The Indian urban scenario was always marked by a dualism. Cities attracted population. They attracted industries and infrastructure. They also attracted government investment in developing administrative centres at district and sub-division levels. Villages remained villages. Now the dualism has taken another form. Old cities remain decrepit. Big cities now develop more and become in time centres of high economic and demographic growth by becoming ‘urban agglomerates’.
Geographers have already noted the imbalances in regional and urban development in the country in mid nineties of the last century in the wake of liberalisation. Particular cities like Mumbai, Pune, Hyderabad, and Delhi became principal centres of investment. With the defeat of the strikes by textile workers in Mumbai in the nineteen eighties, large areas of the city went into the hands of developers who in turn handed over the property to offices, firms, shopping malls, etc. This decade was marked by defeat of trade union movements – be it in Mumbai or in Kolkata and its suburbs. Workers resisted gentrification, but could not succeed. Factory owners closed down factories and changed business. Building norms changed, land development rules altered. The idea of the downtown also changed. Municipalities vied with each other to make their cities attractive to multinationals and big firms. The idea of Ahmedabad-Pune corridor developed in this milieu. In none of these cases the government stood as mute spectator. It facilitated, encouraged, directed, and at times led the process of mutation of the city form as site of capital accumulation.
Geographers theorizing the city have until today approached the subject from roughly three angles. First, the city can be judged from the angle of spatial practices. Second, a city is perceived on the basis of the mental images that the city evokes. Third, the city is seen as a lived space. Even though the third way of looking at the city tries to get over the ‘objectivist’ bias of the first two by positing a subject-object view, the problem remains, namely how to account for its variety, its links with capital formation, and the binaries that seem to characterise the city. These binaries are results of a number of socio-spatial phenomena at play, such as: colonial-free, rich-poor, city-periphery, labour-capital, manufacturing units-services, citizen-migrant, etc. Other binaries also have emerged, such as, redesigned-old, cyber city-inner city, IT enabled-IT disabled, green spaces-crowded, or self-governed-administered. The lived city approach at times seems empty from a political point of view, because it cannot give us an insight into these binaries and the fault lines that emerge from colonising practices.
Just as in the old colonial days the prevailing land tenure system and contract method were changed to colonise land and introduce changes in the land use pattern, for instance to compel indigo cultivation, likewise for new towns to emerge tenure systems and land use patterns have to be changed – by legislation or by violence. In this way water bodies at Rajarhat were filled up, land taken away, the legal principle of inalienability of land of the small peasants was thrown to the wind, and agricultural status of land was changed to that for setting up hotel and mall. The divided city is in this way the norm rather the exception. New areas would be administered by a bureaucratic authority (development board. etc.) while the old areas will be run by democratically elected municipal bodies. In this new regime of urban governance, financial riches would mark the administered (new) area, while financial constraints would mark the self-governed (old) one. The technologies we now see deployed today to restructure the city were all put in place in the last four decades of the last century – from setting up development authorities, urban commissions, embarking on mega and master plans, urban renewal missions, constitutional amendment for self-government, restructuring of urban taxation system, to setting up ATM machines that seem ubiquitous today monetising everything in the process, and all these partitioning the city again and again. Land and territory have again become issues of contention – an indicator of the return of the colonial time.
