Public Performances: Enacting Citizenship through Public Consultation for Chennai’s Second Master Plan

Rowan Ellis

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review


Citizen participation is seen as an essential component of ‘good’ urban governance and as such it also serves as a trope through which urban development initiatives gain legitimacy. In Indian cities, public consultation is frequently the modality of engaging citizen participation, but the practices of consultation are far from uniform. One increasingly common approach is to conduct public consultations that are open only to invited guests and speakers and which take place in the private spaces of elite hotels and conference centres. Drawing on the example of one such consultation surrounding Chennai’s Second Master Plan, this paper offers an analysis of the performative qualities of new practices of public consultations. A key assertion is that the performance of public participation is one lens through which we may better understand shifting definitions of citizenship in Indian cities. Following on this, the paper offers three findings. The first is that the very practice of this type of public consultation represents an important albeit contested new imaginary of public and public space. For example, the setting and attendance of the Chennai Master Plan consultation led some commentators to describe the process as a “sham” or a “show”, in reference to the elite and privatized nature of the meeting. The second finding is that public consultations are important sites for articulating a vision of urban development and the world-class city. The emphasis on foreign direct investment and the heavy reliance on comparative urban development models in the Master Plan consultation were indicative of this vision. A third finding is that the performance of public consultation reverberate older forms of political power. Despite rhetoric that posits the democratizing potential of citizen participation, the audience and presenters, as well as the rituals that comprised the meeting all pointed to the highly gendered, classed, and casted natures of the consultation. These findings suggest that through the performance of public consultations older forms of political power and inequality get welded to more contemporary narratives of a world-class Chennai. In this way, public consultations are key sites for formulating and enacting exclusionary definitions of citizenship in Indian cities.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationParticipolis
Subtitle of host publicationConsent and Contention in Neoliberal Urban India
EditorsKaren Coelho, Lalitha Kamath, M. Vijaybaskar
Place of PublicationNew Delhi
PublisherTaylor & Francis
Number of pages20
ISBN (Print)978-0415811934
Publication statusPublished - 2013

Publication series

NameCities and the Urban Imperative


  • public consultation
  • urban governance
  • middle class

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