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he urban villages of Delhi “run on rent”: a social, economic, and political relation that Sushmita Pati describes in her compelling account of urbanization in Delhi, Properties of Rent: Community, Capital and Politics in Globalizing Delhi. For Pati, rent is the organizing concept and material relation that explains transformation in Delhi’s urban villages. Pati’s approach in the book is equally sophisticated and ambitious, as she sets her task of understanding rent as a sociospatial relation through ethnographic study. The result is a project that foregrounds how two critical “properties” of rent, control and collectivity, create the conditions of possibility for rent which structures Delhi’s urban frontier.
In the course of 295 pages and 9 Chapters, Pati covers in remarkable breadth and depth her research subject, the urban(izing) villages Munirka and Shahpur Jat in Delhi. To make the case for rent as central to understanding these places, the book begins by laying out the postcolonial history of Munirka and Shahpur Jat, which revolves around the process of Indian state-building, structured by land questions (Chapters 1 – 3). The land history is foundational to understanding the urban villages because the current state of social relations in them were patterned by previous land claims, which are based in complex social formations around caste, ethnicity, and familial ties (themselves profoundly reordered under colonialism). Fortunes in the postcolonial and the later neoliberal eras evolve from these landed origins, for example, as Pati describes castes and their subgroups like the Jats whose claims to agricultural land become revalorized as the state acquires land to incorporate into Delhi’s urban frontier. For rent to serve as the animating set of relations in the urban villages requires establishing new calculative devices, logic, and relationships in land. The transformation of agrarian land, valued for its inherent qualities, to urban real estate, valued relationally for its ability to yield payments, is pivotal to the whole endeavor.
Pati boldly avoids defining rent directly at the outset of the book and instead allows her investigations in Munirka and Shahpur Jat to do the work of filing in its meaning. Pati does, however, clearly assert that “control is central for rent” and “rent is an expression of collectivity” (2022, 234). The second half of the book focuses on these properties of rent, exploring how inherited social groupings based on caste, ethnicity, family, and regional origins evolve into different collectives of rentiers (Chapters 4 and 6). In Chapter 5 Pati shows how these rentiers capitalize on and deepen the “otherness” that supplies the differences on which hierarchy rests, and which serves as a strategy and material basis for extracting rent.
Like every good work of scholarship, Properties of Rent invites conversations beyond its pages. At a few points in the book, Pati opens the door to broader engagement with rent theory. In the introduction, she explains how David Harvey’s (1974) early work on rent analyzed it as “a social relationship located in the production of space through everyday practices” (18), as opposed to an abstracted and disembedded payment that is an “appendage to global finance capital” (18). Later on Pati suggests that “theories of gentrification and the rent gap theory may not be sufficient to explain our urban realities” (88). As Ghertner (2014) has persuasively argued, lifting gentrification theory from its provincial origins in Global North urban contexts (Chakrabarty, 2007) and uncritically dropping it into the Indian urban context is problematic precisely because of the different trajectory of urbanization in the postcolonial world. More specifically, Ghertner argues that rent gap theory has limited purchase in Indian cities because much of the urban land in the throes of redevelopment had not previously been a part of a real estate market and lacked formal, capitalized land prices or rents, therefore limiting the basis on which a “gap” might arise between the current capitalized rent and a higher future potential rent.
Properties of Rent makes clear that the process of land acquisition is pivotal for establishing the infrastructure of property commodification and valuation on which the rent gap turns. It is also a highly uneven process that includes what Pati refers to as “intentional mistranslation” (p. 48) that leads to ambiguous and conflicting claims that also present arbitrage opportunities. Indeed, at several critical junctures in the transformation of agrarian land into rent-yielding assets, new and sometimes vast sums are made. And as these real estate markets develop, landlords in Shahpur Jat, for example, engage in what Pati describes explicitly as gentrification, upgrading corridors of shops and residences to garner higher rents from new tenants. Is rent gap theory inapplicable and incapable of yielding insights into urbanization in the urban villages? Or, to “turn this logic on its head” (10), do the systems of control and collectives of extraction that Pati details suggest novel avenues for an expanding horizon of potential rents? The detailed empirical pathways of rent construction and extraction that Pati lays out stand to make wider contributions when brought to bear on provincial urban rent theory.
