The soul of India might still live in its villages, but its body seems to moving by the million to our cities. Urban living is nothing new; we have one of the longest histories of urban civilisation, but the scale at which people are moving from the villages to cities today is unprecedented. As a result, urban India is at the vanguard of everything good and bad about our country's march into the future. Our cities are dynamic, entrepreneurial and - relatively speaking - socially egalitarian. They are also filthy and overcrowded, with common resources being overwhelmed by the demands put on them.

The 'city' is a truly global phenomenon, and modern cities whether in India or Nigeria or Europe are the most globalised elements of the world economy. Indeed it can be argued that a global city civilisation is emerging in which cities the world over are breaking away from their immediate surroundings and connecting with their peers globally. It takes about the same time to fly from Bangalore to Boston as it takes to travel from Bangalore to Dharwad.

The global city-civilisation has New York and London at its apex, Bangalore and Mumbai at intermediate stages, and Lagos as the dregs. While we might not have the unredeemable squalor of Lagos, the position of the Indian city in the global ladder is not enviable. The nature of resource extraction and social hierarchy being what it is, we have a local elite that would rather hobnob with its counterparts abroad (notice ads for cars and paints; all the houses and roads and even people look western), while trying their best to simultaneously exploit and stay away from their not-so-fortunate neighbours.

What does this tell us about the way the imagination of the city is being constructed in India? Given the historically feudal nature of the society, one thing that comes to mind while looking at such trends is that economic and political events continue to be founded on a psychological basis. I.e. what is happening at the macro-scale is the aggregation of particular cognitive characteristics of Indians at individual levels (and an Indian way of thinking), with each shaping the other.

The privatisation of behaviour

Anthropologists and other social scientists have claimed that India is a ritual culture, i.e., a society where social relations are dictated by ritualised rules of conduct, with caste rules being the most prominent. Ritual culture is fundamentally incompatible with modern city life, for we are always interacting with people we do not know and do not know how to place.

Fifty years ago, city life might have been different; people may have lived in the same neighbourhoods all their life, interacting with the same grocers and policemen. When everyone knows everyone else in their own locality and the rest of the city is essentially irrelevant, the city is nothing but a cluster of villages. Unlike villages, pre-independence Indian cities were not primarily organised according to caste, but social relations were – in my opinion - still ritualised. The modern Indian city is too dynamic to be ritualised in the same manner; everything is changing too fast to settle into ritualised interactions.

The modern Indian city is too dynamic to be ritualised in the same manner as in the past; everything is changing too fast to settle into ritualised interactions.

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This is both good and bad. In a ritual culture no one is anonymous; everyone has a place; in a modern city, there is freedom to make ourselves into something we were not, but it comes at the cost of alienation and fragmentation.

In the west, alienation and anonymity are partially countered by the presence of strong civic institutions like operas, bookstores, parks and cafes where people can participate in a 'high culture' which is one of the main attractions of city living. Civic institutions are enabling in nature, i.e., they give us positive benefits without a negative downside. Their counterpart is the rule of the law, i.e., social norms that people have voluntarily agreed as a curb on their wilder tendencies, and enforced by the police and judiciary. Western cities then have an implicit contract with enabling and disabling aspects that make city life bearable.

Indian cities, on the other hand, have neither. We do not have strong civic institutions that welcome everybody into a common civic space. Instead, all behaviour is being privatised. What civic institutions there were - such as the India Coffee Houses - are on the one hand being turned into more commercial establishments with less emphasis on public interactions. At the same time, individual behaviour is also highly privatised - it is in everybody's collective interest to follow road rules and yet no one does so - a classic case of the destruction of the commons by the pursuit of private advantage.

Privatised behaviour is different from deceit or pure thievery: unlike the spammers in Lagos asking for your bank account number where they promise to deposit twenty million dollars, privatisation of behaviour is about gaming the system so that individuals can get a small advantage. It is not about preying on others as much as getting ahead a little bit. There might even be a recognition that others are also trying to make do, so people are willing to make small adjustment for others.

The problem is that this 'adjust maadi' mode, as we call it in Bangalore, is extremely inefficient for the system as a whole, even if it is not particularly corrupt at the local level. The main reason for the systemic inefficiency of local adjustments is because you are only reacting to the behaviour of people immediately around you, without any concern for people who are further away. In cities, influences percolate over large distances. A traffic jam in one corner of the city can slow down traffic all over. Adjust maadi cannot respond to all those long distance influences, as a result of which traffic is bad for everybody.

I view privatisation of behaviour as a psychological condition, of which this is one symptom. Whenever behaviour is privatised, the normal constraints on social interactions are removed, because we no longer feel that we are fully responsible to each other or to a larger entity such as the state. It could easily descend into chaos if privatisation metastasizes into a full blown 'every man for himself' attitude.

A halfway stage

Cities are too large and too diverse to be sustained on the basis of individualised social relations, whether they are of ritual origin or otherwise. On the other hand, the abstract social contract prevalent in western cities cannot be transplanted to India at will. It may happen once or twice, say in a place like Chandigarh, but no organically grown city in India will be able to reproduce it fully. Privatisation of behaviour is the middle ground between the extremes - it is not the ritualised social relation of the past, since it is directed at strangers, but it is too local and fragmented to be a genuine social contract.

This is perhaps the crucial difference between India and China. In China, the state can dictate whatever it wants. Indian democracy, for better or worse, will never allow the use of state power that is normal in China. Instead, we have two dysfunctional models for social relations in urban India:

  • The concrete ritual social relations enjoyed by Indians in villages and cities of premodern India. The rules that apply here - dictating who should interact with whom, and on what hierarichical basis - may never have been fully obeyed, but at the very least they are norms that have some reach and power in the Indian context.

  • The abstract social contract between the individual and the city/state. Here individuals are not making a contract with other individuals, but to an abstract entity like the city/state, which in turn provides the enabling and disabling factors that I mentioned before.

Privatisation of behaviour is occupying the space left open by the dysfunctional modes of social engagement. It is only a halfway stage, with the accompanying uncertainty of being one - we could be on the way towards lawlessness on the one end, or a functioning social contract on the other. We may need a third model for our cities, neither the ritual behaviour of our villages, nor the abstract model of western cities. What might such a model look like?