South Asia Institute
South Asia Institute

SAI Sponsored Event - "The ‘Opaque’ City: Some Thoughts About the Practice of Planning"

Mon, February 27, 2012
SAI Sponsored Event -

Event Map

Much of India’s planning perspective has two sorts of agendas: First to ‘fix’ spacialities in time and space, and second, make city terrain undergoing rapid transformation, transparent and legible. In today’s context where a particular form of globalization around mega projects is assumed to be the basis for economic development, such a ‘fixing’ -- of making large and mobile capital accountable, is seen as a prerequisite to make cities inclusive as well. The fear here is externalized: the threat of apocalyptic futures built in an anarchic terrain of slums, land mafias, violence laying a ground for international terrorism, and improvished residents feeding and also exploited by patron clientalistic politics. Urban planning in India (as with other professionalized disciplines such as economists, sociologists and anthropologists) is deeply implicated in this anxiety. While planning departments hire technocrats to survey and to GIS as panoptic technologies, they also reach out to civil society and emphasize participatory techniques seeking corporate funds ‘public consultations’. Large international consultant groups like KPMG hired by USAid for instance (and large trading lobbies) seek out anthropologists and sociologists. These do not just understand emerging markets in India, but rather, under threat to competition by the ‘unregulated’ non-formal sector. In this presentation I argue that the 2008 financial crises, and in Indian cities like Bangalore, since 2003, political crises around land have destabilized such attempts at ‘fixity’, the assumption of an efficient extraction of real estate and other surpluses to fuel financial architectures, and point ironically to an earlier form of engagement with the material processes of land development that were prevalent in the 1980s. Contestations over territory since the then are sharpened with institutionalized de-politisation and the subversion of elite led ‘reforms’ from the city increasingly viewed as opaque and illegible despite modern panoptic technologies. As in other metros, while the political counter via ‘social movements’ and public consultations aimed at ‘participatory planning’ remain mixed with accusation of their corporate funding, I argue that we can consider the concept of illegibility in forms of territolisation, it’s shaping of municipal politics and a vibrant  economy of small firms that these underpin, as key elements to rethink approaches towards more politicized versions of planning.


Solomon Benjamin is a Senior Research Associate with the Social Science Dept at the French Institute of Pondicherry, and Professor at the Manipal School of Planning and Architecture. He was with the faculty at the University of Toronto Political Science department. With a Phd from Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, he researched the economic and political history of East Delhi’s manufacturing areas. Benjamin’s research emphasizes the basis of city politics in contesting claims to land, now shaped globalization. His other interest is on intersects between Indian and Chinese urbanisms. Benjamin has published in IJURR, SARAI reader, GeoForum, Third World Planning Review, and European journals like Agone, Review Trie Monde, and Clusters. In earlier times, he coordinated an independent research group mobilizing ethnography to understand the politics of urban governance and on the social and institutional consequences of the digitization of land records. Another engagement in the late nineties was with development projects that revealed the politics of participatory environmental planning involving municipal councils in coastal South India activising against a regressive ADB loan, while another on local economy development in the Kolkata (Calcutta) metro area towns was framed in close consultations with elected councils energized by the UK aid agency DFid. Benjamin is  presently connected with the City as Studio program at the Sarai-CSDS in Delhi that brings together media artists, film makers, writers and poets to explore city spaces and politics via city walks. He is also part of several projects with the French research system (IFP, Pondicherry and CHS Delhi) on the politics of land titling and  small town urbanization.

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