The September floods in Bangalore gave rise to a narrative of despair and disappointment. The idea of India’s tech capital displaying the limits of India’s backward urban infrastructure held popular discourse hostage for a minute there. Debates about the encroachment and regulated city growth got resurrected, and a deluge of memes and posts hit social media.
As the floods receded, BBMP began its demolition drive. Luxury gated communities like Epsilon and Divyashri, and tech company offices like Wipro and Bagmane Tech Park were among the places notified by the municipality of having encroached on the city’s stormwater drain areas. But the drive only razed independent housing settlements and slums in the poorer areas of the city. The High Court stayed the order on any actions on Bagmane Tech Park for their transgression.
Inequality in India, as elsewhere, is the norm. The pressure of national progress places an existential burden to deal with inequality, poverty, and achieving affluence. The weight makes us stagger and stumble. The city of Bangalore is a microcosm of how great expectations weigh upon the country and inflects an existential burden on the people and the place.
A burden putting it at war with itself.
Urban anthropological and geographical studies routinely emphasize the human experience of urbanism; going beyond brick-and-mortar material conditions, beyond the functionality of infrastructure.
Philosopher Martin Heidegger’s concept of Dasein (or Being-in-the-world) is one that theorists like to go to, a concept fostering an existentialist understanding of what it means to live in urbanity. Being, for Heidegger, was not the ethereal abstract metaphysical concept but contextualized in the world around it.
So, he formulated the idea of Dasein (translated from German to ‘Being-There’). Where, you ask? Being-in-the-World - the activity of existing in relation to all things around you, and not in a void.
Key in the idea of Dasein is an active-interactive way of inhabiting one’s world, which Heidegger called dwelling. As an urban geographer points out, ‘dwelling’ refers to the spatially situated, in a constant reciprocal relationship with human and non-human networks, creating different types of assemblages.
Concerned Heidegger's running a con? Ask a philosopher to vouch for him then. If anything, it's me who failed to articulate okay, not Daddy Heidegger.
In other words, you do not just occupy space in the city, you actively interact. You traverse the road out from your apartment to the bus stop to catch a bus to work. In the midst of it, you’ll carefully swerve around the missing slab of the pavement, and duck under the live wires looming from the electric transformers above. You walk around the JCB destroying the footpath for road widening ahead of you. You may stop at a kiosk for a cigarette and tea since you have time to spare and talk to the shopkeeper about the incessant construction on this road, about whether his shop is still going to be there.
You’re not just interacting with the shopkeeper. You’re doing so with the pothole, the live wires, and the JCB. You’re dwelling. This may seem like an unnecessarily detailed description, but that’s how life goes. In details.
When the city began to bourgeon as India’s IT capital beginning in the 1990s, neoliberal logic took hold of Indian economic policy. Privatization of city development came into vogue. Private capital and market forces became entrusted to deliver our tryst with destiny – to fashion Bangalore into a Singaporesque city-state of global enterprise.
USAID’s Urban Reform Agenda, UK’s DfID, the Asian Development Bank (ADB), and the World Bank all wanted a slice of the action in Bangalore. The World Bank, having dictated a fair bit of the terms for India’s economic liberalization, expressly demanded urban funding diverted from providing basic developmental provisions (housing, education, healthcare, and so on) to subsidizing profit-generating entrepreneurial projects (shopping complexes, industrial and technological corridors).
It was always like this though. The burden on Bangalore to be some kind of a productive gold mine.
Post-independence, the city was a laboratory of Nehruvian nation-building. Bangalore developed as a hub for government-run public sector enterprises (PSEs) like Hindustan Machine Tools (HMT), Bharat Electronic Limited (BEL), and others. They set up factories and offices; they offered direct and indirect institutional and financial support for the construction of housing colonies; townships with schools, hospitals, shopping centres, and so on, for workers and nonworkers.
The pole position of modernity in the minds of the elite is best described by Nehru’s quote to Bangalore’s municipal corporation in 1962 used in Janaki Nair’s The Promise of a Metropolis: Bangalore’s Twentieth Century (2005):
Most of the cities of India remind one certainly of the present…the future, but essentially of the past. But Bangalore…more than any other great city…is…India of the future more specifically because of the concentration of science, technology, and industries in the public sector here…your great city represents the future we are moulding….
The future turned out to be a little inconvenient. Dwelling in the city is difficult today. It is not the “Pensioner’s Paradise”, or “Garden City” of yore.
A generalized concrete palette, one whose aesthetic may be called - "cement block, with a touch of glass."
Pockets of posh localities, amongst a sea of haphazard, crammed, and congested infrastructure and housing. Legendary traffic congestion and vanishing public places, lakes, and green spaces. Uneven growth, brought about by the obsessive pursuit of economic prosperity. Perennial construction across the city; roads and pavements - if not potholed - undergoing archaeological excavation.
Thus, Dasein feels desolate. We all have something to do with it. For Heidegger, we as Dasein dwell in a world with others such as us, all of us together making the aggregate ‘They’. Who are They?
You do not necessarily distance yourself from them; you are part of them. Because another way of looking at Them is to look in the mirror, at ‘oneself’. What is One taught by the other about how to behave and how to live? The sociocultural normative imperatives that compel you to behave in the “appropriate manner”. Standing in a queue while entering the bus; not standing at a kissing distance from strangers who are travelling with you. Sitting at work with some civilized decorum, and so on.
But what do They have to do with Bangalore’s abysmal infrastructure or urban studies? Everything, since… “we live in a society”. But like the Orwellian farm, some of Them are more equal than the rest of Them. They are just a little more patrician than plebian.
