Land and landless in Hyderabad

The day after I left Hyderabad, a couple of bombs were set off in the city, killing over forty and injuring several more. Predictably, the governments of the state of Andhra Pradesh and of India are pointing fingers “outside.” The first culprit is always Pakistan’s ISI, or, on better days, rogue elements in Pakistani power circles. These, of course, work through radical Islamist groups. Links — however unlikely — to the earlier bombing of Makkah Masjid are made. Well and good.

But when something happens on such a scale in India (and, indeed, in just about any part of the world), there’s a cloud of uncertainty — the government, it’s well known, can’t be trusted. For instance, everyone knows that the anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat in 2002 were incited and orchestrated by the BJP government to polarize communal feelings and thereby win the state elections. Everyone knows it, but no one admits it officially, and many — including the BJP — vociferously deny it.

With these bombings in Hyderabad several theories have popped up. Some claim that anti-Congress elements (i.e., the Telugu Desam Party) are militating against the state government of YSR Reddy. Yet others are suggesting that the attacks were orchestrated by the Maharashtra government, or the Mumbai municipality, to scare investors away from Hyderabad — let there be no competition to Mumbai’s status as the financial hub and capital of India. I’m sure there are other theories floating around, and it’s hard to say what the truth is, because the truth is never simple.

Now I have no idea what happened, and I’m not knowledgeable enough about the politics of India to posit any conspiracy theory of my own. But there was something else going on in Hyderabad that starkly reveals the polarization of worldviews between the haves and the have nots. And it was all about land.

When I was in Hyderabad, I met very few members of the middle class (upper, lower, everything in between) who didn’t have something to say about land. Land prices, and in general, property prices, are experiencing a sharp — even exponential — boom in several parts of Hyderabad. This rise in prices is most pronounced in Hyderabad’s suburbs, places like Mehdipatnam, Hitech City/Madhapur in the northwest, as well as near the planned Shamshabad International Airport in the south. Apparently, people have become millionaires “overnight” (or, over several nights) as plots of land that were until recently not worth so much suddenly became worth very much. Many in the upper-middle class have invested in building rental units (literally) on top of their own houses or on their other plots of land that are bringing in tremendous amounts of revenue.

There is an influx of international and national capital into Hyderabad. The most common type of foreign investment is in information technology (IT), with several national and multinational corporations coalescing around the aptly named Hitech City suburb in the northwest of the city. But this boom has attracted other forms of capital, e.g., to attend to the needs to maintain and expand infrastructure. A great deal of foreign capital is still coming in in the form of remittances from overseas — this is particularly true in the Old City where several Muslims migrated to the Middle East several years ago for work — and many still do. The increase in spending power attracts other forms of capital, businesses, etc. This influx of capital has been attended to by an influx of labour (and students) from all over India. I spoke to a doorman at a jewelry store (I was there for a wedding) who came all the way from the state of Bihar in the north of India seeking work — the traditional agricultural sector in Bihar, according to him, was not as profitable as the Rs. 2,500 he received for standing there opening the door. The road leading into the flashy Hitech City has a certain segment which resembles, very much, the crowded and decaying Old City. This stretch of the highway is spotted with hostels for “working men” and for “working women” who construct the remarkable buildings in Hitech City. Much of the labour is from rural Andhra Pradesh but also from all over India. Students are also coming to Hyderabad to study in the rapidly growing private educational institutions, even from Sudan and the Horn of Africa.*

No wonder, then, that prices of land are inclining so sharply. Yet, there’s another side to the equation of the the profits of the landed, and that has to do with the problems of the landless.

Hundreds of thousands of poor in Andhra Pradesh are without land, working on the lands of others (i.e., landlords) and living precarious existences because of increasing prices of rents. (That doesn’t mean that those small landholders are doing particularly well. State support for basic agricultural infrastructure and other support for agriculture has declined sharply in favour of state support for corporations — including large agrocorporations — and capital.) In urban areas, thousands are without houses. For several months the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India — more of the former than the latter, it seems — have been agitating for land reforms: land for the rural poor and housing sites for the urban poor. In particular, though, they’re demanding the establishment of an independent land commission to investigate and rule on matters of land reform and distribution. The ruling Congress party is tremendously reluctant, saying it’s proceeding to distribute housing according to its own plans (and it has less to say about land distribution). But the CPI(M) has been relentless in its activism. In late July, the Congress government fired upon and killed several (peaceful, unarmed) protestors during a CPI(M)-organized road blockage in Mudigonda way out in the AP Interior.

