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Frontier Urbanism

Urbanisation beyond Cities in South Asia

Shubhra Gururani ( teaches at the Department of Anthropology, York University, Toronto. Rajarshi Dasgupta ( teaches at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.


In her essay “Is There an Indian Urbanism?” historian Janaki Nair (2013: 42) asks,

Is India imprisoned in the older sociological categories that were laid out by Max Weber in his study of the medieval Western city, or can one theoretically account for the apparent regeneration of some historical features of Indian urbanism in the contemporary city?

In a similar spirit, this special issue turns its attention to contemporary South Asia and in acknowledging the shared colonial histories, predominantly agrarian context, and postcolonial developmentalist telos that have informed the political and economic planning of this region, asks if, in the current urban turn, we can discern patterns and pathways of urbanisation that can qualify as “South Asian urbanism or suburbanism.” If so, what are the postcolonial trajectories, actors, agents, discourses, and practices that shape the terrain of this expanded urbanisation and how do they depart from those that animate Eurocentric urban theory? Importantly, how can other landscapes of capitalist urbanisation produce a “new epistemology of the urban” in this political–economic conjuncture? (Brenner 2013)

South Asian Urbanisms

It is now commonplace to note that the future of the world is urban and in a matter of a few decades, by 2050, another 2.5 billion people will be added to the world’s urban population (United Nations 2015).Close to 90% of this urban growth will be concentrated in Asia and Africa, growing at the rate of 1.5% and 1.1% respectively, while developed economies of Europe and the Americas will grow at the rate of 0.4% each. The South Asian region is projected to be one of the fastest urbanising regions, currently home to more than 23% of the world’s population and at least 14% of its urban population. It has six of the world’s megacities—Bengaluru, Delhi, Dhaka, Karachi, Kolkata, and Mumbai, and almost four more in the making—Ahmedabad, Chennai, Hyderabad, and Lahore (Ellis and Roberts 2016).

It is amply clear amidst this massive transformation that the major expansion is not taking place in the cities but beyond the confines of municipal boundaries (World Bank 2013). Indeed, in South Asia—like much of the Global South—it is the agrarian hinterland, the so-called urban peripheries, which have witnessed the most dramatic changes. Attentive to this expanded urbanisation and in conversation with debates on “subaltern urbanism” (Roy 2011), “subaltern urbanization” (Denis et al 2012), and “greenfield development” (Kennedy and Sood 2016), this special issue expressly moves beyond the city landscape and focuses on the changing agrarian dynamics, namely of land and livelihoods, in the peripheries of Karachi, Kathmandu, Kolkata, Mumbai, and New Delhi.1

Engaging the complex entanglements of urban and agrarian, through ethnographic and archival research, the papers in this issue pursue the conversation forged as part of a major research initiative on Global Suburbanisms housed in York University, Canada.2 Given the ecological and geographic diversity of the region, the papers adopt an expansive definition of “agrarian,” covering diverse livelihoods including fishing and pastoralism, and highlight the centrality of land in extended urbanisation. By tracking the messy and highly contested processes of conversion, acquisition, and privatisation of agricultural land, the papers argue that it is the changing agrarian dynamics that set South Asian urbanisation apart from the dominant modes of suburbanisms and suburbanisation in the Global North.

The land question is, of course, hardly new and has been at the heart of agrarian studies’ debates and more recently, filling up journals like Journal of Agrarian Change, Journal of Peasant Studies, as well as Economic & Political Weekly. In urban studies, however, especially when focused on the Global North, the question of land, until recently, has not been taken seriously. To generate a new epistemology of the urban, then, as studies from India, Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh show, a critical engagement with the land question becomes essential for understanding urbanisation in most of the world. Towards this end, the special issue calls for conceptually building a rapprochement between urban studies and agrarian studies so as to fully grasp the uneven and contested geography of urbanism characterising this region and the Global South more generally.

