On Spatial Agency, Labor and Laying Claim to the City: A Conversation with Mark Frazier

By Niyati Dave  |  February 24, 2020

Eesha Kunduri, Research Associate at the Centre for Policy Research, had the chance to engage Mark W. Frazier, Professor of Politics at The New School and Academic Director of the India China Institute,  in a conversation about industrial geographies, migrant labor and the ways in which thinking about spatial agency can nuance our understanding of industrial sociology and urbanization.  Frazier’s research interests focus on labor and social policy in China, and more recently on political conflict over urbanization, migration, and citizenship in China and India. His latest book, The Power of Place: Contentious Politics in Twentieth Century Shanghai and Bombay (Cambridge University Press, 2019), examines long-term changes in political geographies and patterns of popular protest in the two cities. Eesha’s research interests broadly lie in industrialisation and urbanisation, with a special focus on the organisation of work and labour markets. 

Excerpted below are some highlights from their discussion.

Eesha Kunduri: I want to begin by talking about your forthcoming book on Comparative Political Geographies in Mumbai and Shanghai. As I understand, the book is about your experiences of attempting to understand de-industrialization and relocation policies in both these cities, so I’d like to begin by asking how the idea of comparatively looking at Mumbai and Shanghai came about? 

Mark Frazier: Like with every book length project a scholar does, the ideas go very far back. I recall that in the late 1990s when I was working on my dissertation, which was in part about Shanghai textile workers and the informal arrangements they had in terms of hiring, there were a few references to the cotton textile workers in Bombay and the work of the late Rajnarayan Chandavarkar ( whose work I did not pick up until around 2013, when I began working on this project). 

So to more directly answer the question, I had this seed of an interesting observation way back, about comparing labour politics in Shanghai and Bombay. Then, when I came into the India China Institute at The New School  in 2012, I began having conversations with colleagues there, who are urban design specialists, architects, even urbanists, including Parsons School of Design faculty who impressed upon me the ways in which spatial politics can help shed light on things that an ordinary political scientist like me often tends to overlook. In other words, it’s been an idea that’s been brewing for a long time. In the last seven years, coming to the India China Institute helped me in seeing that it is actually possible to do a comparative project. With the support of ICI and the The New School, I was able to pull this off.

Eesha Kunduri: It’s very interesting that you speak of Rajnarayan Chandavarkar’s work. While he’s talking about colonial Bombay, I read his work in the context of what I was finding among industrial workers in Delhi and Ludhiana. I thought that there were striking resonances. I found it very fascinating that in Chandavarkar’s writing,  there was this whole idea of how caste is reformulated in the urban space. You know, it’s been a long standing debate amongst scholars of labour whether class action gives way to other forms of solidarities, along the lines of caste, but Chandravarkar was one of the scholars to emphasize that it is not a simple binary of just class giving way to caste. Caste does get reformulated. One of the other fascinating insights for me from his historiography, is the relationship between labour politics and urban politics and how the two are enmeshed and intertwined, because in some sense, I would say I share some insights with you and I also came to look at questions of space and spatiality, driven first by an interest in labour, industrial spaces and the city.  It’s only when I started reading the work of historians like Chandavarkar and the work of labour geographers, did I realize that there was something about spatial agency which conventional industrial sociology would not look at. Do you have any thoughts on this observation of mine?

Mark Frazier: Yeah, in fact I was in Mumbai last week and I was at a conference with a recent Ph.D, Babasaheb Kambale (graduate of University of Mumbai – Department of History), who has worked a great deal on labour politics in Mumbai in the textile and mill districts, and spent a great deal of time there. He argued that Chandavarkar and others in their work tended to exaggerate the extent to which class and the experience of work in the cotton mills subsumed the caste differences and in fact the scholar was arguing that if one reads more of the Bombay police sources and the Bombay mill owner associations and some of the usual sources, it does look like more of a class battle going on. But if one reads the Marathi sources, you see that there is a great deal of exclusionary practices and policies that we associate with caste. In pushing back against the scholar’s argument, I said, “But what about these huge strikes, that happened in 1919, in 1928, 1934 or 1938?” and his point was that, during large scale mobilization of that sort, they put aside gender, caste, religion and went out and marched together as workers but in ordinary times, while  living, eating, walking around and finding a place to live, these caste distinctions would be salient.

