Economic corridors — ambitious infrastructural development projects throughout Asia and Africa — are dramatically redefining the shape of urbanization. As these corridors cut across croplands, the conversion of agricultural lands into new urban uses has erupted in volatile land conflicts. We sat down with Sai Balakrishnan, Assistant Professor of Urban Planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, to learn more about the interaction between agrarian and urban lands throughout India, and the effects that infrastructural changes are having on the nation’s population. On Tuesday, November 5, Balakrishnan will head a panel, Shareholder Cities, on urbanization along the first economic corridor built in India, the Mumbai-Pune Expressway.

In your book, Shareholder Cities: Land Transformations Along Urban Corridors in India, you note that land conflicts have erupted due to infrastructural development projects — economic corridors — in newly liberalizing countries. Why are these conflicts occurring, and how are they taking form?

In this book, I argue that infrastructural developments — such as new economic corridors — are fundamentally altering the shape of urbanization in India. These economic corridors are ambitious in scale, and are comparable only to the massive railway-building enterprise of colonial India. The largest of these corridors is the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor that cuts across six Indian states. This book focuses on the new geographies of urbanization along the first economic corridor completed in 2001, the Mumbai-Pune Expressway. These economic corridors not only expand urbanization beyond the territorial limits of the city, but they also produce new forms of cities: policymakers see these economic corridors as the catalysts along which will develop Special Economic Zones, smart cities, and other zones of variegated sovereignty. 

The building of the new economic corridors has erupted in land conflicts. These corridors cut across the agrarian countryside and have triggered a frenzied conversation of agricultural lands into new urban uses. These agrarian-to-urban land-use changes have erupted in volatile and violent land conflicts. When one maps the geography of land conflicts, a pattern emerges. Some of the most publicized land conflicts of the past two decades, including the Yamuna Expressway and the Bangalore-Mysore Infrastructural Corridor, are in former Green Revolution regions. The Green Revolution, with its huge state subsidies in water-seeds-fertilizers, helped consolidate regionally powerful provincial properties classes or the dominant castes, and these agrarian landed constituents are at the forefront of many of the organized protests against the economic corridors. The new economic corridors then are the sites where older histories of agrarian capitalism collide, collude and recombine with new market-oriented urban transformations. This book is based on a comparative case study method of three new urban governance structures (integrated townships, Special Economic Zones, hill station areas) located in varied agrarian regions along the Mumbai-Pune Expressway, ranging from fertile sugarcane-exporting regions to devalued “waste” lands, and the varied distributional outcomes produced by these agrarian-urban encounters.

By moving the narrative of urbanization out of cities into the economic-corridor regions, new protagonists and processes of urbanization come into view. For instance, in some of the new integrated townships in the Mumbai-Pune corridor region, it is former sugar elites who are now becoming real estate promoters and including sugarcane growers as shareholders in the new real estate companies. In short, the economic corridors highlight that in liberalizing India, we cannot understand the processes of urbanization without simultaneously bringing in agrarian change. Agrarian and urban change are inextricably linked — one is constitutive of the other.

What is being done to resolve these conflicts? Can the issues caused by infrastructural development be resolved to benefit the people who live along these economic corridors in some way?

A key question at stake in these debates and conflicts over infrastructural development in liberalizing India is: how can we reclaim the “public” in public infrastructure? For instance, in diverse agrarian regions, what types of public infrastructure — economic corridors or rural roads — should the state prioritize? How should these infrastructures be routed? Whose lands should be acquired or purchased for the building of these infrastructures? And most importantly, who decides? The planning questions of infrastructure and land-use that confront contemporary India are not technical ones for which the market has easy answers. What, then, are the institutional arrangements by which various constituents, including non-propertied constituents, can have a voice in these decision-making processes?

Currently, the Indian state seems to have turned to the price system as a way of arbitrating competing claims to land. For instance, in the case of the Yamuna Expressway, bureaucrats resolved the conflict between infrastructural firms and the protesting (Jat) dominant castes by marking up the compensation price of land acquired for the new corridor developments. The Yamuna Expressway public authority had earlier promised the creation of labor-intensive manufacturing and affordable housing along the economic corridor but is now prioritizing high-end luxury housing as a way of recovering the money spent in land acquisition. Focusing on getting the compensation price right can lock the state into land-use decisions that go against the very rationale of these economic corridors as the spines for labor-intensive manufacturing.

But returning to the fundamental question of who decides what types of public infrastructures are needed for liberalizing India, my research is interested in the role of the democratic institution of the Gram Sabhas as the site for public decision-making. Various “counter-movements” (borrowing from Karl Polanyi) from both within and outside the state have played a key role in institutionalizing the Gram Sabha and mandating that the consent of the Gram Sabha is required for land acquisition for infrastructural development.

These counter-movements include public-spirited former bureaucrats in the National Advisory Council as well as social movements like the National Alliance of People’s Movements. Democratic institutions like the Gram Sabha are essential for entrenching contested planning questions on public infrastructure and land-use in the public sphere. Here, the book is particularly interested in how uneven agrarian pasts affect the translation of Gram Sabhas from law to reality. In certain agrarian regions along the Mumbai-Pune Expressway, the Gram Sabhas are activated and marginalized citizens mobilize the Gram Sabha to exercise their voice in infrastructural decision-making. In other regions, the Gram Sabhas are bypassed; in yet others, they are co-opted by local elites.

What does this mean for the future of urbanism in India, or the Global South as a whole?

My book focuses on western Maharashtra, and a key insight was that Maratha sugar elites, who had consolidated power under earlier colonial and postcolonial development programs, are now emerging as protagonists in the making of urban real estate markets in the Mumbai-Pune corridor region. As an urban scholar, I had little familiarity with agrarian studies, and it wasn’t until I started research in the Mumbai-Pune corridor region that I realized the need to understand agrarian political economy if one is to make sense of contemporary urbanization in India.

Though there are heterodox scholars whose works defy these divides, the disciplines of urban studies and agrarian studies generally work in siloes. And yet, the agrarian-urban transformations that we’re witnessing in much of the global south challenge these disciplinary divides. I situate my work within a niche of scholarship in urban studies that recognizes the need to break away from the “territorial trap” of city-centric analyses. In my own work, I hope that shifting the unit of analysis from cities to these in-between corridor regions opens new methodological entryways to analyze the entangled agrarian-urban question in predominantly agrarian and late liberalizing societies in much of the “global south.” ☆

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☆ All opinions expressed by our interview subjects are their own and do not reflect the views of the Mittal Institute and its staff.