Understanding the Life of Law in the City

By Manish on August 23, 2019

The law, in presence and absence, pervades all aspects of everyday life. All our actions and interactions, especially in relation to the State, are either in conformity with or in opposition to some legal code or framework. As a “counterpart of the unwritten”, the law gives us a useful way to understand tacitness: as something in opposition to that which is formal, codified. Whether one is in conformity or in opposition at a particular moment is also often the result of a tacit decision. Constructing a statement of the law and the city thus involves understanding the impact the law has on the lives of people in the city.

As I see it, this happens at two levels. At the macro level, what I call the “structural life of law” impacts how the law shapes structures, institutions and processes within which people live and interact. This could include, for a neighbourhood, its formal/informal status, its location in the master plan, zoning and land use, etc. These are engagements, the terms of which are set not by the individual, but usually by the state, and negotiated at some higher level of collective or community.

At the micro-level, what is termed as the “everyday life of law” impacts how people interact with the law (and the State) on a day-to-day basis. These interactions may be carried out within the framework of the law, or in conflict with it, or around it, or in an attempt to bypass it. For most people in informal spaces, such everyday interactions might be with the police, or administrative officials, who dangle the Damocles’ sword of their informality as a constant reminder (for example, the chai vendor on the roadside who has to provide free tea to police constables to secure her spot on the footpath). Gleaning out tacitness from these interactions will also involve analysing how people view the law, and the spaces that it creates.

One way of understanding this is to look at how norms are followed. Norms may be created through formal processes (law) or informally (social codes etc). Often, the two may exist simultaneously and in tension with each other. For example, hailing an auto-rickshaw in a city may involve a number of tacit assumptions. The fare meter and government mandated fares are one norm. But there may also be other social norms in this transaction, depending on the time of day, place etc: an implicit understanding that one will have to pay more to reach certain areas (“I won’t get passengers while returning”), an understanding of what constitutes a “fair fare” for a particular distance. The end result is sometimes a combination of the two (“one and a half meter fare” or “twenty rupees extra”).

Codification sometimes may change these processes. For example, street vendors ran a long movement for legal protection for their activities, as a result of which Parliament passed the Street Vendors Act in 2014. While the Act addresses the demands of street vendors’ associations for legal protection and recognition, it also creates additional entry barriers by privileging existing vendors over new ones. What does being “legal” mean in these situations, to the people who are made “legal”, as well as to those who are not? And the question of how something becomes “legal” is beyond just the text of the law as passed in Parliament or the State legislatures. An array of written legal and administrative instruments such as rules, bylaws, and circulars are used to regulate spaces and people.

Informality has thus constructed a version of law: for instance, Delhi streets have boards stating that they are “zero tolerance zones” for traffic offences. Implicit in this is the understanding that the law is impossible to enforce in its entirety at all times, and that in places that are not marked as these zones, the law and its enforcers will “look away” until something catastrophic happens. These boards provide both signals to the general public: explicitly, that they must endeavour to comply with the law in these spaces, but also tacitly, that they need not do so fully, or “let their guard down,” elsewhere.

The two levels of inquiry (viz. the structural and the everyday) are also linked, as the question of how the law constitutes a place (and how a place then deals with the law in its various manifestations) is related to when do people who otherwise “evade” the law, see it fit to actually invoke it? For example, residents in an informal settlement are unlikely to approach the police by default and rely on internal dispute resolution mechanisms (such as community elders) instead. This is because they themselves are cognizant of their precarious existence in the eyes of the law, and that any engagement with authority might “increase their visibility” to the State and put them at further risk (of eviction, for instance). In what circumstances, then, do they see it fit to actually step out and invoke the protection of the State, and through what means?

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