I think it’s worth further research to take a closer look at some of the chawl residency patterns, to see if in fact there is spatial division by caste. The Dalits would live in this part of the BDD chawls, and the higher caste Marathas would live over here in those BDD chawls, and that’s another way of also pointing out that while I did this work in Mumbai, I did not have the resources, time or the energy at my age to acquire Marathi or Hindi. I think that the ideal for comparative work if you are comparing two nations or two places with different cultures and religions and languages then it is important to use the sources that are out there and often times that requires obtaining language proficiency. But it’s very rare to be able to do Chinese and Hindi or Chinese plus an Indian language besides English.

Eesha Kunduri: On the caste factor, I just wanted to clarify, what I meant was that unlike other scholars of labour who emphasize that class gives ways to caste, Chandavarkar was one of the few who still recognize that caste is significant in social organization. In fact, in his writing he stresses about how migration streams continue to be segmented along caste and community lines. He’s  even spoken about neighborhoods and occupations being segmented around caste and regional and religious lines. His work is fascinating for me also because he recognizes the fluidity of these identities across rural-urban spaces, and while speaking about industrial action and space, not space in the way perhaps geographers talk about today but in a very different sense of looking at archives and talking about neighbourhoods as sites of clinical action. In my own work with industrial labour, I look at the intersections of caste and gender among industrial migrants. One of the things I say is that migration is much more than an economic decision to make a better life for yourself. It is also an escape from a low caste position back in the village. In the case of upper caste workers, some of the narratives of workers would be like “I cannot even open my own shop in the village because there are notions of appropriate work that are attached to my caste“ or ideas like, “ I studied till class 12 or I graduated and I studied in a college and if I go back now to my village and do farming people would ask what use my education has, if you have to plough the fields.”

 I connect these narratives to a larger question about the relationship between work identity and the  stigma and respect associated with certain kinds of work and therefore cull out an argument that caste and notions of stigma and respect deeply shape ideas of work among industrial migrants. So you may be in a very precarious position as an industrial worker doing routine machine operation, but the way you present yourself is in a more dignified manner. You say “but I work on so and so machine and so my work is respectable work” and this is contrasted with occupations like farming, which are considered, non-respectable for educated migrants or even for upper caste migrants or in relation to stigmatized work within the city like paid domestic work inside someone’s household or rickshaw pulling in Delhi. Raka Ray has talked about how these occupations have been intrinsically linked to notions of stigma and servitude in her work in Cultures of Servitude.

I make an argument that caste and gender intersect to determine not only how you look at the decision to migrate but also how you relate to your work in the city, especially  in terms of being an industrial worker and the neighbourhood where you stay. In that sense I felt that Chandavarkar’s work was quite fascinating.

Of late, I have been really inspired by this scholarship on labour geography, given my own interest in histories of industrial labour and notice that in your work you are straddling the domains of urban studies and labour studies and in your talk at Ambedkar University, Delhi, you spoke about spatial agency, so I was wondering if we can talk a bit more about that, coming from your own roots in labour scholarship.

Mark Frazier: I think my interest in spatial politics emerged as I was looking at labour politics and housing policy in the two cities historically. In some ways it’s an old debate: organize within the workplace, or in the neighborhood? Is an appeal to class solidarity effective, or is a geographical form of identity, such as neighborhood or even urban citizenship more powerful? In the scholarship on some of the big events associated with each city’s history in terms of strikes, riots, social movements and in Shanghai and Mumbai, I noticed that one of the key ingredients to success was forming solidarities based on place, and less so on class. Over a broad span of time, as the political geography of the city changes—work and residential patterns, public space, etc.—one sees a changes in identities and in the kinds of claims that are made by city residents.

So, I was interested, Eesha, in your work on Delhi, how far back do you try to go when you are analyzing industrial labour and migration, have you found it helpful to try to trace back to the 70s or even the 40s, some of these processes?

