ogs are well-known and valued for the security they enkindle amongst their human counterparts.  So much is obvious for owners of pet dogs.  In metropolitan India, however, stray dogs — unowned and free-ranging along the city streets— also thrive on the care provided by, and for, the people around them. Unlike pet dogs, whose status as ‘owned’ implies a degree of biopolitical regulation, these street dogs are ‘common’ in the sense that they are not tethered to forms of ownership but generate sometimes long-lasting and mutually-beneficial affiliations with their co-inhabitants.

Madan is a dairy farmer in North Delhi whose family has been rearing cattle since pre-independence (early 20th century) when Delhi was not as urbanized.  He says that for every generation there has been one alpha dog in the dairy settlement.  Typically, these are street dogs, born in the settlement, and are known to aggressively defend his ‘pack’ — in this case a multispecies collective that includes both cattle and people he recognizes. These dogs accompany cattle and their owners to and from grazing grounds in an adjacent urban “forest.” Madan relies so strongly on his dog, in fact, that he leaves the herd with the dog all through the day for grazing. Through daily provisioning and care since their birth, Madan — like his forefathers -- has sparked strong bonds of affection with street dogs like these. Much like the owned dogs in middle-class, gated colonies, who guard their enclaves against prospective threats, these dogs provide security and alert both people and their bovine companions to threats, ranging from predators to cattle lifters.

In the above scenarios, affective bonds between people and street dogs can be thought of as infrastructural.  They are not infrastructure in the sense of built, physical  networks of pipes, wires, and cables that facilitate “the flow of goods, people, or ideas” (Larkin 2013: 328).  Infrastructures also include people and the “collaborative practice(s)” (Simone 2013: 408) that facilitate economic transactions of provisioning and that articulate the uncertain lives of the city's most marginalized. As a result, these daily exchanges form “a coherent platform for social transaction and livelihood” (Simone 2013: 411), that play a critical infrastructural role in the making of the city. In our work, we find that infrastructure is not limited to people. What happens when nonhuman lives are included in this proposition? What if daily exchanges, the community, and urban livability are not forged by humans alone but are a continual fabrication of human and nonhuman relations?

In this short essay, we invoke ‘commoning infrastructures’ as a means to think through the above questions. The verb ‘commoning’, as against the noun ‘commons’, reflects a shift from a static understanding of commons as the ‘enclosure of natural resources’ to a more mobile and performative activity—a ‘process of commoning’—encompassing everyday experiences, livelihood practices, spatialities, resistance, negotiations, an ecology of relations, amongst others. It is the practice of commoning which “makes the commons, just as farming makes the farm” (Dawney et al., 2016: 15). We propose that ‘commoning’ draws attention to everyday infrastructures which emerge in the city, and we delve into two aspects in relation to nonhuman lives. First, we examine how animals, in their own daily activities, repurpose urban infrastructures in excess of their inaugural script and assembly to create a more-than-human commons—a commoning of infrastructures. Second, we show how animals themselves become infrastructure through the affective bonds they form, thereby generating an affective commons—of animals as infrastructure. We argue that commoning infrastructures expand the scope for thinking-with infrastructure and in understanding what infrastructures can do. More significantly, embracing this turn toward the more-than-human allows us to rethink both for whom is infrastructure and what is infrastructure, and hence to recognize the agency of nonhumans in urban commoning. 

A first set of animal-infrastructure relations that emerge in the city is through the worlds animals create with and against the grain of human design and allotment.  These are processes of world-making within infrastructural environments that are relegated to the margins of both urban theory and practice. Delhi, a post-colonial capital city, has from its very inception sought to enact a “center-periphery model” (Hardt and Negri, 2009: 70) that operates through an exclusionary logic. This is also evident across the multiple city Master Plans, characterized by zoning and segregating spaces.  This model implies a “two-ness of modernity’s power relation” – a dominant center – the city of New Delhi in this regard, which is characteristic of a defined, designed and planned landscape, and its subordinated peripheries such as urban and peri-urban villages, which are unplanned, underdeveloped and are typically inhabited by an excluded sub-set of the populace such as the poor, marginalized, migrants, the disabled and nonhuman animals.  They constitute an uneven “geographies of modernity” (Hardt and Negri, 2009: 70). Therefore, while the presence of particular nonhuman animals such as stray and domestic animals is rare in the urban center, they are common in the urban villages and peri-urban areas of the city, where they more than just “occupy” public space infrastructures. Rather, roads, footpaths, traffic islands – infrastructural environments – are utilized by animals and brought into their own lifeworlds.  Through these modes of nonhuman dwelling, public space infrastructure is repurposed into an ‘urban commons’.

