Who owns the city? Neoliberal urbanism and land purchases in Gurgaon, India

18 Jul 2023, 9:57 a.m.
Meher Bhagia and Mallika Bose

Real estate is the world’s most significant store of wealth. The value of global real estate reached $326.5 trillion in 2020, making it nearly four times more valuable than the global GDP. Residential real estate comprises approximately 79% of the total global real estate value. This indicates a significant concentration of capital in residential properties, particularly in select urban areas. The pursuit of valuable real estate as a capital investment has had profound implications for housing affordability. Despite the gravity of this issue, empirical analyses of urban land transactions remain rare, mainly due to the fragmented nature of these purchases. Numerous smaller land deals involving a multitude of actors make it difficult to track the true extent of corporate influence and its consequences on housing availability and affordability.

By embracing the question ‘who owns the city’ posed by urban sociologist Saskia Sassen, we embark on an analysis of the key actors and influential forces that drive urban development and exert control over valuable resources. Particularly, we focus on private companies because of their growing role in financing, design, and management of the city in various political economies since the 1990s. We carefully chose Gurgaon as a case, a city adjacent to New Delhi built and managed largely by private companies. A herald of neoliberal planning, Gurgaon transitioned from an ordinary village into a global financial landmark within two decades. This city ranks the highest in India in terms of the share of vacant formal housing as a percentage of the total residential stock, with 26% of such housing remaining unoccupied. Whereas nearly half of Gurgaon's population is crammed within its 35 urban villages.

We developed a land ownership database of peri-urban Gurgaon to examine the amount of land purchased by private companies from agricultural landowners. Broadly, our study shows how neoliberal urbanism leads to speculative practices where land and properties are bought or held for the purpose of financial gain rather than productive use. Specifically, our analysis reveals the leading companies that wield quasi-monopolistic control over peri-urban Gurgaon and provides insights into their business practices. Moreover, these companies rely on unfair markets and unethical business strategies to acquire extensive tracts of sought-after urban land. Consequently, Gurgaon's neoliberal urbanism is intertwined with an illicit landscape, where illegal activities thrive alongside the broader urbanisation processes.

This study raises the question of whether neoliberalisation has contributed to the proliferation of illicit state-corporate practices in the urban realm. The knowledge gap of the significance of illegality within the economies of ‘successful’ cities primarily stems from the formidable barriers that researchers encounter when attempting to investigate these opaquely structured processes. To foster a more just urban landscape, the question of "who owns the city" must be given paramount importance. City governments play a crucial role in disclosing information on private ownership, allowing for a comprehensive understanding of power dynamics and advocating for transformative changes in urban planning and governance. By striving for transparency and inclusivity, we can pave the way for a future where cities belong to everyone and opportunity is shared by all.


Read the accompanying article on Urban Studies OnlineFirst here.



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