This month on CPR Perspectives — our flagship interview series commemorating the Centre for Policy Research’s 50th anniversary — we bring you a conversation with Mukta Naik, a Fellow at CPR, whose work focuses on informal housing, internal migration and what these subjects can tell us about India’s urban transformation.
Naik is an architect and urban planner, who works with the Initiative on Cities, Economy & Society at CPR. Prior to joining CPR, she worked with a social enterprise – Micro Home Solutions – on community-based interventions aimed at improving housing in informal settlements. Naik is a graduate of the School of Planning and Architecture, and has a Master’s Degree in urban and regional planning from Texas A&M University.
In this conversation, we spoke about Naik’s pathway into the policy space, the importance of ‘boundary-crossing’ when tackling subjects like migration and urbanisation and her work on the Small City Dreaming project, looking at the aspirations and lives of young Indians beyond the big cities. We also spoke about how Covid changed the conversation on migrants in India, whether the learnings from that time are taking root, what it means to look at cities and urbanisation from a Global South perspective and why she advises young scholars not to over-define their career pathways.
If you prefer audio, this conversation is also available as a podcast here.
(This transcript has been edited for length and clarity).
You’ve had a more unusual journey into the policy world than others in the field, a winding one involving architecture and media and other things. Could you give us a sense of this journey?
When I finished my Master’s and came back to India in the early 2000s, that was really a boom time for real estate and construction and all things in the field of architecture and planning. It just made sense to explore some of that. That exploration took its own wild path. At the back of my mind, I think this desire to do research remained and it was channelled into more journalistic writing. But it did remain and eventually when I realised that I really missed being out in the field, I joined an NGO that worked on housing and informal settlements in Delhi and Ahmedabad and found myself actually getting my hands dirty in the field of planning and housing. That just organically led to CPR because it was a Delhi-based organisation and the findings that we had from our various interventions needed a policy outlet, and so we were constantly talking to people like Partha Mukhopadhyay, who we interviewed earlier on CPR Perspectives and Shubhagato [Dasgupta] to guide us to the right policy spaces where we could feed our findings into. When I realised that research is what I wanted to do long term, I used that network to connect into CPR. It was long and winding, but it was a thread that I was following through non-research pathways and then ended up being in a policy research space.
To step back a little bit: College was the School of Planning and Architecture in New Delhi. And then you had a graduate degree from Texas A&M and at this point what did you have in mind?
Interestingly, my Masters’ dissertation actually studied Asian Indians in Houston and their housing choices. So housing was a very clear area of interest and so was migration. Unfortunately, I had a personal situation because of which I couldn’t continue straight into a PhD program, or even explore job opportunities in the US. I had to come back to India where the networks that I had from SPA led more into the architecture and construction and materials world.
But yes: Housing and migration and the idea of how cities actually form and what are the kind of problems that entrants into cities face was the broad thrust for what I wanted to do. So in 2011, when I finally found my way back into ‘mainstream’ urban work, I chose to work for a housing NGO which worked in informal settlements in Delhi and looked at issues of experience, design, architecture, infrastructure – that bucket of things.
When did you decide research was for you?
Even while I was doing this job with micro Home Solutions, I had applied for an independent research grant. We were working in resettlement colonies and did a survey of homeowners there, within which there was a subcategory of rent. The idea [was to look at] renters in informal settlements: Who they are, why they are there and how long do they stay? So I wrote a research proposal which got some independent funding. But the guides that they assigned were mainstream architects who hadn’t fully engaged with the informality. I felt like I needed more robust guidance. So I would start showing up at CPR and catching whoever I could. Picking Partha’s brains and saying ‘I’m doing this, I find it really interesting. I need help.’ It was because we had this relationship with them when they were helping us find policy pathways for our intervention. That’s how it started. And then I basically realised that this space feels really comfortable and I requested Partha to consider me if something came up by way of an opportunity and eventually, the Tata Trust-funded project on Migration did come up and then in 2015 I was able to switch gears completely into research.
