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Remaking of cities

Print edition : Dec 31, 2010 T+T-

On how the elite take over land in the new global city.

IN the long evolutionary process of human societies, urbanisation has been a rather late phenomenon. In the early stages where human effort had to be devoted substantially to the gathering of the essential wherewithal for living, there was hardly any permanent settlements at all; humans moved to where there was some chance of getting food. Settled agricultural production is a relatively recent phenomenon, only about 15,000 years old. Urbanisation came still later.

The early cities were centres of either commerce or administration. In either case, the distinguishing feature of these human agglomerations was that they were not dependent on the production of food, so much so that even today one of the defining aspects of an urban area is that only a small proportion of the workforce (not more than 25 per cent in the Indian definition) should be engaged in agriculture and related activities.

After the Industrial Revolution, which resulted in non-agricultural production taking place in large mechanised factories (as against the small manufacturers of the earlier period), cities turned out to be largely centres of industrial production. Whether as administrative, commercial or industrial centres, cities became human settlements not dependent on land, unlike the rural areas with agriculture as the main activity. Thus, cities provided the opportunity for humans to redefine social relations. Robert Park, the urban sociologist, has claimed that in making the city man has remade himself.

There is a general recognition that in the present era of globalisation urban areas are undergoing a major transformation. As indicated by the subtitle of the volume under review, its theme is transformative cities in the new global order. But what of the title itself, Accumulation by Dispossession? The theme developed in the volume, which consists of selected papers presented at an international conference held in Mumbai in 2006, is that land is re-entering the economic, political and social life of these cities, especially those closely connected with globalisation, in a very powerful manner and that the accumulation that the few make in and through these cities is at the expense of dispossession of many.

Consider our cities typically impacted by globalisation Mumbai, Bangalore and Hyderabad, for instance, and many other centres rapidly entering the group. In varying degrees they are characterised by the twin factors that drive contemporary globalisation finance and information and communication technology (ICT). What is the modus operandi of these two activities? To locate their operations they need land, and in most instances, it is through the political processes of the State government concerned and of the municipal corporations that the land is made available to them. If land is thus made available to finance and IT enterprises, some others must be excluded from land, thus reflecting the contradictory processes of inclusion and exclusion so characteristic of the aggressive capitalist globalisation that is going on.

There is a fairly standardised procedure getting established as well, summarised in the Introduction to the volume thus: At city level it is characterised by increasing constraints in planning and the political capacity of elected municipal governments, privatisation of basic services, withdrawal of the state from urban development, escalating support for public-private partnerships, especially in infrastructural projects, increasing gentrification to expand space for elitist consumption, and growing exposure to global competition reflecting the power of a disciplinary finance regime and a hegemonic cultural framework.

The consequences are also indicated: The resultant spatial forms exposit a deep interaction between the local and the global, featuring systemic selection of modern urban functions in specific areas, relocation of poor people and less profitable activities to periphery and their replacement by newer functions, mega-structures and modern infrastructure.


The papers in the volume attempt to document these observations mainly with reference to some Indian cities. A very clear case is Hyderabad, which, it has been claimed, has become a new city in the past couple of decades, particularly under the chief ministership of N. Chandrababu Naidu, who claimed to be the CEO of the State. Sure enough, the city has undergone a major transformation. For one, its population (now estimated at six million) has almost doubled in a matter of two decades, and a very high proportion of it consists of people from other parts of the State and of the country. But there is also a section of population comprising realtors, traders, local venture capitalists and politicians who have gained a lot in the process of accumulating land for themselves or for external investors. And, of course, in a short period the city claimed some 8 to 10 per cent of the country's software exports.

Road construction within the Hyderabad Urban Agglomeration has been one of the major projects in recent years. Some 2,000 hectares of private land is being acquired, under the Land Acquisition Act of 1894, for the project, paying only 10-15 per cent of the market value. The area within a kilometre on either side of the road has special building rules; one of them is that the minimum size of a plot for individual housing is 500 square yards. Not surprisingly, many of those who have been dispossessed have nowhere to go.

Similarly, a large number of people who had made the banks of the river Musi their home have been declared encroachers and evicted to beautify the river, which soon became part of the National Urban Renewal Mission. There are some schemes for the rehabilitation of slums, but what has been going on, according to the writer of the paper, is selective carving dictated by the flow of global capital, leading to dispossession or alienation of the majority of the people.

Bangalore, often praised as the Silicon Valley of the East, has a similar story, too. IT and ITeS (information technology-enabled services) have already overshadowed garments, silk and general manufacturing that the city was once known for and even the more modern high-skilled technical establishments. Land for the global enterprises and for transport connections such as the Bangalore-Mysore Infrastructure Corridor (BMIC) became a priority consideration and the Karnataka Industrial Area Development Board (KIADB) was set up to handle the matter. Soon came Bangalore International Airport Limited (BIAL) and other land-claiming projects, many of them of public-private partnership. Foreign capital was allowed access to urban land. Land prices started shooting up, the allocations determined by the iron laws of the market and the will of politicians. A body of high-profile citizens known as the Bangalore Agenda Task Force was set up representing civil society', whose de facto power became a threat to the elected bodies responsible for the administration of the city. The city is now characterised by immense concentration of wealth and its gaudy demonstration in most walks of life on the one hand, and extreme pressure on vast sections of the population in their attempt to make a living, on the other.

Mumbai is by far the best case study that illustrates the characteristics of the new global city. Although initially it was reputed as the industrial centre of India, the city soon became one of the financial hubs of the East, certainly not as powerful as Tokyo but comparable to Bangkok and Taipei. Consequently, from the 1980s when globalisation led by finance capital emerged as a powerful force, there was talk of making Mumbai the new geographic centre for global finance between the major Western cities and Tokyo. It was recognised that for this to happen many changes would have to be effected in the city for instance, getting rid of the crowded industrial areas and strengthening infrastructure facilities. In other words, a new geography was considered as an essential step for which relaxation of land acquisition rules and control of labour were considered unavoidable.

Then came the McKinsey Report, whose objective was to make Mumbai one of the top 10 cities of the world. The report and its Vision Statement became the basis for a series of brain-storming sessions involving major government departments, business groups and non-governmental organisations. Fairly soon, the Vision Statement became the Government of Maharashtra's Task Force Report for Transforming Mumbai into a World Class City with a Vibrant Economy and Globally Comparable Quality of Life for its Citizens.

By 2005, the approach was accepted as the basis for the Central government's Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission, with Mumbai being given top priority. Mumbai's urban renewal has specific features of its own capturing public spaces, cleaning up, and mega projects of various sorts. But in sum, it is a repetition of the organised minority versus the unorganised majority.

Dhaka, the capital city of neighbouring Bangladesh, has a similar story to tell: 20 per cent of the high- income group occupy 70 per cent of the residential land characterised by high land and with good infrastructure and social services. It is somewhat surprising that the only Western city examined is Vienna. The omission of Shanghai, the only city in the non-capitalist world that plays an important role in global finance, is also glaring.

The volume offers a detailed background to the land scam politics that has become a distinguishing feature of public life in the country now.