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Analogue to Digital: Re-Living Big Business's Nightmare in New Hydras
by Solomon Benjamin (IN)

Either poverty must lose the fear of property, or property in fear of poverty will destroy democracy[1]

If the ‘south’ and particularly their cities experience much higher growth rates than those in the ‘north’, has Int. capital reconstituted itself to invest and gain from these locations? Since real estate in cities of the South and retail provides one of the highest returns, how is land and its connected institutions sought to be framed to facilitate such extraction?

This essay suggests that corporate led globalisation in rooting itself in cities of the south, faces un-expected confrontation in what they see as a new ‘Hydra’. What seemed like ‘messy, under-developed third world’ environments (Figure 1: Sundramma’s house) turned out to be increasingly beyond planning, assuming a life force of its own and subverting a global ideal.

I borrow the term Hydra from two kinds of sources. The first use can be found in ‘English media press’ among the elite to describe three situations: an extensive and un-controllable underground economy; a messy, chaotic and corrupt city hall centred politics and bureaucracy; an all-pervasive un-authorized, non-conforming, un-planned, cancer like slumming process which rapidly edges out ordered city growth and subverts Master Planning. My second source is the use of the term by Linebaugh and Rediker to describe the quest for alternatives in 16-18th Century Europe and the Americas.[2] They show how a ‘motley’ bunch of sea farers, slaves, convicts in being banished seek out alternatives to define conceptions of property, and a way of life, and in doing so, termed a ‘hydra’ to threaten establishment.

Today I see at least three aspects of the Hydra transforming what we know of ‘property’, ‘democracy’, and the conceptually flawed trilogy ‘the Nation State-Market-civil society’. The New Hydras are severely threatening in being shadows and stealth-like structures, capable of eroding the ‘self’. In breaking down binaries, they encroach on other binary/dualistic based conceptions.

The new Hydras encroach on ‘property’ and the economy: Perhaps on the most structural level, the Hydra transforms notions of property. While located in seemingly mainstream notions of property, these are encroached upon in the forms of multiple tenures and claims that make centralized control and surplus extraction increasingly impossible (see figure 1-A: Street side Hydras). What emerges instead is a complex of networked bazaar like small firm clusters. Thus emerging diversity of tenure underpins and is at the same time shaped by an increasingly sophisticated economy. This comes at a time when globally connected big business (with the highest levels of government policy making and legislative apparatus at their side) promote digital forms of land title recording and a range of financial and institutional architecture to reinforce exclusive property regimes (see Figure 2: global-local networks in IT Campus development).

Globally connected Financial Institutions, in partnership with a range of other players, invest in urban designed IT campus developments in cities like Bangalore, Delhi, Bombay and Hyderabad with excellent profits. A particular financial architecture around ‘Special Project Vehicles’ (SPVs), and mechanisms such as Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) facilitates urban renewal of central city areas and also makes high returns to International capital possible. Real estate profits accrue from a play of ‘digital titles’ intended for online trading. The World Bank in partnership with India’s largest private banks invest $ 1000 m in e-governance, and in particular, computerized land titles. The digitisation of 20 million land records by the Goverment of Karnataka designated as a World Bank ‘Best practice’, reducing 1500 forms of land tenure to 256! This has allowed very large real estate companies catering to the IT industry to access land Bangalore, resulting in dramatic changes in land markets. An extension of the concept is a GIS based digitising of titles in 57 towns and secondary cities financed by the Asian Development Bank with back office support by the personal funds of the CEO of India’s largest IT company.

Contest comes from a Hydra secured by diverse tenure regimes inherent within the ‘occupation and settlement’ process built around de-facto titles. In some parts, customary tenure forms a further block against this modernization ideal. These underpin incrementally developing small-scale land developments that house mixed land use as well as manufacturing and bazaar areas. The Hydra’s support comes from ‘regularization’ of occupied land and improvement of basic infrastructure by municipal councils. The latter’s gains are revenue and political clout, actions which strengthen and spur diverse tenure regimes.

Such de-facto landscapes, highly agile and transformative of local society in economy and politics, come into being where information shaping the market of land is driven by the potential of change: of inter-connected home based manufacturing and of municipal upgrading of basic infrastructure, both actions which increase efficiency and by way of settlement, new social connections.