You came in with many years of work experience, yet started off as a Research Associate. You’ve said there was some element of self doubt, and of having to convince yourself. I’d like to hear a little bit more about that process for you personally.
I had been working with this organisation that did really interesting experimental intervention work and yet found it so hard to speak to the policy world. I was quite convinced that my research skills are good and needed honing, but I was really confused about how that actually leads into policy. When I came into CPR, I had a cohort of people who had very clear ideas about their career trajectories. They were people with master’s degrees, knew that they were in CPR for a few years of experience, and then going on to PhDs. I wasn’t sure that was my pathway at that time. But I had a lot of field experience so I could instinctively understand and grasp things. I had project management experience so I could get projects running on the ground. I had no hesitation in public speaking, reaching out to partners –, the nuts and bolts of getting projects up and running came easily to me. But the intellectual rigor, the theoretical background of research was not something that I had worked at in the intervening years between my Master’s and joining CPR, which was basically 13 long years.
So I did feel a little under equipped to do that part of it. But I have to say that CPR was a space that provided adequate mentorship, where everybody was jostling around trying to get the best work done. It was a very multidisciplinary team. So you did see people with similar problems. [For example], lawyers who were in CPR, not quite sure whether they wanted to go back to practice or look at policy. So there were others, even though they were much younger than me, in a similar boat. We all found some common threads and managed to work around that. We also had a lot of freedom because the kind of projects that we were doing were two-year, three-year time frame projects which gave a lot of time to make small mistakes and then bounce back and find better ways to do something. You would just learn by doing. You would collect data, come back and then present it, and somebody would tell you that this is missing and then you go and redo it with the requisite rigor. You had the freedom to learn things, not in an educational atmosphere, but in a more learn-by-doing sort of way.
As you enter CPR, you end up doing lots of different things, which we’ll try to put into different buckets for this conversation, and dip into each. So initially what were you looking at?
I started with a Tata Trust-funded project called Shramic, which was about internal migration in India. It was a partnership with the Indira Gandhi Institute for Development Research in Mumbai and NIUA. We also had a lot of NGO partners. At that time, there was a lot of research on labour – labour mobility and problems of labour – but migrants were not really researched as a category by themselves. But there were a lot of civil society organisations who had been helping migrants, especially at source, and beginning to see the problems at the urban destinations. Our interest was really to collate the knowledge that NGOs and civil society had and sort of see how to develop a more rigorous research program around that. It was an easy entry for me because I understood the NGO world already and I was able to build those collaborations and we actually were able to publish papers in a special issue of Urban India, which were entirely authored by NGOs.
This boundary crossing between the world of civil society and practice and the world of academia was what that project focused on. We generated a lot of knowledge, collated a lot of existing knowledge and so on and so forth. I was parallelly doing a project on informal rentals. The first paper that I published in 2015, which I wrote while I was at CPR. The data was collected in the pre-CPR days but CPR is what actually gave me the confidence to put it out as an academic output. That sort of simmered because the field sites were based in Gurgaon and I live in Gurgaon and I’m sort of embedded in the city’s life and civil society networks and activist networks. It just felt like a life project – everybody has that pet field which they keep going back to from time to time and mine is the urban villages of Gurgaon.
The way our team works in CPR is while yes, people are assigned to projects, it’s more like everybody’s working on everything. So while I was looking after this project, I was also pitching into other projects. This flagship project called Cities of Delhi which Partha and Patrick Heller led was finishing around the time. When I joined, I could come in to collate the last bits, organise the dissemination events and help out in that sense. That my previous organisation had sort of helped out in finding field sites for CPR also helped because I had an insight into what that project was doing. The informal rentals work got an opportunity because we had a long-standing partnership with a French research institute called IRD and Veronique Dupont and Marie-Helene Zerah (from IRD) were already CPR visiting faculty. They co-wrote a grant with CPR and brought in money to study urban-rural boundaries and informal settlements and with that grant, I got the chance to deepen my work on informal renting.
I like the idea of boundary-crossing on the back end of your work, because it shows up so much in the research as well. So tell us more about this pet project in Gurgaon?
