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Conservation and Society
An interdisciplinary journal exploring linkages between society, environment and development
Conservation and Society
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Year : 2022  |  Volume : 20  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 54-55

From Bourgeois Environmentalism to a Just Urban Commons: Despair and Hope in Amita Baviskar's Uncivil City

Department of Geography, Rutgers University, New Jersey, USA

Correspondence Address:
Thomas Crowley
Department of Geography, Rutgers University, New Jersey
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/cs.cs_130_21

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Date of Web Publication13-Dec-2021

How to cite this article:
Crowley T. From Bourgeois Environmentalism to a Just Urban Commons: Despair and Hope in Amita Baviskar's Uncivil City. Conservat Soc 2022;20:54-5

How to cite this URL:
Crowley T. From Bourgeois Environmentalism to a Just Urban Commons: Despair and Hope in Amita Baviskar's Uncivil City. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2022 [cited 2023 Mar 23];20:54-5. Available from: https://www.conservationandsociety.org.in//text.asp?2022/20/1/54/332415

Baviskar, A. Uncivil City: Ecology, Equity and the Commons in Delhi. SAGE YODA Press, New Delhi. 2020. (pp. 243) Paperback (ISBN: 978-93-5328-940-9) ₹1,195.

For many years, scholarship on environmentalism in India focused on movements of marginalised people in rural areas, fighting for control over ecological resources, often against big corporations or an avaricious state—what has been called 'the environmentalism of the poor'. In her 1995 book, In the Belly of the River: Tribal Conflicts over Development in the Narmada Valley, sociologist Amita Baviskar explored precisely these kinds of movements, analysing their promise and contradictions. Baviskar's latest book, Uncivil City, starts with her realisation, soon after her Narmada research, that her home city of Delhi was just as ripe for ecological and political analysis. At first, she was not sure where exactly to locate Nature in the city because, as she puts it, we have been “socialised to separate 'nature’ from 'culture'” (202). Baviskar's ground-breaking work on Delhi began with questioning this stark separation. Since the early 2000s, Baviskar has underscored the political stakes of analysing urban environmentalism, and Uncivil City is an essential contribution to this field of scholarship both in India and beyond.

The book brings together essays that Baviskar wrote between 2002 and 2018, bookended by a new introduction and a coda on Delhi and climate change. The essays have been edited and updated, creating a well-crafted and comprehensive analysis of contemporary Delhi and the often unjust consequences of its elite-dominated environmental movements. The essays are also held together by Baviskar's compelling style, which blends theoretical analysis, polemic, and lyrical descriptions evoking Delhi's everyday socio-natures; this style is complemented by a set of sardonic and sometimes playful illustrations by artist Orijit Sen. Taken together, the essays in the book document an 'urban turn’ in Baviskar's work, which mirrors a broader shift in Indian scholarship from treating India as a fundamentally rural society to giving increased attention to urbanisation processes and the many complex ways in which the urban and rural are intertwined. Baviskar's crucial role in this broad 'urban turn’ has been to highlight questions of ecological justice, which are often obscured in explorations of the city.

Uncivil City asks vital questions which have no easy answers: what exactly is 'the environment'? And who gets to speak for it, and about it? The book's introduction provides an extremely lucid distillation of a key insight which Baviskar has developed over the course of her urban engagement, namely that, in Delhi at least, both 'the environment’ and 'environmentalism’ have been defined in “partial, particularistic and perverse” ways (17). More specifically, Baviskar argues that it is generally the city's elite who are able to posit their own aesthetic and ideological preferences as somehow representing not only the city's population as a whole, but also the good of its environment. So—to give an example Baviskar explores later in the book—cycle-rickshaws are seen as a problem by elite environmentalists as they clog up the roads and don't look 'world class’ even though they are quite eco-friendly; meanwhile, cars, the real ecological villains, are a blind spot in the elite environmental vision, and they are left uncriticised because of their centrality to upper-class notions of the good life.

After the introduction is a revised and expanded version of Baviskar's 2002 essay 'Between Violence and Desire,’ a landmark article which introduced the term 'bourgeois environmentalism’ to the Indian context. Baviskar uses this term to conceptualise the elite capture of environmental discourse described above. The following essays in the book expand on the idea of 'bourgeois environmentalism’ and the various manifestations it takes in Delhi, including contestations over a wide range of issues from modernist urban planning and judicial activism to the embattled ecological commons of the Yamuna River and the Aravalli mountain range (or the Ridge, as the Delhi portion of the Aravallis is called). As the name 'bourgeois’ suggests, there is an economic element to elite environmentalism, and Baviskar skilfully elucidates the way that the liberalisation of the Indian economy in the past several decades has “ideologically and materially empowered the urban elite to an unprecedented extent” (110). Bourgeois environmental campaigns—for instance, the push to remove 'polluting’ industries from Delhi—were often consonant with economic trends of land deregulation and real estate speculation, as industrial uses of the land were seen as less and less profitable.

