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The Making of Land and the Making of India

A Virtual Book Talk with the Author

in partnership with the South Asia Center, Penn Earth & Environmental Science, and Penn Anthropology

Nikita Sud
Professor of the Politics of Development, Oxford University
Thursday, January 27, 2022 - 12:00
A Virtual CASI Book Talk via Zoom — 12 noon EST | 10:30pm IST

(English captions & Hindi subtitles available)

About the Book:
For long, humans have conceived of land as inert. Modernization as the institutional control of nature sought to mold this land, as also water, air, minerals, flora, and fauna in the service of economic growth. Building on research from across the social sciences, Prof. Sud's work rethinks land as the solid, dry surface of the earth. Instead, it presents land as multi-dimensional. Land is imbued with identity and history. It is simultaneously enlivened, territory, property, authority, and a point of contested access and exclusion. Materially and conceptually "unfixed" land is not "naturally" so. It is constantly made and re-made by institutions of the state, market, and politics. In her field sites in post-liberalization, globalizing India, land is sought to be ordered for capitalist development. In the process, a state attempting to order a layered topography is stretched into shadowy domains of informality and unsanctioned practices. A market in land may be advanced, but remains precariously embedded in sociality. Politics may challenge the land-making of the state and market. It may also effect compromises. Attempts at constructing a durable landed order thus reveal our own (dis)orders. In attempting to "make" the land, she shows that the land simultaneously "makes" us.

About the Author:
Nikita Sud is Professor of the Politics of Development at the University of Oxford. She is Governing Body Fellow and Vicegerent (Deputy Head) of Wolfson College. She researches the neoliberal transformation of the state and governance in the Global South; the social and political life of nature, especially land in the era of Climate Change; and the sociology, politics, and political ecology of contemporary India. She is the author of the academic monographs The Making of Land and The Making of India (Oxford University Press, 2021) and Liberalization, Hindu Nationalism and The State: A Biography of Gujarat (Oxford University Press, 2012). Besides publishing in journals across the social sciences, Nikita speaks and writes regularly for the media. Her work has appeared in The Conversation,,, NDTV, Thomson Reuters Place, Mongabay, Al Jazeera, openDemocracy, East Asia Forum, BBC World Service, Radio 4, and Radio France and Mediapart.


Nafis Hasan:

Hello and welcome to the second event in CASI spring seminar series. My name is Nafis Hasan, I'm a postdoctoral research scholar at CASI. The seminar series this spring comprises talks by a diverse range of scholars from across the world on a variety of critical and contemporary topics. Our speakers come from a wide range of disciplines, including political science, anthropology, economics, and architecture and design. We have these talks typically on Thursdays at noon, Eastern Time, and more information about them is on the CASI's website.

So without further ado, I'm delighted to welcome today's speaker, Prof. Nikita Sud. She's a Professor of the Politics of Development at the University of Oxford. She is Governing Body Fellow and Vicegerent of Wolfson College. She researches the neoliberal transformation of the state and governance in the Global South; the social and political life of nature, especially land in the era of Climate Change; and the sociology, politics, and political ecology of contemporary India. She's the author of the academic monographs, The Making of Land and The Making of India, which is what she's going to talk about today. She's also author of Liberalization, Hindu Nationalism and the State: A Biography of Gujarat in 2012. So, besides publishing in academic journals across the social sciences, Nikita, Prof. Sud also speaks and writes regularly for the media. Her work has appeared in The Conversation,,, NDTV and several other magazines and media outlets. Now to say a little bit about the unique way in which Prof. Sud thinks about land in this book, which is the focus for talk today. For long, humans have conceived of land as inert. Modernization as the institutional control of nature sought to mold this land, as also water, air, minerals, flora, and fauna in the service of economic growth. Building on research from across the social sciences, Prof. Sud's work rethinks land as the solid, dry surface of the earth. Instead, it presents land as multi-dimensional. Land is imbued with identity and history. It is simultaneously enlivened territory, property, authority, and a point of contested access in exclusion. So materially and conceptually unfixed land is not naturally, so. It is constantly made and re-made by institutions of the state, market, and politics. In attempting to make the land, she shows us that the land simultaneously makes us.

Today's talk is in partnership with the South Asia Center, Penn Earth and Environmental Science and Penn Anthropology. And we thank them all for this support. So before I turn it to a speaker, just to let you know, if you have questions at the end, please use the chat box to send them directly to me, Nafis Hasan, and I will call in you to pose your questions. Please keep your questions brief and to the point so we can get to as many as possible and apologies in advance as I can get to everyone.

Finally, please be mindful about muting your mics throughout the duration of the event. And also please remember that you cannot record this presentation without prior permission from the presenter. So once again, thank you very much for interest and for being here today. And with that, I'm going to turn it to Prof. Sud.

Nikita Sud:

Thank you very much Nafis, for the invitation and CASI and all the other centers and departments that are involved. It's very nice to see so many participants. I hope to not talk for too long. And I have a discussion afterwards because these are still ideas that are in the making, even though the book has been published, but I'm happy to hear feedback. So, okay, let me begin at the beginning, why I started working on this topic of land. This was in the mid 2000s when there was a land boom in India. And we were hearing a lot about land transitions. Large pieces of land exchanging hands, particularly for the use of India's new economy under liberalization and globalization. Hmm. For some reason I can't move my... Here we go.