When I first started looking at this, I had a more architect-planner gaze and was thinking more about people building – they’re adding floors, not for their own family expansion but to generate rental income. The idea of rent as a source of livelihood – which is true of a large part of the global south – we didn’t really understand the mechanics of it. It was sort of consigned into this space of informality. But when I delved into it, I realised that there are a lot of social dimensions. It was very intrinsically linked with the process of urbanisation. In the case of Gurgaon, developers –but in the case of other cities, the government – comes in and acquires agricultural land for the purpose of urban development, but leaves the abadi [residential] areas of these villages in zones of exception, saying ‘we don’t know what to do with you, so we’re going to leave you alone.’
These are the areas which go on to become dense suppliers of informal rentals. This was a fallout of a methodological innovation that I had to make on field because this [rental] work is informal and not entirely legal in the sense that these are not spaces that can take those kinds of densities, these are not spaces that have high levels of services, so landlords are very hesitant to speak to researchers. So you would have to become friends with them and as a woman going into an urban village and talking to Jat, Yadav, Gujjar landlords meant that you needed to spend the time to introduce who you are, what you’re doing, win their trust. Often first spend time with their women folk and then slowly get to talk to them. What ensued was a whole lot of life history interactions, where they would start from the point at which whoever it was in their family – their father or their grandfather – sold their agricultural land. So their identity as agriculturalists, and how they’re trying to hold on to it in a rapidly urbanising world, and the links of that identity with, with caste – whether they were from dominating or backward castes – all of those things just organically came up in the research.
I didn’t set out to do it, but many of the questions it answered for me were questions that I was originally grappling with way back in 2002 when I was thinking about city formations and transitions and how do cities actually come to be. That really excited me and continues to. This is something that I’ll keep returning to from time to time. Rental housing was also something that was repeatedly a failure of policy in the sense that the Indian government and various states had tried experiments with rent and housing, which had almost never worked. So it was this problem area that the formal policy sector didn’t want to get into. So, in 2016, when the formal policy space started worrying about things like rent, this research was available for them to speak to or absorb.
What did the research itself tell you? What were you looking at, and what did you manage to find out?
The crux is that there is a class of people who are temporary occupants of a city. They are coming not with the original intent of living long-term, but they are foraying into the city and testing grounds. Rental housing is an important asset class to make that possible. Because many of them are poor, low-skilled and therefore not do not have high disposable incomes and can’t pay higher rents, they gravitate towards the cheapest housing available, even if there are conditions of congestion and poor service. The crux of this is that the informality that allows them to do this, even with oral agreements and substandard services, is a really important service and an important infrastructure for cities if they are to absorb labour that eventually will go on to become long-term residents.
That links it through with my subsequent interest in looking at migrant communities, because I found that people were living in rental housing and remained itinerant occupants of the city for many decades. This was really the disturbing part of it. The structural transformation one imagines, where you come and then, intergenerationally, there is some sort of a progress and an embedding into the urban fabric, wasn’t really happening for many, many people. And that’s something to worry about. Later the World Bank and others have picked up phrases like messy urbanisation and hesitant urbanisation, which precisely refers to the inability of Indian cities to absorb labour in a long term and an integrationist sense. The main theme of the rental housing work was worrying about this question of, if economic development is going to happen through urbanisation and the movement of people out of agriculture, into service and other kinds of jobs, and cities are not able to really enable that transformation, then how do we actually solve that problem? In my view, focusing on rental housing and informal settlements and upgradation of those parts of the city would be one really good way to enable those transitions.
That takes us to bucket 2 – migrants and smaller cities. The small cities terminology, according to my understanding, covers everything from census towns all the way to satellites of major cities. You’ve worked on understanding these spaces and the wants and desires of people within them. Let’s stand with the spaces. What is migrant intensity?
