XQs XXIII - A Conversation with Sai Balakrishnan

Posted by sepoy on September 26, 2020 · 26 mins read

The XQs (Ten Questions) series is a conversation with the authors of new and exciting works in South Asian Studies, whose aim is not to “review” but to contextualize, historicize, and promote new scholarship. We thank Ateya Khorakiwala for conducting this interview. Please see the archive of previous twenty two XQs.

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Sai Balakrishnan is Assistant Professor of Global Urban Inequalities at UC Berkeley’s Department of City and Regional Planning. Her research and teaching broadly pivot around global urban inequalities, with a particular focus on urbanization and planning institutions in the global south, and on the spatial politics of land-use and property. She has worked as an urban planner in the United States, India, and the United Arab Emirates, and as a consultant to the UN-HABITAT, Nairobi. Balakrishnan’s book, Shareholder Cities: Land Transformations along Urban Corridors in India (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019) explores new spatial forms of urbanization by focusing on land contestations along infrastructural / economic corridors in liberalizing India.

Q. Your book’s title foregrounds two important concepts: “shareholder” and “corridor.” You argue that shareholders represent a peculiar and particular form of claim-making within neoliberalism where it looks democratic but is an epigone in which you see the privatization of rights and services that are theoretically, in the public domain. Can you tell us about how you got to calling this book Shareholder Cities?

The past few years have seen some of the most volatile land wars in India, as urban developers in liberalizing India try to assemble agricultural land for building mega private enclaves (including Special Economic Zones, smart cities, gated communities). These urbanization processes have led to large-scale dispossession, but in regions with organized agrarian propertied classes, developers are experimenting with new modes of land assembly, such as returning a percentage of the new serviced urban land to agrarian landowners in lieu of monetary compensation, or in the cases analyzed in my book, of including landowners as shareholders of the companies that will then govern these enclaves. It is not just agrarian elites who then share in these new real estate surpluses, but also small and marginal peasants. I was interested in understanding how processes of land commodification unravel on the ground in democratic contexts like India where the peasantry can vote, and what new forms of socio-spatial exclusions are precipitated by the participation of peasants in these new land and urban real estate experiments as “shareholders.” More broadly, the keyword “shareholder” is a critique of how the language and values of the market have insidiously seeped into public-sector planning. I see shareholder cities as an extreme form of “stakeholder participation.”

As someone who teaches in an urban planning program, I’m struck by the ubiquitous use of the term “stakeholder participation” for public planning processes, with little or no recognition of the provenance of the term “stakeholder” in the 1980s in business management. The language of stakeholder participation is situated within the wider political ideology of New Public Management, which was premised on assumptions of inefficient, bloated, and corrupt bureaucracies which could be streamlined by making them function like businesses. In the book, through a critique of the price system which is emerging as the key arbitrator of land conflicts, I ask what it means for publics to participate in cities as shareholders.

Q: The second keyword you use is “corridor.” Etymologically, corridor comes from the same Latin route as courier, referring to the runner moving military messages. The corridor as a “running space,” in the urban context came to display the status of those who needed to urgently send and receive messages. The corridors in your research also play this role of moving capital–goods, services, and people–between points of consumption and production. But yet, you argue, the corridors are not hermetically sealed from the countrysides in which they are inscribed. Where they leak, cities emerge, to be able to transform these accretions of value into capital. You hint that the neoliberal imagination of the corridor doesn’t quite fulfill its function of moving capital immutably. In what way is this book a critique of the idea of the corridors along which capital flows?

It’s very interesting, the way you frame urban corridors as “leakages” that transform accreted value at the places of leakage into capital. If I had to flip your fascinating framing of urban corridors, I’d argue that it is the prior accretions of agrarian accumulation that valorize the urban corridors. One of the most fascinating spatial patterns that emerged from my research is the almost neat overlap between the most conflictual urban corridors and former Green Revolution agrarian regions. The post-liberalization Indian state envisioned the urban corridors as spines along which globally-competitive new cities (or zones) such as Special Economic Zones and smart cities would proliferate. And the corridors that catalyzed the densest concentration of these new cities or private enclaves are located in former Green Revolution regions.