In order to capture the heterogeneous politics of land, we identify the feverish non-metrocentric remapping of the urban–agrarian hinterland that is taking place in South Asia as “frontier urbanism.” We find the spatial category of “frontier” generative, as it conjures a volatile and active landscape, caught in a vortex of change, a place full of potential but also of perils. It is, we argue below, simultaneously inside and outside of the regimes of capitalist accumulation. According to Anna Tsing (2005), frontiers are particular kinds of edges or interstitial spaces that are

made by collaborations among legitimate and illegitimate partners ... They confuse boundaries of law and theft, governance and violence, use and destruction. These confusions change the rules and thus, enable extravagant new economies of profit—as well as loss. (pp 27–28)

The agrarian–urban edges are exactly such spaces—grey zones often treated as if they are terra nullius by planners, developers, politicians, and new residents, as spaces without a history of use or dwelling, or as sites where the place and its people are deemed backward, village-like, and should be urbanised, disciplined, and recruited into productive regimes of economic growth and development (Kennedy and Sood 2016). In this conjuncture, we focus on such frontiers to tell a story of how new geographies of capitalist accumulation are spatially fixed and how the relentless negotiations, speculations, contestations, displacements, and dispossessions produce new urban subjects and social formations.

We recognise that the categories of urban and rural/agrarian are not straightforward.3 Despite a great deal of traffic between them, blurring categorical separation, they are not only firmly entrenched but continue to serve administrative and political tools to govern people, places, and resources. Regardless of the clichéd rural–urban continuum, we find that the rural does not just continue into the urban or that the urban just meets and encompasses the rural but that the agrarian and the urban are materially and symbolically co-produced. Notwithstanding their fluidity, as former pastoralists, fishers, indigenous groups, and agriculturalists, willingly or by force, give up their land, long-held practices of work, livelihood, kinship and social relations, we note that these socio-spatial categories shape the intensely contested politics of real estate, land, and infrastructure and configure a highly unequal and tense social–political landscape of access, inclusion, and displacement.

Moving beyond the City

In recent years, partly in response to extensive urbanisation and the awaited “urban age,” and in part inspired by Henri Lefebvre’s The Urban Revolution (1970/2003), there is a renewed interest in the rural–urban, peri-urban, or the suburban question. A growing body of writing has taken inspiration from Lefebvre’s call to turn the analytical gaze away from the urban form to urban processes and has put forward an ambitious research agenda of “planetary urbanization”4 (Brenner 2013; Brenner and Schmid 2014, 2015; Hamel and Keil 2015; Keil 2018; Merrifield 2012). While these formulations have been generative, critics have underlined how the claims to planetary urbanisation are all-encompassing and how they flatten the complex sociopolitical terrain and dilute, if not obscure, the constitutive outsides like the rural and agrarian that make the urban, especially in the Global South (Buckley and Strauss 2016; Roy 2016).

Lefebvre’s theorisations and most writings in a similar vein are anchored in the Euro–American history and experience of industrialisation, where agrarian relations have been incorporated in industrial agriculture and in fact, entered the post-industrial phase. But, Europe’s history as we know is a regional story, and the analytical frameworks emerging from that historical experience have a limited purchase for rest of the world. In the postcolonial contexts of Asia and Africa, amidst a colonial legacy of land regulation and classification and a history of partial industrialisation, the agrarian dynamics is not only thoroughly entangled with and constitutive of the urban but the logics of agrarian social relations and developmentalism are central to the ebbs and flows of urbanisation. In order to understand the landscape of urbanising South Asia, it becomes critical, as Gururani has argued elsewhere, that we not only locate “cities in a world of cities” (Robinson 2011) but also locate “cities in a world of villages” (Gururani forthcoming), so that we can begin to get a grip of the grounded processes that are transforming the agrarian–urban terrain.

The reluctance to deal with the agrarian is related to urban theory’s fixation with the city as a place and a thing. Terry McGee (1971) pointed out in the 1970s that urban theory is “city-dominated,” and he along with Janet Abu-Lughod (1964) urged us to focus on the processes of urbanisation rather than the city. The city-centrism in part has to do, as several postcolonial critics have pointed out (Roy 2009; Robinson 2011; Simone 2004; Yiftachel 2009), with the regional context of urban theory and the academic comfort zones that frame the analyses based on the experiences of cities, that too of the Global North. However, scholars working on the Global South, mostly anthropologists and geographers, have engaged with both the city and the processes of urbanisation. For example, William Mangin (1970), A M Shah (2012), J Clyde Mitchell (1969), Stillman Bradfield (1973), and Robert Redfield and Milton Singer (1954) were engaged since the 1960s in producing ethnographies that addressed how urbanisation impacted rural hinterlands and rural migrants in the city. Yet, the anthropology of urbanisation in the Global South, until recently, was limited to small circles like area studies and hardly contributed to urban theory, which drew on ethnographic examples and case studies of “other” places as descriptive fodder but not as epistemic interventions that could inform the terms of its own conceptual frames of reference.

