new ideas about how to live, and this sometimes creates conflict with the ideals of local communities (Upadhya & Vasavi 2008). These tensions have led workingclass communities to organise themselves into conservative and patriotic associations to resist the tide of social change, and have sometimes even resulted in violence, as in the city of Ahmedabad in 2002 (Shani 2007, Breman 2004, Hussein 1990, Roy 2003, Tarlo 2003). Cities have always simultaneously been a source of cultural and social aspiration and invoked a sense of fear (Hansen and Verkaaik 2009, Nandy 2007, Srivastava 2007), and the growing influx of capital into cities has further magnified this complex imaginative repertoire. A proliferation of programmes on multiple TV channels has enabled the creation of new religious sects with massive followings almost overnight; once-forgotten religious festivals have been revived, and undemanding ‘lifestyle’ gurus and new forms of yoga are increasingly in vogue. These developments are challenging and changing traditional conceptions of religion and of the relationship between religious authority and society as a whole. Above all, a new ideal of ‘subaltern citizenship’ (Pandey 2010, Chatterjee 2004) has emerged within cities, through which the middle and working classes have sought to empower themselves with the aid of legal NGOs and charitable organisations. Battles are being fought over planning, the environment and the utilisation of urban space (Kaviraj 1997, Neve & Donner 2006, Verkaaik 2009, Ruet & Tawa Lama-Rewal 2009, Anjaria & Macfarlane 2011). Collectively, these developments have profound economic and political implications for the management of the modern city in South Asia, which are of crucial concern to national and international development agencies, as well as business enterprises seeking to invest in the burgeoning South Asian urban environment. The chapters in this volume attempt to shed light on the cities of South Asia in the present day from differing disciplinary perspectives. They also present, uniquely and for the first time, the work of East Asian (Japanese) scholars within this field and the products of some of the very latest scholarship within western academia. They are the result of multiple workshops held in Japan from 2006 to 2010 under the Grants-in-Aid for Scientific Research programme of JSPS (‘A cultural anthropological study of the commercialisation and transformation of urban space in South Asia’) which culminated in an international conference held at the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka in July 2010. By bringing these original perspectives on the city in South Asia within the same frame, the conference organisers and editors of this volume hope to achieve an alignment that may help to establish the city in South Asia as an empirical field of study in its own right, rather than merely the object of competing disciplinary perspectives.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationCities in South Asia
EditorsCrispin Bates, Minoru Mio
Place of PublicationLondon
Number of pages14
ISBN (Electronic)9781317565123
ISBN (Print)9781138832763, 9780815368045
Publication statusPublished - 22 May 2015

Publication series

NameRoutledge New Horizons in South Asian Studies


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