CPR already was part of this large project called Subaltern Urbanization, which has resulted in a book and in fairly well-acknowledged and well-cited articles. Here they were arguing that India’s urbanisation was the opposite of migration. They were arguing that India is not urbanising because people are moving en masse from poor rural parts of the country to relatively rich urban parts of the country. They were arguing that the poor rural parts of the country themselves are transforming. Not just because they’re getting denser, but also because of economic transformations. They were doing field studies in Eastern India at the time and I was sending people out there and then reading their field notes and attending all these ‘Suburban’ conferences and getting a fairly good idea of what’s happening at that very small town level.
But I had a long standing partnership with another organisation called Just Jobs Network and a friend of mine, Gregory Randolph, who had a more economic geography thinking on this. The economic transitions in these really small spaces are very informal in nature. But what happens to slightly larger cities where some agglomeration effects are there, meaning that there is an industry, there is some service cluster, some artisanal cluster, there’s already some existing urban agglomeration that may have been there historically or at least has been there for the last 50-70 years? What’s happening there vis a vis migration, because even now, we’re still talking about the largest metropolises – Bombay, Delhi, Hyderabad, Chennai? The statistics also show us that a lot of the migration is actually happening into other kinds of urban areas in India.
So we deliberately did not go to the smallest ones and and of course avoided the largest ones and tried to focus on the middle layer, somewhere between 100,000 and 500,000 people. These are already cities. They’ve been cities for some time. They may not feel like the cities that you and me live in, but they are cities nevertheless. And it’s not just India. Many developing parts of the world have this category of town which doesn’t get adequate policy attention. So what’s happening there? The idea of migrant intensity was not just to think of places as receiving migrants, but because they were so small, or also sending them away. Because they are clusters of education, they are clusters of small-time accumulation by the rural lands. We looked at migrant intensity as a measure of places that both send and receive migrants. I can’t say it was very sophisticated data work because we are not sophisticated data scientists, but it was a very simplistic exploration. And what it did was help us highlight which geographical spaces to look at, which districts and which states have these interesting things happening. And that paved the way to select case cities and then do deep work – both survey work as well as qualitative work.
The animating question there was really to understand – what kind of jobs are young people getting? How uneven or even is that landscape of employment, both in terms of getting access to employment as well as the experience of it? Gender was a big consideration here, I think a little bit before the question of women’s workforce participation became the most urgent question on the policy landscape. We weren’t looking at it from a FLFP [Female Labour Force Participation] perspective, we were looking at it just simply as young people, and caste and gender were the two angles that in the Indian context were important to consider. We wrote a project around that question and then went into two cities in India and two cities in Indonesia to deep dive and try and answer some of that.
What you found was that the spaces that were most migrant intensive – both sending and receiving migrants – were not the mega cities, but often rural or semi-urban spaces.
Absolutely. And when we did go turn up at these places and start talking to people, we realised that because India’s economic geography is so specific where the northern and eastern parts of India are poor, populous and labour-sending and the eastern and southern parts of India are labour receiving, the common understanding is that in smaller cities, the catchment area of migrants is also smaller. That you would only attract migrants from the region. But in India’s case, that’s not true. If there is a cluster of employment, then labour is going to come from UP and Bihar and West Bengal and Assam and all of the labour sending areas, because that’s how the recruitment networks work. There are caste-based networks. The third thing is that the improvement of highways in India has meant that it’s not just migration, but one has to see it through the lens of mobility, because people are commuting to work. We really found that in these smaller towns, the local and regional transportation networks were absolutely key, whether it was young men’s families insisting on bikes as dowry because that was a really important asset for these young men to get to travel that one hour or 1.5 hour to find sustained employment from their rural locations. Or in the case of Mangalore, really high quality privatised bus transport networks that local elites really supported because it got them this large catchment area of workers from the towns around. Because Mangalore is just 15 kilometres away from Kerala and these are places with high education levels, they were able to use this rural or small town labour for services – healthcare, hospitality, retail and those kinds of industries too.
Those two cases – Kishangarh in Rajasthan which is a marble cluster, and Mangalore, which is this coastal town with both industry and service sectors – provided us very fertile fields to explore many questions of what was happening.