Okay. So in the 25 years or so after liberalization began in India, some 5.6 million hectares of land had changed hands from primarily agrarian users to the users of the new economy in the secondary and tertiary sector. So we are talking about industry, real estate, mining, et cetera. And this land for the new economy... The economy and transition was coming out of wasteland, which decreased in the same period by about 2.5 million hectares. It was coming out of pasture, net sown area and also forest land. And these are government figures. So they're probably a little under reported. And this huge transition of land in India is fitting with the global trend. There's a lot of writing globally on what is called the great land grab, which is about 50 million hectares having exchanged hands in the period from 2008 when there was a global financial crisis till about 2020 or so. So there's a huge transition in land all over the globe. And that is also reflected in a transition in land in India.

So, I set off to study this land transition in three parts of the country, where there were cases that I was reading about in the media, et cetera. In west India, in Gujarat which I had written about before, I decided to study a vast, special economic zone, which has many of you will know is an infrastructure and trade policy promotion tool where the government relaxes its regulations to encourage production aimed mainly for export. So the first two pictures are from that special economic zone, which was over something like 32,000 hectares, where one hectare is about one football field. So very large. In east India, I decided to look at pre-urban Kolkata, where there were these towns coming up on the peripheries of the city encompassing about 6 million people. And in south India, I decided to look at the highway developments between Chennai and Sriperumbudur, where there were again, special economic zones, IT parks, real estate and industry and logistics areas coming up.

So, a lot of transition in the post 90s period, and I wanted to understand what's going on and what role does land play in all of this? Of course, when I started visiting my field sites, my very neatly defined research questions and research design completely floundered, simply because it was not at all clear to me what this land was that I had gone to study. So for instance, when I went to the Western Indian special economic zone, this land that I was looking for was not quite evident because the land that you see on your screen here was literally being constructed out of the sea. By dumping sand and construction material, into rivers, estuaries, and reclaiming land from the sea and from mangrove, which are the picture with the greenery that you see, which are basically, plants that grow in brackish water and were being cut in hundreds of hectares to reclaim land, to build this zone of production and trade. And the people that it was displacing are also on your screen, on the lower left hand side.

Not only was land materially, not what I thought it was because I was seeing land made out of water, which is not something I had accounted for, stupidly. This land was also being spoken about very differently by different people who were involved in these field sites that I was visiting. So for instance, in Kutch in western India, I was sitting with Ali, one of the fish workers who you saw in the previous screen, who told me something like, "Do yo know sister, before any of this existed..." By which he means these new developments. "... We were living here, we were fishing and grazing." And a few days later, I was sitting with one of the managers of the large, special economic zone in pretty much the same area where I had interviewed Ali. And he said something like... He dismissively waved his hand and said, "Well, this is all wasteland. And we have invested so much to make it usable. And this is all the vision of the industrialist who owns the zone and a very good team. And earlier there was absolutely nothing here."

So one man's vision of his identity, his connection to history to memory was another person's wasteland. And interestedly, they were both pretty inaccurate if I put on my historians hat, because if you look at the history of the area that I was studying, it had been a thriving medieval, an early modern port doing trade with East Africa. So it was neither a wasteland nor was it just fishing territory and pastoral territory as it was being made out to be. But the historical accuracy is not in question here. What is important to note and which I quickly noted as I took my research forward is that land is not the thing that sometimes we think of it as. Instead, it needs to be seen multi-dimensionally. And I quickly redid my research design to see land along these dimensions based on what I was reading in an inter-disciplinary literature, from geography, sociology, anthropology, political economy, et cetera. And also in conversation with what I was hearing from people like Ali, like the SCZ manager, et cetera.

So taking into account these field, this enlightenment from the field and from the literature, in my book, I talk about land in these ways. Land is first of all, enlivened, it is identity, history and memory. Second, land is territory. It is the state's authority invested in space. It is a technology of rule that is used to order who can come in, who stays out. It is bounded. Third, it is the authority of the state expressed in policy and terms. Fourth, it is property, a commonly thought of dimension of land, where the state decrease, who can use land and who cannot. And last, from a literature in sociology, and also what I was hearing in my field sites, land is access and exclusion. It is not only the state decree right to gain benefit from something. It is also the ability to do so. And the ability to exclude others from using that particular land or other entity.

And this is not just academic speak. I can show you this multi-dimensionality of land in practice in my field sites. So, I was sitting with a village head, an ex-village head, a local strong man next to the special economic zone. And he said something like, "Whatever property title you may have on land is good. And sometimes if you have a very straightforward title, we can easily spoil it because power really lies in possession." Or the word kabza. "You..." By which he means the farmer, "...don't really sleep in your field. Do you? I will just send five men. They'll go and sit in the field that night. Next morning, they'll put a fence around your field, which means they'll territorialize it. Now you'll have to fight me in court, or will you just settle with money? If you go through court, you will be dead before anything comes out of it." Your litigation [foreign language 00:13:10]. So, here you see these different dimensions of land that I'm talking about. You see land as property, you see land as access and exclusion, and you see land as territory.

