India Urbanising: Spaces of Capital, Politics of Place and Urban Informality as a Mode of Frontier Rule

Conveners: CSASP/OSGA

Speaker: Dr. Tara van Dijk, Marie Skłodowska-Curie Research Fellow (CSASP/OSGA)

Discussant:  Professor Barbara Harriss-White, Emeritus Professor of Development Studies

Seminar Abstract

The explanatory power of capital accumulation regarding urbanisation and urban transformations in the global South remain highly contested.  My aim is to problematise how urban studies and urban development scholarship in India presumes which urban processes are significantly intertwined with property formation, allocation and capital accumulation, and those which are not.  I do this by exploring how the formation of property and the accumulation of capital within processes of noncompliant urbanisation figure into the durability of urban informality.  Noncompliant urbanisation includes forms of land tenure, use and development that do not comply with one or more of the following: legal property rights, land use laws, sanctioned development plans, construction codes and occupancy regulations. Ananya Roy theorizes urban informality as a mode of rule that affords state actors and agencies the ability to maintain a flexible (thus unfixed and negotiable) territorialization of property rights to land and its appurtenances.   I wager that the relationships between the material and economic processes of noncompliant urbanisation and the political processes and coercive mechanisms of urban informality are key (as in necessary, but not necessarily sufficient) to explaining the trajectories, morphologies, conflicts and impasses of India Urbanizing.

Over 40 years ago Rod Burgess argued that it would be a mistake to assume that the urban poor’s informal and illegal settlements are completely outside the ambit of capital.  He theorised that this type of housing could be in a different circuit of valorisation – that of petty commodity housing.  Burgess called for more attention to be paid to the vested interests of various factions tied to processes of informal housing provision and the relationships these actors secured with different state actors and agencies.  In a different time (1970s), in reference to a different place (South America) and with a different focal concept (petty commodity housing production), Burgess gestured at what Roy later consolidated under informality as an idiom of state urban planning in contexts of rapid urbanisation and concomitant urban political and economic innovation and improvisation occurring before, below or ahead of the rule of law and consolidated urban policy.  However, John Turner’s (1976) “self-help” paradigm took hold and seemingly suppressed this line of inquiry.  Fernando de Soto's (2001) argument that the lack of legal property rights leads to 'dead capital', i.e. capital that cannot accumulate via processes of valorisation, continues to stifle this line inquiry.  I contribute here to re-opening and re-specifying this debate through research into the degree and manner places of noncompliant urbanisation are also spaces of capital, and how urban informality arbitrates the conversion frontier between locally recognized and geographically fixed forms of property and bonafide property rights formally recognised by state authorities and secured in law, and as such, thus ‘freed’ from place based constraints.