Informal Local Power Structures in Everyday Governance

By Kunal Chaturvedi

“Bhaji walon ka nazariya chahiye to unhi se poocho, mujhe kya pata hoga” (If you want to know about the perspective of vegetable vendors, ask them. Why are you asking me?), was the response to our question about the views of Pune city’s vegetable vendors on the Smart City Project. The blunt reply shocked us, and we began to wonder why exactly were we interviewing this big-time builder/businessman and local strongman on an issue that does not concern him. However, interviewing him was not our decision. We were taken to his office by the leader of the vendors himself, who quite explicitly told us that the de facto authority in the area lies to a large extent with the strongman’s family. In fact, many of the vendors in the market refused to directly answer our questions, stating that any untoward statement that they might make will invite the disapproval of him.

This, and other such experiences faced by our team on the very first day in the streets, combined with the large hoardings and the signboards on various buildings, roads and colonies made it very clear to us who the dominant landlords in the area were. We later came to know that the patriarch of the powerful family was in fact an ex-mayor of the Pune Municipal Corporation, whereas his close family members also served as former corporators. On the other hand, the business and building interests of the family are looked after by another family member who we spoke to. The family fielded a woman candidate from within the family in the year the ward was reserved for women leaders raising suspicions about the real decision makers behind the candidate. There has also been an allegation of misrule during one of the family member’s leadership while serving as the elected representative from the area.

The key to understanding the family’s hold over the area lies in the history of the pattern of landholdings in the area. As one of the family members claimed in an interview with members of our team, the clan is an offshoot of an erstwhile dynasty from Gujarat, and was given the land in the area as part of their jagirs. Upon inclusion of the Aundh region into the Pune city limits in 1950, the area was “handed-over” to the PMC by his father, who was the sarpanch of the area at that time. However, despite the loss of formal authority over the area, the informal hold of the family continued, particularly due to them maintaining ownership over significant amount of land. This informal authority is perhaps best reflected in the views of a large number of residents about the developmental trajectory of the area. These residents point out to the fact that as late as the 1990’s, the area was dominantly agricultural. Over the last two decades, as one elderly resident claimed, the area was developed as a residential-cum-semi-commercial zone by the on of the sons of the ruling patriarch in response to the expansion of the effective city limits due to continuous migrations. The fact that many residents still give the credit for the infrastructural development of the region to the them is an important insight to the extent of the family’s hold over the minds of the people in the area. In fact, even today, the family owns several IT parks and corporate hubs, along with a petrol pump and several vacant plots planned for further construction in a local neighborhood named after one of the earlier scions of the family. The claim has been taken one step further in the family’s website used to promote party propaganda, which states that the developmental works done by them in Aundh were the reason for the selection of the area for the Smart City Project.  Moreover, the family also hold significant interests in public facilities such as the private school and a hospital located in the area, with the principal of the school herself referring to it as the brainchild of the patriarch in an interview.

The developmental trajectory of the area, and more importantly the perceptions of the people about the driving forces behind it reveal that the power that the family holds in the area despite holding no constitutional posts at present is built upon the continuance of the feudal mindset and the deep imbibing of the informal relations of power that have historically existed. As a result, several client-patron relationships have sprang up between members of the family and various local stakeholder groups, the most glaring example of which is perhaps the mandai mentioned earlier. The vendors in the market were given formal recognition as well as a semi-permanent place to sell their wares by one of the family members during his tenure as the mayor. Today, an unusual alliance has developed between the vendors and the ex-mayor, with the family providing security of tenure and business to the vendors, and the vendors providing ground level political ‘feelers’ for the family. The political connections, though covert, are visible in the perceptions of the people, who firmly believe the area to be a Congress stronghold under the family, and claim that the recent BJP victory in the municipality elections is owed exclusively to electoral malpractices.

Apart from the historic sociopolitical factors that have shaped the hold of the family over the area, considerable credit is also owed to the personal charisma and accessibility of these power figures themselves. As we found out, while every vendor in the mandai was unwilling to speak independently to us, almost all of them had access to one of the son’s contact details, and one of them served as our guide to his office. Similarly, the patriarch himself walked down till his petrol pump to meet the team which went to interview him, and took them to a café owned by him nearby. Several residents in the area claimed that it was this accessibility that makes the family the rallying point for the community in the area. However, regarding the question of the limits of this accessibility during the period of his incumbency as the mayor, no definite answer could be found, since people of the area either completely support or are totally against them. Similarly, the overt willingness displayed by one the businessmen in the family towards establishing a forum for cooperation between various stakeholder groups in the area points out to the fact that this family serves as a merger of interests between different sections of the society. While themselves belonging to the rich, upper class of big builders and businessmen, they also patronize local small vendors and hawkers, leading to an effective, informal and local level dispute resolution mechanism. Moreover, the family sometimes serves as an effective link between the stakeholders in the area and the bureaucratic and political decision makers, using their considerable political and money influence to alter and reshape decisions.  Obviously, this cooperation only holds true as long as there is no direct conflict of interest between the family and the stakeholder group.

This nexus of political as well as capital power within the family becomes obvious upon meeting the two brothers. While one of the brothers fits perfectly into the image of a politician, dressed immaculately in white Kurta-Pajama, and speaking in the diplomatic, political lingo, the other is the image of a modern-day capitalist, dressed in western formals, and speaking a language replete with legal and business terminologies.

In such a scenario where multiple formal and informal power structures including elected representatives, dominant political families and individuals and bureaucrats exist together, it becomes interesting to note that the poorer sections of the society are often dependent on their relationship with a particular power figure, and this loyalty is maintained irrespective of whether he/she is in formal power or not. Moreover, as evidences from the interviews of the mandai vendors point out, the negotiations between various power figures is such that a group loyal to a particular power figure is often left alone by the opposition even when its patron is not in power. Thus, while the system of multiple power structures appears incomprehensibly complex, the whole system manages to work out through a web of negotiations and adjustments between various groups and stakeholders.

* All names have been deliberately removed to protect identity.

 


The Winter Institute is a full-fledged 3 credit course in the academic calendar of the Masters in Urban Policy and Governance program of the School of Habitat Studies conducted in the first year. It is conceived as a platform for interdisciplinary collaborative learning through research and action in the field. The blog series showcases the work, reflections and opinions of the students, and not the Centre.

To see institute reports from previous batches visit our website: http://urk.tiss.edu/winter-institute.html

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