Zeroville-on-Khambhat, or: The clean slate’s cost

A response to a piece Ayona Datta wrote for the forthcoming Dialogues in Human Geography, which I am pleased to present to you on the occasion of the Urban Age Delhi conference on Governing Urban Futures.

«Dites donc, c’est pas Alphaville qui faut appeler votre patelin, c’est Zéroville!»
– Eddie Constantine as private eye Lemmy Caution, in J.-L. Godard’s Alphaville (1965)

In her paper examining the Indian “smart city” development of Dholera, Ayona Datta furnishes us with a very welcome case study in just how elite actors mobilize the language and appearance of technological contemporaneity to achieve ends of displacement. Her analysis is straightforward and capably presented, and the most useful thing I can do in the space allotted to me for commentary is cosign, and hopefully amplify, certain of her conclusions.

Datta, as I understand her, has two fundamental aims here. The first is simply to establish that in the claims made on its behalf, in its disconnection from the history of the land, in its mendacity about its actual purpose, and in every other relevant register, the development site of Dholera is utterly exemplary of the smart­ city paradigm so many of us have inveighed against over the past half­-decade or so. The second — to me, a more interesting and more enduringly valuable ambition — is to demonstrate that this existing line of critique is insufficient to understand the particular kind of work Dholera does in Indian politics.

What any such understanding would require is a kind of multipronged forensic analysis, and that is precisely what Datta provides. In the case of Dholera, an account of the actual site, its physical characteristics and existing demography are no less crucial to the development of insight than the provisions of the enabling legislation facilitating the new city and the highly interested language swirling around it. And without wanting to be overly actor-­networky about things, this attention to detail — to the ways in which specific institutions, events, personalities, laws, and phrases mesh with one another to produce a state of affairs — is the most welcome aspect of the article at hand.

So what is Dholera?

We learn that it is a 903 km^2 development site in the Indian state of Gujarat, masterplanned by the UK engineering firm Halcrow, with some ten percent of its budget provided by the Indian national government and Japanese enterprises (specifically Hitachi, Mitsubishi, Toshiba, JGC and TEPCO), and the balance by unspecified but presumably domestic “private sector” entities.

We learn that — just like the canonical smart cities that came before it, among which the South Korean New Songdo and Abu Dhabi’s Masdar City remain the most widely known — Dholera is promised to be a place where embedded information-­technological services and systems mediate every aspect of everyday urban life. Everything from personal mobility to access control and the functioning of the supply and removal chain is to be handled by IT vendors, “optimized” in the name of maximum efficiency. (That this model of urbanity bears no resemblance whatsoever to the way in which any Indian city current or historical functions doesn’t matter; indeed, as we’ll see, it’s an important part of the value proposition.)

And, like the canonical smart cities as well, we learn that Dholera is represented to the world by its backers as having been magicked into being from nothing, on what planners are pleased to call a “greenfield site.” But of course the terrain upon which this tomorrowland is to be built wasn’t precisely a bare Cartesian plane beforehand: parcels of land had to be acquired to make the project a reality, and the people living and working on those parcels dealt with somehow.

The particular history of this process of acquisition and displacement (and the local resistance to it) deserves sustained attention. In Datta’s telling, this smart city with Indian characteristics turns out to be a place where the impoverished people who currently occupy the site — subsistence farmers and fishers, mostly, with soil rendered barren by previous government misadventures in macroengineering, and a literacy rate that stands twenty full points lower than India’s average of 77% — have been convicted by more powerful forces of failing to fully capitalize on the value latent in their land, and sentenced to expulsion.

Here we see how a global body of rhetoric, promulgated primarily by all­-but­-placeless multinational enterprises, converges with powerful regional and class interests, squeezing the nation-­state (and the better part of its citizenry) to a thin paste between them.

As Dholera functions within Gujarat, so does “investor­-friendly” Gujarat function within India. Depicted by its own business-development initiative as “Vibrant Gujarat,” the state is home to both India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and the philosophy of governance he pursued as the state’s Chief Minister between 2001 and 2012, a policy stance that has been described as “native­-born neoliberalism.” For over a decade, the state has consciously positioned itself as a testbed for techniques and practices that are seen as efficacious in overwriting external perceptions of India as teeming, mired in grinding, endemic poverty, and riven by communal strife with an image more consonant with its ambitions and hopes. These techniques and practices amount to a “Gujarati model,” intended to realize “maximum governance with minimum government,” and a nation desperate to cut the fetters imposed by its legendary bureacratariat might well regard that model as a turnkey solution for its own economic problems. This was the broadly implicit — and at times, entirely explicit — message of the 2014 Modi campaign, and indeed the Gujarati model has become national policy since his election to the Prime Ministership.