Scholars such as K. Balagopal, Francine Frankel, and Barbara Harriss-White have written persuasively about how the Green Revolution program enabled agrarian capital accumulation and the consolidation of agrarian “provincial propertied classes.” The Green Revolution program infused massive state subsidies in the form of water-seeds-fertilizer packages to certain strategic regions, and it is in these regions that generated agrarian surpluses, often at the expense of the bypassed regions. It is also these regions where peasant castes that captured these state subsidies were able to transform themselves into formidable electoral and economic constituencies (a case in point being the Marathas in western Maharashtra, a key protagonist in the book). I would argue that the new zones and private enclaves settle onto this prior geography of the Green Revolution, i.e. it is the prior market linkages made possible through the Green Revolution that creates value for the new zones and private enclaves along the new urban corridors.

In that sense, these urban corridors do shrink space for capital, but contra seminal works like Marvin and Graham’s “splintering urbanism,” these corridors are not “fly-over” regions, but instead derive their value by accreting onto agrarian regions with prior market linkages.

Q: One of your central arguments is that the value of land is a historically formed condition; current economic corridor related real estate values are layered on green revolution irrigation geographies which are then layered on top of development and planning physicalities, which were intervening in colonial public works terrains and territories that are further sitting atop caste and feudal spatial hierarchies. You argue that these multiple historical interventions interact in surprising and non-intuitive ways. One of your central case studies here is how wasteland accrued value as an excrescence of economic corridors in the story of Khed, flipping certain older political hierarchies. Can you talk about this layering of distortions involved in producing and reproducing land as a commodity of value, either in feudal systems in terms of fertility, or in neoliberal ones in terms of real estate?

The book tracks the shifting values of landed property in the process of agrarian to urban land-use change. Under colonial and postcolonial programs of agricultural modernization, land value accrued through a combination of fertility and location: the most fertile land proximate to the market commanded the highest agricultural profits. Fertility, however, is not a natural attribute of land: it is socio-technically produced through irrigation networks. Through histories of socio-spatial segregation, more powerful agrarian castes either influenced the routing of canals through their lands and/or appropriated the most irrigated lands. The unirrigated ‘waste’ land was relegated to marginalized groups (in the case of the Khed SEZ, an Adivasi group of Thakkars). These canal networks were massive state enterprises: in the state of Maharashtra, the state-level irrigation and water department has been under the almost uninterrupted control of politicians of the Maratha caste, and it was through control over these hydraulic infrastructures that the Maratha caste consolidated economic and political control over the agrarian countryside.

In an urbanizing and liberalizing society, the determinants of land value have now shifted. The post-liberalization state is repealing agrarian-era land laws in an effort to make agricultural land a fungible and transnational real estate asset. As a result, location now trumps fertility as the main calibrator of land price. I collected land prices of irrigated and ‘waste’ land in 242 villages along the Mumbai-Pune economic corridor in 1996 and 2016, to track how land prices had changed for different land categories during these key decades of economic liberalization (Ch. 2). The surprise finding was that certain advantageously located waste land in the corridor region which was relegated to Adivasis during an earlier agrarian era now fetch a higher market price than disadvantageously located irrigated land is not proximate to the new economic corridors and other logistics infrastructures (for those of you familiar with western Maharashtra, waste land in Khed now has a higher market price than even the most irrigated land in Baramati, which is the epicenter of Maratha power; and the reason is the more advantageous location of Khed to the Mumbai-Pune economic corridor vis-à-vis Baramati). The Khed Thakkars are now mobilizing their revalued waste land in strategic ways: as owners of a high market-value asset, they are, for instance, demanding entitlements such as water access that was earlier denied to them due to caste exclusions. These revalued land markets are also producing a new politics of recognition amongst Khed Thakkars, who are now more assertive in breaking their ties of dependency on the Maratha agrarian elites.

Q. Sugar is a key commodity in your book. The substance has a long and storied history as a commodity that globalized the world. From its orginary relationship with slavery in the Caribbean to the way it has saturated our consumer lives to how it haunts our bodies with diabetes, sugar has hijacked our bodies and minds. I wonder how this story of the extraction of wealth and privilege from this commodity of sugar fits into that larger global story of extractive capitalism?

One of the three interrelated private enclaves explored in this book is Magarpatta City, which I call the “city of sugar,” as it builds on longer cash-crop capitalist histories of sugarcane cultivation. Magarpatta City has been celebrated by policy-makers and business schools as a case of “inclusive capitalism” because of its “entrepreneurial” mode of governance: here, instead of peasants being dispossessed by private enclaves, former sugarcane growers voluntarily pooled their fragmented sugarcane fields and formed a real estate company whose shares are 100% owned by former sugarcane farmers. In the book, I critique this narrative of entrepreneurialism because it obscures the caste privileges and massive state subsidies that made sugar cooperatives possible in the region, and the new private enclave mobilizes the relations of trust forged via agricultural cooperatives.

