Prof. Patrick Heller speaking at the Dept. Pol. Sci.; Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2012 (Photo: Khalid Jaleel)

Patrick Heller, Professor of Sociology at Brown Univ., Speaks at Jamia

The Department of Political Science, organized a lecture by Prof. Patrick Heller on “Indian Cities in Comparative Perspective” on Oct. 17, 2012.

Prof. Heller is a visiting senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research and a professor of Sociology and International Studies at Brown University, USA. He is the co-author of the book, “Social Democracy in the Global Periphery: Origins and Prospects,” and the author of the book, “The Labor of Development: Workers and the Transformation of Capitalism in Kerala, India.”

Prof. Patrick Heller speaking at the Dept. Pol. Sci.; Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2012 (Photo: Khalid Jaleel)

Through his PowerPoint presentation, Prof. Heller compared the growth and urbanization standards, the state capacity, the civil society, and the citizenship practice in the cities of India, South Africa and Brazil.

Prof. Heller began his talk with a slide show on percentage of people comprising urban population in various developing countries, including India, Brazil, South Africa, China, etc. According to him, the major problems of urbanization in developing countries are growth without jobs; informalization; and surplus population where 78 percent of the LDC (Late Developing Countries) urban population live in slums. In most developed countries, with the exception of China, the rate of urbanization is lower than the rate of job creation. “Everywhere urbanization is outpacing job growth,” he said. Informalization refers to the areas of work and life that have not been officially recognized or controlled. He stated that almost 65 percent of households in Delhi are not authorized or legal.

Paradigms of Urban Governance

While discussing paradigms of urban governance, Prof. Heller briefed about global cities, urban regimes and citizenship theory.  First, he mentioned how cities of the developing South are contesting to become the next global city. Heller remarked that the huge football stadium for the FIFA World Cup in South Africa and other similar infrastructure initiatives across various cities of developing countries are an effort to become a global city.

Secondly, his discussion on democratic urban regimes of the three concerned countries looked at the capacity of the local state and its bureaucracy, fiscal resources, autonomy of decision-making from a higher level, and levels of coordination.

Thirdly, he compared the embeddedness of the urban regimes in these countries with insights into how broad the concept and practice of citizenship is in these countries; the surface area of the state; and the mode of engagement. “In many developing cities, most people don’t know where the state is,” he noted.

While comparing Brazil, India, and South Africa on a wider canvass, he looked into the practice of citizenship deeply. “First of all, these three countries are countries that have, what I call, differentiated citizenship. They all have constitutions, they all have their consolidated democracies, they have regular elections, supreme courts, independent media, vibrant civil societies and yet the practice of citizenship is highly differentiated. In south Africa by race, in Brazil by class, in India by a combination of class, caste and other variables, gender obviously.”

He stated that these three countries are similar to the extent that the levels of inequality they face are more or less similar. “These are the three great, big, successful democracies of the world built on foundations of inequality,” he said. “All three of these large democracies have decentralization reforms in the 1990s. All three … are experiencing very rapid urbanization and all three, very interestingly, officially support participatory democracy,” he said.

Student audience for the lecture at the Dept. of Pol. Sci.; Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2012 (Photo: Khalid Jaleel)


“Indian cities are cities without a state,” he put forward. “In India, until very recently people did not talk about the obvious problem with Indian cities. Indian cities in a political science sense don’t exist. Indian cities are still not governed by Indian cities. Indian cities tend to be governed by IAS officers … , Indian cities are not self governing, sovereign political entities,” Prof. Heller stated.

Among the reasons for why he calls Indian cities as cities without a state, are very weak bureaucratic capacity, limited political autonomy and coordination failures. “Many argue that in the last ten years, rather than actually seeing decentralization we’ve seen re-centralization of state power over cities. It’s really the centre imposing its vision of development on the city. Because of this parcelized sovereignty, because of this fragmentation of authority, there is a massive coordination failure,” he said.