But a key tenet of Baviskar's work has long been that the transformation of Delhi's environment cannot be understood only in economic terms. She also highlights the role of aesthetics, of desire, of dreams and aspirations. So, for instance, people across class lines show enthusiasm for 'world-class’ events like the Commonwealth Games, even if they themselves will benefit little from them. Such events, she argues, “provide the affective glue that makes the urban exciting and desirable” (85). For this reason, as Baviskar astutely notes, 'bourgeois environmentalism’ is not always confined to the bourgeoisie, or even the middle classes; it is also “a more generalised sensibility” (125), an aesthetic of order and hygiene which even the working classes can at times adopt. When this sensibility becomes widespread, Baviskar suggests, it becomes difficult to stop attempts to beautify the city and make it 'world class', despite the many socially and ecologically adverse consequences: slum demolitions, real estate development in ecologically sensitive areas, the unchecked proliferation of cars, etc. But these consequences appear to be forgotten as soon as the next, exciting, 'world-class’ project is proposed. As Baviskar writes, “It was as if the city had no memory, as if the past had faded away, burnt off by the blazing promise of the future.” (99).

What is one to do with a city which cannot learn from its social and ecological missteps? As Baviskar herself notes, the mood of the collected essays oscillates between “despair and hope” (13). Although wary of nostalgia, she nonetheless feels that Delhi has witnessed a precipitous ecological decline in recent years, as “total surrender to big capital and the comfort of the automobile-owning classes is driving Delhi over the edge” (11). But she is not ready to give up on the city, and she finds—in its parks and its green spaces, in its buzzing street life—some seeds for the kind of shared urban commons which could enliven and democratise Delhi's socio-ecological life. Reviving and expanding such commons would require, not bourgeois environmentalism, but rather an ecological vision that highlights “other claims on nature, especially by working-class citizens” (21).

In her concluding chapter, Baviskar highlights why this is so difficult, especially in the urban context. She notes that environmentalism “as an ideology… is a resource available primarily to those who have the cultural capital to leverage it” (201). This cultural capital often coincides with economic capital (as the term 'bourgeois environmentalism’ suggests), but Baviskar's essays also demonstrate the way that other factors—including education and the ability to speak English—play a role in one's ability (or inability) to speak for the environment. In this context, caste also makes an appearance, though more in the book's empirical descriptions than its theoretical arguments. For instance, Baviskar describes how the city elite's view of roadside cows as a 'menace’ is refracted through their disdain for traditionally pastoralist castes like the Gujjars (114-120), while elsewhere noting how the ecologically beneficial work of (mostly Dalit) waste-workers gets misrecognised and stigmatised owing to prevailing caste norms (208–9).

Perhaps Baviskar's analysis could be extended to examine the ways in which bourgeois environmentalism and savarna environmentalism interact.1 In the Western context, the cultural theorist Stuart Hall has described “race as the modality in which class is lived, the medium in which class relations are experienced.” Could a similar argument be made for India, with caste posited as the modality through which class is lived? Such questions suggest the necessity of interrogating the 'bourgeois’ of bourgeois environmentalism in caste terms to draw out the complex, overlapping logics of caste and class systems.

The reality of multiple social fractures in India only heightens the difficulty of building the egalitarian world Baviskar envisions. In her coda, reflecting on the challenge of climate change, Baviskar discusses the concept of a 'binding crisis', which ostensibly “unites all classes of citizens and prompts them to respond to the disaster in their midst” (215). However, she notes that in cities like Delhi, “common troubles are not shared; instead of coming together, people compete to find ways to escape” (217). This is not inevitable, however. Uncivil City is compelling not just for its incisive critique of 'bourgeois environmentalism', but for its steadfast recognition that another city, another urban ecology, is possible. As Baviskar reminds us, “in an uncivil city, the commons can be a model and metaphor for creating a shared space of politics” (30). Baviskar's ground-breaking critique, as well as her vision for change, deserves a wide readership not only amongst scholars and students of urban sociology and environmental studies, but also amongst all those activists and environmentalists who want to make the city a more socially just, ecologically flourishing place.


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