Consumption and corruption as access: Tactics of informal urban populations in India

Authors: Priti Narayan*, Rutgers University
Topics: Urban Geography
Keywords: urban geography, state-society relations, India, parastatals, informality
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/14/2018
Start / End Time: 10:00 AM / 11:40 AM
Room: Maurepas, Sheraton, 3rd Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Speculative urbanism in Indian cities has been resulting in the dispossession of thousands of urban poor families living on public land for generations. In the face of this heightened tenure insecurity, the informal urban poor retains access to land and basic services through a variety of tactics (Bayat 2000) and negotiations with the state. Based on an ethnographic study of an informal settlement in Chennai, this paper posits that the resident's ability to position herself as a "consumer", more specifically, a corrupt consumer, enables her access to electricity.

Multiple studies have identified parastatal government agencies as both a symptom and vehicle of neoliberal urban development in India (Coelho et al 2011, Goldman 2011, Benjamin 2010), leading to the commoditization of essential urban services and the rendering of residents as 'consumers'. This paper will attempt to decenter this view, by demonstrating that parastatals also serve the critical function of providing services as decoupled from tenure status, by casting the individual resident as a 'consumer' irrespective of formal property ownership status. The status of consumer thus offers electricity to the urban poor resident, even in the face of potential dispossession.

However, being a consumer does not preclude her from being part of what Partha Chatterjee (2004) calls political society, governed by volatile paralegal arrangements. Neither a guarantee of the service, nor legal routes for redressal are part of the offer of electricity. Bribes then, are a way of securing services when routes and rights available to property-owning citizen-consumers are foreclosed (Scott 1969).

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