Eesha Kunduri: That’s an interesting aspect but I have to admit that I haven’t fully looked at the historical evolution of industrial labour in the city, also because we have to recognize that unlike a city like Bombay or you know Calcutta, Delhi has never been an industrial city.

The context in which I locate my own work in Delhi is in the context of the larger question of industrial planning and zoning. For a city like Delhi, the masterplan is the guiding document, and I looked at Delhi for research I started in 2013, with Sumangala Damodaran at Ambedkar University Delhi, and we actually grounded our research within a wider context of planning.

We looked at an old estate, Wazirpur Industrial area which came about in the 60s during early phases of industrial planning in the city. It’s located in North-West Delhi, right across the now extended yellow line of the Delhi Metro, which is very close to Azadpur. It is very close to the a marketplace for fruits and so as you walk past that area, it has pockets of bastis,what administratively are JJCs, jhuggi jhopri clusters, but what Gautam Bhan, other urban scholars and residents would call basti, meaning literally, a settlement. 

It used to be a garment producing area, but today it’s predominantly steel utensil manufacturing.  You walk past the area, it has pockets of industrial activities, and creates an image that could resonate with old accounts of an industrial space in historical or anthropological work. 

You have workers on cycle-rickshaws ferrying steel plates that have been cut from and to other factories, semi-open spaces where you see workers working on the hot furnaces and rolling out sheets of steel which would then go for further processing or even finished products. There is a smell of soot and dust. This space of production is very entangled with the spaces of residence, so often the factory would end here and the basti would start here. A lot of these bastis had their official classification as ‘[A] Wazirpur Industrial area’. it was an empty industrial plot where people have built their homes over a period of time and we then compared that to a new industrial area [Patparganj]. 

Just to give you context, Delhi has had waves of industrial relocation.In 1996, the Supreme court directed that all hazardous and noxious industries that were ‘non conforming’ according to the Delhi master plan, were to be moved to peripheral estates in the city. Consequently, a lot of industrial areas within the city shut down, and moved to more peripheral estates. Sumangala Damodran and I have looked at an old estate like Wazirpur, and a new estate like Patparganj. Patparganj is an estate that came up after the 1996 Supreme Court order on relocation of hazardous and noxious and non-conforming industries. Essentially, non-conforming industries are what the Delhi master plan and industrial policy identify as units within residential areas where they are a source of pollution, and that are ‘proliferated’ and ‘unchecked’– those are the terms the policy uses. 

Like I said, in Wazirpur, the important point to note is that the space of production is very closely linked to the space of residence, so there is a basti and workers walked to work. Few estates like Okhla would also have similar kind of geographies, but Patparganj is a completely modern estate with well laid out roads, fancy glass buildings and ‘clean industries’, so something like steel would never be functional in any of these new industrial areas. These new industrial areas have garments etc. Patparganj in particular has aspects like plastic, packing, packaging and very light manufacturing, and car showrooms. The workers in these industrial estates live in urban villages around the estate. In one of the areas we also found a basti which was close, but still at some distance, about a distance of three kilometres, but not in the way the production space and the geography of residence comes together in a place like Wazirpur. In these urban villages, the nature of housing is very similar to what one would typically find in a tenement style housing, similar to the chawls in Bombay because they have some open courtyards and multiple rooms with little light or ventilation and common toilet and bathing facilities. One of the arguments we made in our project report was that the change in the geography of these new industrial spaces gives rise to certain forms of residential spaces, wherein the relationship as to how urban dwellers can stake claims to the city is substantially reconfigured. For example, if you are residing in a basti over a long period of time versus if you are a new migrant to the city, a far more circulating migrant, who goes back to the village regularly, with limited attachment to the city. Because in a lot of these tenements, residents do not even have proof of address, which a lot of basti residents have, so there is that difference in material terms in how you can lay certain claims to the city.

