1. Urbanization is progressing in an uneven manner in India. According to the 2011 census, more than 31% people now live in urban areas. Almost a quarter of this urban population is concentrated in the nine cities recognized as metropolitan cities (each having a population of more than 4 million). But there has also been a significant increase in areas designated as census towns (having a population of more than 5,000, with more than 75% male workers involved in non-agricultural pursuits and a minimum population density of 400 per sq. km.) which are not yet recognized as statutory towns with municipal structures. Between 2001 and 2011, while the number of statutory towns increased marginally from 3,799 to 4,041, the number of census towns almost trebled from 1,362 to 3,894.
2. With 54.4% urban population, Tamil Nadu is the most urbanized among India’s states followed by Maharashtra (46.2%) and Gujarat (40.3%), but in terms of overall size of urban population Maharashtra tops the list followed by Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. The extent of urbanization in Tamil Nadu is clearly linked to the depth of the manufacturing sector in the state – it has the highest number of factories in the country and also the biggest contingent of industrial workers.
3. Metropolitan cities are the biggest centres of accumulation of wealth and operation of capital. But given the increasingly capital- and technology-intensive nature of production in both manufacturing and service sectors, jobs are becoming increasingly scarce. In fact many urban areas and townships that were once known mainly as industrial centres have now been taken over by high finance and real estate. The new jobs being generated are almost invariably contractual and require multiskilling and the working people migrating from rural and semi-urban areas find it extremely hard to eke out a living in this difficult and unfamiliar urban setting.
4. There have been two major reform measures in urban development and governance in the last two decades. The first was the 74th Amendment to the Constitution of India which brought about a uniformity and regularity in urban local bodies and the second was the launching of the high-profile Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) in 2005. Launched with the express purpose of making Indian cities investor-friendly, JNNURM has actually subverted the democracy promised in the 74th Amendment by linking funds to reforms like repeal of urban land ceiling act and promotion of public-private partnership. Formally the mission had two sub-missions – one for infrastructure and the other for provision of basic services to the poor, but it is the former which has got all funds and priority while the latter has been utterly neglected. And now the government has planned a more ambitious JNNURM-II to unleash a still more aggressive drive to privatize and commercialize every aspect of urban governance.
5. Another major project launched recently by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation is the Rajiv Awas Yojana with the lofty goal of making India slum-free. In the name of bringing all existing slums within the formal system, the government has actually stepped up the slum demolition drive, even as slums are being handed over to developers for what the government calls affordable housing projects. There are also reports of widespread irregularities with the affordable houses passing into non-deserving hands while slum-dwellers are evicted without any rehabilitation. A quarter of India’s urban population is estimated to be living in slums and the state is desperate to clear this land and hand it over to real estate barons.
6. Land titles and related issues are a major area of neoliberal reform. The urban land ceiling has already been removed, and the government further seeks to introduce ‘comprehensive urban land reform’ by amending the related Acts. In the name of completing the process of land titling and registration, the bid is to dispossess the urban poor of lands on which they have settled. Another route to dispossession is the governments’ bid to delink the provision of basic water and sanitation from land tenure and legal status, thereby refusing slum dwellers, urban poor and low income groups the right to stake a claim to land based on water, electricity and sanitation related documents. We must fight for restoration and strict enforcement of urban land ceiling.
7. With increasing concentration of capital in urban India, the working people are being systematically driven out to the peripheries and outskirts. The battle against eviction and for securing residential plots and housing rights for the homeless people is therefore assuming growing importance in the communist agenda of urban work. The experience of recent anti-eviction struggles at Nonadanga in Kolkata, Khar-Golibar in Mumbai and Ejipura in Bengaluru clearly shows that municipal corporations and state governments are working hand in glove with real estate barons and the builder-promoter mafia to carry on eviction drives defying protests from all quarters. Powerful and sustained anti-eviction struggles have however succeeded in stalling eviction plans in some cases. In Puducherry, our sustained struggle for shelter for the roofless has forced the government to build houses and increase housing grants for homeless families.
8. Apart from being operational centres of capital, urban areas are also centres of opinion-making – the manufacture of consent – as well as expressions of dissent and eruptions of mass protests. With the rise of the internet-based social media and proliferation of TV channels, the urban middle class has acquired a stronger voice and worldwide we have seen powerful and imaginative eruptions of urban protests. It is therefore important for revolutionary communists to work more systematically and comprehensively in urban areas.
9. Traditionally communist parties have been handicapped by a weak urban mass base. It is all the more true for us and the mass support that we enjoy is primarily among sections of people who have to fight constantly for their survival in an increasingly hostile urban setting. Many of our members and supporters among urban unorganised workers have to fight hard to secure a place of residence and get a ration card or a voter I-card. This relative weakness in terms of mass strength is very much a structural limitation and cannot be overcome overnight by any magic means. But this must not be allowed to restrict the vision or initiative of revolutionary communists working in the urban citadels of political reaction. The Party can and must take timely and courageous mass political initiatives in the urban arena even as it makes serious effort to enhance its urban mass base.
