The value of tacit knowledge for urban reform coalitions: A conversation with Lalitha Kamath

Mar 20, 2024

“No textbook can tell you how to do this.”

ACRC defines inclusive urban reform coalitions as partnerships between government, experts and civil society organisations – often directly involving communities and groups most directly affected by the issues at hand – to drive sustainable urban transformation.

In this episode, Lalitha Kamath – professor in the School of Habitat Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai – joins Ezana Haddis Weldeghebrael for a conversation about the transformative potential of urban reform coalitions and the need to value lived experience.

Talking about how she became interested in governance coalitions during her PhD, Lalitha argues that the value of coalitions lies in the process of self-organising itself – not just the material outcomes. She highlights how inclusive coalitions can serve to visibilise diverse experiences of urban spaces and calls for a reshaping of the politics of expertise.

Lalitha Kamath is an urban planner and policy analyst, and currently teaches in the Centre for Urban Policy and Governance, School of Habitat Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

Ezana Haddis Weldeghebrael is a research fellow in the international development department at the University of Birmingham and an honorary fellow at The University of Manchester. He was previously a postdoctoral research fellow at the African Cities Research Consortium.


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The full podcast transcript is available below.

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Ezana Haddis Weldeghebrael Welcome to the African Cities podcast. I am Ezana Haddis Weldeghebrael, a postdoctoral researcher at the African Cities Research Consortium. Today, we have the privilege of delving into the intricacies of transformational potentials and limitations of coalitions with Doctor Lalitha Kamath. This podcast interview is part of a mini podcast series produced on urban reform coalitions. It’s my honour and pleasure to be joined today by Dr Lalitha Kamath, an associate professor at the School of Habitat Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, India. Lalitha is an urbanist whose research interests focus on the political, economic, social planning and governance dimensions of urbanisation. She is particularly interested in learning from and theorising everyday practices, and bridging academic and pedagogic and practitioner networks within India and across the global South. She has published a lot, but one of the most interesting, publications of her that will be the foundation for this conversation is her recent article commentary in Area Development and Policy journal: ‘Coalitions and urban transformation: contributions and limits’. Welcome, Lalitha.

Lalitha Kamath Thank you so much, Ezana, it’s a pleasure to be here.

Ezana Haddis Weldeghebrael Thank you very much. Just to kickstart our conversation. Please briefly walk us through what led you to be interested in urban reform coalitions, along your research and activist journey. What makes you interested on the topic of coalitions?

Lalitha Kamath That’s actually a really interesting question. And looking back, I realise that my interest in urban reform coalitions started quite early, in fact, with my PhD journey, which is many years ago now. I did my PhD in the US, from Rutgers University, and when I was applying to do my PhD, I was particularly interested in the emergence of this idea of governance coalitions that was emerging in India at the time. The particular coalition I was focused on was studying the Bangalore Agenda Task Force in Bangalore. So it was basically a coalition of corporate agents, largely, with some focus on bringing a greater involvement of citizens. And this was a partnership with different government agencies in the city of Bangalore focused on improving the quality of life – at least that was the rhetoric of the partnership. And this was the time period of 1999 to 2004. So, in fact, a very different moment in India’s life, and Indian cities as well. So this was really the starting point, I would say, of my academic interest in coalitions – in how they work, what kind of animal they are. And this was a particular kind of governing coalition, because it focused very much on the idea of corporate actors getting involved very squarely in city governance. And with this idea that the corporate sector knows better than most how to improve Indian city governance. And so this was I think, as I said, a rather different kind of a coalition. And I spent several years doing my PhD and talking to a number of different actors who were part of this coalition in different ways, impacted by it. And I think the afterlife of it has been quite substantial. But if I look back and I see then my following the trajectory after my PhD, I returned to India. And I was working in Bangalore with a small start-up, a research collaborative. This was a collaborative of practitioners and researchers, and one of the first projects that we worked on was one on, it was a comparative Bangalore Chennai research project looking at collective action. And this was again, another project that looked very much at how different civil society actors, in fact, came together, with some kind of collective transformation in mind usually, so this in fact focused much more at the neighbourhood scale. Whereas the former, my PhD project, was much more at the city scale. So the neighbourhood scale level partnerships that I looked at and the kind of coalitions that formed, the kind of ways in which they liaised with the city government and different government agencies was again, I think, a very different kind of insight into this process of collective action and the larger growing interest in citizen participation in, urban governance. In fact, this became a much larger project and ended up as an edited volume, that I was one of the co-editors for. And it was called, quite grandly, “Participolis: Consent and contention in neoliberal urban India”. One of the interesting things that emerged is that there were many gains from these different coalitions, incredible transformations, I think, at multiple scales. But a lot of these weren’t particularly inclusive. And so in some ways, this work triggered my future interest in the nature of these entities, how they formed, how they came together and how they dissolved, also, what this landscape looked like, and particularly, what would more inclusive coalitions look like? And when I subsequently joined my current university, where I’m currently based – it’s called the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai – I joined it in the end of 2009. This interest was particularly suited, I think, to my job as an academic, in the School of Habitat Studies at the Tata Institute, because this is a university and a city that is a great place from which to think and theorise on coalitions. So subsequent work in the last 13, 14 years in Mumbai has been greatly focused on both participating in but also trying to understand and study the ways in which coalitions work and different kinds of coalitions. So yeah, that’s how I would give you a brief entry into my sort of biography of me, but from the lens of coalitions.