Figure 1: Cattle 'commoning' a traffic island at a junction in North Delhi; Photo: Authors

The phenomenon of stray cattle in Delhi’s streets helps flesh this out further. A visible and everyday occurrence in the city of Delhi, cattle, especially cows, can be observed roaming around roads, traversing or resting on footpaths, traffic islands, and parks. [Figure 1] Due to urban agglomeration, land which was previously available to dairy farmers and to cattle for grazing, have predominantly been enclosed, enveloped or converted into private property — be it residential or commercial. Numerous dairies and thousands of cattle have been caught and relocated to the metropolis’ periphery—to government designed “animal spaces” (Philo and Wilbert, 2000) such as gaushalas (cow shelters) and authorized dairy colonies. Existing dairy farmers within the urban limits of the city, leave their cattle astray for much of the day except during milking time.  As a result, cattle move through the by-lanes of the city-scape in search of food, fodder and place of rest. Cows inhabit the city by relying on provisioning practices adopted by humans, who typically on their way to and from work, keep food at traffic signals, road dividers and footpaths. One can also observe cows resting and ruminating in parks and garbage dumps during the day. Importantly, cows do not move aimlessly from one space to another, but actively traverse a sentient geography of the area they inhabit, with a sense of purpose and know-how to negotiate the city-scape. Cows therefore render public infrastructures put in place for human ends into a new urban pasture. A continuous making, unmaking and remaking of urban space occurs, through everyday movements, mobilities, relations and geographies of animals, pegging onto what others have called ‘more-than-human commoning’ (Bresnihan, 2016). Although infrastructures become sites of commoning, these spaces contain traces of the past, including those of erstwhile common grazing lands that have now disappeared. These new commons have a phantom-like quality: on the one hand they signal new spaces of dwelling, and on the other, they serve as a reminder of what lay earlier and was enclosed.

Figure 2: Transgressing exclusionary infrastructures; Photo: Authors

The lives of cattle and street dogs, as witnessed in Madan’s story shows, are intertwined.  Street dogs are enrolled in emerging forms of urban pastoralism. In the slums of Delhi, we have also observed how street dogs become an asset for residents to protect themselves from ‘drunkards and thugs who roam the settlements’ after sundown’.  As Kishan Lal, a migrant from a neighbouring state now working as a barber and residing in one of the South Delhi slums, tells us, everyday provisioning of street dogs around his shop does not only cultivate a sense of proximity and kin, but also serves as a protective bond.  He sadly narrated an incident in which one of his favourite street dogs from his street was “stabbed by a drunkard” because he was barking at the person and preventing him from entering the area. 

In both accounts of street dogs – protecting cattle and people – we witness the role of affective bonds in providing security and in rendering the urban more hospitable.  Dogs, one could argue, are part of the social composition of the city (Simone, 2013), and the affective bonds they forge with people have an infrastructural role as they subtend everyday dwelling, enable and foster economic activities such as rearing cattle, and undergird how people make-do when services for staples such as security, are not adequately provided by the state.  In case of the latter, canids’ own activities of charting territories and guarding space become vital in relations that we deem as infrastructural (Jaffe, 2019).  And yet, the modernist logics of the city tend to relegate these relations or gravitate toward expunging the metropolis of animal life.

The city is a heterogeneous constitution, composed of multiple dynamics, interactions and relations, of which animal-infrastructure enmeshments are a critical dimension.  The forms of 'more-than-human commoning' of infrastructure that we highlight here is a valuable framework for comprehending entangled patterns of interaction, conflict, care, resource-sharing, and affective relations of bonding and security that unfold in the lived city.  As infrastructures become dwellings for nonhumans, nonhumans also take those infrastructures along trajectories other than those devised in their inaugural assembly.  Equally, relations between people and animals, as we have shown, take on an infrastructural role, subtending the practices of everyday urban dwelling, often against the grain of State planning and design.  As relations between people, cattle and dogs described in this essay show, there is much more to infrastructural environments and the politics of infrastructure than the ‘stuff’ of the built environment: networks, cables, pipes and roads. Commoning by animals not only ecologizes infrastructure, but brings to the fore another politics of urban dwelling where bodies on the margins lay claim to the city.


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Shruti Ragavan is a Ph.D. scholar with the Urban Ecologies Project at NIAS, Bengaluru. Her work is centered on exploring the nature, culture and politics of milch cattle in the cities of Delhi and Guwahati.

Shubhangi Srivastava is a Ph.D. scholar with the Urban Ecologies Project at NIAS, Bengaluru. Her work is on understanding the life of street dogs and their relationship with humans in the cities of Delhi and Guwahati.