Must-Read: Ananya Roy: The Land Question: “It is precisely land that is a problem…

…disputes over land are central to the politics of urban transformations around the world, from Kolkata to Detroit. Closely entangled with the land question is… ‘urban informality’: complex arrangements of tenure, ownership and shelter that cannot be easily converted into neat and tidy sales. Governing urban informality is thus tricky. On the one hand, such unsettled and unmapped land regimes present tremendous opportunity for powerful state action, notably evictions, dispossessions, and land grabs. On the other hand, such action can set in motion equally powerful social uprisings, or simply be confounded by the sheer inertia of urban informality. Let me return to the case of Kolkata to explain these points.

The land promised by one executive, the Chief Minister of West Bengal, to another, the Prime Minister of Singapore, is to be an industrial site. Billed as both ‘encroachment-free’ and ready ‘right now’ for the location of manufacturing industries, the site marks one of the many inter-Asian transactions through which a new era of modernisation, industrialisation, and urbanisation is being forged. It also marks some of the common problems that haunt such transnational alliances. For example, this particular plot of land, fantasized as empty of encroachers, and indeed of inhabitants, is one that has its share of squatters. Not surprisingly, these are labourers who migrated to the area from nearby villages to work on the various construction projects of the government. And despite the promise of readiness for global investment, there is little adequate infrastructure for industrialisation. To build such infrastructure requires not only substantial subsidies from the state but also the capacity to acquire land through eminent domain.

Thus, while the Chief Minister states ‘I can give the land right now if someone wants it,’ in the lower ranks of the bureaucracy, a district official says this about the widening of the one narrow road that serves the region: ‘We’ll need to acquire hundreds of acres of land as the road passes through many densely populated areas. Given the government’s hands-off land policy, a four-lane road to the Goaltore plot is a distant dream.’ The infrastructure problem, it turns out, is effectively a land problem…