Ezana Haddis Weldeghebrael Thank you very much, it is an interesting trajectory in starting from the corporate one, to more inclusive kind of coalitions. And our interest is more of on those kind of coalitions that actively involve disadvantaged or marginalised groups. Can you please, based on the research that you mentioned and the case studies that you also highlighted in the article, what are the transformational potentials that these kind of coalitions that involve disadvantaged groups play in changing this exclusionary urbanisation that we are seeing in today’s world?

Lalitha Kamath So I mean, I’ll talk a little bit about some of what I’ve written in the commentary as well and draw from my experience in several Indian cities. Many well-known scholars actually write about the importance and the transformative potential of coalitions, particularly with regards to how they can improve material conditions, how they can reduce political exclusions, how they can realise multiscalar governance. But what I would actually like to focus on a little bit more is a different set of dimensions here, when we think about transformations, that might become possible through the work and the workings of coalitions. And I want to highlight these largely because I feel that these are somewhat understudied and less talked about. But I want to suggest, in fact, that their transformative potential is quite tremendous. So first, I actually want to suggest that the nature of transformation that coalitions seek to achieve, is as much about the generation of a transformative politics that seeks to democratise governance systems than one focused solely on material outcomes. And I’ll explain a little bit more of what I mean by this. I’ll illustrate this, in fact, using the example of a coalition in Pune, which is a city in Maharashtra. It’s a large city, about 3 million people. And it’s located about a few hours from Mumbai, the financial capital. To give you a sense of where it is. So the coalition that I want to talk about is one where a waste pickers union called KKPKP, which is Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat, the full name. This was a union of waste pickers, which in fact successfully re-engineered itself into India’s first self-organised waste workers cooperative called SWaCH. And this was in order to enter into a formal contract with the Pune Municipal Corporation, the local city government, for integrating waste pickers into the city’s municipal service systems. And the way in which this was managed in fact was done with the support of a loose coalition of sorts, a civil society coalition called Waste Matters, a set of rather open minded municipal government representatives who were willing to actually entertain this kind of very unusual contractual agreement. And also then leveraging conducive national policies around municipal waste management. And so it was interesting that it was, you see, that all of these come together in order to make this possible. Though the actual operations of SWaCH being integrated into the municipal service system is in itself worth looking into in more detail. While I won’t focus so much on that, I’ll return to the matter at hand here to talk about the fact that arguably what I saw is among the most radical things that this coalition was able to do, was really about, creating a certain kind of transformative politics. And it generated this politics which really centred on claiming that waste pickers are the city’s workers and through this it sought to link three kinds of domains: the domain of labour, of economy, and of environment within the city. So basically, it sought to show how securing and improving the dignity and livelihood of poor, low caste women waste pickers, how it could valorise economies of recycle and reuse, how it could reduce the economic cost of waste collection and management, and at the same time benefit the environment and contribute to the city sustainability. And what this generating and sustaining of such a politics as you can imagine is not something very easy. And so it was also achieved through, in fact, aligning and changing organisational forms, which then resulted in changing relations at various levels. And so, for example, you saw a change then, the union, the waste pickers union – which typically took on itself a formal confrontational stance with the local government – in fact, now had to adapt that to becoming a service provider in a contractual relationship with the city corporation, a very different ballgame altogether. And the municipal corporation, on the other hand, had to adjust to formally working with the waste workers cooperative and seeing them as service contractors of the city. The citizens of Pune also had to transition from seeing waste pickers, normally people would see them on the road and see women with a sack, you’d see people rummaging to pick up, you know, waste from among, heaps of waste littering the city or from bins located at different points. But now instead of waste pickers as women with a sack, they actually had to think about them as service providers with a uniform. And so this called for incredible kinds of changes, I think, at several levels. And so this is just, I think, an example of the kind of transformative politics that was generated through this waste pickers coalition. And I’m also particularly referring to this as transformative in two senses. So first, what this waste worker politics was able to do was it actually highlighted the dialogical relationship between claims and rights and in fact, greatly enhanced the possibilities for stretching these democratic rights in the future. So we can see that the practices of claim making, in fact, were used to generate new understandings and subjects of rights. So in this case, waste pickers were able to position themselves as formal service providers of the city, backed by their formal integration into municipal solid waste systems. And of course, this was not a secure accomplishment. And in fact, as we speak, is susceptible to considerable reversals. But nonetheless, I argue that this was a significant transformation. The second thing that I want to highlight about why I call this transformative is that because it has the potential to further democratise the existing systems of governance. And this, I think, is actually a very important point and I want to reinforce that just having an urban democracy is not enough. In fact, many of the systems that make up our urban democracy are highly undemocratic, extremely unequal, exclusive in all kinds of ways. And so, in fact, you know, I suggest that democracy democratising the systems that make up our urban democracy is itself a goal of coalitions. In many cases, coalitions form as a result of a struggle to fight back against what they see as deep injustices. And so this, I think, is something that we need to think about far more, that not being content with just living within democracies. How do we democratise the system that we are part of? And so I think coalitions have a great role to play here. If we have the time, Ezana, I can give you another example, but I’m happy to also stop here.