This is connected to the Small City Dreaming project and a separate paper you worked on about the aspirations of women and the way they learn how to navigate small cities. You said it helped you integrate your idea of how cities work. So how do they work? What did you learn?
The first thing I learned was that planners need to be taught sociology a lot more than they are because this project took a completely sociological turn. Very clearly, gender, caste, and economic class are what allow those avenues to unfold for these individuals. Their household backgrounds are really important and because we were not just doing interviews in the city, but actually trying to move out to see how these rural areas and cities were connected, we were able to hear the voices of a lot of young women who could have done those jobs but weren’t allowed to, or could not even form aspirations because they were so conditioned to believing that they could only do XYZ kind of work or that they couldn’t work at all in the case of Kishangarh.
This self censorship and self-control that they had exerted on their own aspirations was really interesting to me, but also that even within those boundaries they were negotiating quite hard – for better marriages, for more education. There is a very strong aspirational pulse that we found, especially among young women. Among young men the pressure to earn, to give back to the family unit in terms of income was very, very high and that almost stymied ambitions, and became drudgery.
Mangalore was a much more aspirational space. We could see migrants coming in from as far as Maharashtra, even Assam, working in service sector jobs and then getting a lot of data and insights from the cosmopolitan nature of the city and forming new aspirations like going abroad for instance, because a lot of Mangaloreans, aspire to go to the Gulf. So those aspirations transmit and then you work back to see how you can build your skills and your networks to meet those aspirations, whether they actually take place or not. I suppose we need a lot more work to make sure that those pathways are more legible for young people, and I think some of that is already captured in the work on skilling. But we cannot just think of skilling as an aspatial intervention. Where are you providing that skilling? Is it in the village of origin? Is it in this sort of intermediate space where the person has already come and formed some aspirations? Our skilling programs would not allow somebody coming from Assam to Mangalore to access the government skilling programs because they would not be domicile residents of that city or that district. Then they would have to rely on private skilling, which is more expensive and then they would get into a debt trap.
There are a lot of misalignments in policy that the project revealed that we tried to capture in our policy writing, but there’s a lot more to unearth. We finished collecting data in 2019, just before the pandemic and then during the pandemic, of course, the entire migration conversation took a very different turn, and that led to data collection about different sets of things like social protection and social welfare of migrants. And now, sitting in 2023 and trying to look back at all the data that I’ve collected. I can see that there’s a larger story in which all of these pieces connect, which can then influence policy in some ways.
At the centre of it, I keep coming back to the city and its governance and how a lack of capacity of urban governance is actually a roadblock to many things. It’s not just poor water supply and traffic congestion and air pollution that you and I experience, and that the lay public would cite most commonly as examples of poor urban governance. But it’s also all of these really important things for connecting the aspirations of rural people, the kind of labour that cities can benefit from and giving them the pathway to make all of that happen. Housing, of course, is also a very important component. Where do they stay? They have to make choices between decent living and remitting money home. And that’s a really hard choice to make. Are the elite who take governance decisions in the city in a position to even think about this or are they cognizant about the kind of trade-offs that a struggling young person in a city is making at this point of time?
As you finished the field work, you started to think more about the governance of these spaces, and of the pathways through them for migrants. Covid in particular made it very clear that India looks at migrants in a certain way. In one paper you write about how governments use territory as an organising principle and that fails to acknowledge the mobility of goods and people that is fundamental to everyday life. Where did that work take you?
In the Small City Dreaming project, it was very difficult to understand who you are going to feed your policy ideas to. Because city governments would listen to us and say we agree that these are the problems, but we don’t have the solutions and we don’t have any budgets or any real power to take these decisions. State governments were not sure about how exactly to work on this. Parallelly, the Ministry of Housing – the urban poverty alleviation division, which later the ministries merged and became Housing and Urban Affairs – started this working group on migration. The motivation for that was this idea that migrants come to cities and don’t find decent places to stay and live and work in substandard conditions. They constituted this interministerial working group which Partha chaired, so all of us who were working with Partha at that time got very deeply involved with the drafting and the thinking behind this report. That actually gave me the exposure to think about migration in policy terms.