10. Typically in urban areas we have work among unorganized workers, whether organized in trade unions or in some umbrella organization of the urban poor. While it is important to organize them in occupational terms and in their places of work, such trade unions must consciously play a social role and take up the issues the workers have to face in their social existence in urban life. The marginalized urban poor form the backbone of our urban mass support and we must lead their battle for survival and dignity through every possible avenue. While retaining our emphasis on unorganized workers and the urban poor we must however make every effort to establish close contacts and build up Party network among the salaried urban middle/working class (teachers, employees in financial sector and so on). These are organized segments of the urban middle class who often follow Left-led trade unions or associations in their professional sphere but have little social role or political voice in the overall context of urban politics. We must try and bridge this gap. With growing corporate invasion of the retail sector, we must also pay greater attention to the task of defending the interests of small traders and shopkeepers.
11. We also have campus-based or hostel-based work among students in several cities and towns but very limited work among the youth. Here again it is the area/social dimension that is neglected, if not entirely missing, in our work. Party work among students/youth must emphasise the aspect of integration with and involvement in the broader democratic movement, taking up of people’s issues in areas of Party work, and even developing new areas of Party work.
12. Young women, students or working women, are a growing presence in urban India. But the increased visibility, mobility and relative freedom of women is often met with a patriarchal backlash, an aggressive assertion of reactionary patriarchal norms and prejudices. As the recent countrywide spread of the women’s movement clearly showed, the women’s movement has already emerged as a most powerful strand of popular awakening and the Party organization in urban areas must take up work on the women’s front in real earnest, rather than leaving it to the available women comrades alone. Special efforts must be made to organize various sections of working women from the most vulnerable sections like construction workers and domestic helps to women engaged in the wide-ranging service sector.
13. Party organisations in urban areas, especially in metropolitan cities and major urban centres, must also maintain close ties with the progressive intelligentsia, cultural and media circles, lawyers with a positive approach to human rights and various issues of public interest, and activists of various movements.
14. In most cities, communal prejudice fanned up by right- wing outfits, and reinforced by the state-machinery’s witch-hunt of minorities in the name of counter-terrorism, has made minorities especially vulnerable. Enforced ghettoisation is common, with minorities often denied housing except in certain designated ‘minority’ settlements. While remaining ever vigilant against communal politics and for the rights of minority communities, we must treat the anti-communal agenda as an integral part of the broader democratic concerns facing the minorities, issues concerning livelihood and equal access and opportunities for development with dignity. Chauvinistic targeting of migrant workers and students too is rampant in many cities. We must stand by the beleaguered regional/ethnic migrants in resisting such profiling and violence. Likewise, we must also defend dalits, minorities and women against casteist, communal and patriarchal violence.
15. With growing privatization and commercialization, the issue of basic amenities has acquired greater importance in urban work. While power-cuts and water shortage are a common feature in most cities and towns, the rates are going up continuously and bills often show hugely inflated amounts. Healthcare, education, public transport and water are also equally important concerns for all urban poor and middle class households. The urban poor are increasingly being priced out of the basic amenities. We tend to take up all these issues when some crisis erupts, but we need to lay stress on planned and sustained efforts to build up campaigns and struggles on these sensitive issues of urban life.
16. Party organizations in urban areas must pay greater attention to ensuring effective intervention in municipal affairs and elections. Because of our generally weak base in urban areas and lack of focused attention to developing area-based work, our participation in municipal elections remains rather low-key. Only in the corporations of Patna and Ara in Bihar have we been able to win some victories in municipal elections thanks to our round-the-year work and overall profile. The Party must raise the level of its urban work and influence so as to acquire a greater profile in municipal elections in all our major urban centres of work.
17. Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs) have emerged as a major feature of urban reforms. While being used as a ‘participatory’ facade, RWAs are also being pitted against the interests of other social groups, such as slum dwellers and street vendors. The National Policy for Street Vendors provides for the role of RWAs in the eviction of vendors, that too in the name of democratic participation. In general, the poor and slum-dwelling populations remain structurally excluded, and often in conflict with the RWAs, which are usually dominated by the relatively more privileged middle classes. Wherever possible, we should make efforts for a democratic intervention in the RWAs, keeping in mind their potential to emerge as platforms for struggles against corruption and for local amenities, and resist the anti-poor trends both in the policy framework and the functioning of the RWAs.
18. To conclude, Party organizations in urban areas must develop a wider vision and comprehensive agenda of urban work and follow an integrated approach in translating it into reality. Faced with the ongoing urban restructuring and the ruling class drive to turn Indian cities into investor-friendly elitist enclaves, the battle for reclaiming the urban space has acquired a new intensity and we must fight it wholeheartedly with the battle-cry of citizens’ rights, dignity and democracy.