Mark Frazier: And it’s this kind of citizenship claim, isn’t it? The production and the industry and the connection between workplace and residence is part of Chandavarkar’s argument too, but if we look at Shanghai, we look at Mumbai and Delhi in the 21st century, we see the manufacturing jobs as a category are vanishing as these cities de-industrialize and maybe Delhi was never that industrialized, so it didn’t have may manufacturing industrial jobs in the first place. But in development studies, whether you’re looking at it from a pro-growth perspective or just an employment perspective, the essential condition for development  in underdeveloped countries is growth in manufacturing jobs and these claims about manufacturing jobs and their importance are based on macro-economic data and large data sets that don’t often get down to the fine grain of looking closely at cities and their layout and their industrial zoning. I guess the question that arises to me is how do cities in the future–whether they are in the so-called Global North or the so-called Global South–how are they going to produce job opportunities across a wide range of educational, income and other kinds of categories?

It seems to be an area of concern. It’s certainly an area of concern in US cities and in the US economy generally. It seems to me that because of this common challenge, it doesn’t make sense anymore to talk about the old categories of Global North- Global South, industrialized or developing but all of these spaces, all these cities, all these economies, while admitting their numerous distinctions and differences, still have this question of where will the jobs be and when you ask where will the jobs be, you also ask where will the residences be, because as your comments just noted, it’s almost a law of physics that residences pop up next to employment because of the need to be close by.

Eesha Kunduri: So, part of my question was in response to argument about the relationship between workplace and employment and the fact that people tend to live close to their places of employment, particularly in the informal sector and even in formal, regular jobs for the sake of reduced commute time.

I’m going to jump into that question of relocation and resettlement now. The question of proximity of housing to employment centres has been a contentious question, as we have seen in the context of Delhi, in waves of evictions in the city

Bombay is a slightly different case because in Bombay the geography of the city is still such that the policy is that you will still be relocated at a certain distance, but not as peripherally compared to Delhi, where people have been thrown away from the inner city to places 30- 40 kilometres away. In my experiences of doing fieldwork in some of these resettlement colonies,  people from the centre of the slums and people from bastis have been moved to peripheral relocation sites and all they got was a piece of land on which they had to reconstruct their home from scratch. This happened in the 1960s, 1970s, and early 2000 in the wake of the Commonwealth Games. Now in the 1970s, we went through the emergency. Delhi hosted the Asian Games in 1982 and thereafter in the build up to the Commonwealth Games, you had city beautification drives, cleaning up the city in accordance with the world class city discourse globally, which obviously had its local manifestations in Delhi.  One of the things which many of us who have worked on resettlement sites have noticed is that the government does not seem to have learned from its past experiences of resettlement because resettlement continues to be at peripheral locations. In fact, oral history accounts tell us that one of the common running threads in these resettlement studies is that “we were thrown in a jungle, or this was a jungle when we came here” and in lots of cases, the people continue to commute to their old places of work, traversing that distance every day and substantially adding to their cost of living. Especially in Chennai, in the case of Kannige Nagar, where  people have been completely uprooted from their sources of livelihood and continue to depend on their old places of residence and employment or like in the case Baprola, which is the new housing model of relocation, which is now what the Delhi government has implemented. Some of the newspaper reports and findings of reports from the housing and land rights network tell us that some of the men continue to stay on rent near their old places of work and travel. Based on this, I was wondering what you found in Shanghai, because my understanding is that the resettlement sites are quite far away from the city centre, so what did you find in Shanghai in terms of distance and the relationship to employment centres?

Mark Frazier: It’s useful to think in terms of categories of relocatees and there are comparable categories here, but the policies are somewhat different with the Delhi case and possibly with the Mumbai case but the basis for division in terms of citizenship in China is whether you have a rural registration or an urban registration and this directly plays into relocation policies.

That is to say, that if you are a resident of an old tenement housing called the lilong in Shanghai, and you acquired ownership of this flat in the 1990s through a kind of privatization scheme, if the government wants to evict you because they are going to sell this plot to a Hong Kong developer who’s going to build a high rise and shopping malls, you are entitled to compensation. In the 1990s when this process was beginning, there were unfair levels of compensation and district level government officials were extremely corrupt about how they managed this process. 

