Policy Engagements and Blogs

CPR Faculty Speak: Marie-Helene Zerah

May 6, 2022

Marie-Helene Zerah is a Senior Visiting Fellow at CPR’s Initiative on Cities, Economy & Society, where she is focusing on the role of small towns in India in the urbanisation process and urban energy governance. She is a Senior Researcher at the Institute of Research for Development, Paris. In this edition of CPR Faculty Speak, she talks about her work and interests at CPR, why they matter, what impact she hopes to achieve and more.

Tell us about your research work and interests at CPR.

I have been associated with CPR since 2010 when we launched a monthly urban workshop series with my colleague, Partha Mukhopadhyay. From then on, my work has focused on the role of small towns in the urbanisation process. I was the co-coordinator of a research project titled, Subaltern Urbanisation in India, that aimed to make the diversity of urbanisation pathways visible beyond metropolitan cities. This desire to look at smaller urban settlements, including urbanising villages, came from a need to move beyond big towns, in particular Delhi and Mumbai, where I had conducted research for many years. I felt there is much more to the representation of the urban in India.

Why do these issues interest you? 

I started my research looking at water access in Delhi and then moved on to governance issues related to other infrastructure. I have also been interested in the relationship between urban governance, democracy and the right to the city. My reading of urban India has revolved around a range of topics- for instance the role of bureaucrats in urban governance, the emergence of resident welfare associations, the unequal access to basic services in slums etc. In fact, I have published in French (and hope to work on an updated English version) a book titled, How India Urbanizes, in order to bring all these strands of research together. To put it simply, I am trying to develop a comparative approach to understand the complex and diverse nature of Indian development and raise questions about its future possible paths.

How have these issues evolved in the country and globally over the years?

My key focus is to understand why, in the context of sustained economic growth, access to basic services is not generalised to include all urban citizens in India. Changes are not rapid enough and I am trying to make sense of the various factors that prevent faster improvement. I think the priority status given to large metropolitan areas, the emergence of urban regimes favouring real estate speculation as well as megaprojects have overlooked the needs of many poor settlements and far-away urban places. Additionally, the commodification of basic amenities and the push for public modernisation have increased the heterogeneity of socio-spatial arrangements in terms of access to urban services, and thereby access to the city. Finally, the fragmentation of public action reflects the multiple social divisions, which in turn foster the clientelistic dimensions of a vibrant democracy. All these factors combine to create a differentiated citizenship, which makes it difficult to build a shared urban future.

What impact do you aim to achieve through your research?

As an academic, I would like to contribute to the “Southern turn” in urban studies. I think our collective work on Subaltern Urbanisation did achieve this by bringing to the fore the urbanisation of the rural in emerging countries. India will have the highest contribution to future world urbanisation and by 2050 the number of Indian urban citizens is estimated to reach 800 million. The stakes and the challenges are high, be it social, environmental or political. I would like my work to bring a nuanced understanding of these issues within policy circles.

What does a typical day look like for you at CPR? 

I am often one of the first to arrive in the office. I usually start with checking my emails and planning my day. I try to keep my mornings for writing and my afternoon for meetings. However, in the last few years, my responsibilities have increased with the coordination of a team on Smart Cities and institutional tasks at my home institution (the French National Institute for Sustainable Development, IRD).

What are you currently working on and why is it important?

I am currently working on a project on Smart Cities governance in three Indian states (Madhya Pradesh, Punjab and Karnataka). We are trying to analyse how representations around Smart Cities perform shifts in power relationships among scales of government, consultants and private companies. Many people have criticised the smart city rhetoric and, indeed, there is much to say about it. However, I am convinced that once the “100 Indian Smart Cities” programme will end, the changes brought about by digital solutions and the push for data-driven urbanism will remain and strongly impact both the urban fabric and city governance.

To know more about Marie-Helene Zerah’s work, click here.