Understanding Globalizing Cities in India

By Tathagata Chatterji (School of Planning and Architecture, Vijayawada

Globalizing cities in the emerging Asian economies are increasingly facing tough competition from cities within their countries to attract global investments. In this competitive national scenario, some cities are more successful than others in attracting global capital, even though they operate under similar macroeconomic and regulatory environment. This spurred me to examine the roles played by the local political actors in steering the economic policy directions of their cities. And also to find out, whether we can measure the political-economic characteristics of these newly globalizing Asian cities, through the same yardstick of the well established global cities of the Western world or do we require a new framework?

Editor’s Note: You can read Dr. Chatterji full article here.

Looking through the prism of emerging Information Technology (IT) clusters, at the fringe areas of the Indian cities, I researched how variations in provincial-state and city level political cultures influence urban economic trajectory by mediating forces that emerge out of global economic demand and a uniform national regulatory regime.

The IT services sector is a prime exemplar of the new economy in the Indian context and is a useful lens to explore the governance dynamics of its key urban centers. This sector, which predominantly consists of software development and other knowledge-intensive back office services outsourced from the West, was export oriented from its very inception in the late-1980s. It has now become India’s biggest source of foreign exchange inflow, its main employment generator for the educated youth, and a prime driver of the corporate real estate market.

Understandably, the state Chief Ministers and regional governments are trying to attract IT sector investments to their cities by offering subsidized land and a host of other incentives. In fact, due to fast appreciation of property prices, the ability of the local governments to ensure supply of land near big cities has become the deciding factor of Indian IT industries’ economic geography. All other incentives have become secondary.

But urban sprawl to accommodate IT clusters through conversion of peripheral agricultural lands has become controversial due to the livelihood vulnerabilities of the local rural communities. The unskilled rural populace are often unable to tap livelihood opportunities in the new economy and feel marginalized. At this point of conflict, between the local and global forces, the local governing regimes play a crucial mediating role.

I compared the development process behind three prominent IT clusters of India – Bangalore, Gurgaon (adjoining Delhi) and Kolkata through common parameters and found clear differences in their political cultures and modes of governance.

My analysis shows that the dominant characteristic of Bangalore’s governance mode is ‘corporatist’, although strains of ‘clientelistic’ mode are visible as well. Elites of Bangalore are intensely proud of the city’s position as India’s Silicon Valley, and are keen to attain a strong global position as a knowledge economy and innovation hub. Bangalore’s economic planning process is driven through a compact between politicians, bureaucrats, software czars and community activists, resembling the classic ‘corporatist’ governance culture displayed by global cities of the Western world. However, over the past decade, a nexus has started developing between the political leaders and property developers through the process of conversion of rural agricultural land into production and consumption spaces of the globalized new economy. And this undercurrent of crony capitalism is becoming more and more apparent.

The character of the regime in Gurgaon is more out-rightly ‘clientelistic’ – characterised by give and take, patron-client relationship between the builders and the politicians. Entrepreneurial property developers who had engineered its dramatic transformation from being a rural backwater in Delhi’s outer periphery to northern India’s prime corporate hub (through market-led land acquisition) exert tremendous clout over the city’s laissez-faire planning apparatus. The IT corporate sector, which plays an important role in Bangalore’s planning framework, plays second fiddle to the builder’s lobby and the civil society activism that is still at a nascent state in Gurgaon.

In comparison to Bangalore and Gurgaon, Kolkata’s performance in attracting IT investments is less impressive – even though the city has a longer history as an educational and economic hub and has a large pool of young professionals. My research attributes this to the ‘populist’ rural-centric political culture, which had come to dominate the city-region in recent decades. State-led efforts to procure land for industrialization, by exercising the power of the ‘eminent domain’ were met with strong rural backlash. Fear of antagonizing the rural electorate had muted the enthusiasm of the urban middle class for an IT-led economic resurgence. The entire governance structure is dominated by the political actors, with much less space for bureaucratic, corporate, or civil society activism.

On the whole, my research demonstrates that although the structural context of market driven economy and neoliberal political ideas have become the de-facto norm, at the upper scales of governance, the issue of ‘last mile connectivity’ – that is, how such capitalist processes translate at the urban scale, depends to a considerable extent on the local political actors and planning institutions.

It is important to understand the location of power in urban governance. In the multilayered Indian administrative system, the locus of power about urban policies, including economic development and its spatial implications, is not located at the level of elected municipal governments, but with the state governments. Moreover, in a transitional and urbanizing economy like India, the rural electorates still occupy a majority of the seats in the state legislatures and are politically powerful. Under the circumstances, urban economic agendas are frequently tied to the rural-urban power dynamics.

Moreover, while analyzing micro level socio-political dynamics, it is necessary to go beyond formal institutional arrangements and take into consideration informal socio-cultural practices such as caste networks and the rural land holding patterns of different communities etc. Political leaders with ties to the caste networks of the rural elites were better able to channel land supply for the new urban economy and thereby emerged as important agents of globalization.

The clout and leverage enjoyed by India’s regional political actors over the institutions of governance are not exactly comparable with their Western counterparts, bound by stronger institutional legacies and deeper culture of participatory planning. As negotiators between competing global and local, interests, powerful political actors in India hold enormous power in steering their city’s economic trajectory to suit with their own political objectives. Therefore, it is necessary to take into account the important role the local political actors play in global economic processes and recalibrate the tools for urban political analysis accordingly.

Author Biography
Tathagata Chatterji teaches at the School of Planning and Architecture Vijayawada, India. He graduated from Calcutta University, did post-graduation from Kent State University and PhD from the University of Queensland. His research interest focuses on comparative urban governance, peri-urban transformation and knowledge economy clusters in transitional countries. His has authored two books, Local Mediation of Global Forces in Transformation of the Urban Fringe and Citadels of Glass – India’s New Suburban Landscape.


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