Coming to urban residents versus rural residents,  if you moved to Shanghai and you are working in some of the [service] occupations, such as hotel staff, cleaning staff, hauling things in markets, taxi drivers, you are not entitled to any compensation when the government comes to break up your settlement. Migrants in Shanghai, in the last several decades have lived in urban villages, they are slightly different than urban villages  in India in terms of property ownership but it’s the same idea, that it’s rural land upon which housing has been built and migrant workers are not entitled to any form of compensation. That’s the rural-urban divide in terms of how compensation and relocation works and there is no real relocation for migrants.

It’s just bulldozing and eviction and then finding some place to live elsewhere in the city. A sub-category of the urban residents is the textile workers. In the early 1990s, there were 550,000 textile workers, still going to work at these state-owned enterprises which eventually went bankrupt. Through bankruptcy procedures, over a 5-year period, there were about 450,000 textile workers laid off and many of them retained ownership of their housing through the privatization scheme but when they got relocated they got apartments just like a non-textile worker and ordinary urban residents. I have visited these relocation housing complexes, in 2017 and 2018, and I have to say that in the last 5 years, the Shanghai government has poured enormous amounts of money into what looks a bit like social housing. Even though the flats that these relocatee’s families are getting are on average about 800 and 900 square feet, they are in the periphery but when you talk about Shanghai, which is almost 6000 square kilometres, and has the largest metro system in the world, you’re in the periphery but you’re also not so far away, you’re maybe a half a kilometre from a metro station. I visited a place that has 100,000 people living in it, in several dozen high rise buildings in the middle of this field, they can still walk to the metro and I asked them, if they go back to their old neighbourhood, they said maybe 3 or 4 times a year to go visit old friends from the neighbourhood. They complain that for serious diseases and serious medical conditions, the hospital that would treat such a situation is far away but otherwise clinics are nearby, there are very good provision of basic amenities like water etc.

In the late 1990s and in the first decade of the 21st century, some other scholars who interviewed and did oral histories of the kind you just referred to found that the residents said, “we feel like we have been moved out”. They said they will suddenly become peasants because they were moving out to a part of Shanghai that at that time was literally just a rural region and they were given an apartment block but there was no paved road in front of the apartment block and there was no water, no gas lines, there was electricity but  it was very crude. Shanghai has been relocating residents for 20 years and it’s only been in the last few years that I think these residents have been given amenities that housing experts from around the world would give their strong seal of approval to. It’s an interesting question, because in Delhi you have active and politically connected NGOs, you have a very powerful court system and lawyers who are fighting on behalf of relocatees and victims of relocation. In China, all of those actors are completely repressed and always have been, especially recently, yet anybody who will visit these two places would say, “yes it’s terrible to be relocated from the city centre but Shanghai’s doing a better job you know than the typical Indian city”. Someone I was talking to today, I think it was a little bit flippant, but they said, “Oh, China doesn’t need NGOs or lawyers if they are doing such a good job to have these relocation, compounds and policies”,  but it is more complicated than that.

The other thing is that the Shanghai government is the equivalent of a state level government, it’s a provincial level unit and the leaders of Shanghai are equivalent to a party secretary or a provincial governor, so in the way in which the Delhi government is its own city-state, Shanghai is a provincial level city which gives it more resources and more capacity than a smaller town. 

I think to talk about gaps in research, I’m looking at the most overstudied cities in each country, and I know CPR has some scholars who are looking at small towns, and I think this is really an interesting area of enquiry too. In China, there are many small towns that are now growing larger, they are beginning to appropriate agricultural land and put peasants who lived on that land into social housing, they are being relocated from their land, and given urban citizenship in the form of an urban household registration, but they are being crammed into these block like towers and there are these predictable dislocations– the sense of dislocation and the sense of having had half an acre or one acre farm and now living in a 80 square metre apartment.

