Words by THE URBAN POPULAR ECONOMIES COLLECTIVE | 01 Aug 2021

Exploring and framing the “informal” alludes to spaces that refuse capture in the zeal for rationality, to fix meaning and thus value. Land has a reality that makes it difficult to measure, or, more precisely, becomes the object of so many different kinds of inadequate measures. The impossibility to “complete” the value of land, to remove it from a host of fluid meanings also implies the disruption, displacement and incompleteness of developmentalism. The presence of multiple logics and meanings of land are revealed in the transformation of property relations in North Bangalore’s highly contested territories, which reflect varied and conflictual state spaces. These include parastatal agencies like the metropolitan planning body, the Bangalore Development Authority—promoter of Arkavathy Layout, Asia’s largest housing project—and other public-private partnerships that attempt to spur newer configurations of elite capture, as evident in the city’s 83-acre special economic zone at Manyata Park. These sit uneasily with a vast repertoire of more “sacred” land practices and holdings.

The law includes claims to shape property via sacred territories. For example, the clan of Thingam, horticulturists introduced to the city by the colonial administration, regularly conduct ritual worship of the deity Draupadi, which entails an 11-day karaga procession beginning with a visit to the nearby temple, Dargah-e-Shariff, to create sacred territorial claims as an expansive space. These acts of spaciousness, marked through collective procession, are protected by law, which carve out the contiguity of highly discordant state spaces. While the chief patron of a temple, built in cement and bricks—which is connected to, but also autonomous of the city’s main Dharmaraya Temple—certainly has built a huge political constituency within Bangalore’s elected municipal and lower-level administration, his role is one of politician, patron to the local panchayat school, political worker to higher ups, landlord and small plot consolidator catering to lower and middle level real-estate markets.

Here, “peasant caste gowda” landowners (and even in many instances their local ministers) infiltrate and embed themselves as touts and brokers in this speculative terrain, able to appropriate a portion of de-notified lands otherwise to be acquired for state planned elite deals. Such entangled occupancies with their sacred games, glimpse a politics of power marked by opacity and fluid real-estate value, just as they also mark the practices of Bangalore’s largest real estate developers. It is hardly surprising that planners, middle-class civil society organisations and armchair academics across ideological positions, as well as many activists, see these mid-scale political operations as informal, unplanned, corrupt and insignificant. Land posed as multiple layers of often-contradictory meanings and uses suggests an impossibility of being captured in a single narrative, or perhaps at all. And when such impossibility relates to the spaces of urban majorities, vast areas of our city territories, of institutional realms, and an extensive and interconnected economy come to depend on an indeterminate fluidity that masks an intricate choreography of manoeuvres, negotiations, aspirations and accommodations.

This is a politics where residents are both worker and capitalist, home and factory, and an agent of the state, and where the centre becomes the margin. For most of us, this is a politics of our own lives and time, and refers to our often-guarded and less-talked conversations about entry into institutional spaces when we seek to build an extra roof protecting an extended terrace, upgrade an electrical connection to commercial metering, rent out space for a small fabrication workshop, or get a long-expired driver’s license renewed.