“Nothing, Just a Pond”

Katie Hepworth June 14, 2012

Giorgio Grappi

Imagining Empty Land in the Construction of Rajarhat

Katie Hepworth


Nestled in between the vast expanse of an azure sky and the verdant earth at Rajarhat Township, Hiland Woods comes across as a unique effort of modern urban community development. With the best of contemporary residential facilities set against an idyllic landscape, this cluster of dwellings promises a unique living experience for people from all walks of life. … Among the woods that surround this complex, one will certainly find a refuge that is stable, secure and lively. […] We build for you… we build communities.

Hiland Group, Rajharat Township

A smiling family stares out from signs repeatedly affixed to poles on the main road from Rajarhat to Kolkata; below their faces the tagline: ‘we build communities’. These posters are advertisements for the Hiland Group, one of the companies responsible for multiple residential developments currently under construction in New Town, Rajarhat. Other signs and billboards advertise specific residential compounds, showing artists’ impressions of apartment buildings clustered around green central courtyards. Views from the apartments show an internalised out; focusing on the central courtyard, they suggest isolation from both the old and new cities beyond the edges of the development.


The future-present implied by the billboards is one of idyllic retreats removed from congested chaos of the old city, yet closely linked into new IT hubs, business parks, and high-end shopping districts. In advertising the new town and its communities to come, these signs make invisible the already present communities living within the city’s boundaries. They intentionally forget those communities that were displaced from their livelihoods by government acquisitions of agricultural and fisheries land for ‘public purpose’; displaced from land that was on-sold to developers for the public-private production of a new city at the eastern edge of Kolkata.


Writing of the translation of modernist planning into the colonial cities of India, Sundaram makes the distinction between the master plans for New Delhi and Chandrigah. Where the former had to contend with “restless refugee squatter camps and politicized Parliament”, the later was built on land imagined empty; it “was conceived, or thought to be conceived, on a tabla rasa”. By eschewing the informality of the Indian city, it was thought that Chandrigah could be realised as intended; the “legal city” would not have to contend first with the “unintended city”.


The building of Rajarhat was initially proposed by the Kolkata Municipal Development Authority. It was to operate as part of a network of new satellite cities that were intended to alleviate residential congestion in the centre. The new city would provide space for high-end residential towers and special economic zones providing outsourcing opportunities for India and the rest of the world. It would function as a new IT centre that would complement – or maybe supplement – Kolkata’s Sector IV.


Although the KDMA issued plans showing a city zoned into functional units, New Town lacks the rigid rationality of modernist plans. In fact, we were told, there was no plan. Responsibility for the development was split between public and private partners: the boundaries of the city were determined by the Kolkata Municipal Development Authority, and the land “legally” acquired – following violence, coercion and barely met promises of adequate compensation – by the government-run HIDCO, while the responsibility for construction was handed over to individual developers and the owners of particular sites. With development split between multiple organisations, the New Town appears to be emerging somewhat randomly. Repetitive residential towers appear in clustered together, scattered throughout a seemingly empty landscape. A comprehensive plan is suggested by bitumen roads that divide up the spaces between partially constructed buildings, and yet proved untrue by stories of residents trucking in water to apartments due to the lack of public or even private infrastructure.


On our first day in Kolkata we had driven through these landscapes. Ishita Dey spoke the plan to us as we drove through Salt Lake and Rajarhat on our first day in Calcutta. Moving between recently completed IT centres, and clusters of partially and fully constructed residential land, she invoked the farmlands and fisheries that were no longer, which once occupied what appeared initially to us as empty land. She described these farmlands through the informal tea and food stalls that had accreted along the edges of the new techno cities in Salt Lake City and Rajarhat. In these places, the “unintended city” emerges in Rajarhat, the new town that was to become a model legal city.


This is the landscape that Sophea, Anja and I drove and wandered through on one of our days in Rajarhat. We went to listen to the new town under construction and to rural areas under destruction. As in other places, we collected onlookers curious about us as outsiders, and of our photographs and recordings of “nothing”. Here the men that we spoke to were from somewhere else. Drivers of intercity coaches, they had found themselves here to clean their vehicles, moved on from their usual place in Salt Lake City.


We asked them the history of this place, to tell us what had preceded the barely constructed buildings, and were told: “nothing… just a pond”. Their words ignored the small yellow blocks of concrete that were scattered through the grass between the barely constructed buildings. Each of these markers was cast with a number and the word HIDCO, signalling that here was a block of land that had been acquired by the government for the building of the New Town; together they represented areas that had once been farmland, and had formed the primary livelihood for nearby villages.



Dispossessed of their farmlands, these villages became absorbed into the New Town. Their individual names were erased from the plan, as they were collectively redefined as “service villages”. In reinscribing these farming and fishing villages as service villages, the plan rationalised their presence in the new town; they appeared in the plan not as remnants of a rural past, but as intentional inclusions. No longer the centres of agricultural land, they became peripheral and subjugated to the new residential developments.


It was not just the villages that were reimagined, it was also their residents. As Sundaram argues, the work of the modernist plan goes beyond the rationalisation of space into discrete units of use. It also operates by making a distinction between “forms of labour and subjectivity that were seen as appropriate to modern urban life in India; those who did not fit this model could be open for displacement in the event of a failed assimilation into urbanism”. No longer owners of their own land on which to work, the residents of the newly reinscribed “service villages” were assimilated into the new city as servants that were to work in the residential buildings to come.


This reinscription rendered invisible the violence of dispossession. In leaving the villages occupied, while acquiring fisheries and farmland, the government argued that no forced displacement had occurred. They have contravened neither the World Bank’s requirements for funding, nor the UN’s guidelines on forced eviction, both of which require that resettlement solutions be found in the case of eviction. However activists predict that this displacement is still to come; it will occur once the compensation has been used, once individuals and families find themselves unable to gain sufficient work within the new city. The displacement from homes will follow the displacement from livelihoods, but only once the attention surrounding acquisition has passed.


These displacements are forgotten in the building of Rajarhat; they are absent from the memories produced alongside the new town. To build Rajarhat it was necessary to forget that it was built on already occupied, productive fisheries and agricultural land. Selling the new town required the erasure of the violence of dispossession – the beatings, murders and summary arrests. It was necessary to imagined empty land in order to turn agricultural land into landscape beyond the windows of the future city.