Rajarhat, the Urban Dystopia

Ranabir Samaddar July 29, 2011

Ned Rossiter

Ranabir Samaddar


Kolkata has changed quite a lot in the last few decades. It wants to become Delhi. It must catch up with the flash and glitz found elsewhere. It too must have its high-tech township and must embody a new mode of circulation of money, information, human resources, and power. It does not think that its old organic character is worth retaining. If discarding the old organic character is the necessary sacrifice to make in order to develop, let that be. If road space increases while the space for human interaction decreases, that price Kolkata must pay. Likewise parallel journals have lost their edge, parallel theatre has lost audience, the river line earlier dotted with old storehouses has changed, and tram cars carry only the distant memories of a city criss-crossed with tramlines and streetcars. Old urban resources have wasted in a state of neglect. In this change of guards, something new is happening. As a product of this developmental imagination Rajarhat is coming up beyond Kolkata.

Where is Rajarhat? If you enter the city from the airport side, after few kilometres, near Koikhali, you take the left turn, and then you will traverse the newly laid road that cuts through miles and miles of waste land, here and there marked with a shiny mall or few glass buildings, high rises built by new developers, and sign boards announcing the coming up of an office, or an e-firm, or a conference centre – all that Kolkata apparently did not have. This is a notified area, named after the deceased venerable leader of Bengal – the Jyoti Basu Nagar. After you have covered about fifteen miles in this way, you will bypass Salt Lake and reach the artery that will re-connect you with Kolkata. Possibly you will be relieved for you have not seen in the thirty minutes or so you were going in a car or the speeding bus ferrying you from the airport to the city any pond, any water body, any village, any school, any farmer, any farming land, any herd of cattle. All these are gone. Land has been taken over to meet the deficit of Kolkata. But from the city side that is from the west, Rajarhat is beyond Kolkata, with few buses to connect, only one road to lead to, and as a person of Kolkata you have no reason to go beyond unless you are a BPO employee, or an employee in a mall, or a construction worker (in that case you of course stay there), or have relatives who have bought houses there. When the night falls, then of course there is nothing for you. Only syndicates dealing with money, land, building material, waste disposal business, and firearms, are the denizens of the new city at night, the city beyond Kolkata.


Rajarhat, described by L.S.S. O’Malley in the District Gazetteer of 24 Parganas as a land with vast water bodies and marked by salty marshes and the river Bidyadhari straddling between the sea and the city, had 55 mauzas under it; 25 of them were notified for acquisition by the HIDCO in 1998 under the Land Acquisition Act of 1894 (Article 1 clause 4) and West Bengal Land (Requisition and Acquisition Act, 1948) amounting to 3075 hectares of arable land. In the process HIDCO destroyed 15 lakh trees and plants, and dispossessed 1 lakh 31 thousand people of their livelihoods. Some of the important and prosperous centres of cultivation, grain trade, and settlements acquired are: Tarulia, Salua, Hatiara, Atghara, Koikhali, Tegharia, Mahishgate, Mahisbathan, Ghuni, Baligari, Jatragachi, Patharghata, Muhammadpur, and Jagadishpur. Of the total 55 mauzas 15 mauzas constituted a municipality, and the rest 40 mauzas were governed by 6 panchayats. According to District census Reports by the 2001 census Rajarhat panchayat area had a population of 145,381; the Rajarhat-Gopalpur municipality had a population of 271,811. With the total population of Rajarhat being 417,192, the density of population in the village and municipal area per square kilometre has been respectively 1994 and 7773. The voter strength is 2 lakh 35 thousand. Rajarhat panchayat area has 1 panchayat samity, 6 gram sabhas, and 99 gram sansads. The total number of mauzas is 39, “inhabited” villages 38, and number of households 61,893. The total number of households in the Rajarhat Gopalpur municipality is 59,225. The total population had shown massive increase in the area – in 1991 it was 286,056; in 2001 it became 417192. And, one more significant set of demographics: Muslims and Dalits constitute two substantial groups within this population combining into a huge majority. In the panchayat area out of a total population of 145,381 Muslims are 60,108 in number and Dalits are 52233. In the municipal area out of a total population of 271,811 Muslims are 39,916 in number and Dalits are 50,634.


