Listening to displacement and dispossession
“Where is Rajarhat? If you enter the city from the airport side, after few kilometres, near Koikhali, you take the left turn, and then you will traverse the newly laid road that cuts through miles and miles of waste land, here and there marked with a shiny mall or few glass buildings, high rises built by new developers, and sign boards announcing the coming up of an office, or an e-firm, or a conference centre – all that Kolkata apparently did not have. This is a notified area, named after the deceased venerable leader of Bengal – the Jyoti Basu Nagar. After you have covered about fifteen miles in this way, you will bypass Salt Lake and reach the artery that will re-connect you with Kolkata. Possibly you will be relieved for you have not seen in the thirty minutes or so you were going in a car or the speeding bus ferrying you from the airport to the city any pond, any water body, any village, any school, any farmer, any farming land, any herd of cattle. All these are gone. Land has been taken over to meet the deficit of Kolkata. But from the city side that is from the west, Rajarhat is beyond Kolkata, with few buses to connect, only one road to lead to, and as a person of Kolkata you have no reason to go beyond unless you are a BPO employee, or an employee in a mall, or a construction worker (in that case you of course stay there), or have relatives who have bought houses there (possibly flouting the law because if you have already a house in the city you cannot possess a house in the notified area). When the night falls, then of course there is nothing for you. Only syndicates dealing with money, land, building material, waste disposal business, and firearms, are the denizens of the new city at night, the city beyond Kolkata” (Samaddar nd).
My research in Rajarhat New Town took place within the framework of Transit Labour, a project exploring changes in forms of work in China, India and Australia during what has been termed the “Asian Century” (http://www.transitlabour.asia/). Our focus was on the logistics and information industries and how they intersect with, and are reliant upon, infrastructures and economies, land, and resource use. In 2011-2012 Transit Labour worked onsite in collaboration with Kolkata-based researchers from the Calcutta Research Group –a collective of scholar-activists exploring issues of autonomy, human rights, women’s struggles, forced displacement and migration, conflicts and borders – who had been investigating the history and development of Rajarhat New Town.
The township, lying in the North 24 Parganas district of the state of West Bengal (on the north-east border of Kolkata), is an urban development initially proposed by the West Bengali government to stimulate the real estate sector (Sengupta 2007). HIDCO, the West Bengal Housing Infrastructure Development Corporation, was set up in the late 1990s to lead the development process that would see the land turned into an economically viable IT park – New Town has been slated to become Kolkata’s second major IT hub and is now designated a “smart green city.” HIDCO was given authority to buy and sell land, erect housing and commercial premises, and generally maintain the city to come. Construction proceeded steadily with the building of industrial facilities, including offices, entertainment complexes, leisure, shopping and cultural centers, educational institutions (schools and universities) and flats (Hill and Athique 2013). However, following the 2008 global economic crash, investment capital was withdrawn, and development of Rajarhat New Town stalled for some time (Neilson and Rossiter 2011).
Prior to development, the lands on which Rajarhat New Town was planned were known as some of the most biodiverse and fertile in the West Bengal region. They were predominantly used for peasant farming, producing up to four crops per year. This was in part due to the life-giving canal lines, with irrigation coming from several waterways, including the Keshtopur and Bagjola. Grain crops were produced alongside vegetables and fruits. During the monsoon season, the region was supplied with fish from the fishing embankments, and dairy herds were also maintained.
The British colonial Land Acquisition Act (1894) was deployed by the government in the late 1990s to acquire thousands of hectares of land from occupying farmers. Initially famers rejected the offers and were subsequently subjected to government intimidation, including coercion at gunpoint. This resulted in the instantiation of the Rajarhaat Krishi Roksha Committee (Save Rajarhat Farmers Committee). The government continued its campaign against the famers, offering differential and unfamiliar new labor conditions and inadequate compensation packages. When this failed to convince landowners, they set up terror squads through which they violently suppressed farmer opposition. By the time the economic crisis hit, much of the land was wasteland under development. The brutal regimes of postcolonial capitalism and accumulation have been ongoing (Samaddar 2015).
It was a decade after this process began that sound artist Sophea Lerner, architect/ geographer Kate Hepworth, and I undertook several days of fieldwork in Rajarhat New Town. We were primarily investigating the various labor regimes that coexist within or contribute to the production of the area. Following researchers from the Calcutta Group, we witnessed how the formation of new towns purposed for IT industries was entirely predicated on modes of “‘primitive accumulation’ in the form of peasant labor dispossessed of agricultural economies” (Dey, Samaddar and Sen 2013 cited in Kanngieser, Neilson and Rossiter 2014: 3). This was evident in the acutely overlapping geographies of high tech construction and agricultural environments (Dey and Grappi 2015). These were both visible (concrete building sites overtaking fields) and invisible (rhythms of work relative to time, the intersectional usages of space). The sonic atmospheres of the sites we visited articulated these environments in myriad ways.