Prof. Heller remarked that “planning is probably one of the weakest bureaucratic functions in India.” On the citizen side of the equation, he said that “people in a city have different rights” thus differentiated legality of citizenship. Other aspects include weak representatives; no interfaces; civil society being dominated by the middle class resulting in exclusion of the lower class; and identity over citizenship which he said is more of a problem in Mumbai than in Delhi.

South Africa

“South Africa has the highest homicide rate in the world. It is an extremely violent society. And the homicide rate of violent criminality during the world cup disappeared … It speaks to one thing — state capacity. If the South African state wants to do something whether build stadia or stop violence, it has the capacity,” he observed.

Prof. Heller said that after South Africa transited to democracy, there came a black majority in power and a high capacity state. “This black majority is explicitly dedicated to the proposition of a multi-racial participatory democracy. South African constitution talks about participatory democracy and not just representative democracy. So the transformative possibilities here are really quite interesting,” he said. He expressed that the high capacity government had a democratic mandate: “Undo the apartheid city. Reverse the spatial racial hierarchy of the apartheid city. To make a long story short … they have failed miserably,” he declared.

Despite increase in coverage of basic services, democratic South Africa today witnesses service-delivery protests almost everyday. “The reason they are protesting […] is that it’s been delivery without participation; that the government has delivered but in a very top-down fashion using consultants and private sectors. They don’t consult with communities and communities are really unhappy not with the volume or quantity of services but the quality and in particular with the nature of their interface with the government.”

Prof. Heller said that the immediate need for the blacks is not stadia for football world cups or trains, but less violence. But instead, the South African cities have adopted and altered themselves to the “language of world class city”.


Brazil is a country with economic growth and dynamic social movements. “Cities have become much more inclusive in Brazil than they were, say, thirty years ago,” Prof. Heller said.

Heller observed the executives as a major reason behind this. “Brazil has always had strong mayors. They’ve always had strong executives. Historically, the mayors were basically sugar barons or oligarchs and represented the elite. But Brazil has been a democracy since 1989 and many of these mayors now represent parties that actually have a mass base.” Another reason is that Brazil has undergone a lot of decentralization where Brazilian cities gained real powers. Also, “the Brazilian constitution mandates massive participation,” he said.

“The HDI in Brazil has improved dramatically. And the most dramatic improvement is that the north-east of Brazil which is the equivalent of Bihar has caught up with the south […] In two decades the HDI numbers for Brazil have become much more even and less geographically divergent and people argue that this is largely because they roll out a lot of basic services,” he argued. “Brazil spends, in proportional terms, twice as much on the public health care sector as India does and they’ve successfully reached basically everyone. So everyone now whether you live in a slum or a middle-class neighborhood has access to free medical services,” he observed.

Even though land rights are tenuous in Brazil, the country witnesses a lot of movements in this aspect. “There have been very powerful movements demanding the right to land and Brazilian slum-dwellers have used the courts very successfully to secure land rights,” Prof. Heller mentioned.


Concluding his lecture, Prof. Heller ranked India low on both state capacity and political autonomy; South Africa high and low on state capacity and political autonomy respectively; and Brazil high on both facets. Prof. Heller dismissed the usage of the term ‘growth machine’ in context of India and rather suggested usage of ‘growth cabal’ because of the uncoordinated and unorganized growth the country experiences. He unhesitatingly used growth machine in context of South Africa because the growth is more planned and more coordinated. Brazilian cities are not just growing but the growth is also inclusive. “The poverty rate has come crashing down. 85 percent of the population at the bottom has seen their income grow faster than the top 58 percent.  It’s a world upside down,” he concluded.


Download and listen to the complete lecture here: Professor Patrick Heller lecture at Department of Political Science on Oct 17, 2012 [Duration: 1-hour 30-mins; Format: MP3; File Size: 65MB]

About R. Nithya

R. Nithya (2013) is a special correspondent for Jamia Journal. She can be reached via email at: [email protected]

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