Roads blocked: ‘work in progress’


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IN 2009, during fieldwork for my doctoral thesis, I encountered the curious case of a plot of land situated along the railway tracks. Squatters had occupied the plot for a long time. All of them were evicted in 2002 under the Mumbai Urban Transport Project (MUTP) and Mumbai Urban Infrastructure Project (MUIP), which were initiated to widen roads, construct flyovers and overbridges and redevelop suburban rail infrastructure. The railway authorities owned the land. In 2002, they demolished all the huts and structures on the plot to evict the squatters. However, they did not touch one hut, which was an Ambedkar temple that the squatters and their leaders had built on the land, about 15 years ago.

The squatters were Dalits. Babasaheb Ambedkar is renowned as the champion of the Dalits. Members of Dalit groups have built temples and statues in his memory to worship him as their hero and to remember his contribution to the cause of their upliftment and political and social empowerment. The railway land authorities were afraid that if they brought down the temple there would be riots across the city as had happened earlier in Mumbai when some miscreants garlanded an Ambedkar statue with shoes.1 The authorities feared that they would be embroiled in a similar controversy and acts of violence if they brought down the temple. Hence, the temple remained untouched even seven years after the squatters were evicted, displaced and resettled.

I was fascinated by the story of the Ambedkar temple on this railway land plot. The temple was clearly a concrete mark of a claim that the squatters – who were also members of the Dalit group – once possessed this plot. The temple also represented the broader claims underlying the historical and social marginalization of the Dalits as a political identity group. As space was being restructured across Mumbai city to widen roads and develop rail infrastructure, the railway land plot was getting tied – materially, legally and notionally – to a much wider space of the city, beyond the boundaries that were established by the railway authorities after vacating it from the squatters’ possession. The plot is now linked to the Resettlement and Rehabilitation (R&R) housing where some of the inhabitants were resettled after the eviction. The plot also bears a symbolic and historical relationship to the histories and struggles of other socially marginalized identity groups in the city. At the same time, the past history and present status of the plot is tied with the trajectories of other railway land squatters in the city and their mobilizations for land, public resources and legitimacy of their claims.


The railway land plot, which now appears decimated, is intricately connected with the past, present and future generations of claimants who can likely mobilize the symbolism and history of Ambedkar, marginalization and oppression to fulfil their claims over the city and the state. Cities are replete with concrete and less overt marks that represent the histories of how different spaces have become what they are in the present. The questions I asked myself upon hearing this story were: How does the presence of concrete claims such as the Ambedkar Temple shape the formation of history and claims for land and the state’s resources? How do groups mobilize such histories to establish political and social space in the city, state and society for themselves as economic development and urbanization take place?

I have been intrigued by the trails and marks that are created as different groups settle in the city, and how they are made invisible or reinforced when space is restructured for infrastructure creation. These trails and marks, composed of claims articulated by different groups through diverse contexts and processes, constitute the record and the history of space. This record and history is reinforced or relegated to the margins depending on the forcefulness, legitimacy and content of the claims, and how these claims and the claimants are positioned vis-à-vis the regulation and control of space imposed by the state, interest groups and other stakeholders. In summary then, how does the state erase or reconfigure these multiple histories of spatial development when it undertakes infrastructure projects. What are the implications of these records and histories on spatial conflicts even as the state and certain interest groups try to produce authoritative accounts of themselves as drivers of urbanization and economic development?


Given this, the road widening process and the road itself – in its former and current legal and material manifestations – are not sterile, flat and one-dimensional. There are multi-dimensional histories that underlie a space which are transformed when infrastructure is planned and constructed. Excavating these histories helps us to understand how restructuring of urban space produces certain meanings and discourses about the inclusion or exclusion of population groups in processes of urbanization, infrastructure creation and economic development. These meanings, and the infrastructures subsequently built, can also reinforce the dominance of certain groups and marginality of others in state and society.

Researching and representing these histories foregrounds our understanding of the nature of gains and losses for each of these groups in the process of road widening. Specifically, interventions by the state, such as awarding compensation for land acquisition, are not necessarily progressive in each instance, and in many cases serve to eradicate, or at best neutralize, the contested claims over urban space and infrastructure, thereby erasing/restructuring the histories and archives underlying urban space and roads.


Given the politicized nature of these histories and the groups and institutions that are responsible for their creation and revision, I propose that we understand roads as archives of claims made on space. Academics and activists often criticize road widening projects for destroying old markets, cherished city spaces, environment and heritage. The loss appears permanent, as does the exclusion and marginalization faced by the groups who are evicted under land acquisition. The archival perspective departs from an overarching narrative of road widening as bringing some kind of closure to the trajectory of urban space and development.