Because these were completely divorced areas of policy. If you thought about migration, it went squarely into the domain of labour. And if you thought about cities, then that would instantly prompt keywords like housing, transport, infrastructure, water, sanitation, waste, solid waste, but never migration. And even never labour, really, except for labour rights organisations. These intersections weren’t really happening in the policy space. So this working group was almost an anomaly in the sense that the demand came from things like, why are there so many vacant houses in urban areas, 11 million vacant homes? And that was a parliamentary question. So there were all these disparate sort of trigger points that led to the formation of that group. That report, I think, for the first time was able to articulate the links between migration and labour. And all the different policy areas that need to act together to actually be able to facilitate labour migration in the country. We submitted the report in 2017. And then it was sort of lying there and germinating.
When COVID hit, we had all this knowledge and we had already spent a lot of time thinking about it in this abstract sense and then we had a very unfortunate use case to apply all that knowledge. When people were asking us questions about why is this not happening and why is that not happening? We literally could reel things off of that report, saying, this is why the data is not there or this data is there and that data is not there.’ In that report, the idea of the lack of portability in social protection or the idea of how domicile provisions actually inhibited migrants from accessing what were otherwise fairly universalised forms of social security was already articulated, conceptually. So during COVID, we had a framework to make sense of what people were telling us.
And how has that played out? You’ve written in a recent paper for CPR that “we may be seeing the beginnings of a transition away from a centralist model of migration governance.” Are we actually seeing that? Or has Covid and the migration problem been forgotten?
What happened during Covid – the pain that the migrants felt – the memory of that pain very much lives on in the source areas. Destination areas are able to forget because the governance of migrants in destination areas is pretty much outsourced to employers. Cities don’t necessarily take responsibility for labour migrants as such, unless they are using city services or are more integrated into the city. But we saw during Covid that that the vast majority of the people who really suffered were living on work sites, on factory floors and were not permanent residents of the city anyway. They were in some form of circulation all of the time. And the governance of those folks for cities is the employers’ headache. I mean frankly there is really no data and no way that the cities can currently even really do anything to help unless there is a big thrust and a big push to do that. At the source areas, migrants came back and they remained there for a long time. Because the return to the cities happened gradually and unevenly, depending on which industries were able to get back up and running first. Women and children were the last to come back. They were left in the villages when families went back home. So in the source states, this question of the problems of the migrants and the kind of miseries that they face was animated for a much longer period of time.
There is a statewide survey happening in Jharkhand. There’s another one happening in Odisha. There were always initiatives by states who were sending out migrants. Odisha, for instance, has always been proactive in this space. But these initiatives are not institutionalised. They’re one off. One civil society organisation learns how to do something really well. That gets embedded into one state department, but they’re only able to do it with certain destination states, not with others. They have bilateral agreements between state A and state B, but the same kind of bilateral agreement doesn’t really get replicated among other states. I wouldn’t say there’s a sense of urgency, but in source states, there is a simmering issue that poverty and distress is linked with the migration issue and so they will have to get a sense of how many migrants do we have? Where do we have them? What work do they do? Where do they go? So that we’re in a good position to negotiate with the destination areas when they face problems.
There’s a subtle shift from the language of ‘stop migration, don’t let people go,’ to ‘we can’t help people leaving because we don’t have the kind of opportunities here, they have better opportunities elsewhere, but we should know enough to be able to negotiate with employers and state governments elsewhere, if we need to.’ Because Covid gave them that experience. When they had to transport migrants home, they were talking. The principal secretary of one state was talking to the principal secretary of the other state and giving numbers on how many migrants, how many buses, how many trains. That sort of bilateral activity really increased. And it remains to be seen whether the Centre will also step in to facilitate and smoothen some of this. That’s still a work in progress because there isn’t that much pressure and you’re right that there’s a narrative that we’ve done what we needed to do to deal with it.
