The Land Question

“Land is not a problem,” was the recent declaration of Mamata Banerjee, the fiery Chief Minister of the state of West Bengal in India.1 Seeking to woo Singaporean investors, Banerjee described the availability of land banks in the state – “large parcels of undisputed land…readily available for investors.”2 Issued amidst the ruins of de-industrialisation, the confident declaration can be read as the fantasy, and urgency, of development. After all, what can de-industrialised metropolitan regions offer to global investors other than vast swathes of seemingly-empty land? Think Detroit.

In this brief commentary, I take a closer look at this vision of development and its fantasy that land is not a problem. I argue that it is precisely land that is a problem, and that 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 what, in previous work, I have termed “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.”3 The infrastructure problem, it turns out, is effectively a land problem.

This land problem came to a head in West Bengal a few years ago as spectacular protests erupted over the state’s acquisition of land for purposes of industrialisation and urbanisation. Condensing at key sites of struggle, such as the now-abandoned Tata Nanocar factory at Singur and the village of Nandigram, which had been slated to be a special economic zone, these mobilisations toppled the government, at that time led by the Left Front, and blockaded these strategies of development. Indeed, Mamata Banerjee was elected to office as a part of such sweeping political transformations. She came to be known for her fierce opposition to the land question as framed by the government. This framing presented land acquisition as a matter of public purpose. In defending industrial enclaves and special economic zones, the Minister of Industries for West Bengal justified this public purpose thus: “If a particular industry wants a big chunk of land in a contiguous area for setting up a large plant there, it is not possible for the industry to purchase land from each and every farmer, particularly in West Bengal where fragmentation of land is very high …will the State government not acquire it for the project? And, of course, it is a public purpose. Industrialisation means employment generation, it means the development of society; the entire people of the State will be benefited.”4 In the bitter struggles that ensued at Singur and Nandigram, the “State” enforced such public purpose with unchecked violence, thereby writing its own political death sentence. The protest movements created a very different narrative about land. At the Singur public hearings that were held in 2006, activists presented “project-affected” men and women as “landholders, … sharecroppers,…agricultural laborers,…artisans, and small traders.” They argued that “the project cannot be more important than agriculture,” that industry cannot replace a fertile, irrigated tract of multi-cropping, that it must instead utilise vacant “wastelands” of abandoned factories. Theirs was a claim to the “right to life” and to the agrarian settings that were seen to constitute the “natural environment” for such life.5 It is in the context of such struggles that Mamata Banerjee forged her political slogan steeped in populism and peasantry: “Ma Mati Manush” (Mother, Motherland, the People). The land question, which she had once adeptly demonstrated to be a vitally important political problem, is now her governance problem.

The troubles of West Bengal may seem to be a parochial story. Yet, I present it here as a paradigmatic story of the urban century. The land question has always been central to urban transformation. Processes of enclosure, gentrification, zoning, eminent domain, are all key elements of urban governance. Such governance is not simply a matter of land use – i.e. where urban functions are to be located – but rather it is fundamentally a matter of redistribution; who owns and claims what, and through what means of power. What defines the present historical moment is that urbanisation is rapidly unfolding in the global South. Here, significant portions of land exist in the unsettled and unmapped conditions that I call urban informality. Often urban informality is associated with iconic spaces of poverty: slums, squatter settlements, favelas. But as my long-standing research on the topic has shown, urban informality far exceeds such bounded spaces. I am particularly interested in the landscapes of urban informality that are produced at the interface of urban and rural lands. Here, at the edges of metropolitan regions, we find a patchwork of laws and regulations which collide and collude to create volatile frontiers of land speculation, including the types of speculation by the state that is evident in Banerjee’s fantasy of development. Michael Goldman, in his insightful work on the Bangalore metropolitan region, has appropriately dubbed this “speculative urbanism.”6 In the interstices of these frontiers, the rural-urban poor eke out inhabitation, or what the Indian courts prefer to call encroachment. But in fact the dominant form of urbanisation in such spaces is elite informality. From the luxurious farmhouses on the outskirts of Delhi to the new towns on the periphery of Kolkata, expressions of elite informality abound in Indian cities and indeed in many cities of the global South. Of course, it is the state that often determines what is informal and what is not, thus allowing elite forms of such informality to function legally as appendages of agrarian land laws, while squatter settlements are criminalised and demolished. Thus, to consider the relationship between urban informality and urban governance, we have to consider how the state itself deploys informalisation as a means of managing the land question. In doing so, it produces an urban space of tremendous differentiation and variegation. That splintering does not take place at the fissure between formality and informality but rather in a fractal fashion, within the informalised production of space, often between elite informalities and subaltern informalities.

But the land struggles of the 21st century indicate the limits of these urban governance strategies. Public purpose, as asserted by the state, has turned out to be an insufficient basis for securing consent to land acquisitions. Global investment, propped up by what Neil Smith once called “geobribes,”7 has turned out to be scant in its capacity to ease the problems of joblessness, poverty, and deprivation. In such a context, the land question remains at the very heart of today’s urban transformations. Contrary to Chief Minister Banerjee’s declaration, land is a problem.

1 Sarkar, P. and N. Jana, “Postcards for Goaltore” Telegraph, September 2014
2 Mukherji, U.P., “Land No Hurdle” Times of India, August 2014
3 Sarkar, P. and N. Jana, ibid.
4 Chattopadhyay, S., “Land Reform Not an End in Itself: Interview with Nirupam Sen” Frontline 23, no.25, December 2006.
5 Kumar, A. et al. 2006. “Public Hearing, Singur.”
6 Goldman, M., “Speculating on the Next World City” in A. Roy & A. Ong, eds. Worlding Cities: Asian Experiments and the Art of Being Global. Wiley Blackwell (2011).
7 Smith, N., “New Globalism, New Urbanism: Gentrification as Global Urban Strategy” Antipode 34:3, 2002.

Ananya Roy is Professor of City & Regional Planning and Distinguished Chair in Global Poverty & Practice at the University of California, Berkeley.