And it is these sugar cooperatives that are the answer to your question. Sugarcane is a highly perishable commodity: sugar cannot be extracted from sugarcane unless it is processed within twenty-four hours of processing. It is the perishable nature of the commodity that makes coordination between field and factory crucial, and this explains why much of the New World sugar production (explored in various classic texts on sugar and capitalism) was organized as plantation economies with enslaved labor.

Vis-à-vis the New World, scholars such as Shahid Amin, B.S.Baviskar, and Donald Attwood have argued that even when sugarcane was incorporated within global commodity chains from the 1830s onwards in colonial India, the presence of prior agrarian relations in the form of smallholder cultivation made it difficult to replace the peasantry with plantations, and sugar factories procured sugarcane from dispersed scattered peasants. In my book, I’m particularly interested in the organizational form of the sugar cooperatives, which became a key agricultural strategy of the Nehruvian state in the 1950s. Though early Nehruvian bureaucrats like D.R.Gadgil envisioned agricultural cooperatives as the route to a “cooperative commonwealth,” it is more apt to see these cooperatives as organizational forms that enabled the middle peasantry, a key constituency of the newly elected Congress political party, to participate in the market economy. During the Green Revolution, these sugar cooperatives became the organizations through which the Maratha peasants captured state subsidies of water-seed-fertilizer, and it was the cooperatives that helped transform these middle peasants into powerful agrarian elites. New land experiments like Magarpatta City are possible because agrarian elites rework the agrarian organizational form of cooperatives to forge new pathways into urban and real estate capitalism for themselves and their caste constituents. In other words, I’m interested in how the organizational form of sugar cooperatives, which took shape under specific conditions of late colonialism and then postcolonial agricultural modernization, is now the conduit through which agrarian privileges are reproduced during this time of urban- and market-oriented change.

Q. Continuing on the theme of sugar, I was really taken by your comparison of the commodities of milk and sugar to tease out how these different products intersect with different historical power relations and political formations. There is a kind of coproduction here between the nature of the commodities and the historical power relations that have shaped the cooperatives.

In thinking about sugar cooperatives and how they helped reproduce agrarian power in an urbanizing context, I became in interested in precisely this relationship between commodities and cooperatives: why is it that the same commodity, say sugar, is organized differently across varied agrarian regions, or why two different commodities (milk and sugar) are organized in the same commodity form in the same region. The perishable natures of milk and sugar are important here because that is an incentive for scattered peasants to come together in collective action for the processing of these commodities before they spoil. I wanted to highlight the milk v. sugar comparison because it ties directly to the property question at the heart of the book.

One of India’s mostly celebrated cooperative experiments is the dairy revolution called Amul. To be a member of the dairy cooperative, peasants only needed ownership of one or two cows; most dairy cooperative members relied on common grazing land for their livestock. In contrast, land ownership was a key criterion for sugar cooperative membership; peasants might be owners of marginal plots of land of less than a hectare, but they needed to be landowners. It is no surprise that sugar cooperatives are getting monetized into urban real estate companies, but with the privatization of common grazing lands, dairy cooperatives are suffering. If dairy cooperatives had received strong state support now, it would not only have provided livelihoods to the most vulnerable landless peasants but also produced a different land-use pattern of protected land in the commons.

Q: One of the important arguments you put forth is that the Gram Sabha was designed as an institution of decentralized democracy but under liberalizing pressures, it acts in different ways than it was designed. Can you talk about the changing nature of the Gram Sabha under neoliberalism?

The urban corridors in India are taking shape within the new institutional context of two large-scale reforms: between 1991 and 1993, the Central Government simultaneously introduced economic liberalization reforms and democratic decentralization reforms. If the economic liberalization reforms unleashed new processes of enclosing agricultural land via the urban corridors, the democratic decentralization reforms led to the formation of a new local democratic institution called the Gram Sabha. In other words, I was particularly interested in how new processes of land marketization collided with those of democratization; of how peasants along the urban corridors, including landless peasants of subaltern castes, are exposed to brutal exclusions and expulsions due to the new land enclosures, but at the same time, they find new democratic spaces in the form of the Gram Sabhas where they can effectively voice their resistance and dissent.

