The impoverishment of poverty: reflections on urban citizenship and inequality in contemporary Delhi

Gautam Bhan  | 2014


This paper explores the mechanisms through which democratic urban polities produce, maintain and reproduce inequality. It does so by looking at case law from 1990–2007 in New Delhi, where a seemingly relentless series of evictions of poor illegal settlements (colloquially known as bastis) were ordered by the Delhi High Court and the Supreme Court of India in Public Interest Litigations (PILs). While the power of the claims of the “middle class” and the emergence of a new urban political economy are well documented in the analysis of evictions, the specificity of how subaltern urban residents have been displaced from a development imagination remains relatively understudied. Put simply: how have the claims, presence and resistance of a significant proportion of urban residents been managed and even evaded within urban politics? This paper argues that case law on evictions makes visible not only the claims to the city of an insurgent urban elite but also the simultaneous “impoverishment of poverty”, which together create a new calculus for the contestations of urban citizenship in contemporary Delhi. This impoverishment is marked by a reduction in the efficacy of poverty and vulnerability as the basis of claims made by subaltern citizens to the elements of citizenship, i.e. the determination and distribution of rights and needs, access to resources and entitlements as well as a place within narratives of belonging and personhood. Making visible the multiple and particular processes of impoverishment is a critical part of a praxis that seeks to formulate effective resistance and imagine different urban future.