Transition, an Empty Proposition?

Brett Neilson June 14, 2012

Giorgio Grappi

Brett Neilson and Sandro Mezzadra


Resistance to land grabs and accelerated urban expansion has been a hallmark of recent peasant struggles in West Bengal. One thinks of the conflicts that unfolded at Singur and Nandigram in 2006-2007 when peasant movements successfully blocked the West Bengal government’s acquisition of village and agricultural lands for the ‘public purpose’ of establishing an automobile factory in the first instance and a Special Economic Zone in the second. These struggles resounded loudly in Indian and West Bengali public life, igniting debates about primitive accumulation among Kolkata’s intellectual class and eventually contributing to the fall of the state’s longstanding Left Front government in May 2011. Elsewhere on Kolkata’s fringes, resistance to land acquisition has not been so successful. The huge area of land known as Rajarhat or New Town which sits to the city’s northeast is a barren monument to stalled peasant movements. Dotted by empty housing estates, shopping malls, special IT zones, ‘service villages’ inhabited by populations left without livelihoods, and vast stretches of arid land, Rajarhat is a site that has much to teach us about mobile styles of governing, transmutations of capital and labor, and the violent production of space that accompanies informational strategies of accumulation.

The Special Economic Zones (SEZ) that have multiplied their presence across the Indian subcontinent since the middle of the last decade join an array of spaces that are fundamental to the reorganization of labor forces, labor processes, and the social relation of capital well beyond the national scale. These spaces include Export Processing Zones, Free Trade Zones, new towns, IT hubs, freight highways, and industrial corridors. Understanding how these spaces connect to and disconnect from each other is crucial for assessing the saturated normative arrangements that pertain in them, their significance for sovereign and governmental powers, the logistical operations that link them to each other as well as into wider global circuits, and the various forms of labor, exploitation, and dispossession that they facilitate. Important factors in this regard are the competition between Indian states to attract direct foreign investments, the role of Development Commissioners and other administrative bodies in the governance of these spaces, the use of the Land Acquisition Act of 1894 to acquire the land for such developments as a ‘public purpose’, the displacement of peasant and sharecropper communities, intergovernmental agreements that facilitate vast infrastructure implementations, the assignation of differential citizenship rights and their role in the ‘precarization’ of the workforce, and the significance of ‘knowledge work’ and ‘virtual migration’ in the building up of these spaces. This is not the occasion to undertake a comprehensive survey of the postdevelopmental rescaling and respatialization of labor and production that has crossed the Indian subcontinent since the economic ‘reforms’ of 1991. Suffice it to say that there has been a persistence of unorganized and informal work, a reinforcement of the sexual division of labor, and a swelling in the ranks of internal migrant workers, particularly those who subsist at the point where the frontiers of capital impinge upon urban heartlands and fringes. In spaces such as Rajarhat, where the development of the urban fringe has abandoned industrial pretensions, these tendencies converge.


As a new town established on Kolkata’s fringes Rajarhat is not technically a SEZ. Although it contains a number of SEZs established for the IT and IT Enabled Services (ITES) sectors, it is rightly classified with the other new towns that have grown up along the edges of Indian metropolises: Navi Mumbai for Mumbai, Gurgaon for Delhi, and so on. In the late 1990s the development of Rajarhat was changed to the West Bengal Housing and Infrastructure Corporation (HIDCO), an administrative body set up and granted wide powers to acquire and sell land, install infrastructure, construct housing, supervise the building of commercial premises, and maintain the future city. To travel through Rajarhat today is to move through a barren landscape sparsely dotted by empty apartment blocks, which lack basic infrastructural supply such as water and electricity. These lonely monuments exist as the material shells of the financial investments of non-resident Indians. Also present in the landscape are shopping malls, private schools and hospitals, bus terminals, and office buildings occupied by IT/ITES firms.


Perhaps the most striking feature of Rajarhat is the desolation of this once lush and biodiverse farming and fishing area, the destruction of water sources, and the dryness of the land. Former peasants and sharecroppers have been forced to sell their land at supposed market prices, which were quickly exceeded by five or six fold in subsequent sales. Those who resisted usually met the force of local goons. Now many of them have been gathered into so-called ‘service villages’ where their current state of dispossession is preemptively figured as cheap labor for the middle-class communities who are yet to inhabit the new town’s residential towers. Some of these former peasants have redeployed themselves by setting up teashops and other makeshift tiffin stores to cater to the new IT workforces employed in the area. Others offer themselves for sundry labor tasks along the road everyday or have turned to prostitution or various forms of thuggery. Lacking the skills and know-how to participate in the construction of Rajarhat’s buildings and infrastructure, a task largely performed by mobile workforces coming from elsewhere in West Bengal, these are populations for whom transition is an empty proposition. The roads back to peasant cultivation and forward to industrial work are blocked. Their biographies do not follow the classical script of primitive accumulation.