More recently, Angelo and Wachsmuth (2014: 6) have argued that most urban political ecology studies focus on the traditional city, and that what is outside the city—there is silence. Not only is there silence about the non-city, but also confusion about what is the city and what is urbanisation, and the two are often used interchangeably. They define this obsession with the city as “methodological cityism.” In order to realise the potential of Lefebvre’s thesis and “dislodge the city from its current role,” they offer two correctives,

(first) to show how urbanization produces, materially or representationally, spaces understood as urban or rural, or materials understood as natural or social … (and second) to more rigorously interrogate its global uneven development, tracing features of the urban world across the planet and integrating those that rarely if ever appear in cities. (Angelo and Wachsmuth 2014: 10)

While these interventions make a strong case for tracking the multi-scalar and transnational processes of urban transformations that move beyond the city, as Shubhra Gururani (forthcoming) has argued, they fall short of fully exploring how the granular dynamics of their “non-city” counterparts such as the “countryside,” “wilderness,” and “nature” would look like in a global context. Even though Angelo and Wachsmuth (2014) are sympathetic to postcolonial critique, they do not engage with the agrarian question, which we suggest here is central to the urban question in the Global South. Given that urbanisation is unfolding in predominantly agricultural societies and is anchored by agrarian, social, political, and ecological relations, it is necessary that as we go planetary, we do not skirt around the agrarian question. In most of the world, the urban question is the agrarian question, and therefore essential that as we revisit the annals of urban theory and interrogate transnational linkages between cities, to situate the urban in local agrarian histories and politics, and examine ethnographically if and how societies become completely urbanised or not (Goonewardena 2014; Roy 2016; Gururani forthcoming).

Agrarian–Urban Frontiers

The urban and agrarian are entangled in multiple ways, a social–spatial relationship made palpable by those who live, work, and navigate this changing landscape. As all the papers show, these frontiers are made up of dispossessed peasants, displaced migrants, and poor tenants, who battle for space with new middle- and upper-class housing enclaves, shopping malls, office towers, and infrastructure corridors. They must share these frontiers with flexible state functionaries, local intermediaries and landlords, rent extractors and land speculators, petty entrepreneurs and real estate agents. Many are caught in the middle of rapidly-changing livelihoods and aspirations, between value extraction and appropriation. They are, as Nausheen H Anwar (p 46) memorably describes, “the ‘in-between’; those whose political subjectivities and constituencies never stabilise but remain tentative and porous.”

Anwar’s description resonates with Rajarshi Dasgupta’s fieldwork experience, as part of the Global Suburbanisms project, of the frontier and its population in Dhaka, especially urbanisation taking place in Bosila to the west. The process entails, as other papers corroborate, large-scale acquisition of farming lands, where cultivation has taken place in 2017 for the last time. Unlike other suburbs like Uttara or Purbachal, which are planned by the government, Bosila is growing in an unplanned manner, riding on a wave of real estate boom and extensive land acquisition. In this rapidly transforming landscape, one can see rows of signboards announcing new towns and housing in the middle of agricultural fields and in the middle of big waterbodies, canals and marshes—some with boats still plying in them. One can materially and symbolically witness the co-production of the urban and rural here, the frontier of agrarian and the Dhaka of tomorrow. Big pipelines stand imposingly in this landscape, meant for dredging sand from riverbeds and pumping it into farms and marshes at an industrial scale, “developing” the land and changing its use overnight.