And these multiple ways of thinking about land are everywhere in my field sites, even if they hadn't been there in my initial conception of what I was looking for, which is why the book eventually sees land, not as inert, as Nafis was saying in the introduction, it sees land as a process that is constantly in the making. This is conceptually. So it is conceptually multi-dimensional, as I just said. It is materially varied. It is very fluid and both materially and conceptually land transitions between these various dimensions. So it is never fixed. In fact, it is very unfixed and in many parts of the book, I call land, unfixed land, rather than this fixed factor of production that we learned and say, economic 101.

This is not just academic hair splitting exercise, in the bulk of the book I asked the so what question? So what that land is multi-dimensional, conceptually and materially? And the answers that I reach over the various chapters, are that the making of land as enlivened, as territory as property access, et cetera, is obviously, not done automatically. Land is not automatically multi-dimensional. It becomes so in interaction with the social, with the human and human institutions, and as land is being made multi-dimensional, the institutions that act on land are also being made and re-made, which is why the book is called the making of land and the making of India. And let me now go over some of the findings very quickly. Hopefully, you'll be intrigued enough to want to read it, but just to give you snapshots of what I'm talking about. So the various chapters talk about the making of land as processes of state-making and market-making and politics-making, and vice versa. So we make the land and the land makes us. So let me go to the state first.

As land was transitioning in India, we were hearing a lot about changing laws and regulations as states because land is a state subject in the constitution of India. So sub-national states are largely responsible for regulation around land. And these states were going out of their way to be business friendly, to make land easily available for private investments, such as for the zone I was talking about, or for real estate or for IT, or whatever other users. And all sorts of regulatory changes were made to the land acquisition law. As many of you will know in many parts of India became easier to convert agricultural land to non-agricultural users. In several parts of India, residential restrictions were lifted so that you didn't have to be a farmer to own farm land. You could be an entrepreneur wanting to set up in this street. So a lot of changes were made in land regulations. And I've written about this, including in a piece for world development.

If you're interested in how this regulatory framework changed for the state to take on this sort of [inaudible 00:16:48] of the business friendly land, business friendly state, which was... In the words of the Gujarat government where you could sell rupee and earn a dollar. But this is not the only picture of land and the state that I show in the book, because as anyone who works on the state knows things, don't go according to plan, you can go on changing the laws, but things often don't move. You have to move a lot of... You have to do a lot of running around for getting things, even when they're enshrined in the law. And that is what took me beyond the law and changing regulations off this business friendly state, making land available to private users. It took me scenes such as this. These are pictures from my field sites, where if you go to any government revenue office, you will see these local busy bodies and strong men who sit under trees in makeshift places and do your land work to make land available to you.

And what they are doing is breaching the boundaries off the state. So the formal regulatory state is constantly breached by what some of my respondents call the men who sit outside the office. These are people who occupy the shadows of the state and in working on papers, in getting stuff done in bridging the distance between the formal law and the informal practices, and as anthropologists like [inaudible 00:18:31] and Deborah would tell us they routinize the shadows and bring the state into the shadows of functioning until that shadow state becomes the state for many people who are trying to access it. Some of the pictures here are of moonlighting of officials who are doing this land work outside office hours. Others are part of a revolving door system where they retire, and then they do this land work of making policy accessible and actually making land accessible to ordinary people. But also to big industrialists who work with these kind of people to actually access land that they want to build on.

So as land is being paperwork, as it is being made, ready for users of India's new economy that are all sorts of technologies that are used to order this land. So, things like the master plan, maps, records, computerization, et cetera. And then there are these shadowy informal orders that are taking place around the state and formal regulations around land. And this quote sort of says what I am trying to do analytically here, which is changing upon record is backdoor work. The government office will have to be managed real estate developers have a setting in the office through which this work gets done. And the reference here is to a pond that had to be covered with soil to make it part of a plan for a building. And that on record that state work doesn't get done automatically. It is done through these settings, through these networks, which proliferate the book. And that's how land work and state work is really done.

And that is the state of land. It is not just this formal business friendly state that you see on brochures and in magazines, making land available to the users of the new economy. It is these men in the middle, these shadowy orders through which land work and state work is actually done in the everyday. So as this land work is happening, and as the state is being stretched more and more into the shadows to do this land work, the market in land is also flourishing. The Karl Polanyi, the political economist told us many decades ago that land is not a commodity, like soap is a commodity or a toothbrush is a commodity. It is not available on a supermarket shelf to buy. Land is a fictional commodity. It has to be made into a commodity that can be exchanged on the market. And this exchanging on the market and making land and ready for the market is being done by the state as I just showed. But it is also being done in the sphere of the market one at the level of imagination.

So, if you think about driving on the outskirts of a big city in India, you're going to see ads about flatly flats, ploty plots. There are lots of flats, there are lots of plots, et cetera. Or if you talk to someone in the real estate sector or someone trying to sell you these many plots, they will tell you things like, "You must invest in land. This is a highly profitable commodity. The price of never goes down. Stocks can go down, et cetera, but land just goes up and up." So, anthropologists like Arjun Appadurai, call this a process of dream making where you are... Speculation where you are anticipating a profit before doing any business at all. So there is this building of confidence and this speculative boom that is created before anything is actually exchanged or built on this land. And I think Llerena Searle is in the audience and she has written about this beautifully in her book and various papers.

