Internal other: Re-imagined class in urban spaces

City of Shadows reviewed by Sankar Varma

27 Jul 2023, 9:07 a.m.

City of Shadows book cover

Supriya RoyChowdhury, City of Shadows: Slums and Informal Work in Bangalore, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021; 200 pp.: ISBN: 9781108839365, US$776.00/£75.00 (hbk); ISBN: 9781108989930 (online) eBook


While informal workers continue to remain a precarious class of workers in urban spaces, the majority of the literature, irrespective of accepting the fact of they being precarious or not, have not really exposed the differences that shadow sky high. Through laying down a firm ground of in-depth review of literature’s facilitating enhanced conceptual clarity, Supriya RoyChowdhury unveils the precarity of informal workers, through taking the special case of the city Bangalore in her latest book City of Shadows: Slums and Informal Work in Bangalore.

The book has nine solid chapters, with the first three giving the reader a general framework on certain theoretical premises surrounding urban spaces and informality. In the fourth chapter, the author takes us to the city of Bangalore and explains the political economy of Karnataka in general and of Bangalore in particular with utmost diligence. This is important in any field of enquiry especially considering the translation of urban space as unequal, unjust and not very politically conscious. Frederic Jameson, one of the leading political theorist, proposed that the least conscious is the political unconscious. RoyChowdhury follows this proposition with precision through not just economically but also politically motivating her readers around the issues of migration and livelihood of informal workers.

The idea of ‘new slums’ and ‘old slums’ earlier conceptualised in the works of Mike Davis is introduced, and RoyChowdhury makes readers aware of the importance of slum housing policies and ghettoes, as well as the life of the women workers in Bangalore’s garment export companies. The overall trajectory of informality across the urban space is concluded with the structured nature of exclusion wherein the author divides informality into two aspects. One is the modern economy, through salaried wage-earners (drivers, security guards, organised scrap collectors, retail salespeople, garment exporters and so on), and the other is those who remain tied to casual daily-wage work (head-load bearers, construction workers, contract sanitation workers, street-cleaners and so on).

A close reading of this book invokes the reader to see the shadow that looms large over the informal class of workers from quite some time. This is also where the critique of this book review lies, because the duty of any urban citizen is to not really resort into a generalisation that confirms informal workers are a shadowed class of workers; rather the very critique should begin in the ultimate realization that informal workers retreat as the ‘internal other’ in any urban capitalist system, leading a precarious life.

About 63.8% of urban households in India have their own dwelling units and around 96% live in pucca houses. The average floor area of a dwelling unit was 46 m2 in 2018 (Asian News International, 2019). The Technical Group on Urban Housing Shortage for the 12th Plan (TG–12), Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA), estimated the urban housing shortage during 2012–2017 at 18.78 million rupees, mostly (around 15 million rupees) on account of congestion (Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation, 2012). Therefore, at a time when congestion is at an all-time high, while there is also an explosion of spaces due to contemporary city-centric growth processes, it is this class of shadowed workers who retreat as the ‘internal other’ of the urban space. They become the ‘internal other’ in a capitalist urban space primarily because they are forced to sustain within the peripheries of the city with terrible living conditions, while at the same time being the most wanted and flexible class of workers.

Such a capital-centric discourse of development is an immanent characteristic of the city-centric growth process and it does not hide hierarchies and dominance. Instead, it organises an economy in terms of the relations of dominance and subordination resulting in the legitimising of the hierarchy, all in the name of ‘progress’ for the city. Such an underpinning is also marked alongside a provisional totality, triggered through a centrality in the accumulation process, resulting in the creation of a dark zone that constitutes the ‘internal other’ as the outsiders. In other words, a strict definition of a ‘be all and end all’ of the city is defined, resulting in the encroachment as well as the forced pushing away of the informal workers as the ‘internal other’ of the city. They become a class of workers who are squeezed, bled and ultimately allowed to wither away in the interests of capitalist accumulation (Sanyal, 2014).

Hence the crux of the matter shows us that informal workers fall into the most integral class of workers in the city-centric growth process primarily because they are the re-imagined working class. Without them, the city-centric growth process fails to bear fruit. This is because they are very much an internal part of the capitalist system, but ‘others’ at the same time due to the very characteristics of their work and the social groups that they fall into. So rather than proposing a re-imagination of this class of workers on a continuum within the formal sectors, it is a simple recognition of them having fallen as the ‘internal other’ due to the immanent tendencies of capitalism as a city-centric logic that seems to have been diluted in this text, despite its brilliant theoretical and empirical rigour.

This review therefore is also a way of proposing that it is not just a re-imagination of informal workers that is required to get them out of their precarious livelihoods; rather, it is a simple recognition of them having fallen as the ‘internal other’ in urban space that needs to be conceptualised in order to prevent them from becoming shadowed. A major critique in this regard rests in the structural transformation of India from an agrarian economy to an urbanised economy, where migration translated to being a major trend for assessment, not just for job creation but also for the assessment of living conditions out of these job creations. As per the 2011 census, 0.45 million houseless families and a total population of 1.773 million people live without any roof over their heads. Of these 1.773 million people homeless in the country, around 1 million are in urban areas. In a survey conducted by Azim Premji University of 5000 self-employed, casual and regular wage workers across 12 states of India in April and May 2020, 88% of migrants reported that they could not pay the rent for the next month.