Traditionally, archives are repositories of knowledge and ‘facts’ that were created as colonialists generated meanings about groups and their practices through documentation, report writing and classification systems.2 Archives thus became sites through which particular meanings were perpetuated from the past into the present. In this essay, I use the term archives to explain possible and lost futures in the course of urbanization and infrastructural development. These archives are comprised of claims. Claims ensue from the individual’s and group’s experiences (and thereby accounts) of space, relationships with state agents and agencies, beliefs about entitlements, and notions of land and property that are formed in the course of their socio-economic and political trajectories in the city. From here, I suggest that as urbanization takes place, groups create meanings and histories about themselves. These meanings and histories constitute records of spaces, which people then mobilize to articulate their claims over the state, and negotiations with the state and legal apparatus during the processes leading to road widening and even after infrastructure and development projects are fully implemented.


Different groups – traders, squatters, slum dwellers, vendors, shopkeepers, industrialists, propertied residents – settle in different ways in the city. In the process, each group creates roads, irrespective of whether these roads are dirt tracks that they make themselves or concrete roads which they establish by lobbying with different levels of state authority. Roads are vital because they enable access and mobility for people and goods, and help in establishing commercial/residential locations around the space. In this way, roads also contribute to the social and economic value of individual possessions and properties and further the social status of the holders/owners in the city and vis-à-vis the state. Therefore, over time, roads are tied with the possessory, tenancy and/or ownership claims that individuals and groups variously advance over the space. This process of linking specific claims with space constitutes the history of the space.

Histories (alongside claims) develop in the course of individual and collective relationships with the space. This relationship is somewhat circular, in that each entity – the person, the group and the space/property/land – develops particular identities and attributes in the course of time. For instance, from the early 1990s, East Bangalore witnessed the rise of a popular and prestigious retail trade location, which currently consists of multinational retail chains as well as shops and franchise outlets selling different products and services. This retail location derives its social and economic importance by virtue of being situated close to the city centre and by being located in an upper class neighbourhood that houses a well-paying clientele.

This retail location has also been thriving because the traders and shopkeepers regularly ensure cleanliness of the roads, and lobby for infrastructure, such as street lighting, through their association and via networks with elected representatives and the city’s power supply department. In this way, by virtue of holding on to this retail and commercial location, the retail traders and shopkeepers have consolidated both their social position in East Bangalore and political bargaining powers. Of course, there have been disputes around this location because some of the land and built-up properties were marked for acquisition to construct the metro rail station.


These relationships with the space, and subsequently with state agencies, are further shaped by immediate and broader trajectories of urbanization, regionalism, governance, law, economic development and political uncertainty. For instance, when some of the tenant traders’ and shopkeepers’ properties in the East Bangalore retail location were marked for acquisition for constructing the metro rail, many of the other shopkeepers from the area also agitated against the metro project and the authorities because they felt that the Bangalore Metro Rail Corporation (BMRC) would acquire parts or all of their properties for expanding the road below the metro line.3 The traders and shopkeepers also rose in protest because they felt that their financial and political bargaining power would be reduced if they were to lose their prosperous commercial location, either in part or full.

As I will explain subsequently, the court cases and the Public Interest Litigation (PIL) that the traders and shopkeepers filed against the BMRC between 2007 and 2009, need to be read in the context of their efforts to retain their location, to get maximum compensation out of their location so that they could move to other, similarly well-to-do areas, and to maintain historical records such as documentation about their location and claims through the PIL, that would perhaps enable them to come back to this location at some favourable political and economic moment in the future.


Together with processes of mobilization such as this, larger trajectories of urbanization and infrastructure development continue to add to and remove claims over history and ownership from the record of a street. These negotiation processes about appropriation of space and fulfillment of claims, which in turn are shaped by the dynamics between urbanization processes and people’s political and economic trajectories, comprise the archive that underlies roads and urban space. This process of selectively making and erasing the archive is fundamentally political. Groups not only try to attribute meanings to the space through this archival process, they also try to write and rewrite their own histories, and (re)position their mobilizations and claims in ways that enable them to move up the socio-economic and political hierarchies in state and society.

Over time, these histories become naturalized or occupy popular imaginations and collective memories, thereby giving leverage and power to some groups and/or relegating some others to the domains of poverty, illegality, illegitimacy and invisibility. It is these histories that we need to read and explain in order to understand why some negotiations and circumstances enable or disable certain groups from reclaiming the space (materially and politically).


