Driven to Ecological Crisis: Motility and Disparity on Urban Roads

Modern cities in India such as Delhi are a cesspool of inequalities and disparities that are deeply tied to the class-caste nexus. These aspects manifest themselves starkly on its roads, made apparent by identifying those who utilise its infrastructure, while dictating its design, and those who are systematically left out. The automobile owning classes of Delhi have a monopoly over the city’s land, water and air, extracting and exploiting for their needs and comforts, while the poor are left to bear the brunt of the ecological degradation that comes with it. The bourgeois class’s systematic collusion with the state is also visible in its environmentalism, through which it controls the narrative of legitimacy. The social and ecological consequences of these processes stand as evidence of the crisis that neoliberal India is facing at present.


On the busy streets of Delhi, one does not see much of a tree line these days. In fact, there are more cars than trees near the pavements, standing in rows as if they are waiting in some kind of assembly line. The roads are filled with them too, queued one after another in traffic, fumes exhuming into the air around. In the midst of this, helmeted people in two-wheelers carry on as well, weaving through the gaps that the cars could not occupy. There is a certain kind of anonymity and obscurity that being behind the wheel allows. Cars create an urban space that is faceless and devoid of human connection as if the people become part of their machines (Walks 2014). They are so “every day” in the city that the rare occasions when there is not any on the street almost feel strange. Amidst the chaos that has was already in place,  there have also been a few new entrants into the traffic, zigzagging their way through the maze in t-shirts that declare the brand of app-based companies like Zomato, Urban Company, Swiggy and Dunzo. Platform service and delivery workers provide new visibility to people who are in the hustle and bustle of the traffic, whose workplace is essentially the road. 

Around 8%  of the country’s total motor vehicles ply within Delhi (Badami 2005). Although two-wheelers are a majority in Delhi, there is no arguing about whom the roads actually cater to. As Alan Walks (2014) explained, automobility as a dominant culture dictates the shape, use and accessibility of space in the city. Cars and their users have a chokehold on urban infrastructure, transforming it in ways that increase the efficiency of automobile-dependent lifestyles while excluding alternate and pre-existing ones (Walks 2014). Any inconvenience to the car and its uninterrupted motion is a nuisance to the entire city—an argument commonly brought against both the Shaheen Bagh protests and the Kisan Movement in Delhi was the disruption of vehicular movement (Anand 2021; Indian Express 2020). As for platform workers, they are not on the roads of their own accord as their time belongs to the company (Barik 2021). More often than not, these companies provide services that are targeted at the middle and upper classes that own automobiles.

In this way, cities such as Delhi have increasingly become exclusive to the requirements of the elite consumer classes, and this is most tangible in the impact it has had on the ecology of the city. A major source of air pollution in Delhi is attributed to the exhaust fumes of motor vehicles that contain carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, and nitrogen oxide (Badami 2005).  Further, as Alan Walks puts it, cars and their movement are “entirely dependent on goods and services provided by a multitude of others” (Walks 2014: 233).  This includes the systematic felling of trees in the name of road expansion and construction of flyovers, parking lots and petrol stations, the encroachment of riverfronts for the sake of development, and the massively polluting fossil fuel industry that benefits large oil companies and nations (Baviskar 2020; Walks 2014).

Infrastructural Exclusion and Ecological Inequality

The ecological landscape of the city has had a huge shift over the decades. Green spaces and groves have dwindled as the city moved with the demands of the neo-liberal market. A primary demand in that sense was the automobilisation of the city. Developing countries like India perceive automobility as vital to achieving modernity and economic prosperity. This agenda gets reflected not only in policies that encourage the use and purchase of motor vehicles but also in the aggressive ways in which the state tries to remove n-motorised transport (NMT) from the roads (Buliung et al. 2014). One can simply point to the many road signs in Indian cities that ban the movement of cycles and carts over certain roads and bridges.