Ezana Haddis Weldeghebrael Go ahead, go ahead.

Lalitha Kamath Okay, so I’ll give you another example from a coalition that’s closer to my home. It’s from the city of Mumbai and it’s called the Hamara Shehar Mumbai Abhiyaan and the focus of this campaign was really around democratising the city development plan, which is really the 20-year comprehensive masterplan that’s prepared for the city. And one of the characteristics of such planning in India, this kind of spatial planning in India is, highly exclusive, it’s export-led planning, it doesn’t usually, account for the needs of informal settlements, or the people who dwell in them. In fact, the plan often just sort of, you know, marks them as brown patches, sort of excises them from the plan and does not plan actually for their futures. And so when the time came in 2011 for the revision of the city’s plan, a campaign came together to address the issue of why different informal communities in the city were not actually being planned for. And this was the focus was really on staking claims for these ordinary working class residents, not just as contributors, to city building, but also as citizen planners with their own views and needs about how city space could be allocated for different uses and social groups. And the campaign was in fact a very loose collective, a loose coalition of a number of different actors – there were institutions, there were civil society organisations, there were activists (both as individuals, but also activist grassroots organisations), there were unions – a number of different groups. And while they were not formally given any kind of institutional role in the planning process, we had an open minded municipal commissioner, who headed the city corporation, especially, you know, from the bureaucratic side. And he was actually amenable to opening up this process a little bit. And so this was the reason why the campaign actually played a fairly significant role in giving inputs, in contributing to suggestions and objections, as it’s typically called in the planning process. Now, what’s interesting about this story is not so much in terms of the very concrete, tangible outcomes we can see, because a lot of the suggestions made didn’t get taken up in the ultimate plan that actually emerged. But so in fact, what I also suggest here then, is that we cannot only focus then on very concrete outcomes, but we need to think of this planning process itself and the kind of transformative politics that it actually enabled. And there are a number of different… In the commentary that I wrote, I talked about three important types of effects that are discernible in the aftermath of this planning experience. So first, it created the ground for incubating different sorts of exchanges, collaborations and networks among different and very diverse groups of people as a consequence of participating in the campaign’s deliberations. There were a number of different meetings at ward level, which is, you know, sort of a neighbourhood based at a local administrative unit level, but also at neighbourhood levels. Also, with regard to specific thematic areas such as transport or such as urban villages, so many different kinds of groups of came together to discuss different kinds of ideas. And these exchanges, I think, enabled people to make contact and build relationships with people that they might not otherwise have had the chance to meet. Second, many groups acquired spatial literacy as a result of the campaigns process, and then they sought to use this to question export-driven planning standards, to realign them to the needs of poor, working class citizens. And this was really interesting to see because there were several groups who developed so much literacy that they went on and they still today, you know, can use planning lingo and legal language – “legalese” – that often contracts or plans have deliberately used to muddle or obfuscate matters, and prevent, you know, ordinary people from understanding them. So this kind of spatial literacy you saw start to develop. And finally, I argue that the campaign supported the development of people’s plans, seeing these as offering alternatives to the unjust and exclusive ways in which Indian cities are currently planned. And there are several examples I given in the commentary of one or two of these different communities that actually create their own alternative plan and how the planning process that they undertake in this plan, what it does is that it creates a body of knowledge about that area, and this body of knowledge then becomes so important even subsequently. So, I give the case of during the Covid-19 pandemic, we see that the Municipal Corporation of Mumbai is struggling, because they don’t have detailed information about a lot of the informal settlement areas because they don’t map them in detail. And they don’t have this information. And they are looking for, in fact, spaces for quarantine centres. And in fact, through this planning process in one of the communities, they actually have outlined particular venues and spaces that can be repurposed for these needs. And so the community reaches out to the Mumbai City Corporation and suggests that they build a partnership in order to set up a quarantine centre, to support the local residents in the community. And so it’s, I think, a great example of how a plan and a planning process, that was embarked on at a very different time and for a different purpose, was able to be repurposed and renewed in this form.