The local population in these areas is undergoing dramatic livelihood changes. A large number of boatmen and fishermen are forced to give up trade since the Bosila Bridge has made the river redundant. Small farmers are joining the ranks, mostly low caste Hindus, who used to cultivate plots along the river that are being converted for non-agricultural purposes. They must now find work in brick kilns or garment factories, as construction labour or security guards or neighbourhood grocers or rickshaw pullers. A few are able to service and rent out housing to a growing number of migrants, students and youth that increasingly commute to Dhaka from the periphery. However, such transformations in Dhaka’s agrarian–urban frontier oddly exclude a fairly large pocket and its people—the neighbourhood area of Mohammadpur. Housing more than a million-strong population of Bihari Muslims, this area was frozen in the 1970s when it was set up as a refugee camp in the wake of Bangladesh. This population’s support for the Pakistan regime not only cast them outside urbanisation, it also created a large chunk of land outside the real estate and accumulation regime.

The papers in this issue chart this variegated frontier and try to capture the multiple textures of the local and trans-local, where micro and macroeconomies cohabit and co-produce the agrarian–urban terrain. Sai Balakrishnan (p 55) and Anwar draw attention to the role of agrarian propertied classes, and how caste and ethnic alliances drive the transformation in the urban frontiers of Mumbai and Karachi, respectively. Balakrishnan compares the messy land transactions in the private Lavasa City as well as the Adarsh Cooperative Housing Society built for war heroes and war widows of the 1999 Kargil War between India and Pakistan. She describes how agrarian elites enter city real estate markets while city-based firms enter agricultural land markets, and their emerging relations can explain the “new political economy of urbanisation that subsumes within it processes of agrarian change.”

In comparable ways, Anwar draws attention to how multiple mediations and relationships between different groups and with the state are constitutive of frontier urbanism. She traces the social geography of small-scale residential schemes that spatially fix capital in the peripheries and propel urbanisation of rural land in Karachi’s agrarian–urban frontier. According to Anwar, such transformation can be understood as “value struggles” that rely on strategies of enclosure, accumulation by dispossession, and “value grabbing” or the appropriation and distribution of (surplus) value through rent between diverse state and private actors. In this intensely political process of opening rural land to market-led urbanisation, Anwar insists that we not lose sight of the role of the state, which forges alliances with varied groups and makes land available for capital.

In his discussion of Kathmandu’s agrarian–urban transformation, Andrew Nelson (p 61) focuses on the figure of the land broker, the dalal, who is more than an intermediary, negotiating links between landowners, migrant settlers, state, and market, and effectively configuring the urbanisation of the agrarian periphery. Specifically, Andrew’s ethnography draws attention to the rules of land brokering that are sedimented in agrarian conditions and cultural logics that have not only enabled the dalals to lead land conversions but in which the dalals have also become key conduits who summon the market as well as the state to these frontier lands.

Malini Krishnankutty’s (p 68) paper tracks the changes taking place in Panvel, Mumbai from a planner’s perspective. She highlights the fragmentary and uncoordinated nature of planning, which she argues is biased towards the urban. More importantly, although it may appear that there is comprehensive planning in Mumbai, Krishnankutty shows how the knowledge and expertise of planners is systematically marginalised on the ground. Instead, the dictates of what she identifies as “sovereign planning” that is led by the administrative–political leadership shapes the processes and practices of remapping the urban on the ground.

Along similar lines, Shruti Dubey (p 76) looks at the hybrid geographies of urban and rural that share the urban–rural edge, and documents the ways in which agrarian relations overlap with the urban and how they co-constitute each other in the peripheries of Delhi. Gayatri A Menon’s (p 85) paper on Mumbai and Himadri Chatterjee’s (p 93) on Kolkata turn their attention on the urban–agrarian subjects—the pavement dwellers and the refugees, respectively, who traverse the urban–rural divide and examine the entrenched pathways that entangle the urban with the rural, especially when the transformation is framed in terms of livelihoods and population. All these papers individually and collectively not only reveal the complex dynamics of social and spatial change but they also offer an analytical entry point to make sense of urbanisation in South Asia.

The discussions unfolding here have a strong resonance with certain other debates, for instance, the debate about the transition from tradition to modernity in the subcontinent. However, what remains most immediate and relevant to our discussion is the one on primitive accumulation in the postcolonial context, with regard to the nature of capitalism and urbanisation in South Asia, especially in the neo-liberal period. In conversation with David Harvey’s (2004) thesis of accumulation by dispossession, some of the papers in this issue make important contributions to the debate on accumulation and dispossession.

