Autoconstruction of the commons: Moral claims to city land in Chennai, India

Authors: Priti Narayan*, Rutgers University
Topics: Urban Geography, Development
Keywords: commons, urban land, social reproduction, displacement, citymaking, India, urban geography
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/6/2019
Start / End Time: 5:00 PM / 6:40 PM
Room: Madison B, Marriott, Mezzanine Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


The commodification of urban land, and various infrastructural and environmental projects aiming to create a "world-class" Indian city have been putting immense pressure on public land (Shatkin and Vidyarthi 2014, Baviskar 2010). Working classes who have lived on these lands for generations are increasingly being dispossessed (Mahadevia 2011, Sharma 2010), by means of a primitive accumulation of lands that were hitherto not a part of the market economy. Based on ethnographic fieldwork in Chennai, I posit that in this precarious landscape, urban poor residents display a range of savvy strategies with which to preserve their access to the city. Among these, is the active encroachment of city space through the self-construction of community infrastructure such as childcare centres. Through this strategy, residents (i) demonstrate a sustainable model of social reproduction with little aid from the state, and (ii) attempt to strengthen their moral claims to city land by asserting its current use value.

These infrastructures are neither the outcomes of an "NGO" filling gaps left by the state, nor are they the result of active collaboration with the state (as described in Appadurai's 'deep democracy' (2001)). Instead, these encroachments defy landownership and tenure legalities that city government agencies themselves cannot defy in order to provide these services. They also indicate a mode of autoconstruction that is not a means to achieve propertied citizenship or individual gains as in Holston's Sao Paulo (2008), but a way to build and sustain an urban commons as a way to resist land commodification.

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