In the 1870s, as colonial India witnessed some of the worst famines in its history where 6-10 million perished, observers watched in astonishment as famished people set out for the city of Bombay on foot in human caravans thousands of people long. Recently, images of a similar scale of deprivation have resurfaced in India as the COVID-19 crisis has once again forced the laboring poor to migrate in duress, this time in the opposite direction from city to country.
Making the Modern Slum: The Power of Capital in Colonial Bombay
(University of Washington Press, 2019) seems like a book written to explain precisely this moment. It asks: how can we understand the relationship between “the city” and its laboring poor? Inaugurating a paradigm shift in how we think of cities and urban space, the author Sheetal Chhabria
argues that cities are not naturally occurring spaces or innocent administrative categories marked by lines on a map: instead they are spaced produced by constant labors of inclusion and exclusion which serve to keep capital flowing while stigmatizing the laboring poor. The book shows how “the wellbeing of the city–rather than of its people” took precedence starting in the late 19th century, thereby “positioning agrarian distress, famished migrants, and the laboring poor as threats to be contained or excluded” rather than as constitutive parts of city space.
This argument is crucial. It shows that the injustices faced by the laboring poor are not mistakes or signs of incomplete or failed urbanism. Those injustices are instead the very essence of what it means to mark a space as a “city.” Combining theoretical acuity and empirical depth with an abiding concern for economic justice, the book takes us on a journey through colonial Bombay as it lurched from crisis to crisis at the turn of the 20th century: poverty, famine, plague, and political unrest. In this volatile climate, it was the continual appeals to the “health of the city” which served to render class warfare subterranean, to generate consensus on anti-poor measures across the colonial divide, and to invent a stigmatized object called “the slum” which could be used as a perpetual foil to the city, making the results of deep capitalist inequality (poverty, unsanitary dwellings, hunger) appear instead like vestiges of an incompletely capitalist society which could then be further commercialized. This book is a must read for everyone interested in urban, housing, and economic justice, as well as for scholars of South Asia concerned with the subcontinent’s enduring inequalities.
Aparna Gopalan is a Ph.D. Candidate in Social Anthropology at Harvard University studying the reproduction of inequality through development projects in rural western India.