July 13, 2023

In discussion with Solomon Benjamin

Solomon Benjamin Mercator Fellow of the SFB in June an Juli 2023. We talked to him about forms of ownership in the city and his research within the SFB.

1) What is the importance of property in general for you?
Property with the specific focus on state spaces encountering the complexity of urban land has been central to my research and publishing in geography, urban studies, and earlier – some decades ago – on economic development. Indian urban territory (as in most of the global south) has popular access premised on continually un-settled and institutionally entangled property forms. These are mostly ‘under the radar’, contesting influential elite groups mobilizing Master Planning premised on eminent domains to seek large territory for special economic zones and mega infrastructures. Master Planning shaped tenurial forms to tap real estate surpluses; but also, as it does today, masks corporate lobbying under the visuals of ‘well planned – globally oriented’ development. In effect this tries, unsuccessfully, to stymie much larger territories housing multitudes of small manufacturers and traders whose practiced tenurial forms redistribute real estate surpluses across the binary of tenant and owner to fuel capital investments, skilling, with huge multipliers in construction. Thus the politics of tenure’s multiple and contesting embedding is central. But it’s also not just economic competition. Working in Coastal South Indian small towns, I encountered more complicated and subtle realms of spirit possession and sacredness in the way these form mediate spaces for property and other conflicts. Even as they disrupt very large development projects such as eight-lane highways, the intent is not always oppositional, but more accurately viewed as entanglements. Property in most of this world, in land or economy, calls for close and fine-grained ethnographic research that takes spatiality seriously. Over the past decade, I have explored similar forms of property. Embedded in the repair and refurbished economy of phones, these confront large global manufacturers seeking to protect copyright and patents. Importantly, property embedded territorial space is transnational, and links ‘china bazaars’ in Indian cities and towns as nodes of component practices to those in Shenzhen’s electronic markets, but also onwards to Dubai and Europe, Africa and Latin America.

2) Can you explain something about the Indian types of property ownership and how important they are for your research?
India’s property ownership in most part evolved around presumptive claims – mostly British colonial legacies with some territories under French or Portuguese colonial legacies under Roman law. Even so, these varied histories are characterised by complex overlaid land tenures shaping urban territorial formations. Since the early eighties, and having given in to political pressure from more than 80 per cent of the residents, states have developed forms of ‘land regularisation’ – procedures to extend basic infrastructure and services after land was occupied and upgraded upon the arrival and settling of newcomers – for shelter but also for bazaar economies of small manufacturers and traders. Walking a visually crowded Indian street, you see complex property forms negotiated whereby the ‘original’ owner opened access to what is initially under-serviced but affordable land to tenants whose social and political connections help lobby state spaces to improve things: electric lighting connections, fans to ease the humidity, but also electric motors welding sets, or then refrigerators that small shopkeepers use to store milk, butter, cool drinks, chicken and eggs to sell in their street front shops. If there are new occupiers, the increased rent reflects all these ‘improvements’, split between the owner and the older tenant. Property shaped surpluses are more complicated: parastatal electricity supply agencies extend lines irrespective of land owners but their monthly receipt of payments can be used to ‘accumulate’ claims. This illustrative example senses a tenurial complexity that dominates small towns, large villages and metro settings. In around 2005, we were ethnographically exploring or documenting the varied tenure forms and property ownership in Bangalore that ‘poorer’ groups encountered and reshaped as appropriated spaces – some 14 of them. Bangalore’s IT honchos also ‘occupy’ land to claim large plots lobbying state realms to claim real estate surpluses via ‘land banks’. But this tenurial complexity is not just in ‘the South’. Joining the University of Toronto’s political science department in 2006 opened up similar insights into real estate dynamics in Toronto’s downtown’s “Laneway Housing”, engaging with the ‘grandfathering clauses’, or in the suburbs, basement apartments, as a ‘thickening’ of property embedded and mainstreamed into planning a decade later in 2016. Viewing the urban via the lens of property thickness opens exciting realms of varied constellations of groups and state spaces.

