How the Design of Our Cities Reflects Caste, Class Anxieties
“On whose hands shall I look for my blood/When the whole city is wearing gloves?” wrote Urdu poet Ahmed Faraz. The blood he speaks about was not that from loss of life, but of opportunity, belonging, and identity in modern cities.
Cities have always been a reflection of the prejudice and exclusion of those who create them. While some homes sit protected behind gates, others grow alongside waste waters, between passageways, under bridges, and over the stench of scarcity.
A complex circuit of identity decides who gets to live in the city and where within it. Houses that are excluded from central areas, and sometimes even erased entirely, most commonly shelter those marginalized by identity. “The untouchability in our cities now is not practiced physically,” Asaf Ali Lone, a researcher with the Center for Policy Research, tells me. “Rather, it has turned into institutional untouchability, where institutions are crafted in such a way so as to separate.”
City planning then becomes a blueprint for how power and privilege are exercised, creating and perpetuating segregation that cements biases and stereotypes against communities.
How to (not) plan a city
“It is important for us to remember that the roots of segregation in housing lie at the heart of caste-dominated India,” says Rukmini Sen, a professor of history, social science, and liberal studies at Ambedkar University.
This is not just happening in isolation. Segregation “is a historically continuing process in which the cities are becoming increasingly homogenized spaces, where rights — and the prerogatives that come with rights — are only possible for a certain class, for a certain caste of people,” explains Sushmita Pati, a political scientist and an assistant professor at NLSIU, Bengaluru.
Look back to Delhi’s 1947 resettlement patterns: Dalit communities who migrated post-partition were never quite considered in these plans. The new colonies across Rajinder Nagar, Jangpura, Kingsway Camp, Nizamuddin, and CR Park – better planned and more spacious – were officially created for the privileged. Near the northern limits of the city is Regar Pura, a location listed in official communication as a resettlement site for the “Harijan” community. Tiny mud huts, held together by tarpaulin, housed those who fit into the Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe, and “untouchable” categories.
“…the very apparatus of the state resettlement programs were built upon caste and class distinctions, even as the word “caste” found no mention in the settlement policies,” wrote author Ravinder Kaur. This spatial segregation meant that these remained “invisible neighborhoods,” so much so that they weren’t even listed in Delhi’s guidebooks.
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“Once this homogenization takes place, and once it is solidified,” notes Sushmita, “who this neighborhood belongs to, who the natural inhabitants of a particular neighborhood are, who is a good family and who isn’t a good family – however vague – gain a particular kind of coherence and solidity.”
On the side of the cities, as a result of persistent, historical exclusion, clusters are formed in cities. Pockets of people, sharing religion and caste identity, come up in neighborhoods that have poor services. When cities are segregated, “it creates a certain kind of housing crunch. It puts property in the hands of a few people, and the system lets the rest of the population fend for itself. Which is the reason why slums occur,” Sushmita argues.
A 2021 paper called this pattern “fractal urbanism,” noting that the residential segregation in 147 urban Indian cities tracked closely with the division and discrimination across villages. The city never lived up to the promises of modernity and community, but instead barricaded access and ownership of quality housing.
The services a community has access to relies on the location of neighborhoods. People living in informal settlements, slums, and areas segregated by caste or religion do not have access to safe drinking water, healthcare, sanitation, and even food stamps. This structural dismissal of people living in informal settlements is well documented and known as a “planning black hole” in research.
Class, caste, and social capital are all important factors of affordability in the cities, but these aspects are consistently missing from city planning, Lone explains. “The planned parts of the city become zones of apartheid where caste and social location determines one’s entry to such areas.”
The idea that our cities fail because there isn’t enough housing to respond to the influx of people is a falsity. The real reason is that the existing resources “are not wisely distributed; land, water, green areas, educational to recreational facilities, healthcare infrastructure,” Lone notes.
In 2020, for instance, a research paper detailed the disparity between two areas in Gujarat – Juhapura, a predominantly Muslim ghetto near Ahmedabad, and Yogeshwar Nagar, a slum with a Hindu majority. The former notably had poor drainage and sanitation facilities, unsafe drinking water, and badly-constructed roads. Similar inconsistencies were observed in other states too.
The housing crisis thus would not have emerged “if city planning would have thought of equitable, just housing in a way that it hasn’t,” as Sushmita puts it.
Lone further explains how people are “marginalized for a lack of access to banks, schools, hospitals – all services that could have helped them in their economic mobility.” Exclusions are thus manufactured, and then solidified.
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A great case study of this comes from 1930s New York, where the then-mayor Robert Moses decided to deprioritize investment in public transit and intentionally lowered the height of over-bridges. As a result, buses – the preferred medium of transit for a majority of working people – could no longer pass through. With only private cars passing through now, the area automatically became more exclusive for the rich and upper-middle class. This template of planned discrimination can be witnessed the world over.
Researcher Ghazala Jamil, exploring spatial segregation through a capitalist lens, talks about how cities and governments account for people’s labor and income, but not their survival needs.
The housing market, then, is never truly meant for them.
Housing societies further echo the segregation and discrimination our cities are built on. People’s biases and the inherent inequality in how our cities are designed become the basis for renting and buying houses.