Spatial and historical records are also constituted through people’s memories of how their communities were settled and constructed. In Behrampada, a slum in the eastern parts of Bandra neighbourhood in Mumbai, older residents continue to remember the initial, decrepit nature of the space, and how they improved it to make it habitable. Settlers occupied the area before 1947, when the colonial city’s limits ended at Mahim. The squatters began the process of settlement by filling the marshland, which was then Behrampada, with stones, earth, mud and other materials. These acts were undertaken to make the space livable in the early stages of its occupation. This physical act of settling the foundation has two aspects: first, it constitutes improvements to the space. These improvements form the bases of subsequent claims that squatters (and those who are later legally recognized and categorized as ‘slum dwellers’) can make before the state, law courts and landlords against eviction and/or for possession of space.

The second aspect is the evocative power of the memories and narratives of physically building the foundation. This evocative power and the narratives continue to constitute the record of the space even after the space no longer exists in the form that it did in the past. When filmmaker Madhusree Dutta visited Behrampada in the 1990s to shoot her film about the slum and memories of the post-partition era among the Muslim occupants, she was surprised to find that people recounted their earliest memories of filling the marshland with earth to make it liveable. This was in contradiction to Dutta’s expectations and film training, which were driving her to seek stories of partition, independence and nationalism from the settlers.

The airport authorities own the land on which Behrampada currently stands. The strong rail and road connectivity that has developed around Behrampada has added to its economic potential as a commercial location, thereby escalating the land values. This has led to intense conflicts regarding the ownership and possession of the land between slum dwellers, realtors and state government and planning authorities. In this way, the creation of infrastructure and development of space can jeopardize, accelerate and/or significantly alter the settlement processes and trajectories of groups during the various phases of consolidation.


The process of road widening leads to the (re)creation of socio-economic values that are associated with particular spaces. Affected groups accordingly attempt to mobilize the archive of claims underlying urban space and roads in an effort to retain and/or consolidate their possessory claims and holding power over the space, and to expand their bargaining powers vis-à-vis the state. In Mumbai, squatters and slum dwellers – possessing residential and shop spaces – evicted under the road widening policies are now attempting to preserve the record of their possessory claims (and therefore of their spaces) by filing lawsuits and PILs against the state government and developmental authorities for ‘procedural illegalities’ that resulted in the process of surveys, enumeration, identification of project affected persons and households, and award of compensation. In the process of these litigations, aggrieved persons are mobilizing various records that will enable them to hold on to their claims and to their spaces.


These records include identification papers, registration documents, maps from the past and the present, city development plans from earlier eras, testimonies of neighbours and family members, among others, which are unearthing complex histories of the myriad property and governance relations that have been underlying spaces across the city. These court cases are producing trails – materially and legally – across the spaces around the former road, resulting in different forms of capture, withdrawal and/or reconfiguration of space by people as well as by government authorities. This process, in turn, opens up and closes various forms of access to urban space, not only for citizen groups, but also for government personnel and institutions, which are keen on capturing space (materially and metaphorically) in order to establish territory and legitimacy of authority and rule.

Further, affected persons who were denied certain kinds of compensation during the enumeration process, such as shop spaces in their earlier sites, undertook acts of kabza (capture) in the R&R housing colonies that the state government, NGOs and private builders had built in different parts of the city. Between 2008 and 2009, the language of kabza was rife when I spoke with resettled persons. The connotations underlying kabza implied that kabza was emerging as a legitimate property right of aggrieved persons who had been arbitrarily and violently resettled into R&R sites.

The notion of kabza stands in contrast to the idea of ‘housing rights’, which the state government and NGOs believed they were providing to former slum dwellers and squatters through the R&R policies. The act of kabza and the capturing of space in the face of an authoritative Maharashtra state government, developmental and planning authorities and NGOs, contest understandings of housing and livelihood that are traditionally associated with notions of marginality, poverty and progressive economic development.

Possession of space, the act of holding space and consolidating it, is not always and necessarily about the poor, the exploited and the corrupt. Spatial contestations pervade across different groups and interests in the city. They inform people’s understandings of value, property, rights and entitlements. Roads are positioned amidst these understandings that exist among people as well as their perceptions of urbanization, access to space and socio-economic mobility.


Openness and closure of space are not simply determined by legal judgments, evictions and complete overhaul of the space by establishing infrastructure. Closure and openness of space are shaped by possibilities of meaning making, mobilizing meanings, and the capacity to hold on to claims while disputes and negotiations are taking place. In the dispute between the traders and shopkeepers in East Bangalore and the BMRC, I found that the shopkeepers and retail traders were variously producing accounts of themselves by emphasizing their contributions to the national economy as tax payers and economically productive citizens; victims who were being marginalized by the BMRC and the central government in Delhi; and guardians of public interest by virtue of filing a PIL against the BMRC for not following due procedure in the conceptualization and implementation of the metro rail project. Each of these accounts were intended to strengthen the traders’ and shopkeepers’ collective and individual claims over their commercial location which was now being jeopardized by the onset of the overground metro rail project and potential road widening.