There is a key question here on the paradox of scale. I chose the urban corridors, rather than the city, as the unit of analysis for my research as this seemed to be an apt scale to capture the trends of capitalist accumulation in liberalizing India. And though these corridors transgress multiple local jurisdictions, one of the key sites of resistance is local democratic institutions. Given the linear nature of these infrastructural networks, the local scale can become a strategic site for interrupting these corridors. And the Gram Sabhas have the potential to effectively serve, in Polanyian terms, as counter-movements to market forces.

Q. There is something feudal about how property rears its head as a distortion to democracy in these shareholder cities. Can you talk about your call to reclaim the city in the shareholder city at the end of the book?

You’re right, there is a sort of “invention of tradition” here with caste (or more accurately, jatis) as the key mode of accumulating capital. The book focuses on the trajectory of middle peasants from the western Maharashtra region and their rise to becoming an agrarian capitalist, and now an urban propertied and professional, class, all of which is mediated not just by the postcolonial state but specifically by electoral politics. These former middle-peasant Marathas occupy an equivocal position within India’s class/caste hierarchies. As Satish Deshpande reminds us, it is telling that the explosive entry of these middle peasants (or OBCs) onto the national electoral scene in the 1980s had to be qualified as the rise of the “dominant” castes; their rise to power had to be named in caste terms as opposed to the largely Brahmin and upper-caste electoral leaders of the Nehruvian era whose caste background was unnamed. And the Green Revolution was a key program that unsettled these caste hierarchies. But the Maratha caste bloc which has always been a heterogeneous class formation, ranging from agrarian elites to landless peasants, is now seeing widening class cleavages. In other words, the rise of the dominant-caste agrarian propertied classes in the countryside are both the triumph and limits of electoral democracy. The city, which is a stand-in term here for public claims-making, is about keeping property and land-use open to contestation as opposed to the closing off of these conflicts via appeasing market-oriented tactics of shareholder participation in decision-making.

Q: Your research methodology is interdisciplinary: extensive fieldwork, ethnographic interviews, archival and theoretical work. Your references span from anthropology to planning to political theory and architectural history. How did you bring this dissertation research into its book form?

In the dissertation, I was very interested in these new spatial forms of urbanization, such as urban corridors. Methodologically, the urban corridors made it imperative for me to reach out to agrarian studies and situate my work at the interstices of urban studies and agrarian studies. These empirical and methodological commitments are central to the book, but I also thoroughly reworked the structure of the book vis-a-vis the dissertation. And the reworking benefited hugely from an almost two-year hiatus where I did not revisit the dissertation. During these two years, I worked as a postdoctoral scholar at Columbia Law School and then started my first year of teaching in an urban planning program. And this critical distance from the dissertation was important for me: working in a law school and then an urban planning program enabled me to have related interdisciplinary engagements with property and land-use, but without direct reference to my research and empirical material. Given tenure-track exigencies, I would not recommend such a long break as it was a scramble to get the book finished in time for my mid-tenure review!

Q:What are five books that your work is in dialogue with?

Narendar Pani’s Reforms to Preempt Change: Land Regulations in Karnataka, Barbara Harriss-White’s various works, K. Balagopal’s Ear to the Ground: Writings on Class and Caste: it would be more accurate to say that I was deeply inspired by this scholarship for its “ear to the ground” and the incredible ability of these scholars to not see the empirical and conceptual as binaries, but to work dialectically across them.

Also inspiring in terms of their cross-cutting work defying the city-countryside divide were William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West and the various books of Gillian Hart, particularly Disabling Globalization: Places of Power in post-Apartheid South Africa.

Q: What is your next project going to tackle? Can you tell us about your newer research in infrastructure on which you have been working collaboratively with faculty across different universities?

I’ve been working with Arindam Dutta (Architectural historian at MIT) for the past couple of years and we’re in the process of developing a manuscript on the uneven geographies of infrastructure in India, with a focus on two massive new corridors being built in postliberalization India: the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor and the Indo-Gangetic Eastern Dedicated Freight Corridor. One of the key aims of the research is to unpack the seemingly “technical” understanding of infrastructure, and instead to reveal its role as a political and socializing instrument through which “the state” is captured by caste constituents. The research historicizes contemporary infrastructure corridors within longer path legacies that trace back to colonial-era irrigation canals, and we’re keen on analyzing how caste and capitalism co-constitute each other via these processes.

Ateya Khorakiwala is an assistant professor at Columbia University GSAPP. Her research and teaching in the history of architecture examines the aesthetics and materiality of infrastructure in postcolonial India