In some sense then we can claim that the growth of new towns is a part of the general history of the increasing domination of urban agglomerations over human habitation and production spaces. Also in some sense new towns become the fresh sites of what Tilly had called contentious politics by which we mean sites for new claims, exacerbation of old conflicts, and new claimants mingling and at times clashing with old claimants. It is not that the Indian government was unaware that the land question would return as an urban boom and would overwhelm the developmental scenario. Therefore regulations, noms, restrictions, and procedures for setting up new towns began to be put in place from late eighties and through the nineties. These regulations became the ground on which public resistance against construction of new towns was mounted in several places. On one hand these regulations, norms, and guidelines became the legitimating tool for urban expansion and domination, because all the planners and architects had to do was to secure compliance with them, on the other hand they became the ground for public campaigns and litigation in defence of life and livelihood. Thus in Writ Petition 7516(W) to the High Court in 1999 the petitioners (Howrah Ganatantrik Samity and Rajarhat Jami Bachao Committee) cited several union government regulations allegedly violated by the government of West Bengal. For instance the Guidelines and Procedure for the Environmental Appraisal of New Towns published in 1989 stipulated that a new town could be founded to serve as a satellite to a metropolitan city. These guidelines also stipulated that such construction must not impose any additional burden on the existing city by excessive utilisation of the city’s presently available resources, such as water, transport, etc., and that natural water catchment areas must not be destroyed in the process of construction. The petitioners argued that these guidelines had been violated. These guide lines were developed on the basis of the experiences of 160 new towns.
The guide lines noted that while earlier new towns developed as mainly residential clusters around an industry or a port, and institutions like schools, hospitals, and markets were added later as access became crucial to life in the new town. Later this logic of its ‘self-contained’ nature began to expand. New towns were no longer simply service or satellite towns. They became project construction colonies, mining colonies, port colonies, district administrative centres, towns near cantonments, university or technical institution towns, and towns connected with large and upcoming new industries. Hence site and situation capabilities, impact assessment, hinterland study – all these became critical. Likewise, in these guidelines, the availability of natural amenities like clean water, drainage, rock structure, natural vegetation came under the governmental gaze. Dislocation of population, availability of domestic servants, etc. were also to be considered. The guidelines were thus not to prevent new towns which were coming up at the expense of dislocating large number of population in various parts of the country, or to maximise the output from these new settlements, but to facilitate the emergence of new towns on a wide scale. The government had also in mind that these new towns were emerging in the background of development – indeed they were the signs of development – and thus the government said that there was a need for these guidelines.
Yet if all this is true, and if new towns are part of this landscape of domination, it is also true that these are special as exceptional places. The question then is: Has this exceptionality too has a history? In this connection, think of say the Hanseatic ports of Europe (13th to 17th century) where Hanseatic League members would demand and ensure all kinds of freedoms from restrictions on trade, merchandise, entry, and stay. After the Hanseatic age and at times parallel to it, others also extracted concessions - the Genoese, Venetians, and the Antwerp merchants backed by their respective city powers. Giovanni Arrighi describes the role of these cities in reaching new frontiers of money and commerce, and remarks that these cities had to often depend on the continuous supply of basic life items such as food items, clothing material, and metals, and the supply was ensured through all means. Arrighi notes the nature of ‘unorganised capitalism’ – in other words anarchic expansion of trade and commerce that led to expansion of capital. But then he misses the most critical element in this expansion – the persistently reappearing phenomenon of dispossession and accumulation through which trade was ensured. Even though he speaks of the role of plunder in buttressing British economy, the phenomenon of primitive accumulation remains by and large the unspoken other in his account of the rise of the city. The long twentieth century remains blind to its most astounding aspect – not technology, but the return of primitive accumulation in the wake of globalisation and virtual trade. The city is again today the nodal point around which the new phase of expansion has begun. Today’s new towns are like dry ports. These inland ports or dry ports of today likewise demand autonomy of a particular kind. They demand relief not only from taxes, but autonomy in dealing with labour. They are special – that is why they are mostly classified as special economic zones – while they are not sovereign.
In any case, one may ask: Is Kolkata then reproducing its own history which began more than three centuries ago as a colonial enclave amidst marshy lands, developing as a port and a landing dock after having secured all kinds of concessions from the Mughal Empire? Is it the revenge of the modern time, when Kolkata would now be the marshy lands and the new towns (in the east and the west) would become the new concession areas hogging all attention of trade and commerce? We have the history of sovereignty thanks to the work of various historians. We now need a parallel history of the territorial exceptions and special autonomies – a sort of genealogy of the idea of a new town and the attending governmental practices.