Words by | 14 Apr 2024

People learn to work the system—that is, they learn to get services, to find new ways of making or fabricating things, to locate social and political connections to stabilise the economy and places for day-to-day domestic life. They see settling remaining an active space: it is where such practices are done again and again, and by numerous people learning, copying and modifying from earlier ways, to consolidate these into commonplace social conventions. Consider three commonly held and inter-related fixing agendas that are all foundational to how we think about land:

Fixing land is to “rationalise”. Often framed as a ladder from customary to informal to complex tenancies to the purported clarity of public and private uses, the mission towards “clear” land titles aims to control unplanned development, make territory viable for flyovers, infrastructure corridors, special economic zones (SEZs), malls, gated housing complexes as “economic development” and also resettlement and rehabilitation of slums and unauthorised colonies as “social justice”. Digitization of land titles is now a massive programme. This implicates NGOs, as well as research and policy institutes across the political spectrum. Attempting to inscribe land with a singular value and meaning runs counter to a reality where these spaces move across owners and tenants, and into a mythology that shapes its future real estate. Anything that muddies such clarity to reveal land’s co-existent meanings—housing incorporating production units, expressways that encounter sacred sites, “messy” tenurial complexity that dilutes real-estate surpluses into tenants claiming occupancy rights—is available to be fixed.

Fixing public administration via “reforms”. Such reforms represent two interconnected realms. The first and more visible is for local governments to dutifully implement “new age development” that combines “public private partnerships” with social welfare directed toward re-habituating poorer groups posed as project affected people, or PAPs. The second is aimed at fixing certain territorial politics, where “patron clientelism” is seen to facilitate “land encroachment” via “vote bank” politics, which erodes development. Here, funds designated for “smart cities” get reworked by municipal procedures to service non-conforming settlements, and bureaucratic procedures lend credence to “mess”’ tenurial claims. The process is one of “fixing” the “fix”.

Fixing economy as a territorial politics. This opens up two interconnected realms. The first is a way of linking modernity and its remnants. This mission oscillates between efficient ways to land global capital intertwined with loftier intents of social justice through indulging the dormant seeds of entrepreneurialism via state enforced “clean” and bankable land titles, NGO-managed micro credits and, more recently, ideas of guaranteed urban public works. The second, less-positivist, dimension targets economies corroding large capital, small firm making non-branded products whose social contacts into mid-level bureaucracies fund patron clientelism through which encroached land disallows the bundling together of contiguous territories that policy has designated for SEZs, resulting in protracted legal deliberations.

Fixing remains a set of contested and conflictual spaces that are central to city politics as life spaces practiced by the majority. An economy of this majority lies deeply enmeshed with social connections to local government. When posed together with land, this space is substantive in urban territory across metros and small towns, across institutional spaces and practices and economic value addition and employment that opens massive skilling for youths with few other opportunities. Note that this has happened without any livelihood scheme provided by government or donor-heavy NGOs, and where “planning interventions” have proved almost always counter-productive.