Urban geography and the law

Post by Anindita Mukherjee. She is a final year law student at NALSAR, Hyderabad and had interned with HUL for six weeks during May-June 2014

Studying a course taught by Dr Maringanti on the right to the city brought home to me, with renewed intensity, how little I knew of Hyderabad, despite having lived four years on its outskirts. It also highlighted how minimally ‘geography’—a term completely ruined for me by the ICSE geography syllabus—features in the study of law. Hoping to discover interdisciplinary connections as well as begin to learn some more about Hyderabad through work and informal conversations, I applied to intern at HUL.

The initial plan was to work on one of two research projects: looking at protest spaces in the city and the manner in which they have changed over the years and the forces that shape them; or, in the aftermath of the massive protests against violence against women in December 2013 where the need for creating cities that are safe for all manners of people was strongly articulated, examining the experiences of those for whom the street is a workplace. In retrospect, it seems inevitable that neither of these two was to work out in just a month’s time, especially given my self-confessed lack of knowledge about the city.

What I was tasked with, instead, was to work out a curriculum on the right to the city—readings, case studies and all—and within this framework, do one case study in some detail. Creating a course structure with one’s exposure to the subject being limited to sixteen hours of lectures and some rudimentary research posed a considerable challenge, one that was remedied through frantic google-searches and an attempt to skim through the considerable literature that Dr Maringanti suggested I read.

With a basic structure of sorts in place, the task then was to put together readings and cases that would fill out this skeleton. This was an interesting exercise, in that it threw up several questions that I had not ever thought of as a student looking through a reading list: should readings build an argument or merely be informative; how much comparative material do you put in; what sort of reading acts as a counterfoil to another point of view? Agonising through these questions, though probably inadequately, ensured that I would never take a well-structured course lightly again!

A part of the readings was to be made of case studies, which Dr Maringanti described as ‘baskets’ of information (news reports, judgements, orders, academic writing, legislations, the works) regarding specific concrete situations, which could be used to highlight certain concepts in the course, and be used by students as subjects of detailed research and writing. The process of putting such material together threw up in sharp relief the lack of any orderly access to primary material related to the state (for instance, notices, notifications, orders and judgements). This is possibly a point that requires greater work from legal institutions (like law schools): ensuring access to data in a meaningful manner.


The course is structured around four modules and hopes to give a broad overview of the concept to law students:

  • What is the city?—Recognising that the city is the subject of much commonsensical understanding, it is important to define what the city means in a course that deals with a right to it. The module seeks to look at the myriad ways in which the city has been conceptualised: through the census, statutes, maps, the lived lives of people. What does citizenship mean? How does a city relate to processes of globalisation? What is the city in relation to that which is not a city—the rural—and how do they feed into each other? How does the city relate to the nation-state? How do multiple jurisdictions factor into defining a city? Is there a single definition of the city, or is it contested terrain?
  • Articulating the right to the city—This module would seek to understand concepts of rights, legal entitlements and justice from various standpoints and then think through the possibility of the ‘right to the city’ anchoring a certain conceptualisation of a right. In order to make this analysis possible, the module would also think through the various forms that the right to the city has taken since its conceptualisation by Lefebvre, leading up to its use by international organs to seek concrete entitlements, and as a subject of legislation.
  • Law-making and the city—What laws affect an individual’s experience of the city? How does the individual’s location and identity change the response to the previous question? How does finance affect processes of law-making and how, given this context, can contestation occur and claims for legal reform be meaningfully articulated? How do courts feed into these processes, do they reflect the same reigning political predilections?
  • Activating the right to the city in India—Drawing from social movement literature, this module would look at possibilities for the right to the city being a peg for political action qui est viagra. It would look at historical geographies of Indian urban social movements and the manner in which the idea of the city is contested in these movements. And finally, since the course is designed for law people, what is the role of the legal profession in these processes of contestation (or ought legal professionals just be peoplein a movement)?

Of the many cases for which material was to be put together, I was to do detailed work on one. Given constraints of time and knowledge, we decided that it would be best if I were to look at displacement in Bholakpur, since HUL had already done a good deal of work there and I would have internal narratives at hand. Reading interviews of residents of Bholakpur and contrasting it with the mainstream media and legal perspective of the locality was an eye-opening experience in itself. It was clear that to outsiders, Bholakpur’s hide shops and plastic scrap recyclers were visible only (and unproblematically) as polluters, with scarce reflection on the necessity of their work for the city’s functioning. It seemed as though the long-time residents of an entire locality, and their trade, had been termed ‘illegal’ by law, and this term came to define them in media coverage and popular description. For me, this signalled the need to question the label itself and see whether it holds against legal scrutiny, for the judiciary’s need to justify its decisions is very evidently dependent on how strongly it is going to be contested. Bholakpur also serves as an intriguing instance of examining the impact of structures on the local—for instance, the tanneries around which the entire locality came up, shut down in response to certain export policy decisions taken by the Indian government following changes in international trade policy. This brings to mind possibilities of solidarity: do structural changes ‘cause similar, if localised, effects in different places, and can networks of solidarity be created amongst them for political action? And what is the role of law and policy in governing all of these local processes? Should we be thinking policy at all? If yes, at what scale? What norms do you put into national policy, how do these get operationalised at the local (and particular) instance?

This internship, thus leaves a lot of questions open in my mind, questions that I am sure would continue to be of relevance as I read further. I take back with me an interesting experience of cutting through a cross-section of legality, ranging from the international to the municipal, in a manner that my training in law (rigorous as it is) has not done so far. And I take back several enriching conversations over lunch and otherwise, which made Hyderabad come alive to me in a way that I had previously not experienced.

Featured Image: Death on the Street by Sudhir Patwardhan

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1 Response

  1. August 16, 2015

    […] Mukherjee, a frequent collaborator in HUL projects and a former intern, who unwittingly came into the limelight for asking for a gender-neutral honorific […]

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