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The ‘missing middle’: class and urban governance in Delhi’s unauthorised colonies

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Abstract

This research critically engages with existing theories of class and urban governance, and is empirically located in Delhi, India. The paper argues that existing theories of urban participatory governance in the global South, which polarise urban citizens and their mobilisation strategies into the elite, typically understood as guilty of ‘capturing’ participatory structures; and the poor, conceptualised as excluded from formal governance mechanisms but active in more politicised forms of mobilisation, are incomplete. This research identifies urban citizens who fit neither the ‘elite’ nor ‘poor’ conceptual binary, and explores how such ‘ordinary’ citizens engage in participatory urban governance. Empirically, research addresses Delhi’s unauthorised colonies (UCs), residential areas that have evolved mostly on private land that is not classified ‘residential’ in the Delhi Master Plan. Housing roughly a quarter to one-third of Delhi’s population and comprising a mix of classes, UCs are technically illegal locations for residential development, are consequently excluded from Delhi’s network of basic urban services (water, roads, electricity) and face potential demolition. UCs are conceptualised as representing India’s ‘missing middle’ both empirically, highlighting the multiplicity of the middle class, and conceptually, revealing the failure of binary concepts to accurately describe participatory urban governance for those in ‘the middle’. In addition, analysis highlights how UCs’ invisibility (linked to their heterogeneity – i.e. their empirical and conceptual ‘middle-ness’) functions as both an asset and a limitation in terms of participation in urban governance. The paper calls for greater recognition in academic and policy debates regarding the nuances in everyday life that are overlooked by neat binaries. As the Delhi case shows, a large proportion of urban populations are neither ‘poor’ nor ‘elite’, and arguably a similar trend is likely to exist in cities throughout the world where segments of populations demographically in ‘the middle’ are ‘missing’ from academic and policy debates.

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