‘Logic of the Urban Contemporary: Geographies in the making (Kochi)’ talk by Dr. Mathew A. Varghese

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On the 27th of March 2016, Dr Mathew A. Varghese, from the department of political science, Maharaja’s college, conducted a talk organized by the Centre for Public Policy Research. The talk was hosted by one of CPPR’s focus study Centres: The Centre for Urban Studies, as a part of its in-house lecture series Urban Voices.

Dr. Varghese, who has a PhD in social anthropology from the University of Bergen, Norway, spoke on the logic of urbanization that governs city planning in Kerala. He started the talk by defining the key terms used in the title of the talk ‘ logic of urban contemporary: geographies in the making (Kochi)’. By following specific definitions given by certain social scientists, such as, Slojav Zizek, and Fredrick Jameson, he attempted to trace a theoretical trajectory to understand the process of urbanization in Kerala at large, and Kochi in particular.

The central questions looked into through the course of the talk were: what is urbanization and when did it begin in Kochi? Is there logic in the creation and processes followed by urban forms in Kochi? And in the process of growth, who has a right or claim to the city?

Dr. Varghese considered urbanization through the work of various socio-economic theorists, such as Karl Marx and Max Weber, connecting it with the work of space theorists, such as those of Robert Parks and Henri Lefebvre. He claimed that within such a framework, the urban sphere becomes the physical manifestation of the accumulation of capital, and allows for the flow and absorption of capital. In this process of production of space, various relationships are also constructed, the relationship with the State being one of the most important ones. As cities grow, and urban life continues to be shaped and reshaped, the corporeal power of the State starts to play a large role in the construction of a city and its citizens, he elaborated.

The State mediates and has a degree of control over the urban process, through the exercise of city planning. While it is necessary that a city develop in a planned fashion, this also allows for the State to push forward a certain forms of development, which may not necessarily be linked to the local needs. While local needs come to be reflected in the larger narrative of development, it is often reshaped within the dominant paradigm. Which, in turn, includes the shaping of the ‘ideal’ citizen, and resident.

Placing these theoretical concepts within the context of Kerala, he highlighted that the local has always been connected to the global. The economic and social changes in the state have never been limited simply to local processes, but have always been part of a larger global system. These global linkages predate colonialism, as Kerala has been a part of global trade routes since 3,000 BC. Thus, the role of capital, and the interaction with various kinds of human settlements, has always played a role in the development of the state. The movement towards urban forms has both, been influenced by and aided, the socio-political reform movements in the state. The social reform movements of the 19th century played a big role in creating and redefining public spaces in Kerala, allowing access to all. The creation of such spaces assisted in breaking down of several social protocols, and caste boundaries.

However, the current phase of urban development has seen several ruptures and jumps in the process of urbanization. Looking at Kochi specifically, it can be said that there has been a shift from the physical to the virtual, in the development of structures. When focusing on urban projects, such as, ‘smart cities’, or ‘gated living communities’, the idea of life within these structures are constructed even before the physical structures themselves. Making the physical dependent on the virtual, rather that the structures shaping the lives of people.

Dr. Varghese highlighted how current trends may still be linked to the conceptual work of the social theorists referred to at the beginning of his talk. While in many ways current trends are still linked to earlier works, the kinds of questions being faced now are different. The limits of the corporeal power of the state play a huge role in answer questions like, who has a right to the city? And for whom is the city developing?

As the process of urbanization is constantly developing, and new ideas and challenges keep coming up, it is not a topic that can have a definite conclusion.

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