The new zones of exception created through land acquisition and their conversion into housing enclaves, as analysed by Sai Balakrishnan in Mumbai, and slum colonies for rent in Delhi, as explored by Shruti Dubey, along with the study of pavement dwellers displaced from Maharashtra villages by Gayatri Menon directly speak to primitive accumulation. Himadri Chatterjee’s work on the quiet yet violent urbanisation of a low-caste refugee village in Kolkata also offers a new perspective on the process, where a long-standing marginal population struggles against itself to convert the local land for real estate in the periphery. Moreover, the accumulation by dispossession thesis receives a new energy and critical breadth in the layered account of value struggle and value-grabbing by Anwar that underlines the crucial role of rent—intersecting with a number of other studies.

The papers show that there are important ways in which primitive accumulation sheds important light on the problem of urban or rural as categories that follow from “city-centrism.” Besides the direction charted by Harvey, there are certain reformulations of Marx’s thesis, offered in the postcolonial context, for instance, by Kalyan Sanyal (2007). Space does not permit a fuller discussion of these debates here but Sanyal’s argument effectively runs counter to Harvey’s. To state it simply, he argues that the process of capitalist accumulation is different in South Asia from the classic context whereby the state reverses the effect of primitive accumulation, which creates an “outside” of non-capital in the shape of a “need economy.” Debates following the argument push further if any such “outside” can exist in the formal sense or whether it is part of capital’s real subsumption (Chatterjee 2008; Nigam 2014).

The “outside” and “inside” of capital debate carries important implications for thinking about the agrarian–urban frontier, where widely different economies, livelihoods and forms of sociability as well as modes of political strategies shape disparate kinds of social formations. The critical transformation of land often aligns with rapid changes in the individual location, subjectivities and capabilities, assets and occupations, obligations and entitlements, contacts and networks, redistributing them on the inside–outside axis, which habitually maps on to the rural–urban divide. The urban–rural axis has a determinate and teleological direction especially in the developmental and perhaps much of academic imagination across the disciplinary spectrum but as Chakrabarti et al (2017) have recently argued, it is critical to rethink primitive accumulation in ways that do away with teleological determination of the inside–outside dualism that otherwise haunts the rural–urban question.


For our purposes, the debates on the inside and outside of capital, a focus on the land question, and the critical engagement between urban and agrarian studies offer a generative opening to trouble the temporal difference between the rural and urban, and to start thinking of the urban and agrarian as being co-produced. In the place of a methodological city-centrism, the papers in this issue show how we can not only decentre the city but also recentre the agrarian in a way that theoretically transforms both in the process. The dynamics of frontier urbanism in this sense not only speaks of the distinctive characteristics of urbanisation in the subcontinent but it
also ethnographically showcases the entangled relationship between the outside and inside of capital that can most productively be explored through the twin lenses of agrarian and urban studies.


1 For a comparable account, see Michael Goldman (2011) and Malini Ranganathan (2014) for Bengaluru, and Coelho and Vijayabaskar (2014) for Chennai.

2 Global Suburbanisms: Governance, Land and Infrastructure in the 21st Century housed in York University, Toronto ( Papers by Menon, Nelson, Krishnankutti, Dubey, and Chatterjee were presented at the “Frontier Urbanism: Tracking Transformation in Agrarian–Urban Hinterlands of South Asia,” workshop held in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, February 2017.

3 See K C Pradhan (2013) for India and Akbar S Zaidi (2017) for Pakistan.

4 According to this scholarship “planetary urbanisation means, paradoxically, that even spaces that lie well beyond the traditional city cores and suburban peripheries—from transoceanic shipping lanes, transcontinental highway and railway networks, and worldwide communications infrastructures to alpine and coastal tourist enclaves, “nature” parks, offshore financial centres, agro-industrial catchment zones and erstwhile “natural” spaces such as the world’s oceans, deserts, jungles, mountain ranges, tundra, and atmosphere—have become integral parts of the worldwide urban fabric” (Brenner 2013: 13).


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Updated On : 23rd Mar, 2018


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