So I'm using people like her work and others to talk about land as a commodity that needs to be imagined and performed before it is actually brought to the market for sale. And this imagining and performing of the commodity land is done through images and texts, discourse, the creation of desire, et cetera, by the state, as I was suggesting early and by actors in the market. So real estate developers, for instance, gave me quotes like, "The market is exploding. Land value never goes down." Et cetera. And of course, along with the people who are centrally involved like state bureaucrats or politicians and developers. There's a whole infrastructure of consultants, architects, planners, et cetera, who make land ready as a commodity to be exchanged on the market. And again, to give you an ethnographic nugget of what I'm talking about, the sort of speculative dream making around land, here's an interview with the real estate developer. We were sitting next to a pile of mud basically. And here he is imagining what will come out of that.

So he's sitting with a person who's making a brochure for these flats that are going to be made and then sold. And the developer says things like, "I want to give a roof to a garden. Well, garden is not the right word because he didn't have enough space for it. Let's just show some flowers and chairs in the brochure. We'll call it landscaping. So a landscaped apartment complex." Then the brochure guy says, "This room that you're showing is too small for a gym. Let's just call it a meditation room. Let's put a music system and some air conditioning here. And then of course we'll have things like power backup or water filtration plant, CCTV, et cetera, et cetera." And the developer says, "Yes, obviously, and give me something that's aesthetic, but also low budget and so on and so forth." So that's the dream work and aspirational thinking around land that I'm talking about as it is taken to market for exchange. But this imagination of a booming commodity or something that just goes up in value, never comes down, et cetera.

This is not just an imagination without end, land is also very embedded as a vast literature and sociology for instance, tells us by all sorts of constraints of credit of capital, of politics, et cetera. And of course by sociality, land in my field sites, exchanges hands along say, lines of cast, of class. Women are often excluded from land deals. We know that they are not involved in property inheritance, et cetera. So this imagination without end at some level is very much an embedded imagination in sociality and in order. And in all of this imagining and constraining in fixing and brokering and negotiating land comes to the market and is exchanged. It becomes commodified, as Polanyi told us it becomes a commodity that can actually be sold.But here again, my work of multi-dimensional land comes in because even when land exchanges, hands as a commodity with the title deed and is noted in state registers as private property that has exchanged hands from one unit to another, this land continues being multi-dimensional.

So for instance, a plot that is sold for a real estate company for instance, will immediately have the local political [inaudible 00:26:40] come and talk to the people who have bought the land, asking for the sort of rights, the informal ability to guard this land and to provide security for it, or to provide material for it. So even land that has become officially someone's private property and is registered as such with the state has contestations or over who can access that land, who can provide security or materials like brick and sand for it. So, there is still boundary making and territorial around this land. And of course, in Indian context and in many others, this land continues being the mother. It continues is being prayed to and continues being enlivened and invested with identity, with sacrality. Well, beyond this flat commodity that it might be made out to be in say, economic thinking, or flat thinking about land.

Even as I'm discussing this back and forth between the state and a shadow state, a market that is soaring, but also embedded. What we are seeing is an order around land being made. By order, I mean, a systematization based on regularities or how things get done around the place and in this order of land in the making... Multi-dimensional land in the making, what we see is a business-friendly state, which is shadowy and spilled over and a hybrid between the formal and the informal. But this is land in the making with a state in the making. And also a state-friendly business that allows this land to come to the market that exchanges this land in collaboration with this business-friendly state. So there's business-friendly state and state-friendly business through which land exchanges, hands and comes users that we saw in the first slide, the 5.6 million hectares that exchanged hands.

So this is the order around which land is made and exchanged, but this is not without resistance. And if we have followed land transactions in India in the 2000s, we know that these exchange of land, this bringing of land to the market with the assistance of the state has had huge amounts of resistance and political contestation over who this land belongs to the kind of compensation that is to be paid for it et cetera. So let me quickly talk about the making of the political around land and by political, I mean, a space that is adversarial and agonistic. If you use the work of someone like Chantel, moove, where difference is expressed, and it is plural, and it is essential for... In a democratic give and take. So this is an adversarial space. And the fish worker I spoke about earlier, Ali, who told me that, "This land was always ours and we were using it for fishing and as pastoral space for centuries." People like Ali are central to political resistance, to this large, special economic zone that you see here in the right hand picture.

And in this political fight that Ali and the fish workers that are around 10,000 of them in my field site Kutch in Western India, they are joined by pastoralists and also farmers and salt band workers. All of whom have been dispossessed by this large SCZ coming up. And they have been fighting the making of land, which has taken many years to put together 32,000 hectares. They have been fighting this pretty much since 1993, and they're continuing to fight it as the SCZ expands. And as it changes, shape and purpose, now it's most recent other third is as a copper refinery and a solar manufacturing facility. People like Ali and his collaborators have fought these developments along the lines of lands multi-dimensionally. So this land is their sacred land. It is the land of the ancestors. It is where the temples and the [inaudible 00:31:20] are located. It is where the ancestors are buried. They are the protectors of the mangroves and of the coast on which this SCZ is coming up.