In a pungent and fascinating passage, Datta traces the development of this discourse to Modi’s Asian peregrinations. Denied entry to the US, UK and EU for his role in fanning Gujarat’s vicious communal pogroms of 2002, Modi took to visiting China and Japan instead — and there, Datta argues, he encountered both a “Shanghai model” of top-­down citymaking, readymade for transplantation into Gujarati soil, and a set of institutional partners prepared to foot the bill. The bitter irony is that identification with the program of crash urbanization that resulted is what lubricated Modi’s ongoing and evidently successful pivot from red­handed champion of the Hindu far right to polished global statesman — all of which suggests that well-­intentioned British and American moves to marginalize the firebrand of 2002 may have resulted in the mother of all unintended consequences.

For reasons of investor confidence, if no other, it was important that whatever happened in Gujarat was seen to transpire under the rule of law. Ensuring the formal legitimation of whatever measures it deemed necessary in the development of Dholera, the State of Gujarat granted itself new powers of eminent domain, leaving the victims of dispossession quite literally no ground to stand on.

Here Datta embarks upon the sort of detailed explication that helps us understand how a single piece of legislation (specifically, Gujarat’s 2009 Special Investment Region Act) allowed the state to do an end run around provisions dating to 1894 that guaranteed small holders both due process and fair recompense for land forcibly acquired. Under SIR’s terms, the state simply had to designate land as “needed for public purpose,” while nothing compelled them to compensate those with existing tenure; and of course parcels assembled in this way could then be transferred to whatever “parastatal” or entirely private development partners the state found congenial.

But after all the farmers and fishermen have been chased from the land, the digital infrastructure laid down, and the golf club opened for business, what of day-­to­-day life in this environment? Here is where more of the detail that Datta lavishes on other aspects of her tale would be welcome; specifically, I would have appreciated a closer look at the social and spatial logic of this ostensibly smart place on Earth. But then Dholera, like Masdar and Songdo before it, may as yet (and forever will?) be too unrealized to permit this sort of interrogation. What we do know is that Dholera’s promise/premise of furnishing citizens with information allowing them to “manage their lives better” dovetails perfectly with the neoliberal fetish for the individualization of responsibility, and parallel de­emphasis of collective or solidaristic action of any sort.

This, however, is only to scratch the surface of the questions we could ask of this project. If one were of a particularly sincere cast of mind, and thought that honest answers might actually be forthcoming, one might want to inquire as to why all of the following were so heedlessly conflated in Dholera’s conception:

— the perceived necessity of developing entirely new urbanized sites as a response to India’s social and economic transformation;

— the desirability of doing so using putatively “advanced,” i.e. imported, methodologies, practices and paradigms;

— the degree to which such models do or can speak to the needs and desires of the populations they are ostensibly intended to benefit;

— the suitability of information­technical systems and services as means to any ends articulated by these populations; and

— the identity of the institutions, organizations or actors best placed to achieve the conception and deployment of such systems.

But it may well be pointless to ask such things of Dholera’s promoters, or to subject their rhetoric to any particularly fine level of analysis. Like “eco­,” “green,” and “sustainable,” it appears that “smart” is simply the latest in a series of terms used to wreathe development projects with a superficial gloss of contemporaneity. Indeed, despite the claims of advocates that it could only operate at peak efficiency when designed and purpose-
built from the ground up to accommodate information technology, Dholera wasn’t identified (by its developers, or anyone else) as a “smart city” until 2012, some three years after the project’s inception. This record suggests that, like any other sufficiently interested party, the actors responsible for developing Dholera are comfortable latching onto just about any old justificatory apparatus if it serves their short­term needs — helping the project pass through the decision gate of an endorsement, authorizing vote or allocation of investment — and discard it without compunction once it has outlived its utility.