Ezana Haddis Weldeghebrael Thank you very much. I mean, it’s really interesting. One thing that I really like, you know, from, I mean, I liked everything. But there is one important thing that you mentioned in the, in the commentary that, and now you you also reiterated that it’s not only the direct outcome, but its repercussions or its vibration of the coalition movements. And, as you mentioned, for me, what comes out you know, one of the most important transformational impact sthat I think is, you know, the change of identity. You know, people who are excluded, marginalised in the case of the Pune one, people from the low caste group, waste pickers and so on, being treated as partners or subcontractors. I have also similar in my review of, some African cities, you know, slum dwellers, which used to be where planning was done for them, now their role is changing, their identity’s changing, they are educators or they are where government officials consult their thoughts. So that change of identity and building relationships is really important. And with its cascading impacts beyond the place, we had the pleasure to invite Shalini and Jenna Harvey from the I Too Am Delhi campaign movement. And I didn’t know that it’s the Mumbai one that had an impact or an influence on that, so that’s very interesting. And building on that, my next question is, in your commentary on Diana’s article in Area Development and Policy, you emphasise the importance of, community-produced tacit knowledge. May you say a little bit more on that, you know, what’s this tacit knowledge, why it’s relevant, and what’s wrong with this “expert-led”, this sophisticated knowing of something that has been guiding planning for centuries?

Lalitha Kamath Yeah, absolutely. No, that’s something that I’ve become more and more interested in, in fact, this idea of community-produced tacit knowledge, experiential knowledge. And so this is something that I found very interesting, I think even about Diana’s article, on which my commentary was a response to. So coalition actors, I say in the commentary, are really – they possess tremendous knowledge and this knowledge is based on learning by doing. And this knowledge is typically not written down anywhere. It’s extremely important, but not written down anywhere. And particularly in Indian cities, and I would argue in many cities in the global South, our cities are cities that are founded on practice. Many things are done and acted, and we know them instinctively or through some kind of a tacit form. But they’re not written down, they’re not codified. And particularly this is the case because we have in our cities, we have weak institutional systems. We have huge inequalities. We have our economies that are largely informal. And we have much of urban social life, including state practices, that have operative rules that are discernible, that are coherent, but they are not codified. And so many of us just… We practice and we be, and we know how to do that. But it’s, as I said, not codified anywhere. And so I think in this kind of a larger context, the kind of then knowledge that coalitions build through trial and error, through experimentation, through long trajectories, which are very bumpy. They’re not straight line linear trajectories. They’re very bumpy in terms of they are subject to interruptions, to pauses, to renewings and renewals. And then again, maybe a little bit of a, you know, pause or cessation. So it’s a very uneven, interrupted kind of trajectory. And this typically, this kind of trajectory typically characterises experiential learning. And I think one of my own increasing agendas is to highlight and to visibilise this kind of learning, and to think about the huge possibilities that this kind of learning has – not just in terms of how to understand better big areas of the city. So, for example, these coalitions work in areas typically, that are more marginalised, that are more excluded, by formal records or official records. And so we actually know far less about these areas. And so one thing that coalitions do is they actually through their work, they serve to visibilise and to highlight and to reinforce how we understand these spaces. That’s only one part of the kind of contribution of coalitions. The second part is really looking at a larger, not just a city level, but to think in terms of knowledge, and the hierarchies of power, that we are sort of so conditioned to accept. One of them is really what you mentioned in terms of expert-led planning and the kind of colonial planning that we have not moved very far from, even today. This kind of planning at all does not focus on experiential learning, does not value, sort of lived experience. Far less does it even pay attention to citizens or residents from informal settlements, who work in the informal economy. So I think, one of the real focuses is to think about what kind of tremendous value this kind of knowledge actually poses, not just to understand our cities better, but also, in fact, to build theory from. And so this is something that, you know, is something that I’m increasingly working on going forward. There’s a huge body of scholarship on southern urbanisms, which you and I and so many others have been so inspired by over the last 20 or so years. And I think a lot of this body of knowledge builds on the generative possibilities, of experiential and lived experience. And they look at this both in terms of theorising, more and better, from our own places, how to understand our cities and how to make theory. And equally, I would say that this kind of theory is not necessarily confined only to southern cities, but is becoming increasingly relevant to also parts of northern cities. And so I think it also has tremendous scope for thinking about these kinds of global South, global North exchanges and understandings. So, yeah, I mean, I think I’ve more or less responded to your question.

