After twenty years working in Indian cities as an architect-planner-researcher, Jayaraj Sundaresan challenged existing urban theory to explain planning violations in Bangalore.

When I tell people I study urban governance and planning in Rio de Janeiro, a common response is a scoffing, ‘what urban planning?!’ Despite elaborate planning structures, many people think “chaos” or “dysfunction” in cities of the Global South are a result of a lack of planning policy, expertise, and enforcement. Planning—as technical knowledge, rule making, and bureaucratic implementation—is conceived as the categorical opposite of informal, illegal, or irregular. Given the blatant contradictions between planning-on-paper and material reality, some cynics dismiss urban planning altogether. A colleague once insinuated to me that studying urban planning discourses was pointless since “everyone knows that what happens on the ground is the exact opposite of what’s written on paper.” There is, however, a growing body of literature that deconstructs dichotomous thinking such as informal versus formal and planning versus irregularity. A number of scholars “from/of the global south” are embracing complexity and challenging parochial planning and developmentalist knowledge of urbanization.

Having grappled with the contradictions of planning, informality and the State in my own research (as have other colleagues on Favelissues), I want to highlight one researcher who, after two decades of experience and research, seems to have figured it out the at-times baffling contradictions between planning and practice, at least enough to write an intelligible PhD dissertation on urban planning and land violations in Bangalore, India.

bangalore above

Bangalore, ariel view. Source: http://tinyurl.com/qjxabmd


Jayaraj Sundaresan has 20 years of experience studying urbanism in India as an architect, planner, consultant, and academic. Perhaps due to this background in architecture and planning, his PhD dissertation in human geography is full of rich detail about the planning and decision-making processes. No detail was too small in his analysis of why practice deviates from urban planning and policy even in the face of a master plan that is itself a masterpiece. The resulting thesis, quoting from the abstract, “calls for an examination of how vernacular networks transform the governmentalised state to one that is friendly and familiar. In developing my thesis, I draw upon a wide range of theoretical literature on planning, development, informality, state and bureaucracy, corruption, anthropology of everyday state, urban politics, network governance, participation, social movements, neighborhood activism, planning power and governmentality.”

Below is an interview I conducted via email with Sundaresan about his conclusions, epistemological debates on informality, and lessons for planning professionals in India and beyond. Should you want to take a closer look at his thesis (an excellent source for current PhD students) you can find a link to download at this link)

In your dissertation you review how land use violations have been theorized as (i) informality, illegality, and irregularity; (ii) implementation failure, or (iii) corruption. You found each of these conceptual categories incapable of explaining land use violations in the middle-class neighborhoods of Bangalore. Can you tell us when and how you realized that existing literature simply could not respond adequately to your research question?

The real transactions that shaped the urban geography of Bangalore which was uncovering in front of me during my field work made these theoretical lenses helpless in front of incredible complexity. It was a difficult process forced by material from my ethnography. I found that violations are ubiquitous in Bangalore across class and social groups. Moreover government deviates from their own plan. The more I studied violations, the more I realized that violations are produced and sustained through a dynamic relationship between what I call plan violations and planning for violations. Planning for violation is a planning practice that legitimizes violations and therefore continues to sustain the process. For example, large areas that were violations became legal after routine regularization of many kinds – individual cases based change of land use approvals, en-mass regularization act, and reclassifying the areas of violations as mixed land use zones in the new Master Plan. The idea that planning and the reality are entirely separate in India is simply incorrect; they rather shape each other. This led me to study the practice of planning closely from the perspective of violations – i.e how the actors, institutions instruments, process, acts, and so on produce the practice of planning through their interaction. Cracking open the shell of the state to these elements revealed to me that complex networks of actors inside and outside government in various associational relationships are involved in the actual practice of governing. This challenged the underlying assumptions about the state and the formal process of governing that enables the above-mentioned literature to arrive at their conclusions. Those studies usually either theorized violations or theorized the shell of the state. They fail to take into account the actual practice of governing.

As you note in your work informality as a concept was developed primarily in reference to material conditions of the poor in the relation to the state in the “global South”. Your research deals with violations of planning norms in “non-poor” neighborhoods and developments. While there has been some research into informalities of the elite and middle class, would you ague that in conversations about housing and urban planning informality is class-bound?