One of the things you’ve said is that you’re interested in feeding migration and small cities research not just into the Indian discourse, but also the international discourse on urban planning. I found the focus on India and Indonesia in the Small City Dreaming project very interesting. Could you tell me more about this?
Both Indonesia and some sort of exploratory work that we did under the aegis of the India China Institute at the New School in New York, which is comparative work in the Chinese context. I also had the opportunity to do something briefly with a Vietnamese anthropologist on the rental housing space. There are uncanny similarities in the sense of the processes of urbanisation among all of these countries. Of course, the specifics differ. Especially in terms of the kind of decentralisation of governance that has happened. India really for its size and its stage of economic development is an outlier and an exception in the sense that cities are so remarkably unempowered. But largely cities are less empowered in large parts of the Global South as compared to the Global North, where a lot of the migration theory and migration and development thinking is happening.
There are all these theoretical ideas [from the Global North] that cities can solve problems. You can only solve problems of integration at the local point where you actually have to negotiate the brass tacks of who will get water and who will be able to attend primary school and so on. And that has been taken up as the solution for a lot of things. What my research is trying to say is, wait a minute, that’s not the context everywhere else. Provincial governments may be really powerful and larger cities may have different powers than smaller cities, and it’s very uneven and resource constrained. You need different kinds of policy levers. Internal migration needs to be thought of in a different way and not in as securitized way as global migration. So the contributions are more in the sense of, is there, in the large body of work on global migration, something to learn for those of us who are interested in internal migratory movements, especially in large countries like India and China, or even parts of Africa where you know there are lots of within country movements? And conversely, in studying the integration and inclusion of migrants in urban contexts in the Global South, do we have something new to say in these relatively unempowered city contexts? What can we say to the larger body of knowledge on migration governance globally? Can we unsettle it a little bit?
I’ve already taken plenty of your time, but I wanted to go back to a couple of things you did before CPR, and how you evolved as a writer and researcher. I wanted to ask especially about Rambling in the City and your project to write every day for a year. Tell us about that.
It’s always good to have an opportunity to talk about your pet projects. Basically, I felt like my training in urban planning was not fully utilised in all the various different things that I was doing through the decade from about 2002 to 2010 or so. I decided that I needed to think more about cities and I set myself a target to write every day about cities and the blog that I ran was called Rambling in the City, which was literally anything about cities. A lot of that writing is really short snippets, very descriptive. It’s very emotive. But even though I made this transition into a policy research institution which has a very strong academic bent of mind, I think at the core, I still enjoy and I still think it’s really important to write in a way that a large number of people can understand what you’re saying about cities. I really feel that there is a tendency to jargonise and make everything too academic and too illegible to the majority. Especially problems of urbanisation are close to so many people because the urban experience is everybody’s experience, even for people who live in villages and visit cities.
The city is a spectacle. It’s something to be experienced and everybody has an opinion about, the nearest town or sheher. There is some part of this research that needs to feed back to people who are actually living and experiencing cities, especially because I really do believe that a lot of the future lies in some or the other form of bottom up claim making from residents.. So if we have to shape the quality of those claims and the content of those claims, then as policy researchers writing to a larger audience is really important to me. So Rambling in the City prepared me to do that and and through the CPR journey also there’s been a constant attempt to write Op-Eds and lighter pieces which synthesise the research. Retain the rigour but interpret the findings for a wider audience. And that’s also what I hope I’ll be able to do going forward.
If you could give advice to younger scholars or people who aren’t in a research space but are thinking about entering it in some way or the other. Are there tools or or or lenses that you would recommend?
Research is a part of so much work that is happening even in the practice space, a lot of the consulting work involves some form of research. When I speak to young people, I find that the career pathways are over-defined in their minds. They imagine that policy research is a specific and very rigid career pathway, which it clearly is not, if you see my example or the example of the people you’ve interviewed, even just from the small bunch of folks you’ve spoken to at CPR. So I would say that you need to pick up the tools to do research. And a lot of it can be self taught, by looking for opportunities to be parts of teams that are going out and finding things. And it doesn’t have to be called research. It can be just ‘okay, we are curious and we’re going to find out stuff’ or it could be that you’re actually trying to work on a solution, but instead of reading five reports and writing something about it, maybe you can step out and talk to five people as well. It’s hard. It requires a certain amount of confidence and interlocution and that means that you have to go and ask someone for help. Which is daunting for a lot of people. But I would advise you to ask for it and it might actually turn up like it did for me when I needed it.