So this is very much an adversarial us and them fight with obviously, power loaded with the SCZ and its private developer and the government, which fully support them. But this is a fight that has gone on for a very long time. And I devote two chapters to it in the book. I want to move on here though quickly. I hope you go... If you're interested, you read about this making of the political around these multiple dimensions of land. But this fight is not a fight without end clearly because the ACZ has come up despite this resistance. And that has come up. I argue with the settlements of politics. And here I think of politics as a contestation over resources who gets what, when and how and how much. And these settlements of politics happen also along land, that is authority, that is territory, that is materially unfixed.

So, just to give you an idea. When there has been contestation over, say an estuary, a part of the river that meets the sea and which is used for fishing, it's a very rich fishing ground. Immediately, people from the special economic zone and their hanger zone... The strong men hangers zone who have alluded in parts of talk. They go and change the maps around where the estuary is. They then dump construction material and sand into the estuary to cover it so that it is no longer visible in satellite images, because those are used in court documents that the fish workers have taken to the court to show there was an estuary here. You cannot build on an estuary because this is ecologically fragile. So, there are political contestations about what is the land and who owns it. And then there is the settlements of politics of the contestation resources that takes place along the bounds of territory, over the material making of the land, and also over regulatory smoothening.

So, if you change the map, then there is very little you can do to argue in court saying this is ecologically sensitive estuary, simply because that estuary has been made to disappear and the state laws that pertain to it have also then they're no longer relevant. So it is these settlements of politics through which the land that is unfixed and contested and highly political is temporarily ordered for the use of this SCZ and other such users of the new economy. So, politics settles the political and also settles the land for it to be made. But this settling is temporary and it is only partial because in the pictures that I'm showing you on the screen now, you see a temple. I alluded earlier to some of the contestations over the land happening because our holy places are here. Our ancestors are buried here. Other [inaudible 00:34:50] and temples are here.

One of the first things, the large SCZ that has come up on this land did, was alongside building the port goes with the logistics park, et cetera. It also built this massive Hanuman Temple that you see on the top right hand side of your screen. And as my interview is within the special economic zone, told me, Hanuman is the wind God. And this is a cyclone prone area, and Hanuman is there to protect us from the vagaries of nature. So while, one set of actors, the fish workers, pastoralists are talking about land, that they are protecting mangroves, et cetera. And as enlivenment because the ancestors are here and their gods are here. There are other kinds of enlivenment happening. And other kinds of claims being made to this space and to this land, by the other more powerful actors that are involved.

The people that you see at the bottom right hand of your also folks I hung out with who belong to various right wing organizations who have been brought on board to be protectors and champions of this SCZ, as a symbol of progress of development with the fish workers and pastoralists who are not all Muslim, but a large number of fish workers are. Those are anti-national and others. And because the zone is on the border with Pakistan, they are able to give out secrets or allow terrorists into the land via the sea and fishing boats. Whereas it is these protectors of the nation that will protect the territory of the SCZ and of India, the motherland. And here in the picture with the flag, you see another kind of enlivenment and identity making around, the SCZ. So, what is a commodity on one level continues being enlivened and territory and cost contested access and exclusion.

So, to of begin to conclude what I'm showing is a stretched out order of state that is porous, that is shadowy, that exists in formal and informal spaces. I'm showing an imagined market of that is speculative and boundless, but also embedded. And I'm showing a politics of resistance, but also negotiation, compromise, caution, and also the incorporation of some of the resistors in this new order that is being made around the land. And in all of this, as land is being made and re-made. So are the institutions that are working on this land, which is why the book, which is called The Making of Land and The Making of India, is also the make of land as the making of India, or sort of biography from the ground up one intended.

And I will just end with the last slide, which maybe pre-empts some of the questions I get asked sometimes. Why look at land this way? Why not as say accumulation by dispossession, which is very powerful and important framework. Several people who work on land in India and many parts of the world have used it. Why not look at land as the accumulation of capital and the disposition that goes along with it and not disputing those frameworks. I find them very powerful. They have exponential power. But in this era of climate change of nature being so precariously positioned around us. I think there is great need to re-think some of our fundamentals to not think of nature as a base on which the human builds and progresses and modernizes, as I hope this talk has shown the human and the natural thoroughly intertwined just as humans make nature and break nature also, nature constantly makes the human.

And I think in the moment that we are in, it is these kinds of frameworks that are important to understand the realities around us. And it is in that spirit that what I'm trying to write is a social life of land and the many lives of nature built through this land. I'll stop you here.

Nafis Hasan:

Thank you so much, Dr. Sud. This is a really wonderful overview of the book. And I think for me, what really stood out was the kind of relationalities that you point to, which as you mentioned. I usually studied one over the other in different... Almost siloed disciplines. But I think what you point out is the interrelationality and the over linking that one must pay attention to. And I'm also really, really happy to you see the foregrounding of ethnographic methods as a way to study land, which as you mentioned repeatedly has not been the preferred choice or method of research. So, I have some questions, but I'm going to wait and ask others who've already typed questions here to ask that question. So, can we start with Komal. Komal had a question which is related to methods and positionality. So Komal, would you like to ask a question?

Komal Preet Kaur:

Yeah. Hi, Dr. Sud, thank you so much for your insightful work. I wanted... If you could speak more about your field work experience. So, those of us who are thinking of conducting field work can have some lessons on navigating through like almost all men area of research such as yours. Thank you.

Nikita Sud:

By all men. Do you mean people that you meet in the field or do you mean scholars or both?