I think so. Informality as I mentioned before was understood broadly within the framework of analysis of class inequalities and agency of the poor. This was the case for a long time until recently. I remember while in an important full day conference in London, the entire audience of urbanists seemed to have shared a common understanding of the word ‘informality’ as urban poor.  This I guess owes itself to the developmental scholarship – the genesis of which owes itself to the research programs that focused mostly on the poor people – either to enable states to provide better services to the poor people by studying either state side or the urban poor’s side, or the critique of that scholarship by staying within that framing to show how state and other allied classes and other agencies are disempowering the urban poor. With my limited knowledge I think this is the result of extending to global south the frameworks of analysis that was used in the countries like UK and US during the complex 1960’s.

What, if anything, does “vernacular governance” in relation to planning and land use violations have to say back to research on poor “informal” housing settlements? Perhaps particularly about planning interventions in those self-built settlements?

Vernacular governance is less of a theory, but more of a discovery that all abstract frameworks – weather of rule or of knowledge – acquires their reality only through the geographies and epistemologies of the vernacular. So I suggest that this is useful as a new language for a conceptualization that enables an analyst – weather practitioner, resident, activist or theorist – to move beyond theorizing the proxy abstract shells towards identifying the real interests and networks that is involved in their condition. It is time that we put real faces to abstract categories – specific actors, the networks, their ideologies, and interests, and their interactions for instance. So instead of portraying “informal” or “planning interventions”, it might be more useful to examine the specific networks of intervention and interactions and to examine if there is anything “planning” or “informal” about these processes. Therefore I would propose to move beyond a bounded category of informal in opposition to the formal towards understanding networks and processes in all transactions.

I would imagine that conceptualizing “violation” as an outcome of urban planning practice is quite controversial within the field of planning theory. How has your argument been received thus far by planning practitioners? Is there more resistance among those practicing planning?

Not really. Firstly this is only being written about and presented in various circles now, so perhaps some of them might be unhappy. Secondly, an academic work like this is not much of any significance in the world of planning practice in India that is far removed from any theorization of the practice. Planning practitioners in India currently are quite busy with making more and more plans by inviting famous international consultants. Bureaucracy is too arrogant to listen to a human geography based theorization of planning; they are more interested in international consultants’ wisdom of best practice. Policy elites, like bureaucrats know it all. Planning schools in India do not teach critical planning theory and the most critical planning academies in social science institutes in India are still busy deploying informality, dispossessions, neo liberal state, middle class, gentrification and so on. Also, there is almost no empirical study of planning practice in India. Having said this, I must also add that a reflective mood can be seen among a few sincere planners who recognize their helplessness and a need for renewed conceptualization to guide their practice.

Nobody likes to be told that their plans and methodology are destined for failure; but your research indicates that if a planner interprets deviation as such, then they should expect disappointment. Indeed your conclusions suggest that planning actually produces the violations: that this dance between the practices of planning and subsequent deviations is the productive essence of urban governance in the Global South. Building on the work of various urbanists of the postructural persuasion (Roy, McFarlane, Robinson) your work has significant implications for planning and development theory. But what about those who are studying planning and development with non-academic goals, or those who work in the field as professionals. What do you want them to walk away with?

I am glad you think this has significant implications. I am still trying to understand what it means for practice. I get asked this question often and I find myself thinking very hard on this now a days. Some straightforward implications can be (1) to become a reflective practitioner and not believe that one now knows to plan, it is important to ask very hard what do we really know as a planner and how relevant it is. (2) Practice of planning in democracies is fundamentally political – and not possible as an abstract bureaucratic intervention on a mute society. All planning frameworks emerged at some specific place at some specific time through local planning movements. Therefore an appropriate planning framework has to emerge (in India or wherever) from the political negotiations and planning movements within the context and not from best practice monopolies like US/UK/French/German planning consultants or their fans or World Bank and such.  (3) One can’t govern without consent; therefore it is a network of governance. (4) For government planners therefore it is most important that they are part of the local planning movement, if it doesn’t exist then it is better to constitute one. (5) One should choose their practice based on their political positions and reflexivity not based on the idea that they are experts on any best practice. (6) Research is central to any organization that works on planning. (7) Beware of the all-knowing policy elites. (8) Everyday Urban life is the next big cash cow for corporate interests – in the form of smart cities and integrated solutions to urban living, companies are fast moving into this economy. Services, housing, travel, cleaning, and so on. Therefore planning is like any other business; or it can also be very useful for political practice.

Jayaraj Sundaresan is an Associate Fellow at The Bartlett Development Planning Unit, University College London. He is also Associate faculty at Indian Institute for Human Settlements Bangalore.
You can download his PhD thesis here.


Follow my on twitter @yosoytucker for more about my research, urban politics and Rio de Janeiro

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