As Madhu Kishwar (2001) observed, the Delhi government constructed over 40 flyovers in anticipation of the 2010 Commonwealth Games, a majority of which are inaccessible for NMTs. Moreover, the state apparatus has made active policy decisions that make it difficult for non-motorised vehicles (NMVs) to ply. Take, for example, the case of the cycle rickshaw. Once an intrinsic part of Delhi, it is now at odds with the administration and the larger elite, as they declared the rickshaw to be an inconvenience to the free movement of automobiles (Kishwar 2001). The Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) has made owning and operating a cycle rickshaw a  bureaucratic nightmare with the threat of confiscation of vehicles in case of failing to comply with arbitrary regulations. In contrast to this, the many financial options available to purchase cars and the aspirational value of the vehicle only encourages an increase in its numbers. The city’s idea of modernity and development are intertwined with the idea of the “world-class,” which has no place for the vehicles of the poor (Baviskar 2020). The poor are not only removed from their streets, but also from their homes, in the name of development and beautification. According to some estimates, at least 70,000 households have been evicted since the millennium began (Bhan 2016). Ron Buliung and co-authors wrote, “rising cost of transport and outright exclusion of NMT through transport policy, coupled with enforcement and harassment, contribute to maintaining and reproducing the cycle of poverty” (2014: 206). Delhi’s infrastructural focus is thus on the construction of mobility structures that increase the efficiency of movement for the elite, with no regard for its social or ecological ramifications.


In India, the disparities that come with such ramifications are often rooted in the class-caste nexus. Slum-dwellers in urban India mostly belong to Dalit or Muslim communities, who face regular threats of evictions from infrastructural projects championed by the elite classes. This is not simply circumstantial but rooted in the systematic exclusion and dispossession of land for Dalits in the urban spaces (Ranganathan 2021; Bhan 2016; Baviskar 2020). Cycle rickshaw wallahs in Delhi predominantly hail from a number of artisanal caste communities who come to the city seasonally for work (Kishwar 2001). Hence, the exclusion of NMTs like cycle rickshaws is in fact tied to caste hierarchy and discrimination. Whereas the bourgeois elite who actively participate in such exclusions, who benefit from these systemically embedded forms of casteism, are often educated Savarnas and dominant caste Hindus (Ranganathan 2021). Among car owners in India, these groups represent a significant majority (Kundu and Bhattacharya 2016). On the roads, this privilege is claimed, visualised and celebrated, with many car owners displaying their caste names on bumpers (Sherwani, 2019).


The unequal focus by the state on the needs and demands of the elite consumer can be understood also through the idea of purchasing power (Boyce 2007). In a neo-liberal economy such as ours, policy decisions are often skewed towards those that have the ability to affect the market. James Boyce wrote, “differences in purchasing power can affect not only decisions made by private parties in response to market signals, but also public-policy decisions made by governments” (Boyce 2007: 7). In the automobile-centric urban space, one way that this purchasing power is translated and reflected is through ‘motility capital,’ that is, the value in the ability to be mobile within the city (Kaufmann 2002, Urry 2007, cited in Mendez et al 2014: 203). In a city such as Delhi, this capital is unequally distributed, with car-owning residents hogging the major share, as the urban space is primarily designed in its favour. Naturally, those that are excluded from this space would have lesser motility within the city. These groups primarily consist of the poor who have no automobiles but also includes the old and the disabled (Walks 2014). A paradox here is that as the use of automobile vehicles incrases, so does automobile infrastructure like one-way roads and traffic systems, which in turn increases the distance between destinations. This way, an increase in car ownership in a city leads to a greater distance from homes to the city’s markets and services (Mendez et al 2014). This can even affect those classes that do not own automobiles, as can be seen when slum dwellers are evicted from residences close to their workplace to be relocated miles away, all in the name of development (Baviskar 2020; Bhan 2016). Moreover, this motility comes at another cost as vehicle use is connected with environmental and health risks that come with exposure to pollution and road-related dangers (Walks 2014).