Komal Preet Kaur:

More towards the field side. Because I assume that you are studying land and all actors that deal with land must be all men. So yeah.

Nikita Sud:

Yeah. Nafis do you want me to take one question at a time?

Nafis Hasan:

Yes. How do you feel about that? [inaudible 00:41:39].

Nikita Sud:

I'm happy to do that.

Nafis Hasan:

Okay. Let's try that. And if we get too many questions around the same theme, then we could take it together.

Nikita Sud:

Sure. So, good question. Field work happened over several years. So, I first did field work in the Western Indian field site in 2008. And I went back the last time in 2015, 2016. Kolkata, I went several times. And none of these were easy and you are right that these are very male spaces. So let me give you... Let me give an incident that played a huge role. So for instance, when I was trying to understand real estate development, the building of new town, Gujarat, et cetera, and Kolkata. I wrote these emails with my method and my research design brief to various developers who I knew were building in Kolkata. I obviously, did not get a single response because people don't want to talk about land. It's a very secret area and a random researcher writing to you is not going to get to response.

So, [inaudible 00:42:54] was important here. One [inaudible 00:42:57] kept at it. But two, I happened to be... Here class and cast and privileges play a role. I was invited to a wedding in Kolkata and I happened to meet someone who was a real estate developer. And because he was in a jolly mood, he promised me an interview, even though he had been avoiding all my emails still then, and he became someone who then opened out some of this world to me. So, there were people like him and occasions like that, or just going and hanging out outside government offices, where there were local strong men who were land brokers, because that's where the money used to be made. But they were also political aspirants and they wanted to talk about the work they were doing, the stuff... They were trying to get involved in CSR activities that these new companies were coming up with to soften the atmosphere around land acquisition.

So, these people were involved in CSR. They were happier to talk about CSR and the land brokerage. So I got to talk to them about the social and nice stuff before trying to get to ask them more difficult questions. So, I don't think there was a very planned research. There was a plan, it didn't work at all. And I constructed my field work in these sort of bits and bobs. So yeah, not a systematic answer and a journal would probably hate it, but that's how I did it.

Nafis Hasan:

Thank you. So then the next is a question from Rashmi, which I think is a historical question. So, Rashmi would you like to ask a question?

Rashmi Venkatesan:

Yeah. Hi Prof. Sud. That was a really, really interesting analysis. I just had a really quick question, as I typed that, surely the process of land making is a pretty old one, starting from colonized, not starting from the new... Be familiar with the process of colonization, post-colonial India. So, and they've been done so very is processes like infrastructure projects brought under the governance of state in the market. My question is really whether the process of land making and bringing land into use, particular users for the market. Is that a process that you see as being different in post-liberalization India, or is it now these processes were very much established much before that, but they just get accelerated and used for different ends in the post- liberalization period. Rather than being very specific to the post 1991, 2000s period.

Nikita Sud:

You're absolutely right. So, there's nothing new about land being multi-dimensional. About it changing conceptually and materially. I think what is new and why I limit myself to the post-liberalization period is the sheer number of factors and the amount of activity taking place in land. So, because it is so furiously changing hands, and it is so coveted that these processes of land making as state making, as market making, et cetera, are visible and high dimension in this very dynamic time. But I'm sure the same study can be done for an earlier period using a similar framework.

Nafis Hasan:

Thank you. Nihkil Anand has a question. So Nihkil, do you want to ask it now?

Nihkil Anand:

Yeah, sure. Thanks so much, Nikita. I really enjoyed the talk and I loved your attention to the liveliness of land. I ordered the book and look forward to reading it really shortly. I was wondering if you could feel a little bit more about what the social protests that we were like detailing at the end of the talk were actually doing in the story of the [inaudible 00:47:11] external to the making of property. I'm thinking a little bit about the capital story of land, the story where increasingly bid into property. By disembedding relations with Polanyi, right? Resistance here is like internal to its eventual capitalization and commoditization. So, were there stories of lands and making that were durable that just didn't allow land to become property either because of social or environmental entanglement, pulled it back. Pulled it out of the domains of property making and land making that you found in your research?

Nikita Sud:

Yes. That's a really interesting question. And in the one field site where... When I was bringing in the political story from. You can see many of these processes happening. So there's land being pulled into the property dimension and flattened down, so that it can be put on the state registers belonging to this one company. But there is also a pulling back simultaneously, which could be happening alongside that land because there's a there [inaudible 00:48:20] or because there's a property dispute and you can't till that is settled in court, you cannot register the ownership. Or there is questions around is the state authorized to let the private company have this land when it is in the coastal regulation zone. And you cannot build on the coastal regulation zone.

So, in the same special economic zone, there are these multiple processes is going on, which I think in a lot of the literature around political protests, we forget this patchwork in which land is protested. And that patchwork is used by the private companies to use the others, to come and territorialize someone property and to build the wall around it and started dispute but it's also used by protestors. And I'm trying to bring that dimension out very interestingly, speaking of authority and state, authority deployed in these contests.

Right now, this case that I'm talking about is sitting in the US Supreme Court. One aspect of it because the World Bank has funded or its financial arm has funded the power plant that has showed in one of the pictures. And these fish workers and NGOs who are helping them have taken the World Bank's financial arm to court for going against its own environmental regulations. So, the language of the state, the language of regulation can be used to push land away from the property and private dimension and is being used to take it into it. And it's this back and forth that I'm most interested in.

