Between the Highway and the Red Dirt Track : Subaltern Urbanization and Census Towns in India

Abstract: In the 2011 census of India, more than 2500 settlements have been newly inducted into the category of ‘census towns’ – the lowest size-class of urban settlements in India. This is a staggering figure in light of the observation that a comparable number constituted the total number of all urban settlements recorded since 1900. Furthermore, it has been revealed through aerial images, that a vast majority of these new census towns are situated away from million-plus metropolitan areas and are parts of smaller settlement agglomerations (Pradhan 2012). This geographical phenomenon of small-town based urbanization independent of state planning has been termed subaltern urbanization (Denis, Mukhopadhyay, and Zerah 2012). Taking this to be the point of entry, this thesis attempts to explore the nature of urbanizations unfolding in small-town India, from a subaltern studies perspective. It is meant to be an empirical and conceptual intervention into the dominant understanding of urbanization processes, both in state-led official accounts and in critical urban theory. It also attempts to throw light on the everyday politics of the production of the urban at these sites. The central question is to find out what a subaltern studies approach can reveal about this phenomenon of proliferating census towns.The analytical apparatus is built on core concepts of Subaltern Studies such as autonomous domains of political consciousness, and the notion of a sovereign historical subject. The empirical analysis combines discourse analysis of policy documents and official interviews, narrative analysis of personal interviews, participatory mapping exercises, and a household survey. The study was conducted in West Bengal - the state with the highest share of new census towns. The fieldwork was carried out in two towns in the south-western districts of West Medinipur (Garbeta town) and Bankura (Jhantipahari town). The thesis consists of five articles and an introductory ‘kappa’. I argue that i) there exists a clear dissonance between the official epistemology and the locally circulating forms of meaning-making; which renders official classifications redundant for the lived experience of urbanization ii) a complex multitude of socio-economic logics are at work in shaping the dynamics of this urbanization process, which cannot be fully represented through existing categories of theorization: hence this is an attempt to push the boundaries of how urban justice may be conceptualized and iii) the urban here is amalgamated into the agrarian and thrives on the perpetuation of power relations that are characterized by the Hindu caste order, although everyday forms of ‘resistance as negotiation’ are incessantly at work to prevent the power structure from stagnating. Thus, I imagine the census towns as sites of dynamic continuity and call for a democratic historiography of the urban that can do justice to the radical heterogeneity of lived experience.

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