A Dissection of Land, Aspiration, and Profit
South Asian cities have been at the heart of much contemporary urban scholarship. From sociology to economics, literature to cultural studies, the dynamically evolving urban paradigms of South Asian cities have been attracting the attention of scholars from across the world. This body of multi-disciplinary research has made it possible for the spatial and socio-economic contestations prevalent across the Indian subcontinent to be understood better in terms of their intellectual legacies, ideological impetuses, and grassroots ramifications.
The focus of much of this scholarship has been on the proverbial subaltern, marginalised individuals and communities who suffer from systemic negation of substantive citizenship. Marginalised and endangered urbanisms, therefore, have inspired a mixed variety of theorisation and criticism.
Refreshingly, the book under review, Llerena Guiu Searle’s Landscapes of Accumulation: Real Estate and the Neoliberal Imagination in Contemporary India, attempts just the opposite: it critiques not as much the consequences of capitalist practices of accumulation as these practices themselves. The builder and the broker, as Searle astutely notes, have been more or less absent from much recent work on South Asian cities, and in positioning this text in critical conversation with these movers and makers of capital she provides a much-needed comment on the ways in which neo-liberal finance is rapidly transforming Indian land into a global retail commodity.
Towards a Semiotics of Spectacular Accumulation
Searle’s key hypothesis in this text is the notion of spectacular accumulation with reference to land, and how it is facilitated through key semiotic performances in the public sphere and within industry discourses. These performances are not as much events as intricately layered processes: making land a tradable commodity in contemporary India involves transforming it into an asset fertile with an embedded potential, or promise, of future profit. They involve not just Indian real estate developers and overseas investors: instead, a range of state and private functionaries, from politicians and bureaucrats to marketing executives and graphic designers, are involved in effecting the sociocultural and legal transformations which make land, and property, desirable investments.
Based on months of fieldwork from 2006 to 2007, Searle’s work is commendable in that it studies real estate practice and narrativity, or discourse making, in conjunction with each other. The work of various agents whose exertions enable the transformation of land and its aggregation as a source of spectacular profit is premised on a crucial belief in projected glory, fiscal as well as cultural. The transformations consequently effected are multifarious: there is, first and foremost, the transformation of land into property, an asset for unfettered global circulation and investment. This involves altering entrenched cultural attitudes towards property, achieved through a sustained project of pervasive marketing: to live and invest in new, millennial real estate is to be suitably modern, to participate in the creation of and partake of a global lifestyle in India itself. Connectedly, the creation of the infrastructure necessary for this global lifestyle requires the conversion of land into easily tradable private property and its ready circulation across various stakeholders. Both supply and demand are, therefore, created and managed by the real estate industry in active partnership with the state and with a host of other private functionaries.
Glocalisation of Indian Real Estate
Significantly, even as the need for these transformations emerges from the demands of globalising capital to make Indian real estate practices and meanings and methods of land, construction, and property legible to a disparate set of international stakeholders, they do not materialise as unidirectional flows of ideas from global financial centres to India. Instead, these conversations are dynamic and multi-faceted: while overseas investors and real estate developers aim to bring about greater transparency, professionalism, and efficiency in Indian real estate practices, Indian developers and industry insiders filter out this received wisdom to adopt only those practices which suit their methods of capital generation and consolidation. It is to Searle’s credit that she is able to go beyond the familiar discourse of global capital completely sweeping aside local practices and, instead, explore and emphasise the ways in which the global and local interact to constitute a tenuous glocal.
This is apparent in the her critique of transparency and professionalism as disciplining projects seeking not as much lesser corruption and more accountability as greater ease of business in a particular format – a format dictated by and intelligible to overseas investors and developers. In adopting business norms, accounting systems, and corporate hierarchies familiar to their overseas partners, Indian developers have attracted more investments and acquired more credibility in the public eye, but these transformations have not come at the cost of their firm belief in the primacy of their endeavour as aggregators who make available land with clear titles to be then developed and used by investors. As Searle’s work amply demonstrates, this regularly puts Indian and overseas developers in opposition to each other as both enact their value projects towards realisation of spectacular profit from real estate.
Fresh and original though these arguments are in the context of the Indian real estate industry, they are necessarily dated now since the publication comes a decade after the fieldwork. Searle puts in a few revisionary notes from her visit to the field in 2014, but for a market and industry as volatile as Indian real estate these do not prove satisfactory. She indicates, for instance, that the so-called ‘India story’ has lost much of its power to inspire investment and construction, but is unable to explain how construction is still happening across India by both private and state agents. Vocal protests of customers as well as punitive judicial action against errant builders have dented the capacity of the marketing techniques Searle references to lend respectability to real estate developers. Even though this is beyond the scope of the text’s thesis, a reader may well be forgiven for expecting a fresh publication for addressing these and other points. Moreover, the observant reader will also be surprised to come across proofing mistakes throughout the text, but Searle’s argument and narrative are convincing and engaging enough to blunt the edge of these errors. On the whole, Landscapes of Accumulation is a sound addition to scholarship on Indian cities: where she leaves may well become a new area of study for other scholars to develop in the years to come.