Ezana Haddis Weldeghebrael Yeah, it’s very interesting. For me, like what I see it’s this “expert-led”, if you see a planning document, it’s very idealistic. You know, it’s very difficult to implement most of global South cities’ planning documents, but actually people who live in the informal settlements, they improvise. There is a way to get what they want, you know, with all the restrictions. So it’s a good way to do things, it’s very feasible. And highlighting that, building on that, trying to incorporate it within the formal process, it’s really, something that should have to be encouraged and that should be one of the key agendas of this kind of coalitions.

Lalitha Kamath I’ll give you, I’ll just add, Ezana, I’ll just add a quick example here just to make it a little bit clearer. And I particularly think I work I’ve done a lot of work in urban governance, and that’s an area where which largely functions on practice. There’s almost nothing written about how the urban local government actually functions. And so I think this is really interesting. So if we take the case of the Pune coalition that I mentioned earlier, the waste pickers union and their efforts to be integrated into municipal waste management services. So they were working in the domain of solid waste management. And they knew immediately again, built from practice that in India city governments have very few powers, very limited mandate, but one of the core services that they have almost complete control over is solid waste management. And so the KKPKP, the coalition, the main driver of the coalition, and then the waste cooperative that forms – I’ll call SWaCH – they very deliberately in fact then target the Pune municipal corporation, knowing that municipal waste management is the domain of the local. On the other hand, they also know that not everything is controlled by the city government, that laws and the overall regulatory and larger framework is provided by the regional level government, what in India we call the state level government. And so what they do is they very cleverly weave back and forth between local and state. And so when they need to put some pressure on the local domain, they actually try to do that by working at higher levels of government and putting pressure from the higher levels of government down to the lower level. They also use national level legislation, which comes out at this opportune moment, which focuses on, and in fact encourages, self-help groups and cooperatives of different sorts to get involved in waste management and to also provide door to door collection, which many city governments were struggling at the time to do. None of them at that time did door to door collection. So they, you know, they were desperate, they needed support, they needed ideas for how to do this. So all of this comes together and so they’re able to sort of very effectively navigate this rather complex terrain. And I think this is something, you know, and the the other thing that they do, which is again, very interesting, they work across multiple domains at multiple scales. So for example, they do a demonstration project, where they actually do delivery to show how this can be done. On the other hand, they actually do form a small team and work, and bring out research in collaboration with the ILO. And thinking about ILO as having some kind of, you know, as an international, very well reputed organisation, having the ability to use that and say, this is research done not by us, not by the Indian government, but by the ILO. And let’s use this research, it shows this, so let’s actually, let’s leverage this for our city to improve the waste collection. So I think the ways in which they navigate, as I said, is something very interesting and again, no textbook actually can tell you how to do this, this can only be learned through through the domain of practice and studying practice. And so I think this is the interesting thing that can we actually think about this not just as knowledge that’s generated by communities, but in some ways, at a larger level, knowledge on which our cities largely run. And therefore, I think I was trying to think about then, how can we think of this contributing to a theory of urban and coalition practice? And I think this might be very relevant across many cities across the global South, not just Indian cities.

Ezana Haddis Weldeghebrael Thank you very much and you partly addressed my follow up question by interjecting those cases, what I was about to ask you was when we talk about inclusive conditions, we are mainly focusing on those who involve organised disadvantaged groups. But always when they come into this kind of platform into this kind of alliance building, there is a power imbalance, when they try to work with NGOs, civil society organisations or government agencies and so on, there is this power imbalance. And some of the things that you address, working at different scales, fitting one level of government with another, is one strategy to influence your case or to make sure that you are heard. But what I still want your opinion or your reflection, you know, based on experience is what role could researchers, action-oriented researchers or academics could play, to address this power asymmetry. And if you have more examples of the strategies that they use to navigate that terrain or unequal relationship that would also be interesting.

