Indian Urban Studies in the New Millennium

Blog post by Ashima Sood and Karen Coelho

17 Dec 2021, 11:58 a.m.
Ashima Sood and Karen Coelho



Can we identify and describe a field of Urban Studies in India?  What are the contours and boundaries of this field?  How has it evolved from diverse strands of disciplinary scholarship on the Indian city, from economics to history and anthropology to urban planning?  How does scholarship on Indian cities enter into conversation with global scholarship? How is it shaped by currents from the Global South and what does it add to the conceptualization of Southern, or Northern, urbanisms?

We set out to examine these debates in an introductory essay for a Virtual Special Issue (VSI) that showcases a selection of pieces from the nearly 30-year-old Urban Studies archive on urban India. With the USJ archive as the anchor, the VSI allowed us to survey the vast breadth of the field in India. 

One of us has worked on urban themes, especially surrounding infrastructure, from the earliest days of the field, from the disciplinary perspective of anthropology (Coelho et al. 2003). The other was involved with ambitious pedagogical and scholarly surveys for both Indian and international audiences over the last few years (Sood 2016, 2021). Both of us have been associated with the Economic and Political Weekly Review of Urban Affairs, one of the earliest periodicals to document the progress of the field over the last decade.

With this background, we quickly realized a few things. First, although the study of urban India had seen valuable disciplinary contributions from early postcolonial days,  urban studies came together as a field only over the last two decades. Second, despite its relatively recent origins, the field had quickly developed a robust, sophisticated and diverse armoury of conceptual tools and empirical material from across disciplines and from scholars based both within India and outside. In navigating this vast and varied terrain, the USJ archive served as a mooring, illuminating both the evolution of the field in the journal’s pages and the surrounding literature.

The tension and indeed dialectic between two important thematics appeared to shape this literature. On the one hand, Indian urban studies emerged as a field in response to state and policy initiatives in the post-liberalization period of the 1990s, an “urban turn” already manifest in Gyan Prakash’s famous essay of that name. On the other hand, however, scholars of the Indian urban had highlighted the role of non- and sometimes anti-state processes in shaping Indian cities. Whether at the level of the neighbourhood or in larger patterns of subaltern urbanization, urban informality was pivotal to the trajectory both of Indian cities and urbanization.

A second conceptual debate has also proved intractable. Though Indian scholarship has worked hard to move past the formal-informal dualism, informal employment and settlements continue to dominate Indian urbanscapes. Fragmented as it is, the Indian city shows a distinct dual visage.

Canons are complex and messy affairs, that serve to exclude as much as to include. In our selection, we were aware of the important streams and scholars that we were not able to acknowledge and place within the limits of our word length and argument. Nonetheless, we hope that this essay serves as an invitation to newer explorations of the expanding boundaries of Indian urban studies, in engagement both with urban practice and international scholarship.


Read the accompanying article on Urban Studies OnlineFirst here.


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