These factors impact the effective speed of people living in the city. Effective speed calculates indirect costs that come with being mobile in the city and looks at how much labour time is needed to make up for such costs (Walks andTranter 2014). In cities like Delhi, where the effective speed is low (Gordon andTranter 2012), automobile owning classes have found a workaround by relying on the gig workers of app-based platforms such as Zomato or Dunzo to whiz through the city’s pollution infested roads. Using their purchasing power, the car owner evades the ecological and health-related risks that automobile infrastructure and the marginalisation of NMTs caused. In their stead, the gig worker buys food, runs errands and delivers groceries. The gig worker sells their motility, as they, like many others in the city, cannot afford to evade the ecological risks that come with navigating its streets. The low effective speed in the city has created a requirement for a class of exploited workers who deliver essential services at the doorstep of the affluent, in spite of the health risks that come with it. As Karl Marx wrote, “Capital asks no questions about the length of life of labour-power” (1976: 376).

The Rights over the Road and the Environment


The marginalisation of NMTs is the result of a systematic attempt to remove the unwanted aspects from the urban city which do not fit into the aesthetic imagined by the middle class of their world-class urban centre. Amita Baviskar (2020) in her text on Delhi highlighted how this attempt by the urban middle is not limited to cleansing the urban roads but also extends to the removal of factories, limiting access to green areas and even in the  planning of cities. To understand this particular brand of environmentalism that is portrayed as "public interest” but which benefits only a certain well-off section of society, Baviskar coined the term ‘bourgeoisie environmentalism’ (2020: 120). According to Baviskar, this group includes padhe-likhe log (educated folk), a group instantly recognised by its dress, deportment, and language. These are white-collar professionals and businessmen, usually educated in private English-medium schools, usually upper-caste. Besides being owners of cultural capital, they are likely to own their own homes and automobiles over the course of their lives” (Baviskar 2020: 125).  The bourgeoisie environmentalists are notconcerned about the environment, as;


For them, environmentalism is a mode of expressing and addressing their anxieties about themselves in relation to their habitat—physical surroundings, both proximate and distant, and other species. Concerns about health and hazard, beauty and order, pervade this mode and have precedence over issues of life and livelihood that are central to ‘the environmentalism of the poor’ (Baviskar 2020: 121).


The superficial interests of this propertied class are depicted to the judiciary as representing the larger public or the majority. The judiciary, unwilling to act against the interest of the consumer class, actively delivered judgements that violate the rights of the marginalised (Bhan 2016). The double standard in the treatment of different classes comes across starkly in MCD’s laws concerning the ownership and rights of the rickshaw wallahs. As mentioned earlier, these laws make the legal ownership of rickshaws almost impossible, with unjust clauses restricting the movements of rickshaws, making their hire illegal and inflicting heavy fines while cars see no such restrictions (Kishwar 2001). This disparity in treatment and rights is due to the fact that the car-owning classes are seen as legitimate citizens who have the right to occupy space on the urban roads while the users and owners of NMTs are seen as encroachers and undesirable aspects on that very road (Bhan 2016).


The dichotomy of citizens versus encroachers, Gautam Bhan (2016) argued, is created due to recognition of a particular section of society as legitimate, which prioritises their concerns and interests over those of others. However, one must also understand that a power nexus operates behind this creation of the “legitimate citizen”. The reason why no one thinks of restricting the number of cars on roads to curb air pollution is not only due to the fear of backlash from the bourgeoisie environmentalist who cannot think beyond their own comfort but also due to the fact that the state and capitalists would not back this decision. Restricting the ownership of cars or even restricting the number of cars per family, would be detrimental to the pockets of the owners of the automobile industries and in turn the neoliberal economy.

Therefore, the interest of the bourgeoisie environmentalists, the capitalists and the state all align to maintain the status quo, with no regard to the ecological effect of the same. Stuffing their pockets with the profits from increasing sales and sitting in the comfort of their car during the commute to work, the capitalists and the bourgeoisie environmentalists both have the same complaint—the poor rickshaw wallah, or the cyclists, or the walker, creating chaos on the road by simply occupying space. What needs to be seen instead, is that the cost of the profits and the comfort that is being paid by those on the road—the rickshaw wallahs toiling and evading the police in fear of harassment and seizure of their vehicle and the delivery partners rushing from one place to the other while dealing with calls from impatient customers.

