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n a rich and growing body of scholarship on urbanization in the global South, Sushmita Pati’s Properties of Rent makes a critical intervention by centring rent as one of the key analytics for understanding India’s changing urban fabric. By meticulously weaving together a range of debates from agrarian history, urban studies, planning, and anthropology, Properties of Rent offers a grounded analysis of how familiar and unfamiliar circuits of capital, value, and community come to coalesce around rent and in turn, contour the social and political geography of the city. In tracing the many lives of rent, and how it consolidates relations of caste, sutures different communities, creates friction, and fosters aspirations and entrepreneurship, Pati argues that ‘rent is the essential puzzle that needs to be cracked open if urbanisms of the Global South have to be understood’ (11). By focusing on the complex and situated political economy of rent, Pati widens the analytical scope of inquiry and moves the analyses of urban transformation beyond the standard narratives of dispossession, neoliberalism, globalization, and planetary urbanization. The rich ethnographical narrative transports the reader to the alleys and ‘offices’ of urban villages and, through clearly written and engaging prose, elucidates how multiple registers of value, vernacular capital, work, belonging, and politics articulate in urbanizing frontiers. Properties is a tour de force for scholars interested in cities, urbanization, migration, housing, land, and property, but it promises to be equally engaging for Delhi's denizens who navigate the uneven landscape of housing, informality, citizenship, and belonging.
Properties of Rent focuses on urban villages that dot Delhi’s landscape. Urban villages are awkward social-spatial constellations of urban and agrarian relations that Pati calls ‘half-eaten forms’ spewed from the belly of uneven urbanization. Over a hundred such villages are tucked away in different parts of Delhi. Many of these villages have been part of the city’s urban fabric for several decades and even centuries, and as their residents point out, Delhi sits on the land that was acquired from them in different moments of urban growth and planning. These dense amalgamations of rural and urban trouble the tenacious binaries of rural-urban, city-village, formal-informal, legal-illegal that have historically animated urban theorizing. They offer an indispensable opening for critically engaging the terrain of agrarian-urbanism and generating new conceptual vocabularies for urban theorizing. (See Balakrishnan 2019, Balakrishnan and Gururani 2021, Cowan 2018, Gururani 2020, Upadhya 2020). Properties of Rent draws on in-depth fieldwork in two of Delhi’s well-known villages – Munirka and Shahpur Jat. It shows how urban villages are produced out of a series of exemptions, forgettings, and exclusions. Until recently, they remained not only out of sight but also out of the mind of planners and policymakers. But, as rural homesteads give way to creative housing configurations, like the ‘one-bedroom set’ or ‘addas’ for small-scale factory work, these villages allow us to see how local and global registers of capital come to collide and transform agrarian capital into high-value real estate. Interestingly, these villages resist assimilation into the city and persist in a state of ‘permanent condition of impermanence” (2) and in many ways sustain and reproduce the space of the urban in this political-economic conjuncture.
Properties of Rent is as much about rent, value, and capital, as it is about community. It is focused on the villages of the city but makes it amply clear that these villages are not relics of some bucolic past and embody a timeless rural ideal. Through strategically negotiating the complex and situated political economy of rent, the proprietors mobilize the space of the village and its traditional institutions, like the panchayat and bhaichara tenure, to articulate with expanding reaches of global capital and in the process reconstitute themselves. While global capital runs on risk and speculation, the wheels of vernacular capital, Pati argues, are oiled by notions of trust, loyalty, and kinship that are embedded in the community. Chapter 4, titled ‘In the Shadows of the State,’ presents an excellent account of the malleability of the community/kunba and how it mutates in response to the broader political economy. While the panchayat, that quintessential site of rural authority and governance, reconstitutes itself as the cartel, the kunba comes to resemble the joint-stock company, and various village-level committees function as financial institutions. In the throes of social-political change, these institutions negotiate multiscalar social and political relations and actively vernacularize capital.
