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‘No Cost’ Houses in the Making: Brokering Incremental Urbanism

Incremental urbanism once again is advocated as an alternative mode of urban development promising not only housing at low or even no cost for the state but social mobility for its residents (Wakely and Riley 2011). Positioned in opposition to ‘planning’, incremental development is perceived as sort of ‘pristine’ mode of development particularly fit for the poor in the global south, which is at fundamental opposition to urban production of more ‘advanced’ societies (Turner 1967). Such conceptualizations continue a ‘developmentalist’ discourse (Robinson 2006) forcing us to read urban realities in preconceived categories. Rather than assuming a schism between the incremental and the ‘planned’, the dominant and the subaltern, the different paths to urbanization have to be approached symmetrically (Robinson 2006; Pattaroni and Baitsch 2015). In that light this paper follows Pushpa Arabindoo’s call for renewed ethnographic engagement to understand the emerging spatial practices of the urban poor (Arabindoo 2011) and adopts a perspective of those, who actually build ‘no cost’ houses and analyzes how incrementally developing settlements are produced, maintained, and unmade. Examining contractors, the key figures engaged in construction in Mumbai’s incrementally developing neighbourhoods, as local actors brokering the production of ‘no cost’ houses, this paper contributes to a due reassessment of incremental urbanism. Since only careful description and focus on processes allows going beyond preconceived conception about cities, urban development and linked disjunctive dichotomies. While doing so, this paper aims at shedding light on the advantages and limits of incremental urbanism under today’s neoliberal conditions of urbanization.

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