Support for the CPI(M)’s campaign has been increasing among the poor, and the CPI(M) has been relentless in the “land struggle.” As I drove by the Charminar in central Old City on August 15, I saw several CPI(M) demonstrators — poor Hindus, Muslims, both — milling about. Earlier, they had formed a human chain of several thousand (60,000 according to the CPI(M)) from Secunderabad to the Charminar. In later days, party workers occupied lands all over AP and in Hyderabad proper — including unused lands in the Banjara Hills suburbs in the New City (where, at the time, I was looking for the Oxford University Press — far away from their occupation). Banjara Hills is one of the areas where land prices are high — the name of the place is associated with wealth and comfortable living. 500 protestors were arrested by the Banjara Hills police.

All over AP, police forces have been going around trying to shut down the CPI(M)’s campaign. But the CPI(M) has kept at it. In other places in Andhra Pradesh, the Naxalites (Communist Party of India (Maoist)) have been waging a violent struggle against landlords and police. One of my uncles who is the titular owner of several lands does not, to this day, live in “my” home village (the village of my father)** for fear of being targeted by the Naxalites. He lives, instead, in Hyderabad.

The same middle class Hyderabadis I spoke to seemed to be blissfully unaware of the land struggles of the poor, or, they simply didn’t bring it up in polite company. And, well, it disgusted me. Seeing the affluence in Hyderabad, contrasted with the sheer poverty, all of that disgusted me. Driving through Hitech City, its virtually and literally gated communities, and contrasting that with the teeming masses of “working” people’s hostels, that disgusted me, too. Listening to the upper-middle class members of Hyderabadi society talk, in their huge houses, about rising costs, and about their thriving rentals, and their properties, all of that disgusted me, too. But, I realized, soon enough, that I wasn’t really disgusted with any of that as much as I was with my place in all of that. Yes, ultimately, I was just disgusted with myself.

I live in Markham, which, for all intents and purposes is a gated community. You will see no poor people here, panhandling or begging for money. The VIVA bus stops have benches with a slight incline that make it uncomfortable to sit, and impossible to lie down upon — but no homeless person would be doing that at McCowan and Highway 7 to begin with. The great difference between Canada and India — or Toronto and Hyderabad — is that in the former poverty is better hidden, differentially included. In Hyderabad, the poor don’t even have that option.

*This is all based on various sources, much of it is anecdotal, and there’s probably a lot I’ve left out — I’ve done no hard research into the economics of Hyderabad.
**My mother was born and brought up in urban Hyderabad.

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3 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    It was all about land at Blogbharti said,

    August 30, 2007 @ 11:41 pm

    [...] Noaman Ali takes an insightful look at other explosions in Hyderabad: The same middle class Hyderabadis I spoke to seemed to be blissfully unaware of the land struggles of the poor, or, they simply didn’t bring it up in polite company. And, well, it disgusted me. Seeing the affluence in Hyderabad, contrasted with the sheer poverty, all of that disgusted me. Driving through Hitech City, its virtually and literally gated communities, and contrasting that with the teeming masses of “working” people’s hostels, that disgusted me, too. Listening to the upper-middle class members of Hyderabadi society talk, in their huge houses, about rising costs, and about their thriving rentals, and their properties, all of that disgusted me, too. But, I realized, soon enough, that I wasn’t really disgusted with any of that as much as I was with my place in all of that. Yes, ultimately, I was just disgusted with myself. Linked by kuffir. Join Blogbharti facebook group. Do you know you can follow Blogbharti in Facebook? [...]

  2. 2

    Abu Yasmeen said,

    September 18, 2007 @ 5:08 pm

    Nomes,

    Great post! My wife is from Hyderabad, and I have visted a few times. I was actually thinking about moving there, but the property values have doubled in the last two years. I am hoping with all of the “outside” money that the Goverment will be able to set up a good infrastructure build road and schools, and some programs for wealth re-distribution.

  3. 3

    noaman said,

    September 18, 2007 @ 8:36 pm

    I would hope so, too. While I think we’ll see some improvement in infrastructure (flyovers that were started years ago are, supposedly, coming to completion; and new flyovers are being built), I don’t know if we’ll see too much improvement in wealth redistribution and social services. We might see an increase in employment, which, I suppose, is better than being unemployed. But all of this development will be geared toward the logic of capital, that is, making things even better for the rich and introducing new dependencies (consumerism, etc.) for the poor.

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