This is the crux of Pati’s argument, that capital and rent rub against each other; they may follow parallel or competing pathways, but as uncomfortable bedfellows, they nonetheless sustain each other and pave the way for accumulation to take place. And it is the ‘spine of the community’ that channels capital and constitutes the village as that vital space in and of the city. They provide housing to thousands of migrants and create space for retail, small-scale factories, and other businesses. But, despite their centrality, they maintain an ambivalent relationship with the city. The landowning Jat proprietors may have consolidated their position as rentier-landlords, but as Pati writes, “the feeling that they have been shortchanged by the state with regard to compensation money is a living wound” (108). They don’t trust the state and remain fearful and anxious about their place in the city, and thus hold on to the space of the village to navigate the locally embedded registers of vernacular capital and profit. While community is volatile and dynamics, Properties elucidates that it is also far from homogenous. With her ear close to the ground, in another chapter, Pati shows how different Dalit groups fare in this saga of community and capital. While the Ambedkarite Jatavs have managed relatively well and emerged as property owners, the Balmikis, on the other hand, have remained marginal. This granular account of caste and its entrenchments offers a powerful resource to engage with the sedimented histories of caste, exclusion, and violence and how they continue to reverberate and shape India’s urban geography.
Properties of Rent makes a powerful and convincing case for rent, and in doing so, opens new lines of inquiry. It raises a host of questions about urban planning, affordable housing, and precarity that will continue to energize urban scholarship. For instance, while the story of rent allows us to peer into the world of vernacular capital, it also urges us to ask how extensive the reach of rent is, and how long and how far can it continue to anchor capital in local spaces. In other words, what are the limits of rent? If rent rubs with capital, vernacularizes it, then what maybe other registers of accumulation and speculation that also channel vernacular capital in the context of neoliberal urbanism, rise of majoritarian assertion, and growing crisis of housing and employment. Relatedly, it may be generative to ask how far the analytic of rent can be stretched and how it may yield insights into understanding social relations other that land and real estate. Empirically, I wondered how the circuits of vernacular capital articulate in other sites, other villages located in other parts of the city, populated by other caste groups, or in different spatial-ecological contexts. Or, how the rent economy takes shape outside of agrarian relations of land and property? What may be those dynamics of power and property that can offer insights into the process of capitalist urbanization in contemporary India?
Properties of Rent is a theoretically rigorous and nuanced account of rent’s complex and contested lives and how it is the vital hinge that breaks and binds cities of the global South today. Its salience, however, goes beyond rendering rent as the crucial agent of urbanism. It offers an excellent illustration of how the boundaries of urban and rural, city and village are simultaneously made meaningful and meaningless for different members of the society, and even when they are blurred and made redundant, it is precisely their messy entanglements that configure the geographies of vernacular capital in this conjuncture.
Balakrishnan, S. 2019. Shareholder Cities: Land Transformations Along Urban Corridors in India. University of Pennsylvania Press.
Balakrishnan, S, and S. Gururani. 2021. New Terrains of Agrarian-Urban Studies: Limits and Possibilities. Urbanisation. 6 (1): 1- 15.
Cowan T (2018) The urban village, agrarian transformation, and rentier capitalism in Gurgaon, India. Antipode 50(5): 1244–1266.
Gururani, S. 2020. Cities in a world of villages: agrarian urbanism and the making of India’s urbanizing frontiers. Urban Geography. 41(7): 971-989
Upadhya, C. (2020): Assembling Amaravati: speculative accumulation in a new Indian city, Economy and Society, DOI: 10.1080/03085147.2019.1690257
Shubhra Gururani is the Director of York Centre for Asian Research (YCAR) and Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at York University, Canada. Her research lies at the intersection of urban anthropology, cultural and feminist geography, and political ecology and focuses on peripheral urbanization, agrarian-urban transformation, property-making, and caste politics. She is the Principal Investigator of SSHRC-funded project, Life and Death of Urban Nature, an anthropological study of disappearing water bodies and flooding amid real-estate led urbanization in India. Her essays have appeared in Urban Geography, Gender, Place, and Culture, Urbanisation, SAMAJ – South Asian Multidisciplinary Academic Journal and Economic and Political Weekly.