Additionally, Pati provides rich material for reworking class-monopoly rent, which Harvey and Chatterjee (1974) developed from careful examination of slum housing in Baltimore. Class-monopoly rent is, in the simplest terms, about the barriers that asset owners, like landlords, establish and maintain to manufacture scarcity and thus secure rent. Class-monopoly rent is therefore quite compatible with Pati’s preferred mode of analysis of rent as social relations. Indeed, Chapter 5 explains the varied social positions and identities along which hierarchies, and thus exclusions, can be maintained. The systematic winnowing of choice is a key mechanism in securing rent and leveraging increasing rental revenues. In the context of the urban villages scarcity is manufactured through the production of “others” who are undesirable and threaten the community, leaving few who are willing to rent to them. Therefore high rents can be commanded for housing “outsiders”. Finally, this leads us back to rethinking the rent gap in terms that are, to borrow a term from the book, “vernacular”. In Delhi’s urban villages potential rents can explode on the basis of exacerbating religious, regional, ethnic, caste, gender antagonisms and hierarchies. This could portend a dystopian rental future based in revanchism, where sociopathy and social paranoia are actually productive for rent.
Throughout the book, Pati distinguishes between “capital” and “rent”, and she is clear that it is the latter that is the driving force in the transformation of the urban villages. It’s a tall order to untangle the scramble that is capital and rent, and the chapters that unfurl the landed histories of Munirka and Shahpur Jat are inflected with both. In these places farmers become sellers of construction materials for a growing Delhi, who then become taxi and bus drivers, some of whom later become bureaucrats, who become landlords. Most of the residents of Munirka and Shahpur Jat do not have the means to reproduce themselves without access to land, and more specifically, land as an incoming-producing asset. And even then, prior land claims based in caste temper those prospects, exemplified by the emergent Dalit landowners who become a comparatively precarious landlord class due to their inherited disadvantage, including their control over the least desirable land. To borrow from Fraser (2014), can society really be rent all the way down? Or is rentierization, like commodification, too extractive, socially destructive, and precarity-inducing to become a totalizing institution? Is the urban frontier ever closed or is it continually and recursively reordered?
Finally, this dance of capital and rent cuts to the heart of questions about the origins and evolution of capitalism vis-à-vis other political economic orders. Properties of Rent demonstrates that there is no cleanly episodic transition between agrarian subsistence, postcolonial regimes, and urbanization, capital, and rent. Rather, land commodification and rent are not “imposed” from outside (Balakrishnan, 2021; Li, 2014) but are lived social relations, coexisting and shot through with preexisting social formations, traditions, and economic relations. Robinson (1983) argues that “capitalism was less a catastrophic revolution (negation) of feudalist social orders than the extension of these social relations into the larger tapestry of the modern world’s political and economic relations” (10). What Pati has done in Properties of Rent is to begin to sketch such an account of transformation for the Indian urban context. The inherited collectivities of the bhaichara, the panchayat, and the kunba are simultaneously inherited groupings from previous eras and modern rentier cartels. These collectives are tools, clearly capable of serving multiple purposes and suggesting the possibility of more emancipatory functions for them. On the other hand, the other property of rent, control, seems more fraught.
Balakrishnan S (2021) Narratives of Waste: The Fictions and Frictions of Land Commodification in Liberalizing India. In: Ghertner DA and Lake RW (eds) Land Fictions: The Commodification of Land in City and Country. Cornell University Press, pp.104–123.
Chakrabarty D (2007) Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton University Press.
Fraser N (2014) Can society be commodities all the way down? Post-Polanyian reflections on capitalist crisis. Economy and Society 43(4): 541–558. DOI: 10.1080/03085147.2014.898822.
Ghertner DA (2014) India’s Urban Revolution: Geographies of Displacement beyond Gentrification. Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space 46(7): 1554–1571.
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Harvey D and Chatterjee L (1974) Absolute Rent and the Structuring of Space By Governmental and Financial Institutions. Antipode 6(1): 22–36.
Li T (2014) Land’s End: Capitalist Relations on an Indigenous Frontier. Duke University Press.
Pati S (2022) Properties of Rent: Community, Capital and Politics in Globalising Delhi. Cambridge University Press.
Robinson CJ (1983) Black Marxism: The Making of The Black Radical Tradition. The University of North Carolina Press.
Benjamin F. Teresa studies the changing relationship between finance and cities. Rooted in a community-engaged approach that emphasizes democratic inquiry and distributed expertise, his research focuses on how financialization positions communities and planners to exercise control over the institutions that shape how cities change. By examining financialization as a process of urban transformation, Teresa’s research engages across multiple arenas including real estate development, housing, tax incentives, and urban education. Teresa is also the co-founder and co-director of the RVA Eviction Lab, a community-responsive research initiative that supports organizing efforts and policy change for housing stability.