The structural transformation of migration, therefore, keeping in mind the shift from an agrarian to an urbanised economy, in contemporary India calls for a larger detailing in this text because ‘shadowing’ happens through a deliberate action of creating an ‘other’ in urban space (here, informal workers). Structural transformation deeply rooted in a capitalist rhetoric abetted by the state has coalesced to be one of laying down the seeds of ‘othering’.

When Indian agriculture’s share in GDP steadily fell to about 18%, the percentage of people dependent upon agriculture as a means of livelihood continued to be unusually high, close to 50%. Such a slow pace of job creation in rural areas made the slow pace of urbanisation even more remarkable is a finding on point made by the author. However, such logic needs to undergo a contestation through a critique of structural transformation in general and the plights of the informal workers and migrants in particular because the right to the city (Lefebvre, 1968) is a scattered and not always development-induced notion like the way it is in the case of Bengaluru. Also RoyChowdhury finds shared concern on the structural transformation of the economy as it typically represented the movement of large numbers from agriculture to industry. However, she finds at the same time that such a movement did not really take place on an expected scale in India. If so, then what were the repercussions and the urban conundrums that followed?

Therefore such an argument howsoever interesting it may sound seems to have not delved (despite analyzing the intersection point with precision) into the nuances of migration trends stimulated out of not just the shrinking agrarian economy but also the city centric growth, that bypassed many due to the very spontaneous nature of capitalism that willy-nilly creates an ‘other’ always already. It becomes evident when the author makes sudden economic jumps through giving a comparative analysis of the 35 million workers moving out of agriculture into non-agricultural occupations between 2004–2005 and 2011–2012. Yet again, RoyChowdhury finds that such a figure showcases the absolute decline in the number of workers engaged in agriculture post independence. However, such an absolute decline also means that the rate of migration to the service sector, such as manufacturing and construction, has increased.

While the author critiques using data on the increasing flux of workers from agriculture to construction and manufacturing, a realisation of this kind seems to have bypassed the all-encompassing factor of the structural transformation that haphazardly creates a deliberate coalescing of the capital generated in cities to the functioning of the state and its policies. In other words, capitalism and its constant interaction with the state seem to have been missed in the idea of welfare in this text. RoyChowdhury says: ‘Are state policies that generate exclusivist growth determined by the choices made by political regimes at given times, or are these determined by the deeper structural logic of capitalism?’. (Pg No 37) The answer is actually both, because for a long time India has hardly had any political regime that understands the tendency of ‘othering’ deeply rooted in the nitty-gritty of capitalism. Perhaps the country today is even moving towards what the Italian dictator Mussolini once proposed – a complete merger of state and corporate power ultimately leading to fascism.

Bengaluru, the IT hub of India, or perhaps the majority of South India itself, may not really head towards such a state of fascism in absolute terms, but the point stands that the merger of state and corporate power is almost already complete in majority of the states in India. Such a trend deeply rooted in urban empirics shadows capitalism in the guise of being ‘social’, and it is such a tremor that makes urban space unequal and unjust, resulting in informal workers becoming the most essential and flexible class of workers at the same time being pushed as ‘others’ in the urban space; hence the ‘internal other’ of urban space.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his poem ‘The Ladder of St. Augustine’ wrote that ‘The heights by great men reached and kept were not attained by sudden flight, but they, while their companions slept, were toiling upward in the night’. City of Shadows proves that path right blending theories with empirics, but at times bypassing the nitty-gritty of capitalism. Therefore, while it is the toil of the informal workers that runs any city, it is time for all of us to recognise that the most shadowed people in the city are the informal workers who remain the ‘internal others’. RoyChowdhury has unmasked the shadowing part through this seminal text. However, let us not shadow the immanent tendencies of capitalism that make informal workers the shadow of cities, forced to live as ‘internal others’, when we read this text or any text moving forward.



Asian News International (2019) 96.0 per cent in rural, 63.8 per cent urban area households have their own dwelling unit: NSS. Available at: (accessed 16 May 2023). Google Scholar

Lefebvre H (1968) Le Droit à la ville. Paris: Anthropos. Google Scholar

Longfellow HW (1847) The Ladder of St. Augustine. Available at: (accessed 16 May 2023). Google Scholar

Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation (2012) Report of the Technical Group on Urban Housing Shortage (TG-12) (201217). New Delhi: Government of India. Google Scholar

Sanyal K (2014) Rethinking Capitalist Development: Primitive Accumulation, Governmentality and Post-Colonial Capitalism. New Delhi: Routledge. Crossref | Google Scholar


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