The new Hydras encroach on democracy: Linebaugh re-enters our world when we see the location of fluid de-facto property being located in a building block of mainstream ‘democracy’: municipal politics. Not only are political party structures increasingly authoritarian but they are today susceptible to ‘capture’ by globally empowered and invested big business. Not surprisingly, this also makes space for those city builders enamoured with the mega and the large - seeming ways to make cities globally competitive! For this range of actors - the business, bureaucratic and political elite - what is deeply threatening is the opaqueness of municipal politics and its driving political economy of small business. Hardly conducive to centralized control, it is little wonder that national headquarters of political parties and their appointed provincial chiefs, backed by elite ‘civil society’ and the World Bank, press for ‘transparency and accountability’ reforms aimed at local government. Little on corporate accountability though! The response of the Hydra here is municipal democracy. However, in a situation of polarized power structures, such a democracy relies on stealth, on internal bureaucratic conventions, and interventions accentuating multiple forms of tenure to reinforce political and economic constituency.

The new Hydra encroaches on city building: the Hydra, located in municipal government and rooted in the materiality of land, location and economy, anchors the day-to-day process of city building. This process contrasts conceptions of city building located in the conceptual framework of the ‘nation state’ or then the ‘market’. In these latter conceptions, the driving force is of the grand plan: one posed for equity and the other posed for efficiency. Either extreme poses centralized controls bound to break down when we consider local narratives of how areas come into being and those of wider city transformation. As urban terrain turns increasingly contested and conflict ridden, the distinction between normative planning and politics sets the stage to introduce the concept of ‘civil society’. Perhaps this is posed to strengthen the binary with a replacement of a trilogy of the ‘nation state-market - civil society’. Closer inspections of ‘civil society’ turn out to be little other than elite congregations.

New institutional and legal framework for mega land acquisition makes available huge tracts of land in Bangalore’s periphery to construct IT campuses. In central city areas, urban renewal focused SPVs and TDRs open up space for Malls and Multiplexes designed over huge urban territory. Little wonder that the CEOs of India’s largest real estate firms and globally connected Financial Institutions press the central government to implement such frameworks in the more globally connected cities, posing these as a pre-requisite for ‘global competitiveness’. Many of the changes came about under the new governance model of the Bangalore Agenda Task Force (BATF) - headed by the city’s IT honchos supported by the then Chief Minister. Seen as a ‘supply side’ reform, they also framed the ‘citizen-centric’ Jannagraha and PROOF (a citizens campaign to promote transparency and accountability in local government)as the ‘demand side’. The head of Bangalore’s and now India’s famous ‘civil society movement’ makes an ardent plea for framing of digital rather than analogue land titles. Contest comes from the Hydra of municipal councils across party lines, the lower bureaucracy, and poorer residents resisting attempts to impose fines and increased user charges. The Hydra’s support in municipal democracy is critical. Local councils encourage occupation and extension of village and town areas. In central city areas, older forms of municipal licensing and tenancy payments help establish claims. The Hydra’s support: Municipal councils’ ‘messy’ and opaque politics and administrative procedures.

These, not surprisingly, take on the responsibility to address what has been discussed before: A de-generative cancer-like politics afflicting cities like a Hydra. The imaginary of the global city is powerfully seductive to a variety of groups driven by various interests. For many within ‘civil society’, the way forward is for land management to be framed in digital records, GIS based online monitoring ‘un-authorized hawkers’ and non-conforming land use, and reigning in the politics within Municipal Government via the agenda of ‘transparency and accountability’. Central also are attempts to increase high-level bureaucratic control over elected municipal government via city commissioners and ‘citizen charters’. City building becomes strangely conflictual over control of territory, amalgamation into super large complexes of Malls and Multiplexes. These mega complexes are partnerships of administrator led Municipal Government and big business. Most important in ways to contain the Hydra, they combine newer legal and regulatory structures that not just provide access to cheap institutional finance, but dissolve claims over location to emphasize corporate control. The bustling bazaars selling look-a-likes and also other daily consumption goods helps a counter encroachment to root. In doing so, reinforcing the Hydra to carve out autonomous political and economic space.

Cities as locations of the Hydra pose the question of hybridity of property central to its politics and economy. Hybridity also seems central to help understand contemporary forms of globalisation, and move away from conceptually defunct binaries. Such hybridity of property gives globalising cities like Bangalore particular distinctions.

[1] Peter Linebaugh, Public Lecture at “Contested Commons/Trespassing Publics: A Conference on Inequalities, Conflicts and Intellectual Property” 6th - 8th January 2005 in New Delhi, India. Sarai/CSDS /Alternative Law Forum

[2] Linebaugh P., Rediker M., The Many-Headed Hydra Verso New York 2000

Solly Benjamin is an independent researcher operating out of Bangalore and also part of a recently group called CASUMm. He has been looking at issues of urbanism, its politics, economy, and issues of land.

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