 3) You spoke in your workshop about the development of property structures in India. Can you explain to our readers the property conflicts in India?
Over the past decade, property conflicts centring on land form a conjuncture around digitization of land records, municipal reforms to bring greater ‘transparency & accountablity’, an upsurge in metropolitan areas, particularly Bangalore, of elite civil society with environmental NGOs under the retoric of urban sustainablity and with some progressive academics to establish a new wave of Master Planning that identifies ‘encroachers’ and promotes GIS/GPS enhanced civic participation. This is paralleled by a spectacular obfustication of the complexity of land tenure implicated in these narratives undertaken by several progressive academics across diciplines. On a positive note, the past eight years have also witnessed important cross-disciplinary research where a shared sensibility to close, fine-grain ethnography explores everyday city life. This makes the SFB’s emphasis on fine-grained ethnography absolutly critical – a shift toward a substantive progressive theorization, built via field-work based theorization and valuing younger researchers to do so. It is vital to nuance property’s varied conflicts building on these existing efforts: a) an ethnography of state practices mostly in Mumbai, over infrastructure extensions to explore the thickness of political negotiations underpinning settlement processes; b) an ethnography of mid-level court spaces induced by ‘stay orders’ revealing the complexity of claims and counterclaims; c) the emerging of an urban historiography of the wider Mumbai that recognises, if not emphasises, continued unsettled land as property. To explore and emphasise the land’s territorial complexity, a small group of us explores the diachronic and synchronic complexity of conflicts, institutional entanglements and negotiations in Bombay’s Malad, and Hong Kong’s Kowloon via a sense of their situated histories of overlaid land tenure spatialities.

The real life political costs of getting the framing of land property wrong is huge, and this unfortunately implicates well-meaning academics’ critical studies as well as progressive activists with terrible real life and immediate consequences for the poorest groups – and popular groups more generally – in at least four ways:

A) Seeking ‘urban sustainability’ via master planning and ‘rights’ slips into a narrative of encroachers wherein PILs (public interest litigation) lead to evictions, to also justify the Torrens-inspired conclusive land titles via digitization of land titling.  

B) Reinforcing the narrative of political and administrative corruption coined by ‘patron clientalism’ closes political space that otherwise widens land claims by most members of society who confront an aggressive English media and policy-supported influential elite. 

C) Narratives of ‘rentier capitalism’ misses extensive and already existing and operational radical possibilities working via complex land tenurial property forms. Instead, this condemns and closes spaces to poorer tenants, especially women and Dalits, to tap real estate surpluses in securing better futures, build assets, upgrade shelter, and their economy of small firms, and instead plays into the hands of large corporate finance. 

D) A continued portrayal of Occupancy Urbanism as ‘resistance’ reflects missing its land aspects wherein locating progressive politics lies only in social movement and participation and misses the agency of various constellations of popular groups confronting police as police. 

The above upscale politics robs agency where it matters. Instead, it moves a fuzzy conceptual focus that’s a combination of global capitalism and speculative, splintering frontier urbanism. Here, land’s only imaginatd future is reduced to commodification facilitated by state-led dispossession reflecting deviant local elite-fueled politics of patron clientelism that reinforces marginality. Thus, we should not view property conflicts outside of the politics of their construction. And here, at these times when there are enough international conferences including those by critical study groups premised in the problematic narratives mentioned above, the SFB project’s emphasis on the fine-grain life practices and worlds can shift to theorizing from the field. 


The Torrens land title registration dismembers the proof of ownership free from prior indigenous claims viewed as ‘uncertainties or muddiness’, representing a violent history to dispossess and ghettoize indigenous communities initially across settler colonies in Australia, New Zealand, Western Canada and expanded to the Philippines, Fiji, Malaysia. Elites in Africa centred this into cartographic politics that mobilised state power to control resources and exclude vast groups of populations, and this is now sought in India, particularly Bangalore. Here,  the torrens-inspired conclusive land titles digitization allows it's elite to pose the discourse of 'urban sustainability' within a framing of law centering Master Planning. Premised on private individual rights, state power to enforce 'rights'  justifies a narrative of 'encroachers and unplanned development' where elite strategised PILs (public interest litigation) force city administrations to evict poorer occupants.