Nihkil Anand:


Nafis Hasan:

Thank you. Dr. Ramakrishna would you like to ask a question?

Dr. Kilaparti Ramakrishna:

Thank you very much Nafis. Prof. Sud, so thank you for a wonderful talk and I have a confession to make it the outset. I'm not a political scientist.

Nikita Sud:

Nor am I.

Dr. Kilaparti Ramakrishna:

I'm a lawyer and worked on environmentally issues, both in India and globally. And my interests are mostly on climate change. I know your work in that and admire that. My question is about the time that I spent in South Korea in a special economic zone, Incheon area in Songdo. Many of the things that you pointed out are true of that area as well. And when I was working with North Korea, we had to bring them... I worked for the United Nations, bring them out for any kind of technical training. And then we would go to these special economic zones because not great at the time was very interest in it.

Time and again, whether it is a developed country or a developing country, the very same issues that you said have come up, time and again. I was struck really by the similarities of that. What does that tell us about the state of government in India and particularly the role that politics play? Are we just following the same example in the sense that well, some of them have done rather well, so we are going to do okay. Is it question of the frictions that you have talked about are natural. I mean, even right now, I'm in New York. And in New York city, as you may know, there was this big thing about the Amazon coming here and the local politicians didn't want it. And of course, there is a downside the lots of jobs that were to have been able to... I mean, I'm sorry, I'm sort of rambling a little bit. But my question is really where are we in India in the context of the development that you have outlined with respect to changes that had taken place in other countries around the world. Thank you.

Nikita Sud:

So, that's an interesting question. I do get asked this sometimes. What I'm talking about is that a third world thing, because you know, informality and brokers, et cetera, we don't have that in the UK or Netherlands et cetera. And my answer always is we absolutely do. We just don't have them looking the way... So you may not have the guy in the [inaudible 00:52:54] sitting outside the government office doing your paperwork, but you have these negotiations around what land is, who it belongs to. Even in Oxford on these days when we have a climate protest. Or when farmers demand subsidies from the government, because farming is so expensive. Immediately, lands enliven dimension is brought out that. This is England, this is the ideal that we need to preserve et cetera. So, this multi-dimensional engagement of the human with nature is across the world that the dimensions, the nuances obviously differ according to where you are. But it's not like land is fixed in the first world and not in the third. And I think that's exactly what you were saying.

And then the second part of your question was what does that do to say processes like someone like Nafis studies. He's looking at India's attempts or part Pakistan or so many countries attempts to make property registers go online. So, digitization and modernization of land records, which is seen as the answer to the land disputes and Kabza, et cetera that I was talking about. But if you think of land as this proliferation, it is very hard to imagine that it going on to a computer will somehow solve everything. Because the state and the shadows of the state, the market and how it's embedded those depend on these multiple dimensions and the state is not going to disappear. The people who hang around the state are not going to disappear. They keep the state and political system going. So, computerization is a very flat way of looking at land, which is more certainly not flat.

Dr. Kilaparti Ramakrishna:

Yeah. Thank you.

Nafis Hasan:

Thank you. So Llerena, Llerena had a question. Would you like to ask it?

Llerena Searle:

Sure. Thank you so much Nikita and thank you for your shout out. And I'm really excited to read the book. So it was great to hear about it today. I was struck, as you were talking today that your list of the dimensions of hand doesn't in include ecological as a dimension. And I wondered if you're thinking of its part of enliven or not. I mean, I was struck, all of the examples that you get gave a filling in ponds and filling in wetlands. And I wondered where you stand. I mean, there's a big strand of literature now, that would say that the natural world ha has adjunct properties. So, do you see that in certain places. Someone fills in the land and then the building subsides, because the land is ecologically not fixed. Or in the case that you gave of the fishermen, taking the World Bank to court where natural processes become part of a discourse and a right scrap and an important ground for claims making. So, either of those or maybe some other dimension of the ecological that you saw in your work.

Nikita Sud:

Yeah. So, like I said, this book was a while in the making and my own views on land changed from the beginning to when it went in for printing. And I think those views continue to change. So, if I had to re-write this book, given my growing interests in the climate crisis and stories of land implicated in that, I would pay a lot more attention to soil and the microbial properties of soil. And I talk about land in the book as the surface of the earth and what lies below it plus us. I think I don't pay enough attention to that surface of the earth as it is alive. So when I talk about enlivenment, I'm talking about the human dimension enlivening land, and it is very hard to separate the natural and the social world. So, I stand by that.

But I think there could be a greater ecological dimension to the work I'm doing. And I would certainly have the ecological figure a lot more in anything I wrote now. The enliven dimension is where I park the natural. But that enlivenment is enlivened by us not saying enlivened by bacteria. Or the example you were giving of the cliff falling down or of real estate complex caving in because of the natural dimension. Those do not figure in the book. And I think that is a shortcoming. I would a different book now.

Nafis Hasan:

Thank you. So Dr. Pradeep Nayak had a question or a comment. Dr. Nayak would you like to ask it?

Pradeep Nayak:

Yeah. So it is around 11, Sud, I'm very happy to listen-

Nikita Sud:

Are you in Norway, sir?