According to one report of the Fisheries Department, about 17,000 people depended for their employment on recycling of waste and recovery system (through fish cultivation and vegetable growing in the wetlands). The same report notes the continuous conversion of agricultural land to non-agricultural use in the preceding two decades, therefore decline in the average size of marginal land holdings, middle scale fisheries becoming unprofitable due to soaring prices of land, declining flow of sewage-laden water to the fisheries, poor storage facilities for fishermen and agriculturalists, and near absence of institutional credit to the farmers and fishermen. The report also thought that constructing a new town was not an answer to the problems of the area. What were needed were steps such as clearing of existing canals through dredging, sewerage treatment tax system, keeping canal sides free of settlements, and declaring the wetlands a no development zone. 


The report found the poverty situation in the wetlands below the national average, and thus consumption pattern in Rajarhat highly skewed in favour of food consumption (as much as 70 per cent of the total consumption expenditure on food, while healthcare expenditure 0.9 per cent). On the basis of samples (two mouzas, Ghuni and Jatragachi, and 68 households surveyed) it found as already mentioned continuous conversion for the last two decades of agricultural land to non-agricultural use, the figure of consequent occupation shift was 47 per cent. In comparison to other wetland areas, in Rajarhat it found a larger share of population depending on non-agricultural activities. Its table 5.5 showed: Of the 68 households sampled and surveyed, 20 were owner-cultivator households, 2 were sharecropper households, 11 agricultural labour, owner fishermen 0, share fishermen 0, bhery labourer 2, trade related to picsiculture 1, trade related to agriculture 0, and others 32. The report does not elaborate, who are these others, the largest chunk in the occupational profile? Rickshaw pullers, cart drivers, loaders, bus conductors, helpers, people thriving on the commons, who else? In what way are they related to local economy?


In short the Report describes an area with fragile environment and extremely low-cost subsistence economy, by logic providing highly subsidised inputs to the metropolis of Kolkata, like fresh air, low-cost fish and vegetables. Therefore the Report tells us of sizeable number of people holding the opinion that with the new town coming up waste recycling system would break down, water logging in suburbs would increase, economic rehabilitation of the dispossessed and deprived of livelihood would be difficult, social unrest would grow, bio-diversity would be lost, and the city would be deprived of fish, vegetables and other agricultural products. The challenge was as the Report put it: The New Town agenda was in line with what had been going on the past two decades all along the east of the city (both north and south), vast amount of wetland had been captured, filled in, and handed over to land dealers and promoters. New Town would aggravate the situation massively. Will the compensatory measures be able to compensate for the loss? Was this the way to break the poverty cycle? Would this not ruin the situation further? Who would gain and who would lose?


The project of the New Town is a commentary on post-colonial capitalism, the return of primitive accumulation, on the way space plays a critical role in transformation, and the receding of the colonial city in the history of accumulation with the accompanying emergence of the new town. In short Rajarhat is a saga of space, capital, and people in the vortex of globalised time.


Equally significant in this context is another set of figures that should remind us what was described in the previous paragraphs. In Rajarhat-Gopalpur municipality according to Census report the total number of workers in 2001 was 94,001; of them the number of main workers was 88,458, the number of marginal workers 5542. Cultivators were 580 in number, and agricultural wage labour 326, and household industry workers 1583 (rest are thus other workers – main and marginal both). In Rajarhat panchayat area, the corresponding figures were main workers 38,362, marginal workers 5556, cultivators 4261, agricultural labour 7217, and household industry workers 2519. Yet typically with all these, Rajarhat is like other parts of the district of North 24 Parganas, which has 68.46 per cent of its total land as cultivable area. But these are God’s numbers now caught at the centre of controversy over land acquisition in Rajarhat.