Automentality and Ecological Crisis

It is the informal and precarious workers who are most affected by environmental pollution.  As a group, due to their oppressed class and caste background, they cannot afford powerful lawyers to represent their demands as “public interest” in the courts and therefore, do not exercise enough political clout to influence social and environmental decisions (Boyce 2007). Moreover, in the eyes of the capitalists, they are notideal consumers, instead, they occupy the precious real estate of the street, which could instead be occupied by cars. The urban city, due to this, by its very design, excludes certain sections of the population.


The highways, the flyovers, the wide roads, as discussed above, have been designed to allow easy and unrestricted movement of cars, which are one of the major contributors to environmental pollution. For capitalists, the profit is not only derived from the underpayment of labour, but also from unrestricted exploitation of the natural environment (Robbins et al. 2014). The economic gains come at the cost of an ecological crisis, the effects of which harm the health of the workers. The profit-centred agenda of the capitalists becomes even more evident when one sees the promotion of the new, aesthetically-pleasing, Yulu bike services in Delhi which present themselves as the environment-friendly alternative to commuting. The irony of this cannot be escaped. While on one hand, for the capitalist and the bourgeoisie environmentalists, the traditional NMTs, like rickshaws, are a nuisance that must be removed because they crowd the road and obstruct the traffic, they simply discard the fact that these are the cheapest and the most environment-friendly way of commuting. On the other hand, they laud initiatives like Yulu bikes, simply because their mission of being environmental- friendly is presented in aesthetic, futuristic-looking blue coloured bikes. The reason behind the removal of the lower classes from the roads is thus not only due to them being viewed as encroachers on public land, but also because there is no systematic way of making a profit from thousands of informal workers spread all across the city.

Therefore, when the capitalists talk of electric cars or Yulu bikes, which are environment-friendly alternatives to commuting in cars, this is not due to some altruistic need to preserve the ecology. Instead, it is born out of the fear of running out of fossil fuels, which have been ruthlessly exploited for decades to support industrial expansion and the need to keep making a profit from these alternatives. The middle-class population too, actively takes part in the farce green-washing services, such as cab-sharing options provided by major corporations like Uber and Ola instead of taking public transportation. This aversion towards public transport is the result of what Alan Walks and Paul Tranter (2014) termed ‘automentality’, which is against state-supported public transport since the dominant culture promotes the use of individualised automobiles as the socially accepted way to commute.

Daniel Faber and Allison Grossman (2009) noted that the capitalists exploited nature not only in the manner that would promote profit but in a politically viable manner. It is, therefore, true that “the less political power a community possesses to offer resistance, the more likely they are to experience arduous environmental and human health problems at the hands of capital and the state” (Faber and Grossman 2009).Thus, in an urban conglomerate like Delhi, caught in the web of exploitation and exclusion weaved by the bourgeoisie environmentalists, capitalists and the state, are the poor, informal workers who shoulder the burden of creation of this aesthetic urban city, while dealing with the ill-effects of ecological crisis.



This analysis of mobility in urban areas and the space occupied by motorised and non-motorised modes of transportation, provides a glimpse into the crisis of the environment, state policies and capitalist ideology. It becomes evident that the very infrastructure of an urban city like Delhi is supported by a capitalist motive to promote the use of cars and increase profits. Automobility is presented as a symbol of individuality and freedom, however, what underlies this is a product made due to exploitation of labour and nature which further marginalises the underprivileged and destroys the environment. Preserving the ecology of the city is a secondary concern for the capitalists. However, the effects of this exploitation are felt differently by different sections of society. There is a clear class and caste disparity arising out of this system—n which the poor, informal workers suffer low effective speed, and are structurally excluded from the city based on their lack of purchasing power and political clout, and face the worst of environmental degradation.



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