Lalitha Kamath Yeah. No, this is I mean, a very appropriate question, very important. Difficult to give you… I mean, this is something that I still struggle with. I think I’ll begin by saying that there’s no single strategy and in fact, there’s a repertoire, I would argue, of a number of different strategies that often are used in combination. So there is confrontation, there is collaboration, and you weave back and forth. You bring in external – so communities work with external supporters. These could be lawyers, they could be activists, they could be academics, or experts of different sorts. They rely on them to support and help the particular campaign or cause, providing particular knowledge or expertise or in some cases, with academics, it’s often about writing. Of sometimes visibilising a particular issue through writing an op-ed or, writing in, you know, newspapers. In one case in some work that I was involved in some years ago, I was working with a fishing community in Mumbai’s east coast. It’s a very industrialised, very polluted coast. And the fishing community was really suffering saying that, you know, so much of the sewage of the city is disposed in the sea and in the creeks and so much plastic and nobody cares. And there are so many, so much infrastructure projects are coming up. Nobody cares about us and nobody cares about the sea. And so they actually said, would you… I was talking to them, I was doing a research project trying to understand, sort of state–society interface and their own projects of community aspirations for change. And so one of the things they asked me was, would you actually make a film for us because a visual documentation would capture far more powerfully, it would make our point far more powerfully than the written word. And so we thought about it and it really gripped my imagination. And I said, you know, they’ve asked us for this, so we should really try to do it. And so in fact, subsequently, we wrote for a small grant and actually made a short film and then showed it to the… So it was actually a great experience, it’s not something that one can replicate very often, perhaps, but I’m saying it in terms of, I think the thing that I would like to highlight here as a researcher is really the larger ethics of care that should motivate all our research and all our work with communities such as these. And here I’m talking about not the narrow understanding of ethics that is taught in the classroom, which is a highly bureaucratic, institutional review kind of process – fill in this form, get informed consent, and then do a test and then you’ve passed. And then most people, you know, you put it away and then you don’t think about your ethics anymore. And so I think that really should be the beginning point. You know, those kinds of processes should really be the beginning of what kind of an ethics of care can one build with the communities that one works with? And really, some of my work, I’ve tried to centre this idea of building stronger relations with the communities that I work with. And I think this is not, I think there are many people who are engaged in this process of evolving our own ethics with the communities that we work with. Particularly if you have a longer term interaction with these communities. And so if the centre point is really one of relations with them, then I think it becomes much, much harder to just do extractive research, go there, talk to them and, you know, to come away. And I think it becomes then possible for them to actually ask you questions and to actually make demands on you. And I think that’s, I think the best way… You know, you were asking me how can disadvantaged groups, in fact, ensure that their demands are considered? But I think if this is the kind of relationship that is built, and if we are asking questions of communities, then of course they have the right to ask questions back to us and how we negotiate that, how we navigate that, of course, is I think the real issue. But so this is really what I would talk about as… So apart from, of course, having a diverse repertoire of tactics and working with a number of different groups, not closing the doors on any particular collaborator, I would also talk very centrally of ethics and building these kinds of relationships. They can never be equal, I don’t think, because as you suggested, power is so imbued in all of this. But I think one of the guiding principles can be, how can this work in fact give more power to this community to do whatever it is? So it might be a fairly narrow domain. For example, it might be give them more information on a particular aspect, or if they want to reach out to a particular kind of, set of actors or… But how do you put more power in their hands, more knowledge in their hands, as opposed to gatekeeping? I think that’s the other problem. When one becomes the gatekeeper, then everything happens through the gatekeeper, and you become then the central mediator that decides and shapes things. And this is not just for researchers but I would say tremendously this is the case for NGOs and civil society groups. They become the spokespersons. And I think that also becomes very problematic at a certain level.

Ezana Haddis Weldeghebrael Thank you. Yeah, it’s really interesting. But these power dynamics also might be also internal. This one, the organised committee groups with external actors but also within the community also there are internal differences. How to navigate that, you know, if you have any experience?

Lalitha Kamath Again, I mean, I think there’s no simple answer to this. And again, no happy endings, often – sometimes. But I think it’s really about how flexible and how we can develop our own capacity to engage and negotiate? I think that really is important because if we close down the processes and spaces of dialogue, then I think that becomes really problematic. And increasingly, we are seeing some of that happening, in many of our cities that, you know, discussions or issues are so becoming so polarised that nobody dares, in fact, share a conflicting view, which means that then you only sit together in your own little echo chamber, only with people who speak and think like you and are like you. And so I think one of the things that coalitions do and attempt to do is they bring together a diverse set of actors and organisations. What this inevitably means is then conflict is tussles and tension and of all sorts. And I think we need to stop thinking of this as also something that’s healthy. So it’s healthy to have a certain amount of disagreement and conflict and through this process, I think the hope is that we can figure out and negotiate with each other, at least to reach some common cause with regards to a larger agenda. And we have seen that happen many times. I have multiple stories of similar cases like this where groups came together and were able to stay together for at least the time, for a brief time, where they negotiated on a common agenda and then after that, of course, you know, the coalition dissolved or certain actors left. But it is possible, I believe. But I think in order to do that, we have to have a certain level of openness, excitement, I think about meeting diverse groups, learning from diverse perspectives of different people. That’s important. And I’ve heard people say that actually that “oh, I was we were in this group and I actually learned something about this, I hadn’t thought about it before”. You know. So. These are and people can also become friends. So I think sometimes the unlikeliest people can become friends. And through these kinds of campaigns, you can see it happen. I did a project a little while ago, a writing project, with a friend and colleague on this particular community in Mumbai, where we actually tried to tell the story of the settlement through the life histories of housing activists. And it was so interesting because we actually delved in some depth, not on the physical, material sort of gains or outcomes of their work. But we actually tried to understand through their life histories how, you know, the connections that were built across a set of people and then how that had then created this change in the place. So it was quite interesting to think about then how just as an individual person you can meet others and through these exchanges, through these gatherings, so much can be possible, not all of it anticipated. So I hold onto some of that hope that, you know, negotiations and being flexible, being open, being excited I think by meeting diverse people and diverse perspectives can lead the way forward.