Rajarhat is not connected with Kolkata in any sense; it is connected with Sector 5 of the Salt Lake area, while being connected on another side with another notified area, the empire of BRADA (Bhangar Rajarhat Area Development Authority). Flanked by North 24 Parganas, the estuary region of Bhangar and Haroa in the South 24 Parganas, and Basanti, its real trade (daily, petty, and small) connection in terms of men, cash, vegetable market, etc. is with Baguihati, an unkempt dirty bazaar, bus stop and terminus, banking centre, eating place, cycle rickshaws, narrow lanes, hordes of day labourers waiting to be hired, and various kinds of sundry stalls – all rolled into one. The farmers, fishermen, vegetable growers and sellers, boatmen, and agricultural labour now robbed of livelihood – all roam around these marginal places, if they are not already serving the new comers of Rajarhat with domestic labour, transportation, vegetable supply, or serving tea and sundry Tiffin food. But those who work in the New Town (as the Jyoti Basu Nagar is called), in those malls, e-firms, hotels, other companies, or live in those high rises, have few reasons to visit Kolkata or these dirty marginal places. This new inner city supposed to produce urban wealth today is at once exterior to the city proper. It looks like a wasteland, combining virtual production with new types of consumption, symbolised by the mall, the City Centre of the North, or the giant building material depot. Interior to late twentieth century and early twenty first century mode of wealth production and therefore exterior to traditional wealth pattern of a city, Rajarhat represents simultaneously the virtuality of capital and reality of the primitive mode of accumulation – a utopia to financiers and speculators and a dystopia for urban imagination.


Architects are excited over Rajarhat New Town, like long idle military commanders getting excited over the prospect of waging a war, or an idle doctor finding finally a patient, or a manufacturer of weapons finally getting chance to display his/her weaponry. So the plan began with designing sectors and action areas. They were then busy in designing placements of traffic intersections, bus stands, new transport system, new markets, new malls, and remember all in their greenest form. Remember also in this context that Rajarhat, as the planners say, will soon become with the help of US technology the first zero-energy town in the country. Realtors follow architects’ dreams, at times the other way round. Therefore even though there are very few essential infrastructural facilities in the area (and we cannot expect architects becoming excited over the presence or absence of those facilities, which they will leave happily to town planners and municipal engineers), schools in New Town and BRADA areas must have more space, more designed buildings, and more amenities. Since the cost of developing land is relatively high in a new town, schools become business. These schools (for instance Delhi Public School) must be ‘ideal’ schools with huge open spaces, different playgrounds and halls, community grounds, etc., with of course different priorities for different types of schools – nursery, primary, and higher secondary. There will be ‘educational zones’ – with additional space for peak office hours and parking facility. There will be designated places for vocational and training institutions. There will be ‘hardly any scope of a university’ there, as the architect declares, the ‘traditional concept of university/college in a bigger land is hardly viable without government subsidy.’ But with other kinds of ‘skill-oriented units’, urban areas will become ‘engines of the development of rural hinterlands’. Effective planning on a regional scale will provide ‘appropriate preference and promotion of industries and commercial activities’. Generation of jobs will attract people from the rural surroundings for livelihood. In Kolkata, an architect declared, ‘Several New Townships are being developed. This is creating a major development impetus in the region. Namely New Town, Rajarhat has already been started its development. This will create enormous employment opportunities, which obviously would be a benefit for the rural surroundings and villages. The change of the livelihood from the primary sector to the secondary and tertiary sectors is getting very fast. In the near future the profile of the Kolkata Metropolitan Area obviously will change due to the development of those New Towns. The economic activities will be well decentralized if the development goes as per intention.’ The urban architect has to think also of the faster circulation of men, money, services, and commodities. So, HIDCO is now acquiring ‘smart buses’.


