A Land full of Disturbances

Economy, Land, and Politics of the Possessed in Coastal South India’s
South Canara

A presentation by Solomon Benjamin, January 24th 2013

at the Vernacular Urbanism and the Provincial City in South Asia

Fourth Urban South Asia Seminar, Stanford University

The four major metropolitan cities in India, Mumbai, Delhi, Calcutta and Chennai, have a paradigmatic place in the literature on urban life in the entire region. Large cities like Bangalore and Ahmedabad are scantily studied as urban spaces, and so are Lahore, Karachi and Kathmandu. Other major urban spaces, such as Dhaka or Colombo, or Lucknow and Kanpur are hardly studied in their contemporary form. However, the biggest absence in the scholarly understanding of urban South Asia is the massive landscape of hundreds of provincial cities, many of them exceeding 500.000 people. Most of these cities have emerged in the past few decades from being minor towns, local railway hubs and minor industrial centers.

The seminar will be devoted to explore two larger questions: (1) what spatial, political and cultural imaginings and designs define the public life of provincial cities? Does the metropolitan areas in the region provide hegemonic models or do we see attempts to define aesthetics, symbolsandurbaninstitutionsthatreflectspecificregional histories? (2) As urban centers grow and diversify in terms of communities of caste, language and religion what are the relations between ‘community’ as an ethical and practical structure, and the commercialization of public life, increasingly mediated by access to capital, land and coveted private sector jobs? Is the older proverbial contradiction between capital and community giving way to a new (and yet old) ‘caste capitalism’ where caste and community are the most important forces shaping and enabling mobility and accumulation of wealth in urban spaces across South Asia?

Abstract: In this paper, I suggest that we should move away from an approach where small towns are posed as a ‘periphery’ and understood from the perspective of the metro (the center). This also relates to assumptions of a mythical line of progress now read as globally connected economic development, from the rural to the urban.

Coastal Karnataka’s South Canara challenges this unilateral seductive metro-logic of Bangalore whose visions from Delhi seek to globalize via mega projects, throw in some planning to deal with the ‘unplanned’ growth, and reduce a rich political history to ‘cultural conservation and tourism’: Fish Curry, Rice, and Development.

Institutional changes emanating from Bangalore seek to impose a statecraft that now includes the entry of large financial capital. These techno-financial and managerial visions are confronted and unsettled by a political complexity that differs from the disciplining sought out by the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendment. Here, territory formation is haunted by possession – occupancies by various forest deities whose cautionary warnings occupy the minds of large developers promoting multi-storied apartment and commercial complexes and haunt this regions mega projects: an expressway, a thermal power plant, and another of large wind turbines. These deeply embedded rationalities drive an intensive and feverish transformation of values that rejects a narrow read of the plan, where economies globalized since the 7th Century reject the inevitability of the IT dominated policy growth machine, and where a politics of nuances, subtle glances, nudges facilitate and appropriate at lease in part imposed statecraft.