Shareholder Cities: Land Transformations Along Urban Corridors in India

Shareholder Cities: Land Transformations Along Urban Corridors in India


Reviewed by Giselle Mendonça Abreu

First Published:

29 Mar 2022, 12:33 pm


Shareholder Cities: Land Transformations Along Urban Corridors in India

Sai Balakrishnan, Shareholder Cities: Land Transformations Along Urban Corridors in India, Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019; 256 pp.: ISBN: 9780812251463, £56 (hbk)


Emerging socio-spatial formations and urbanisation processes, particularly in the global South, defy urban/rural divides and require us to understand, as Roy (2016) suggests, ‘the entanglement of the agrarian and urban questions’. (p. 813). Brilliantly taking on this challenge, Sai Balakrishnan’s book Shareholder Cities: Land Transformations Along Urban Corridors in India offers a critical intervention in urban studies by moving beyond the silos of urban and agrarian studies to examine how contemporary processes of urban land creation in liberalising India build upon older agrarian property regimes. One of Balakrishnan’s main contributions to the urban studies literature is shedding light on how agrarian propertied classes enter the business of urban real estate development, reproducing or transforming previous class and caste relations. With this book, Balakrishnan shows not only how urban and agrarian dynamics are connected (e.g. in terms of capital linkages), but more importantly how they ‘collide, collude, and recombine’ (p. 3).

How is urban land being created along India’s new economic corridors? How do specific histories of the agrarian past shape this process? To answer these (and other) questions, Balakrishnan looks at the Mumbai–Pune economic corridor, in the Western Maharashtra region in India, and analyses three case studies of new townships emerging along this corridor. The ‘corridor region’ (as she calls it), as a unit of analysis, allows her not only to cut across the urban/rural divide, but also to navigate articulations across scales, from the broader national context of liberalisation and decentralisation reforms, to discussions of state-level land-conversion regulations, to differentiated agrarian relations and property regimes within the region.

The book includes an introduction followed by five chapters that weave together theoretical discussions with empirically rich narratives. In the introduction, Balakrishnan lays out her point of entry: after liberalisation reforms in India, there has been a recalibration of land markets along economic corridors, with areas previously considered wastelands becoming highly desirable real estate assets. She considers the possibilities and limits of three dominant schools of thought about land markets–economic geography’s location theory, the Marxist framing of the rent gap and the Polanyian perspective of the double movement – mapping how the Indian context of land commodification aligns with and/or disrupts these theories. The first chapter then historicises the formation of uneven development in the Maharashtra region, showing how land has been made (and unmade) ‘fertile’ through biased policies of subsidy allocation and the construction of dams and irrigation canals in different infrastructural eras. In doing so, Balakrishnan both situates contemporary dynamics in longer histories, and politicises land categories currently used in Indian policy.

The core of the book lies in Chapters 2–4, where Balakrishnan analyses three ‘corridor cities’ in various stages of development: Magarpatta City, Lavasa Lake City and Khed City. Each case study, based on detailed ethnographies and supported by both archival and statistical work, allows her to trace how specific agrarian relations, practices and property regimes have intersected with and shaped the production of urban land. In Magarpatta City, sugar cooperatives constituted the basis on which new real estate development companies were formed, turning agrarian landowners into shareholders. Political networks previously built by sugar elites were also instrumental in allowing them to bypass both local governments and institutions for participatory decision-making and to gain legal exceptions to transform sugarcane fields into urban townships. In Lavasa Lake City, the transformation of common or state-controlled forest lands into privatised real estate developments for tourism goes (almost) unopposed because of a previous history of dam-induced displacement. The construction of the Varasgaon Dam displaced Mulshi residents to scattered locations, hindering the possibility of political organisation of and contestation from villagers. ‘If Magarpatta City exemplifies the reproduction of agrarian privileges in a new market- and urban-oriented context’, Balakrishnan points out, ‘Lavasa Lake City exemplifies the perpetuation of agrarian exclusions’ (p. 100). Lastly, in Khed City, resistance to the new real estate development led to the unique formation of a joint-venture company that included agrarian landowners, the industrial firm interested in the new Special Economic Zone and a parastatal. Instead of the reproduction of agrarian privileges or exclusions, what happens in this case is a recombination between agrarian and urban actors, bringing together both dominant- and subordinate-caste landowners. In the final chapter, the three case studies come back together to bring similar patterns, as well as variations, more explicitly into relief. Most importantly, they point to the rise of a new form of local government along India’s economic corridors: the ‘shareholder cities’, which are characterised by the transformation of previous landowners into shareholders of real estate companies creating privatised enclaves. By juxtaposing the three cases, Balakrishnan is also able to reflect on how specific property regimes, embedded in complex agrarian histories and caste/class relations, relate to different processes and outcomes of rural-to-urban land transitions.