Pradeep Nayak:


Nikita Sud:

Wow. Thank you for tuning in.

Pradeep Nayak:

Yeah. Thank you. So I was listening and Nikita I'm reading your book. So actually I late to get the copy. So I'm reading it. So one thing I found Dr. Sud Nikita, that this informality, this multi-dimensional, we all discussed [inaudible 00:58:53] you to the seminar and this brokers. So where you'd like to put this land in historical context, to continue changes India land relations for example, when India land relations[inaudible 00:58:59] who cultivates land, who gets... What kind of land tenant relationship and what [inaudible 00:59:21] someone had edited a book. I think India [inaudible 00:59:25] power relation or something. That somebody did that, very complex, very doubting. Which I also do to help. I started writing land [inaudible 00:59:33] this computerizing, all these commodity [inaudible 00:59:33] facility thing from landmark. Can we remove this historically context of India land relationship [inaudible 00:59:40] apart from this [inaudible 00:59:40] this informal. Where does engage land What about you not overlooking because [inaudible 00:59:53] who land is enliven. [inaudible 01:00:13]

Nikita Sud:

It's a good question. It is a difficult question. So I think... Let me summarize what I understood. What you were saying is, why not talk about land relations and very unequal land relations that exist in India. So, tenants share crops, landless laborers, et cetera, where are they in the story I'm telling? And you also refer to my earlier work where I do talk about struggles over land reforms, land redistribution, the politics of that, et cetera. And I think my defense would be that I'm describing what is going on in my field sites. And bureaucrats, not like you, but people I interviewed in Delhi for instance, to discuss the changing regulatory landscape and how land was being made available through regulatory changes to the users of new economy.

When I brought a land reform with them and land redistribution, they very clearly told me, that is dead. So land reform is dead. Talking about land reform is quite useless. And what we really need to do is ensure that land can be passed on to these productive users of the economy. So I could have written a book about how land reform is dead. And that is... I know people like you have written about that. And it's a very important subject that we shouldn't let it die and redistribution should remain on the agenda. But I think my task in the book quite different, it was to show how land is being transitioned. Not downwards, but further up to the big industrialists and the big private interest in the economy. So, it's a very different work from I think, what you would've liked me to do. Dr. Nayak.

Nafis Hasan:

Thank you so much. We are almost. We're at the top of the hour, but I had a question which I'm going to just pop in. It's probably going to be the last. So, as you know, I'm interested in the bureaucracy of land and looking at the way in which material, infrastructure of land records is changing. I was really fascinated by the account of the shadowy... The shadowy state or the shadowy men that you speak about. So, I wanted to ask you what impact does that have the whole taxonomical categorical ways in which land has been made into a thing, bureaucratically. There's a huge investment in that since the colonial period. And in my one work, I see that that infrastructure of knowledge actually weakening. And then the knowledge of about land, the more transactional knowledge of land being somewhere else, it's actually outside the offices. So, what does it say about the way in which such a robust and massive bureaucracy of land exists or continues? What does the future of that bureaucracy, really?

Nikita Sud:

God, that is a very big question. I'm supervising a thesis right now in the patwaris in Pakistan. The patwaris system.

Nafis Hasan:


Nikita Sud:

And not only, so in answer to Dr. Nayak's question about land reform and why people talking about that. And I said, even the state of officials are, and they say, it's dead. So, there is an attempt... If you use the framework of marketization your liberalization to cut down on even the formal state and the bureaucracy within the state. Forget the middle men who are sought to be disappeared with computerization, et cetera. So, I think your question comes within that there is of course, a push and a huge financial support to cut down on the flap that exists in the land economy, the counter to that of... In this thesis, Pakistan with the patwaris, you see that with the computerization patwaris were almost made redundant. But it is impossible to do away with them because they just do so much within the system that you can't do away with the knowledge, the repertoire of experience that they have, and the many, many functions they perform well beyond scribbling in land revenue books.

And with liberalization, with these changing laws, with these new alliances with capital, the state has tried to reinvent itself. And the state is not just that state at the top with the ministers and senior bureaucrats, et cetera, the state goes down to these local officials. And it's very hard to imagine that EDI Phase is crumbling despite the pushes of the world, the computerization modernization agenda, et cetera. Which is why I think for scholars like you and me to bring out those stories is very important, right? What are these people actually doing to keep the state going in places where it's inaccessible, where it is seen as distant and very elite. How are these people keeping that EDI Phase going, which a computer can never do?

Nafis Hasan:

Great. Thank you so much. This has been so fascinating. It's probably a most best attended talk this year and as you can see in the chat, there's so many comments...

Nikita Sud:

How can I reserve them, because I haven't been able to read them. I would love to.

Nafis Hasan:

Yeah, I've just downloaded them. I can send you the file.

Nikita Sud:

Okay. Thank you.

Nafis Hasan:

So, thank you so much, Dr. Sud, it's been wonderful. Thank you to the audience for attending this and for your questions. Next week, we have a talk again and next week it's going to be a talk by me. So, I hope to see many of you again and thank you for coming here every week for these wonderful talks. Bye.

Nikita Sud:

Thank you for inviting me and thank you for all the lovely questions.

Tariq Thachil:

Thanks so much for joining us, Nikita. And thanks everyone who joined as well. It was a fascinating talk and thanks for making the time.