When someone lays out the evidence as clearly as Datta does here, one conclusion is unavoidable: the point was never, really, to engineer an all­-seeing technological utopia. It was to dispossess the near-­voiceless of their land and turn it to the ends of optimal revenue generation. At times, various actors involved in facilitating Dholera’s transformation from salinated flatland to smart city have been surprisingly forthright about their values and motivations. Datta quotes Amitabh Kant, CEO of a state-­sponsored enterprise invested in the project, as mentioning that “the key challenge” to transforming India “will be to monetize land values.” Meanwhile, the Indian Intelligence Bureau justifies the surveillance it maintains on the lower­caste activists resisting the seizure of their land on the grounds of their involvement in “anti-
development activities.” The degree of cooptation of the apparatus of state on view here is truly impressive; not even in the US or the UK are the logics of accumulation by dispossession generally quite that close to the surface.

But why this particular confluence of ideas, why India, why now? We are often told, in the West, that India’s cities are now home to a growing middle class — crores of people liberated from the village and its strictures, flush with capital pumped into the economy by globalization’s outsourced engineering and back-­office operations, and beginning to flex their consumerist muscles. Given the very real benisons of all this material comfort and choice, it may well be that those on the receiving end of it are not overly inclined to question where it all comes from.

One result of this is that perhaps nowhere else in the world has reified “IT” to the extent that India has. That I can tell, anyway, the acronym is universally understood at all levels of Indian society — and nearly as universally, is understood to be desirable for its connotations of efficiency, effortlessness, logic, clean­room sterility and sheer modernity. It is a thing and a force both, something one applies to a circumstance to make it better. And to be a software engineer in this new economy is a noble thing, for in the end what else does so much of the new prosperity consist of but software?

In such a charged environment, the unremarkable trappings of postindustrial knowledge production acquire a curious valence in and of themselves. One can get some sense of what this looks like from Dholera’s promotional materials, which are dense with bombast and puffery of a distinctly Indian flavor: the state government’s act of having “appointed a consultant to develop the master plan of the project” and the involvement of “a global IT powerhouse” (transparently Cisco) are in themselves proffered — and perhaps even accepted by the intended audience — as guarantors of excellence.

I have no interest in judging an entire people’s aspirations, but the darker and more troubling aspects of all this are obvious. Among other things, the uncritical embrace of practices, arrangements and ways of doing things that originate in the developed world, and must therefore be “modern,” allows propositions that wouldn’t otherwise stand up to the slightest challenge to pass by without comment. Perhaps this explains why the State of Gujarat’s due diligence doesn’t seem to have extended to wondering why the master­planner they entrusted with the development of a megacity destined to be twice the size of Mumbai — the UK-­based engineering practice Halcrow — had no other successful urban planning engagements to its name, nor why its business fundamentals were evidently so weak that it had to be bailed out (and was eventually fully acquired) by the American concern C2HM HILL. Even mild skepticism regarding such matters would be powerfully salutary, particularly at a moment when the Modi government plans to plant one hundred such cities on the land.

This is why I’m glad to see Datta throw a little shade at relative optimists like Ashis Nandy, quoted here to the effect that whatever our reservations now, all will be well in the fullness of time, as India’s propensity to “corrupt” the best­laid plans renders the alien imposition of the smart city “impure…but ultimately less malevolent.” This is charming, and undoubtedly contains an element of truth, but as Datta implies, it verges on irresponsible naivete given the power of certain imperial discourses to transform subjectivity.

And in the end, subjectivity — the realm of sentiment, hope, fear, pride and desire — is far more central to the whys and wherefores of Dholera than might appear to be the case. For a state that has solid historical justification for wanting to believe in the possibility of a new beginning, the notion of rebuilding from a truly clean slate must be all but irresistible. There are many, no doubt, for whom this insistence that the ghosts of 2002 be plowed under constitutes a virtue — indeed, a primary aspect of Dholera’s appeal. For millions of young Indians just now coming into their maturity, it’s easy to imagine how tempting it must be to treat historical events that happened in childhood as bygones that should remain bygones, and considerations of communal, religious or caste identity as baggage from the past that has no place in an India founded on gleaming clean-­room technology. They may well be willing and more than willing to overlook the fiction of its origin myth, if Dholera’s promise of a new and glorious dawn can only be extended to Gujarat, to Narendra Modi, to India itself.

What remains clear is that others will pay the price for that wiping of the slate. Where master-planned High Modernist environments like Brasilia and Chandigarh at least paid lip service to the notion that issues of social justice could be addressed via the technics of the built environment, Dholera doesn’t even rise to that low standard. From the evidence at hand here, it seems certain that this smart city is destined to do little but inscribe further injustice and sorrow on the land. And for demonstrating just what the rhetoric of the smart city accomplishes on this particular terrain, at this particular moment in history, we have Ayona Datta to thank.

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