They let it be known pretty early who the city was supposed to serve, and who best stay out of the way. They decided what the legitimate form of urbanism and citizenship was.
The sunny spirits of independence and national fraternity barely lasted a decade. For as early as 1958, the Mysore Slum Areas (Improvement & Clearance) Act took inspiration from the Victorian view of slums being “detrimental to safety, health or morals.” Morals! Then sometime in the 1960s, a civic group called the Gokhale Institute of Public Affairs (GIPA) published a report claiming city elections being dependent upon the “wills and pleasures of slum dwellers…a source of great danger”.
The trend of disregarding the urban poor continues in 21st-century neoliberal Bangalore. Areas like Cox Town and Ejipura had middle-class-led drives of ‘urban renewal’, removing poor settlements, hawkers, and vendors (many of whom had obtained prior permits to conduct business in the area). In fact, the whole Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission from 2005-2014, and the subsequent Smart City Mission are built on the practice of removing the slums and settlements of the urban poor and forcing them to move out of sight from the ‘rejuvenated’ city.
Fallenness is a natural condition for people, for Dasein; one of life’s eternal challenges. For Heidegger, fallenness, or failure to live up to the authentic potentiality of Being, being complacent, having your experience levelled to the average set by Them.
For urban theorists Cullen and Knox, fallenness is what keeps cities locked in a pattern of hierarchies and inequities. Modern capitalist society’s dominant value systems dictate how the city is structured, and the people are locked in to follow the rules set by the overarching system. They dictate the parameters of how one behaves given one’s status, income, and age.
For the urban poor, this translates to existential angst about their position in the city. Will their homes have amenities, or even permission to exist the next day? Is a JCB choogling down the road? They have to focus on securing their position.
A 2020 survey of Bangalore slums observed the escape rooms of the bureaucratic labyrinth the urban poor have to navigate to get their settlements legally recognized. Some slums have the proper notification but do not have the promised amenities of electricity, water supply, and so on. Others are stuck for decades in trying to get government recognition, stuck in limbo. Many have all the electricity and water without having proper notification.
Their fallenness comes about as they are unable to bring about collective change for themselves, each slum instead is forced to fend for their existential security for the next day on their own. Forced to play the legalistic-bureaucratic game set by Them – more patrician than plebian.
For the privileged, their fallenness manifests in being out of touch with the city’s complex composite reality. Private gated communities rise to shelter them from the ramshackle urbanity of Bangalore, where every so often you hear of a fatal accident because of a live wire from a transformer, or potholes on the road. Roads too narrow for the volume of vehicles that amble along them every day.
They are sliced up in silos.
The diagnosis is the same, a fallenness of Dasein (of ‘Being-There’); force-fitting a certain idea of development that excludes and alienates a large swathe of people, and does not account for the sensitive environmental balance underlying any human habitation. One cannot wish away people who do not fit in the plan, or pour concrete over the terrain and expect it to remain a ‘garden city’.
They have to stop being at war with themselves, or their Being-in-the-world (Dasein). It starts by alleviating the unnecessary competitive burden of capitalist competition, and focusing on the existential condition of how liveable and inspiring the city is.
Academics lament in conferences that modern cities today do not inspire poetry as they used to, they do not “move us anymore”, it’s all just soulless concrete and glass buildings. Articles repeatedly reiterating Bangalore’s declining basic infrastructure (like this one), its vanishing lake-bed systems, environmental decline, its lack of public spaces, and so on. All because the focus is not on liveability and aesthetics, but on functionality.
If They won’t focus on liveability, the city will slowly turn unliveable. It sounds like a six-year-old’s logic because it is – that simple. Approaching urbanism with an existentialist lens is a paradigm shift that has to happen sooner or later. Best it happens before urban existence gets bleaker.
 See pg. 651 (in.) McFarlane, C. (2011). The city as assemblage: Dwelling and urban space. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 29(4), 649–671. https://doi.org/10.1068/d4710  See pg. 99-100 (in.) Benjamin, S. (2010). Manufacturing Neoliberalism: Lifestyling Indian Urbanity. In S. B. Guha (Ed.), Accumulation by Dispossession: Transformative Cities in the New Global Order (pp. 92–124). essay, Sage Publications.  The Promise of a Metropolis: Bangalore’s Twentieth Century (2005), Janaki Nair, page, 220.  See Pg. 1398 (in.) Ranganathan, M. (2018). Rule by difference: Empire, liberalism, and the legacies of urban “improvement.” Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space, 50(7), 1386–1406. https://doi.org/10.1177/0308518x18781851  See pg. 108 (in.) Benjamin, S. (2010). Manufacturing Neoliberalism: Lifestyling Indian Urbanity. In S. B. Guha (Ed.), Accumulation by Dispossession: Transformative Cities in the New Global Order (pp. 92–124). essay, Sage Publications.  Basu, I. (2019). Elite discourse coalitions and the governance of ‘smart spaces’: Politics, power and Privilege in India's Smart Cities Mission. Political Geography, Vol. 68, pp. 77–85. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.polgeo.2018.11.002  See pg. 285 (in) Cullen, J., & Knox, P. (1982). The City, the Self and Urban Society. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 7(3), 276–291. https://doi.org/10.2307/621991  Krishna, A., Rains, E. & Wibbels, E. (2020) Negotiating Informality– Ambiguity, Intermediation, and a Patchwork of Outcomes in Slums of Bengaluru. The Journal of Development Studies, 56(11), 1983-1999, DOI: 10.1080/00220388.2020.1725483  Senegala, M. (1999). ACSA International Conference. In La Città Nuova: Proceedings of the 1999 ACSA International Conference, 29 may-2 June 1999, Rome (pp. 257–263). Washington, DC; ACSA Press.