Prof. Supriya RoyChowdhury

Democracy and Debates: Urban Poor Housing Movements in India

December 2021 – May 2022

Research Description:

This project locates itself at the intersection of two strands of thinking on democracy:  one, the relationship between democracy and truth, and second, the role of social movements in democracies.   I try to connect the two, by looking at the discourses and practices of a pan Indian slum dwellers movement, (housing and land).  An Alliance constituting three groups –the National Slum Dwellers Federation, Mahila Milan, and SPARC — functions mainly in Mumbai but spread across India, has been functioning since the mid 1970s.  The study will construct a history of the movement, tracing the discursive practices of the Alliance over time, its concepts, strategies and selected projects.

The hegemonic term used by the movement to describe the urban poor, is “community”,  and the predominant strategy deployed is to create networks across slums, using a range of NGOs, to raise awareness, create solidarities and enable slum dwellers to come up with their own solutions to their problems.  “Community” has replaced “class”, and slum level organization around housing and basic services has taken the place of work/wage/employment related issues.  The relationship between truth and democracy foregrounds this study in the following sense: social movements play a central role not only in advocating the cause of the poor and the underprivileged, but also, crucially, in defining the universe which they represent, organize, mobilize.  Organizations select a set of issues over others, although in partnership with their constituencies, select also the language of representation, and shape the subjectivities of the constituencies concerned.  The guiding question in the study would be, to what extent do the Alliance’s concepts and strategies correspond to the structure of slum communities, and the realities of their struggles?    What are the arguments, dissents that occur within the Alliance, and critiques that occur outside?  In what ways are these processed?  What are the modalities through which the Alliance seeks to further its understanding of the issues that it is engaged with?



Supriya RoyChowdhury was educated at Presidency College, Kolkata, and at Princeton University.  She is currently Visiting Professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore. Earlier she taught at the ISEC, Bangalore, IIM Ahmedabad, and worked as Deputy Editor, The Hindu.  Her research interests span labour, trade unions, urban poverty, and migration.    She has published in the Journal of Development Studies, Third World Quarterly, Pacific Affairs, Economic and Political Weekly, Socialist Register, as well as contributed to several edited volumes.  Her book, “City of Shadows: Slums and Informal Work in Bangalore”, has been published by Cambridge University Press in 2021.

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