Eesha Kunduri: I sort of just want to add on to the last aspect on the sense of dislocation, I had been to Vashi Naka with the TISS team, sometime in November of 2017, and one of the things we did realize was that there was an ambiguous sense of what resettlement has done for the residents. There was one sense of “now we are society people, we are people who stay in the buildings, we are organized into co-operative housing society” and now there’s a certain manner in which you conduct your representation with the state, vis a vis your earlier position of a more precarious, basti resident, but on the other hand, there was also this sense of what the building does to other forms of mobilization which a basti allows for. The idea of home based work for instance, which I find in bastis; women get work from nearby industries and do little things like cutting the excess thread at their residences or in the case of my research, I found aspects like a printing press that manufactures bookmarks, and women put threads on top of the bookmarks and basic packing, packaging operations which women do from their home and women also express a preference, not in terms of home based work versus going to a factory which I talk about in other paper with my colleague Sonal Sharma, so one thing is resettlement also affects these aspects.

If there is a basti, there is a common space where people can put together a cot on which the women sit and perform home based work in the afternoon. These aspects are completely disrupted in a flat based resettlement, which is something one of the women told my colleague Mukta Naik when we were having these interactions in Vashi Naka, so I was wondering if you have any similar thoughts from  Shanghai and I recognize that the question of politics and solidarity, it’s not an easy comparison given the varied context of India and China but I was just wondering what reflections you would have from the Shanghai case?

Mark Frazier: Yeah, I think that to the extent that whether it’s home based work or subcontracting, in the Chinese case, it’s going to be done by migrants to the city and their small scale operations are as vulnerable to relocation. I shouldn’t say relocation when it is eviction and demolition of the urban villages and settlements in which they live. This is absolutely brutal for migrant workers because their settlements are demolished, and their home based work or their nearby home based work and their livelihoods are demolished along with it. It’s often the case that they stay in the shop and the shop stays with them in these urban villages. There was a terrible episode in Beijing in late 2017 where the government very quickly announced that it was going to displace about 100,000 people  their places of residence and their shops which were right next to each other and I think this goes back to the question of jobs and livelihoods in the city, throughout history, migrants have been engaged in contract work, participating in a system where a formal operation will send off some product for a bit of finishing, a bit of touching up, a bit of adding on a thread, or a patch and what not, and if urban governments like those in China decide that they don’t want to have this kind of occupation in the city, how is that justified? Even though we shouldn’t, if we were putting ethics and morals aside, how can you imagine a city where there are no low income people when you’re going to have all sorts of hotels, restaurants, office towers etc, who’s going to do the jobs associated with maintaining them, repairing and cleaning them, for example?

Eesha Kunduri: And I think it raises larger questions of their right to the city itself. It may be helpful to go back from where we started, regarding the question of how you see this material in a larger comparative frame of you theorizing about cities, theorizing about jobs and employment, and theorizing about what forms of contemporary politics arise in the city?

 Mark Frazier: The more I consider the last two decades, consider the changes in the urban political geographies whether it’s metros, it’s special economic zones, hosting of events, whether it’s the Beijing 2008 Olympics, Commonwealth Games, the Shanghai Expo, which was also an excuse to drive out millions of people and lots of industries. I’m not saying every place is the same, but there are these similar related processes happening across these cities and the liberalization of land has created a scramble for space, has created a scramble for housing, scramble for finding a livelihood and this leads to a different kind of politics. I’m not saying it’s a better or worse kind of politics, but it’s a kind of politics that doesn’t see the public and the citizens proactively saying to the government, “here’s what we want to do” rather it becomes a politics of the public and the citizens saying to their government, “compensate me for what you’re going to do as the sovereign power, and then you as the sovereign get to just relocate me willy nilly”. The master plans become almost these constitutional documents where governments can say, “Well, this is what the master plan says so you get to move” and the poor citizens can only work out a better deal rather than ask questions about why they can’t write the constitution or why they can’t be involved in drafting the master plan. Of course, they do all the public participation and public hearings and all that but at the end of the day, it’s a very different kind of state-society relationship than one found in the 50s and 60s, mid 20th century and certainly different from the one found in the first part of the 20th century where you had a dynamic between citizens, urban citizens and a state that was a far more imperial entity and it’s not surprising that you had really interesting nationalist politics at that time. It’s a little bit of a pessimistic assessment of the current moment that we are in.


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