The point is: Is Rajarhat then the private game of capital, its own business to shape the world in its contemporary image, while the public character of the city becomes irrelevant in the history of urban imagination today? We may ask, is this difference between Kolkata and Rajarhat, their opposition, a structural one? Rajarhat will be what Kolkata is not? Or is it a matter of urban style only? Maybe, we can still consider Rajarhat as part of Kolkata and not beyond Kolkata. But in that case we must be ready to integrate the structural opposition between the utopia of a city and the dystopia of a wasteland within a narrative and explanatory framework that must go beyond a binary opposition. I have already said that Rajarhat suggests the unity of the most virtual form of capital accumulation and the primitive form. Eviction, threat, coercion, murder, gun running, and presence of bands of coolies from Murshidabad and Malda – these combine with shiny glass buildings, e-firms in the special economic zone, new health care facility built by the Tatas, new banks, gradual spread of ATM centres and this combination suggests the already happening breakdown of an integrated circuit of money, power, and capital into various segmented circuits; and it will be worth looking into the ways in which these local circuits of power feed into a bigger grid of capital. But merely stating this is not enough, the statement represents a problem or some problems. Let me mention here three problems.


Problem number one: If by the wild play of the architects, planners, and moneybags a space is destroyed and a new space comes up, how to apprehend that change and its long term consequences? How shall we study not simply the product (the new city), but the production, the process, the practice of producing a city, with all the hazards of contemporariness?


Problem number two: If the opposition between public and private, primitive and virtual, representation and void, city and periphery breaks down, what will be the new forms of collective action? After all, these binary oppositions had genuine social and historical context. Will they die down? Or will the contexts survive? In any case what will be the new public space, which was till now essential for public mobilisations and public actions?


Problem number three: What will be the authentic nature of the private in this new public society? The private pleasures that shape our consumption patterns, encourage new commodification, and new ways of arranging the space? If they cannot be separated out as independent elements in the designed place called Rajarhat, and the model it develops, where consumption will take place side by side of production, will there be any authentic private, except the new centres of public assemblage for ‘private’ consumption and pleasure?


In short Rajarhat beyond Kolkata disrupts the earlier pattern of the mutually constitutive relationship between space of accumulation of capital and the urbanity of democratic citizenship. In the immediate exclusion of one from the other, we may witness a new kind of realism in politics, possibly not desirable to our urban tastes. The spatial programme of the new town and by implication of the evolving new entity called Kolkata-New Town will demand new specifications about public action marking the new relation between capital and citizenship. It will take time to fill the empty fields of Rajarhat (a huge area of about 3100 hectares of land) in a planned way with houses, roads, streets, schools, people, office units, ‘green’ industries, shops and malls, water pipes, lanes, power and cable lines, etc, for much will depend on developers, land shirks, estate owners, software giants like WIPRO, INFOSYS, TATA Consultancy, etc., and the general state of the economy. The government stands penniless. The HIDCO has hardly any capital. All it has is the land looted from the local villagers, and now it has to sell them to private players to make the dream of public-private partnership successful. With no integral infrastructure of urban services in Rajarhat, the empty fields there (since 1998) represent in this scenario the death of agriculture with its subsidiary activities as a substantive occupation in Bengal, its murder by capital, savage commodification of land, and the resurgence of private property in city – private roads, private power generation equipment, private pleasure houses, private sources of drinking water, private schools, private villas, private housing estates with private guards, and the most private of all, private production units in the SEZs in Rajarhat-Sector V of Salt Lake. What will be the politics of anti-capital in this new spatial system of capital?


Where is then Rajarhat? The Rajarhat I am speaking of here is at once a real place – a block of territory, a municipality, a new town in the process of emergence, a scenario of destroyed farmlands – Rajarhat is also a trapped land, a ghost for urban planners, dream for many more such planners, and a collective name of an ensemble of places. Rajarhat is a surface, which is made of miles of wasteland, a destroyed top level of earth. This surface is made of filled-in ponds, other water bodies, pilfered and acquired what was previously tilled land, vegetable gardens and farms, wetlands, small villages and hamlets. But Rajarhat is also the depth of several relations figured in space. In contrast with the sentimental image of space evoked by the philosopher Gaston Bachelard in the phrase and account, the poetics of space, we must situate the politics of space, which will mould several subjectivities in a particular way. This particular way is variational as opposed to the constitutive way of the city.