The book derives from extensive fieldwork conducted between 2011 and 2015 in the Western Maharashtra region in India. Balakrishnan is refreshingly open about her methods and the challenges faced in gathering data in this context. In addition to a traditional overview of the methodology in the introduction and an appendix that details the research’s phases, interviewees and interview questions, Balakrishnan also offers glimpses behind the curtain of fieldwork throughout the book. Her efforts in reaching out to landowners-turned-shareholders and to the businessman responsible for the Magarpatta City development, described in Chapter 2, are exemplary. These brief incursions into her fieldwork are not only interesting anecdotes – and perhaps particularly enlightening to graduate students and others beginning their careers as researchers drawing on qualitative fieldwork – but they also bring critical elements to her analysis. As she explains, the ‘varied experiences in gaining access to the corridor cities became a proxy for the varied publicness of the land-use decision-making process’ (p. 30). It is, in fact, precisely these challenges in ‘access’ that have led her to articulate a normative focus for the book: the need to empower the institutions for democratic decision-making on land use changes.

Throughout the chapters, there is a clear preoccupation with tracking the (more or less opaque) process through which decisions about land use change are made – and who has, or doesn’t have, a voice in it. Specifically, Balakrishnan is concerned with identifying the variable role that the Gram Sabha – a democratic assembly for discussing local matters, defined by the Indian constitution–played in each of the cases examined. While in the first two cases it is not even formed, the Gram Sabha becomes a key site of negotiations in Khed City. This happened, she argues, partly because of the need to perform cooperation to gain the electorate, but also partly because marginalised landowners were able to negotiate as collectives. The Gram Sabha became the place where the allocation of shares would be (publicly) discussed. However, she calls attention to some limits to the Gram Sabha: in this case, for example, important decisions about the boundaries of the new Special Economic Zone were made prior to the activation of the Gram Sabha, and outside public scrutiny. Yet, Balakrishnan holds on to the Gram Sabha’s potential to ‘reclaim the “public” nature of public infrastructure and the “city” in shareholder cities’ (p. 169). Thus, the book also offers an important contribution to a scholarship dedicated to thinking critically about the possibilities and limitations of democratic and grassroots participation in urban planning processes, in a moment where experiments, practices and mandates not unlike India’s abound around the world (the Brazilian federal mandate for participatory planning is one of many examples).

The book is obviously relevant to studies of land use change in India and, more broadly, in regions that are currently undergoing large-scale ‘urban’ transitions. But it extends far beyond this geographical reach. It should also be of interest to scholars working at the intersection of urban and agrarian dynamics in various contexts; to those trying to understand the mechanisms of land value production; to those examining the impact of liberalising reforms in land use change and the rise of new institutions of local governance; and, as I suggested before, to those discussing the challenges and promises of democratic participatory planning institutions. The more critical lesson, perhaps, is that this book reminds us of the importance of historicising, instead of generalising, if we want to reach a better understanding of the multifaceted process of creating ‘urban’ land.


Roy A (2016) What is urban about critical urban theory? Urban Geography 37(6): 810–823.
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