Ezana Haddis Weldeghebrael No, no. I agree that the hope… I mean that the reason that coalitions form is that there is a hope of change and maintaining that alive is very important. But as your article and Diana’s work and other, recent works have noticed is that this hope is being challenged, this optimism has been challenged. You know, there was back in the 90s and so on, there was this movement of decentralisation, local democratisation. But essentially there is, I mean, I don’t want to be reductive and generalise, but there is a tendency of that door being closed and there is also huge privatisation arising, speculative development. But broadly in general, what are the structural challenges that these kind of inclusive coalitions are facing? And what’s the hope that we can look up to these kind of closing spaces.

Lalitha Kamath Well, I’m not sure I can speak so strongly to the second part of your question on hope, but in terms of responding to the structural limits, I think they are quite considerable and we should really face them squarely. I think there’s no doubt that the stronger the institutional support from government, the greater the possibility to upscale the former reform coalition model. And so state support is clearly a crucial ingredient then in informal coalitions. But increasingly, as you mentioned, we are seeing the state become far less tolerant of this kind of politics. It’s far less committed to providing this kind of an institutionalised platform for different citizen participation and citizen state alliances. This is despite national decentralisation legislation. This is despite considerable pressure from civil society groups. And I think multiple cities, certainly in India, have shown that whatever support there is from government has to be perennially negotiated and always remains contingent. Increasingly, what we are also seeing in Indian cities is the proliferation of new hybrid forms of government, where state power is being concentrated in non-elected entities and many times these embody a state capitalist kind of nexus, increasingly focused on the commodification of land and real estate development. And these hybrid government entities, they are typically staffed – including the urban local governments – they are typically staffed by an array of circulating consultants. Many of them, in fact, are very settled in structures within government. And they use quite different technologies of governance. And so all of this, in fact, really compels civil society organisations to confront the very powerful capitalist forces centred on land commodification. And really, there’s pressure now to devise new modes and tools of engagement. So I think really the crisis is about shifting gears from older ways of negotiating with elected urban local governments and now rethinking, our strategies. And I think part of the crisis is really that we have not fully figured this out. And so there’s really, it’s a difficult space. I think on top of this, what makes things even more complex is that the state in general shapes the contours of civil society engagement and possibility, in other ways. So in India you’re seeing very clear examples, for example, stricter regulation on fund administration, reporting and taxation. Especially, I think there’s been a crackdown on foreign funding, and much greater surveillance also on particular themes that are deemed politically controversial. And so this is all having very dire consequences, actually, particularly for smaller organisations and for those that focus on more… Both on thematic areas that are controversial but also geographic areas. So there are large areas of the Indian nation that are now seen as, you know, areas that really should not be worked on very much. I mean, I’ll give you an example. I work in some parts of Northeast India and it’s very difficult, you can’t really work on many of those places with foreign funding. So you have to look for the right kind of funding that would enable you to do research or work with communities. So overall, we are seeing that civil society organisations are operating in a very complex in fact, they always, always were working in a fragmented landscape, a complex landscape, but one that has become even more complex and lengthy and fragmented. And so there are newer forms emerging, so we are having corporate social responsibility and the kinds of organisations they are spinning off. You are seeing a lot of different kinds of social enterprises, or what’s called social innovators, there are a number of different kinds of organisations that are emerging that are in the non-profit space, but they are rather different from the older forms of NGO or grassroots organisations or trade unions that earlier inhabited this landscape. So we are also seeing a number of newer civil society forms, if I can call them that. And all of this in a time of selectively less funding. So I think the situation in this respect, then, it becomes really complex. And I think one thing I would say in terms of, I’m not sure this is a way out, but increasingly what what I’m seeing happening and where I see more spaces for is in non-formal, non-institutionalised kinds of coalitions. So we need coalitions, very definitely, because I think to resist or to question becomes very difficult as an individual. So definitely we need to come together in different forms of coalitions, but often, the institutional form is feeling like it has more constraints than benefits. Again, these are emerging trends, this is partly from my own personal experience. And so I’m starting to think about then how to work extra-institutionally or across institutions and what new forms these might engender. So there’s some, I think I would say a certain level of excitement there to think about different forms of community, different forms of solidarity, and different kinds of coalitions that one can build, but that are a little bit different from the more formal, institutionalised ones that much more has been written about.