That’s great advice. Are there misconceptions about your area of work yourself having to correct all the time, not just from the lay public but even fellow scholars?
Research is not very well understood in the sense of, what does it do. There’s this idea, and I think Partha spoke about it as well, that researchers do some abstract stuff. It’s a bit of an ivory tower and everything that I’ve done is anything but an ivory tower. The uncertainty that researchers, especially policy researchers have, is often that the avenues of feeding your findings into the world of policy are not direct at all. It’s not like somebody in a decision-making position has commissioned you to do XYZ research. You go out, you find the answers, you tell them and they take it or leave it, or they adapt some of your suggestions. It’s really not as straightforward as that. It’s a feedback loop that we have as researchers with all kinds of actors: other researchers, academicians, talking to students and changing the way they think about their own training is also a method of policy impact. Civil society is a huge space which I think we derive information from, but also give back to because they are interlocutors in the policy space, whether they are NGOs, whether they are RWAs, whether they are local, informal community leaders or frontline workers, whoever those actors whom you are speaking to.
Closing the feedback loop has been the most gratifying part of the job and I think coming back to the misconceptions a lot of people I speak to don’t really even see that as something that policy researchers would be doing. They just assume it’s a linear chain that starts with the generation of a question and ends with the answering of that question. But actually it goes back to the start where your answers have to be fed back to your interlocutors, and that generates a new set of questions. And I think Avani [Kapur, who we spoke to earlier on CPR Perspectives] really brought that out well when she was speaking to you. So I would say that that’s also true in my domain. We never find clear answers. It’s a continuously evolving space.
Is there any of your work that you would like to point readers to? And can you tell us what you’re working on now?
I really like reading back the work that I did during Covid, explaining the migrant crisis, whether it was, you know, the newspaper op-eds in Indian Express, which came out in 2020 and 2021, or whether it was blogs on the India China Institute website because these were not pieces you had four years of research and and time to to write. You really had to speak to the situation and a lot of new generative ideas come out sometimes when you’re put against the wall and asked hard questions and you have limited time to answer them. Those are really pieces that taught me that when you’re pushed against the wall, actually there are a lot of creative solutions out there. Like what happened during the migrant crisis and how people responded and how hyperlocal chains of response formed and what that means for state-society relations and for urban governments broadly. That’s an idea that was generated in that time and it’s in this particular piece that was published in Urbanisation but it’s an idea that I’m going to come back to over the years because it’s seeded a certain chain of thoughts which could be important for the policy imagination.
Our final question, what 3 works would you say have influenced you over the years?
While I’ve derived a lot of knowledge from serious academic writing, interestingly, the writing that’s really inspirational and that makes me feel that policy research or researchers can actually make an impact is the more accessible sort of work. So for instance, a recent publication that I really liked was Metronama: Scenes from the Delhi Metro by Rashmi Sadana. She’s an anthropologist and it’s about life in the Delhi Metro which probably weaves in years of really rigorous research, but is breezily told and very nuanced. I also like a lot of non-researchers’ work about cities, so for example Aman Seti’s A Free Man was one of the texts that actually propelled me back into the world of thinking about the urban. It made me feel like all the stuff that I was doing for various clients as a consultant was not as meaningful as actually engaging with hard questions of poverty and labour and and rights and so on and so forth. Similarly, I’ve really enjoyed Amitava Kumar’s writings, whether it’s on Patna or his book on Bombay–London–New York, which again is a non-academician, non-urbanist writing about cities. But I really feel that those insights are super rich in terms of how cities are experienced. And I feel like policymakers and policy thinkers have a lot to learn from those kind of texts, not just from hardcore research.