Intekhab Aslam, 35, was looking for a house to rent close to his daughter’s school in a sprawling township in Noida. “An older gentleman showed us the flat very excitedly, after which he asked if I was a Punjabi. I said no with a smile. A Kashmiri? I said no again and mentioned I had lived in NCR for 17 years, and we proceeded to share our names. He got visibly uncomfortable,” the 37-year-old tells me.
“Increasingly, there’s a certain kind of suspicion towards anybody who isn’t like you,” Sushmita notes. This translates into a spiral of misplaced fear. Think of the anxiety around single women living in housing societies. For families, the worry is always: Are these women good influences on my children? S*, 28, recalls how a neighbor threatened to send goons to “get her raped” since she was a single girl living alone in Delhi.
Anecdotes, documented by way of surveys, research, and oral anxieties, reveal the staggering extent to which marginalized communities are kept out of “good” areas, relegating them to the margins of our cities and, thus, our society. Thus, tenants from communities who don’t fit into the purity narrative – that of the “good family” – become more vulnerable to harassment. A disproportionate number of Muslim and Dalit people who do manage to get homes have to do so by agreeing to unfair terms and conditions, found a 2015 study. “There is very little challenge that can come from the potential tenant, who is a single not married, or a Muslim or Dalit,” points out Sushmita. “And because the whole property market is so skewed … [most people] are forced to say all kinds of things in order to manage to find a place to live.”
When stripped of the identity markers, the “outsiders” in most cases represent the precariat labor. These are people who work in small-time jobs, mostly young, mostly single, who are trying to find ways to achieve social mobility; not necessarily slum residents but who look for cheap rental spaces to just live in. “They are quite vulnerable in this whole rental housing system, because even they cannot afford a decent housing right for which is affordable, and where they don’t find themselves completely at the discretion of the landlord,” Sushmita says.
Overall, the housing market is made “absolutely, absolutely impenetrable” to them, says Sushmita.
This creates a feedback loop, manufacturing a housing crisis – where marginalized people face discrimination inside housing societies but even on the peripheries. Informal settlements are razed for “encroaching,” while rich plazas and complexes that sit on environmentally sensitive regions are legalized.
Research in India and outside shows how segregation leads to lower levels of employment opportunities. Economist John F. Kain argued that “since job and housing decisions are made simultaneously, housing discrimination is likely to add to the cost of travel, making it difficult for disadvantaged groups to get jobs in the prime locations of a city.” This enacts a vicious cycle: segregated communities are alienated and live in lower economic neighborhoods, where there may be higher crime rates and limited access to education, which makes them further likely to always remain in structural poverty. As Ta-Nahesi Coates wrote in his famous essay, “with segregation, with the isolation of the injured and the robbed, comes the concentration of disadvantage.”
Moreover, the segregation further cements biases and stereotypes against a community that resides in one area. Studies show that urban residential segregation – such as one observed in housing societies – is linked to higher communal violence in India. In a 2017 paper, Raphael Susewind, a political anthropologist of urban India at King’s College London, looked at segregation in 11 cities and found Jaipur and Lucknow – among the least segregated cities – had not seen communal riots in the past many decades. Delhi and Ahmedabad, on the other hand, were among the most segregated and had witnessed a rise in riots.
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When the city quits its people, they are left not only without a home but also an immeasurable safety. Reaching within the heart of darkness shows a grim future: we are creating tiny cities of inequality within cities, restricting mobility, upholding exclusion, and forcing people to invisibilize their identities. These are small, haphazard networks built on violence and prejudice, connected through the illusion of development.
“Different communities in the city co-exist together, they don’t exist separately independent of each other, that’s not how cities function,” Asaf argues. “Co-existence is the reality of how a city grows, and when co-existence is stopped it results in divide, hatred, and violence against each other in various forms.”
Discrimination in the private housing market raises both a philosophical and legal question of regulation: individuals have a private right of contract, they can give the house to anyone they want. But there still remains the social malaise of discrimination and segregation. When social disorder from the public domain spills into private land, regulation becomes a tricky line to tread. At one level, this speaks to the need for anti-discrimination laws within housing networks. A legal framework could mean that refusing a home to someone for eating meat or for being a Muslim – any and every bias in action – would bear consequences.
Although the Model Tenancy Act recently underwent some progressive changes – the regulations have made it harder to evict people without cause and have made it mandatory for rental agreements to be in writing – awareness remains low. Further, there is still very little way to regulate bias. “We need to begin thinking about the need for a certain kind of rights of tenants, which protect people across caste, across class, across intersections,” says Sushmita.
And while such frameworks and legislations are crucial for ending discrimination and pushing for inclusive growth of the cities, it “should not be another law framed through a top-down approach,” points out Asaf.
A 2020 paper identified a flaw with how we study segregation in cities spatially, which further eclipses our policies. Most studies rely on how people are scattered across different “wards” – sub-divisions of a town – but this measure doesn’t quite reveal how communities are segregated at a finer level. Without this knowledge, we never quite understand how marginalized communities live, and where.
Therefore, Asaf says, “It should include learnings and experiences from the bottom-up which takes into account the realities that marginal and vulnerable populations face in their everyday lives.” It perhaps starts with realizing that there is no one city: there are cities of privilege, cities of hunger, and cities of in-betweenness that demand subservience from their residents.