Ezana Haddis Weldeghebrael True. True. Yeah. I mean, this institutionalisation sometimes they might be like, you know, paper coalition or a website coalition, when you actually try to look at what they have done, they might not exist. So it’s the most important thing is the relationship, the collaboration, how often they meet. Those are the things that are important. I mean, I would like to continue asking questions because I’m really enjoying it. But in the interest of time, let me go to my last question. And you have also highlighted on your commentary, but I would like to give you an opportunity, what do you think that further research should focus, with regards to making sure that the coalitions that we build have an inclusive or transformational agenda? What are the areas that are still remaining and how could we better frame those research? Especially, this is also personal for me, I’m trying to, you know, work on that. But in general, how should we frame our research and what should we look at in urban reform coalitions?

Lalitha Kamath No, this is a great question. And something that I too am interested in and have been thinking about. So I can share with you some thoughts, based on also some of what I have written in the commentary piece. I think definitely I would suggest that we need to reframe coalitions and alliance making in a broader way. So one way that I’ve suggested we do this is to think about it as a set of practices that shifts the focus solely from stated goals and material outcomes to a more general mode of self-organising in the urban. So rather than an end state of urban development, that we actually think about then a set of practices. And those that emerge from self-organising processes. And this then takes it out of the much more narrow ambit of poverty alleviation, but also then includes processes of co-producing urban space that involve multiple actors. It could be residents, builders, politicians, cooperatives of different kinds, housing societies, a number of different actors, including the state, very much. And so this reframing also acknowledges, I think, the growing centrality of land and real estate to urban development processes, but also urban redevelopment processes. So in some ways, I’m pushing for this reframing also because I think I’m seeing several different kinds of coalitions emerge at both ends of the spectrum. On the one hand, you have in terms of what’s seen as the more, let’s say, peripheral spaces – spaces on the edges of the city or on the margins or the fringes, where a certain kind of auto-construction by different kinds of informal actors are taking place. So you have it at that end, but you also have at the high end, more elite-led, also informal processes of governance, where you see these kinds of coalitions – loose coalitions or alliances – between certain kinds of capitalists. In many cases developers, builders, politicians, senior politicians. So you have, this is also another kind, but this is elite. And then you have the more, let’s say, the marginalised. And in some ways, what I’m also arguing in this reframing is to actually collapse that boundary and to look at coalitions across both these kinds, because I think so far the discussion is centred more on marginalised actors and their coalitions, and I think that’s supremely important. I’m very interested in that. But I think in order to also understand, I think I’m also arguing to understand the way coalitions work in elite spaces. Because they have huge consequences, I think, for what’s happening in, for marginalised groups. So in some ways, it’s almost like I’m returning back to the start of my PhD work. Yeah, making a making a call or suggesting actually that we look also at these kinds of coalitions as being hugely important. And this, if nothing else, this is a way to hold them to account because I think a lot of them happen in very loose, informal ways. And really there are no easy ways for us to even understand what’s going on. And so I think, this is one kind of reframing that I would suggest on both ends. I would also second suggest focusing on expanding the repertoire and vocabulary of coalition practice. And here again, I’m going back to my earlier theme of knowledge and tacit knowledge, and seeking to valorise this knowledge that has been deliberately erased by powerful actors, including the state. And so this cause, in fact, for redirecting the politics of expertise – something that I’ve been working with quite a bit in terms of planning particularly, looking at how planning operates using a very narrow set of experts and expertise, and basically discounting everything else as expertise. So lived experience is not seen as expertise and therefore not taken into account. So, in some ways, what we are really looking to do is seeking to introduce new conversations on alternative terms, use vocabularies that are grounded in everyday coalition practice. And really, this is, in that sense, a larger political project, not just about expanding the repertoire and vocabulary as researchers to understand these coalition practices better, but to in fact, you know, reshape or significantly dent existing hierarchies of power around what counts as knowledge, what counts as expertise and what doesn’t.

Ezana Haddis Weldeghebrael Thank you. Yeah. Expanding the imaginaries, you know, when you have different words, you can think in a different way. Dr Lalitha Kamath, thank you very much. I understand you were, travelling away, so making time from your busy schedule, I really, highly appreciate it. And I really enjoyed our conversation, Dear listeners, I highly encourage you to read, Lalitha Kamath’s commentary on Diana’s article, it’s available on Area Development and Policy journal. And please also tune into the other episodes of the urban reform mini podcast series. Thank you very much.

Lalitha Kamath Thank you so much, Ezana. I’m so honoured and it’s been such a pleasure to be part of this podcast.

Ezana Haddis Weldeghebrael You have been listening to the African Cities podcast. Remember to subscribe for more urban development insights and interviews from the African Cities Research Consortium.

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Header photo credit: Diana Mitlin. Community visit in Harare, Zimbabwe.

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