The BMRC, in turn, was trying to produce an account of the tenant traders and shopkeepers as greedy, corrupt and tax evasive entities who were purely interested in obtaining monetary compensations commensurate to what the BMRC was giving to the landlords.4 In this way, the BMRC was trying to weaken the claims of the traders and shopkeepers, and was thereby attempting to justify the land acquisition. Further, the BMRC, similar to what the NGOs, Maharashtra state government and the planning authorities in Mumbai had done to the manufacturing traders in the eastern suburbs under the Mumbai Urban Transport Project (MUTP) in 2005-06, was projecting an image of the traders and shopkeepers as impediments to the city’s development and the public interest.5 Through this process of dispute, each of the parties was producing their own meanings of their situation vis-à-vis the creation of public transportation and roads.


Openness and closure of space are connected with the processes of perpetuation and erasure of records and histories, and the attendant possibilities of reclaiming and losing the material and political space, historically occupied by the groups in question, in the immediate and distant future. In March 2011, the High Court of Karnataka dismissed the individual court cases and the PIL collectively filed by the retail traders and shopkeepers in East Bangalore. Meanwhile, the tenant traders and shopkeepers have rented spaces around their former retail and commercial location, and are closely watching the developments in the area with the metro currently functional there.

The PIL has been closed, but it persists as a record in legal conventions and history, leading to the possibility of claims being mobilized around it in future. Not all groups are capable of sustaining and holding on to their claims as the traders and shopkeepers have done in this case. This is because not all groups have similar resources, bargaining power and influence over the different arms and agents of the state. If it is indeed the case that judgments, decisions, evictions and resettlement do not necessarily and always signal finality and closure of space, then we need a much more coherent and forceful critique of the discourse and practices of road widening.

Critiques of road widening therefore must be launched against the state’s proclivities to completely eradicate these histories and records underlying urban spaces. This involves, among other things, developing sharper critiques of awarding monetary compensation, housing, and transferable development rights in lieu of loss of space. This is because these seemingly progressive policies not only silence the contested archives of claims underlying space, they also reduce the claims to a particular notion of absolutist ownership and property rights, which are established when groups (voluntarily and involuntarily) surrender all their claims in exchange for money.

In this way, different groups’ histories of how they developed the space by filling the earth with mud and stone, creating habitable spaces, and negotiating with authorities to establish paths and pucca roads, are variously relegated to silence, the margins and invisibility. The state erases these memories, histories and claims through seemingly progressive interventions, thereby reinforcing the dominant narratives of itself as the creator of infrastructure and driver of economic development.

Urban restructuring is not only about discontinuities and breaks in the process of spatial and political developments, but also about continuities that survive, remain and variously impede and aid in consolidating claims. We need to return to history to understand marginalization and delegitimization, and explain how the past has produced – continuously and discontinuously – the present. Critique lies in comprehending how meanings are sustained and (re)produced in the present, whose claims gain precedence or are relegated to the margins as a result of these meanings, and how histories are configured and selectively erased as space is restructured. Roads are at the crossroads of these alliances between histories, groups and space.



1. Frequent riots have taken place in Mumbai when Ambedkar statues have been desecrated in the city or in some other part of Maharashtra state. Ambedkar remains a powerful historical and cultural symbol for the Dalits across India. Any insult to Ambedkar is viewed as an insult of the community.

2. Ann Laura Stoler, ‘Colonial Archives and the Arts of Governance’, Archival Science 2, 2002, pp. 87-109.

3. In Bangalore, metro rail lines have mostly been constructed in areas where the width of the roads is between 80 and 100 feet. This has led to acquisition of properties on those roads and streets for constructing the station and widening of roads.

4. The compensation policy for land acquisitions under the Bangalore metro rail project made provisions for compensating tenant traders and shopkeepers who were going to lose their shop spaces for construction of the metro rail. This compensation was calculated on the basis of the annual Value Added Tax (VAT) amount that the traders and shopkeepers were paying to the government of India. This policy was dubious because VAT does not apply to many of the goods that the traders and shopkeepers sell. The policy eventually produced an account of the traders and shopkeepers as tax evasive entities to whom the state was showing munificence.

5. Kalpana Sharma, ‘Towards Urban Development’, The Hindu, 13 March 2006.