Saikat Maitra: In the Shadow of the New Town – Urbanity, Marginality and Environmental Justice in Rajarhat
My article explores how an infrastructural project for a massive urbanization scheme in the Indian province of West Bengal impacted forms of socialities accruing around the land ear-marked for development. From the early 1990s, urban regeneration programs for the city of Kolkata in West Bengal identified the adjoining region of Rajarhat as a green-field site suitable for constructing a ‘world- city’ from scratch. Rajarhat’s expansive wetland ecology, which sustained a thriving agrarian economy, was characterized as an unproductive ‘pre-modern’ environment that could be easily converted through capital investments in urban infrastructural development. The process of urbanization and the consequent decimation of the wetlands through the construction of infrastructures like roads, power-grids, sewage pipelines and buildings have transformed the former farmers of Rajarhat into environmental refugees wracked by poverty, ground water contamination and the loss of cultivable lands for economic sustenance. Rajarhat, however, still awaits the miracle of urban development to morph itself into the promised world-city, despite the degradation of the wetlands or the pauperization of the marginal farmers. The collapse of the housing market in the region over the last decade has effectively transmogrified Rajarhat’s world-city fantasies into an apocalypse of capital flight. Acres of dilapidated shells of high-rise condominiums interspersed with derelict shanties of landless peasants stand as the material traces of an encounter between speculative capital, urban infrastructures and wetland ecologies reaching a gridlock in contemporary Rajarhat. The tattered landscape of contemporary Rajarhat signifies the internal contradictions of speculative neo-liberal capital in India today – promising ‘world-class’ urban infrastructures while actually delivering ecological, social and economic ruination. Thus my research explores how massive infrastructural projects can end up producing unanticipated blockages and impasses, rather than substantiating contemporary India’s fantasies for smoothly flowing global cities. Through ethnographic research, I, moreover, suggest how the experiences of dispossession, intrusive infrastructural development and economic precariousness is now enabling political mobilization by affected farming communities in Rajarhat for demanding the termination of the urbanization project and the restitution of the available land for re-cultivation.
Saikat Maitra is an Assistant Professor on contract in the Public Policy and Management Group in the Indian Institute of Management – Calcutta in India. Prior to joining his current institution, Saikat was a postdoctoral fellow in the Centre for Modern Indian Studies (CeMIS) at the University of Goettingen in Germany. He obtained his PhD in Cultural Anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin in the USA. He is currently finishing his ethnographic monograph on the connection between various forms of dispossession and the fashioning of a post-industrial labor subjectivity amongst underclass urban youth populations in contemporary India. Saikat’s primary research interests are in anthropology of labor, urban studies and postcolonial theories.