Sidestepping the gods on sidewalks: Shrines and roadside regulation in Calcutta
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My research examines sidewalk regulation in Calcutta, India, through the prism of roadside religious shrines at two sites that have different socio-spatial histories of urban development and settlement. By conceptualizing these shrines as empirical toolkits on the intersections of uses, meanings, and the interplay of legal and extra-legal regulatory practices, I emphasize that the social regulation of these sidewalks is largely coterminous with spatial regulation. In order to discern the practices of regulation on public sidewalks, I problematize the idea of regulation as either a formal or municipally sanctioned statist intervention, or as something that is informal or social that is relatively autonomous, and exists irrespective of, and in many cases, a reaction to statist mandates. For the latter, I argue that these include non-pedestrian claims and informal regulatory practices that require developing a grounded ethnographic analysis of sidewalk civility. I further problematize the idea of sidewalk civility as a grounded approach aimed at understanding how day-to-day social interactions and practices are ordered and eventually normalized in a given urban setting. In my ethnographic study, I trace the social circumstances in which localized practices of sidewalk civility that are grounded in religiosity and mundane practices in public spaces adjacent to the religious shrines constitute informal spatial regulation. By delving into formal and informal regulatory practices and how these are contextualized in the territorial production of public spaces, my research offers a glimpse of street and sidewalk regulation in urban India. My findings show that the multiple uses of streetscape phenomena like religious shrines help in understanding new forms of localized governance at the urban sidewalks, and that the social regulatory practices illustrate the workings of deep democracy among city dwellers.