To traverse the heterogeneous spaces of Rajarhat, from the IT SEZ to the teashop, the shopping mall to the ‘service village,’ or the drenched rice paddy to the empty apartment block, is not only to cross the borders separating labor regimes but also to negotiate the contours of postcolonial capitalism. The fragmentation and splintering of this space, as well as the multiple and indefinite borders that separate it from Kolkata proper and join it on one side to the Sector V IT Hub and on the other to the unkempt bazaar, eating place, and banking centre called Baguihati, far exceeds what Ernst Bloch in a famous text of 1932 called the ‘synchronicity of the non-synchronous’. Caught in the vortex of globalized time, Rajarhat is a densely bordered space where the very narrative that separates past from present modes of production is shattered. Devoid of peasant cultivation and never imagined as a site of industrial manufacture, this is a space where times, temporalities, and temporalizing practices can neither be arranged along a progressive line nor flattened on to the dead time of co-presence. How can we say that the IT/ITES firm in the SEZ and the teashop across the road from it exist in different stages of social and economic development when the workers in both are obliged to labor according to the rhythms of other time zones and thus inhabit spaces that stretch way beyond Rajarhat and indeed the subcontinent itself?


These patterns of stretching and connection have a significance that extends far beyond the chatter about global flows, cognitive capitalism and virtual migration. They force us to bring theoretical and political idioms that have been developed to analyze the spread of informational and knowledge-intensive forms of work and accumulation into contact with arguments about peasant dispossession, primitive accumulation and postcolonial capitalism. Equally, however, the inverse is true. Two prevalent areas of political and economic debate become stuck in an echo box and the patterns of resonance and dissonance are far from predictable.


Without doubt the prevalent means of analyzing the displacement of peasant and sharecropper communities affected by the new forms of informational and logistically driven capitalist developments in India makes recourse to the concept of ‘accumulation by dispossession’ introduced by David Harvey. While Harvey uses this phrase to indicate the continuation and proliferation of accumulation practices described as primitive or original by Marx, the debate on primitive accumulation has taken on particular twists and turns in the Indian context where the developments in Rajarhat and similar economic spaces have assumed center stage. Writing of primitive accumulation as what he calls the ‘immanent history of capital’, Kalyan Sanyal conceptualizes ‘capitalist development as a process that in its own course produces pre-capital’. At stake is a process of primitive accumulation that goes beyond the ‘narrative of transition’. Seeking to ‘inscribe the wasteland of the excluded into the narrative of capital’s coming into being’, Sanyal points to a scenario ‘in which direct producers are estranged from their means of production … but not all those who are dispossessed find a place in the system of capitalist production’. Primitive accumulation does not necessarily oblige the peasant to become a wage laborer. What allows such accumulation to continue is rather its governmental reversal. Under the sign of development and the dominant discourse about the necessity of growth, there is a global consensus that basic conditions of life should be provided to people everywhere and that those dispossessed of their means of labor should not be left without subsistence. Thus when national or local governments do not intervene, there are other states, international agencies, or non-governmental organizations that step in with governmental programs and measures that seek to meet the livelihood needs of the dispossessed, and, in so doing, enable the very continuation of primitive accumulation.


Partha Chatterjee extends this argument by relating it to the transformed structures of political power in India, including changes in the framework of class dominance, the state’s susceptibility to the political-moral sway of the middle classes, and the penetration of state and other governmental technologies into peasant communities. For Chatterjee, this enablement of primitive accumulation by its governmental reversal is a process played out in what he calls ‘political society,’ where peasants play an active role in agitating for their livelihood needs. In these negotiations, which often involve a ‘calculative, almost utilitarian use of violence,’ what peasants frequently invite ‘is for the state to declare their case an exception to the universally applicable rule.’ This makes ‘the governmental response to demands in political society … irreducibly political rather than merely administrative’. Referring to the techniques of ‘enlightened despotism’ that characterized British rule, he understands the governmental maintenance of processes of primitive accumulation precisely as the negotiation of exceptions to normal administrative processes crisscrossed both by the politics of dispossession and the politics of ‘the governed’.


The arguments of Sanyal and Chatterjee give us an analytical approach to the normative and governmental arrangements that penetrate into economic zones. What remains under- emphasized in this approach are the very spatial strategies employed in the ongoing processes of primitive accumulation and the conflictual and overlapping relations between normative regimes that not only crystallize in such zones but also exceed them. This means that the dispossession effected by these developments must always be analyzed in relation to the forms of exploitation they allow both within and beyond their borders, whether or not governmental initiatives that seek to assuage the effects of dispossession are effective. To put it in terms relevant to Rajarhat, peasant politics and the precarious state of IT/ITES workers must be understood with reference to each other. As Jamie Cross writes, the ‘most significant achievement of India’s new economic zones ... is to render visible and legitimize the conditions under which most economic activity in India already takes place’. The absence of regulation and protection for workers in the wider informal economy is laid bare in the zone where it is rendered as deregulation and flexibility. Seen from this perspective, the continuing processes of accumulation by dispossession must be analyzed in relation to ongoing processes of accumulation by exploitation as well as the normative governmental arrangements that articulate these accumulation strategies and the processes of the production of subjectivity they entail.