Understanding rapidly expanding infrastructure in cities and trajectories of violence

By Soumyadip Chattopadhyay, Arjun Kumar

There is structural violence that is inherent in our society on account of infrastructure projects worldwide. IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute as part of its series #CityConversations organized a lecture with Dr. Deljana Iossifova titled Infrastructuring the City: Trajectories of Violence. Dr Iossifova is a Senior Lecturer, Urban Studies and Director, Confucius Institute, University of Manchester United Kingdom. She is also the Chair of the Urban Studies Foundation.

Prof. Darshini Mahadevia, Associate Dean, Arts, and Professor, Social Sciences, School of Arts and Sciences, Ahmedabad University, Ahmedabad set the tone for the conversation. It is important to take a critical lens to the urbanization of cities in the global south. There is a rapid expansion of infrastructure and economic growth, which has been emulated from China. This rapid expansion is not equitable. Research has indicated infrastructural violence that is experienced as structural violence on account of types of infrastructure incorporated.

Significance of infrastructure

Dr. Deljana Iossifova started her speech by voicing that Infrastructure shapes everyday life, social relations, urban life, and development trajectories. Violence is central to contemporary infrastructure. Further, there is an impossible balancing act between the benefit of infrastructural development and development’s impact on sustainability. Human infrastructure interaction takes place daily. There are Co-existing social practices.

She gave the broad definition of infrastructure by asserting that it includes resources, technology, humans who are entangled with nature. She located her concerns in Service networked sanitation in Shanghai (China) pointing to limited access to public toilets in Shanghai. Consequently, specific times and places have to be identified by the people for accessing toilets. There is Permanent temporality and extended boundaries of home in Shanghai. Therefore, infrastructure determines where, when and how social practices occur. Infrastructuring shapes the condition of social life to a great extent.

Hierarchies of practice

Privacy is a Privilege in the modern era for the upper and middle class. Dr. Lossifova gave several interesting examples to provide a simple explanation for this complex issue. Due to infrastructural problems, there are disputed family structures in Shanghai as when it comes to the division of a house between two brothers, only one of them can have access to tap water which leads to envy and bad relationship among the family members.

Similarly, a 30-year-old man who lives with his parents in Shanghai can’t get married as whenever he brings his girlfriend, she breaks up considering the situation of his house where even a toilet is not available. An interesting point to note here is that the western-style toilet seat is now a symbol of modernization!

Prof Kala Sreedhar, Professor, Centre for Research in Urban Affairs (CRUA), Institute for Social and Economic Change (ISEC), Karnataka emphasized the difference between active and passive infrastructural violence. Agreeing with Dr. Iossifova she pointed out that infrastructural violence exists when a group is deliberately hindered from accessing resources. Further, she talked about the effect of urban sanitation on urban GDP.

Stigma & exclusion

Resources are monopolized by a group or class and are used for other purposes (Galtung). Infrastructural violence has multiple modes and future trajectories. New Infrastructure replaces the old and the local which in itself is a manifestation of structural violence.

Furthermore, Dr. Lossifova mentioned the china toilet revolution as according to Xi Jinping “The toilet issue is no small thing, it is an important aspect of building civilized cities and countryside”. For achieving sustainable goals, proper infrastructure is the basic prerequisite for creating an equitable society.

There is systematic deprivation and exclusion by withholding infrastructure from marginalized social groups/ areas, constructing infrastructure in the city by intervention, demolition, replacement, and displacement. Violence stems from maintaining unsustainable infrastructure and depleting resources.

Dr. Ziming Li Assistant Professor/Lecturer, Wuhan University, Wuhan pointed to the linkage between insufficiency and violence that prevails everywhere due to lack of resources. She pointed out her interest in researching the space shared between people and animals in urban cities. The resultant urbanization leading to conflict between man and animals.

Inequality: gender and class

Dr. Rumi Aijaz, Senior Fellow and Head, Urban Policy Research Initiative, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), New Delhi mentioned the slums in cities, conflicts over water, and the practice of manual scavenging in India. The relocation of poor people to the peripheries of cities is a huge social problem for India. Thus, Equity in urban plans is the need of the hour. He also talked about various missions of the government that are targeted towards building proper infrastructures like the Smart cities mission, Swachh Bharat mission, and urban digital mission.

Dr Ambika Viswanath Co-Founder & Director, Kubernein Initiative; Non-Resident Fellow, Agora Strategy Institute, Germany highlighted the link between water and sanitation. She posed an important question by asking Dr. Lossifova about the situation of Women at the menstruating age in Shanghai and how they dispose of sanitary pads as social stigma is attached to periods. She also asked if there is a class divide in Shanghai in accessing the infrastructure.

Dr. Lossifova answered the questions by taking into account the ethnographic perspective as everything is in the process of changing. It is important to consider that the History of China is to understand infrastructural violence. There is a class divide in China that shapes inter-group relations.

Responding to Ambika Viswanath’s question, she emphasized the difficulties faced by pregnant women in Shanghai which is another location of infrastructural violence. She concluded by emphasizing that urban planning needs to respond to local needs to be ecologically efficient. Thus, extended conversations are the need of the hour

Further Dr. Arjun Kumar asked a question as to how to avoid quick fixes? Dr. Lossifova provided the way forward by positing that we have to consider situations on a case-by-case basis as one size fits all approach can’t work any more. Transdisciplinary work has to be developed to find an appropriate solution. Power dynamics are very much at play and they can be traceable, therefore a lot more integration and work are required.

Road ahead

Prof Kala Sreedhar provided the way forward by putting light on the link between open defecation- micro and macro level characteristic in Shanghai and what are the institutional arrangements regarding sanitation in China as in India it is much more fragmented. Dr. Rumi Aijaz focused on the interaction between citizens and the government as community involvement is crucial.

Ambika Vishwanath concluded by pointing out that Dr. Lossifova can also focus on the way nearby and far away water resources affect people’s lives. Dr. Zimling pointed to Dr. Lossifova could look at different tiers of the cities and also look at similar patterns in Asia for policy suggestions in her future research.

Prof Darshini concluded by highlighting that there is a link between deprivation and violence. According to her, proper data needs to be collected for implementing policies. Dr. Lossifova’s final words were that infrastructural violence is a multi-faceted system. There is complexity at the place. There are no clear answers. According to her, more research in the area of “Infrastructural violence” is required.

Acknowledgment: Ishika Chaudhary is a research intern at IMPRI and is pursuing BA Hons. in Political Science from Lady Sri Ram College, Delhi University

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