Plotting & Scheming: Land Acquisition & Market Values in Colonial Bombay, 1898-1926

On 18 January and 3 March 2017, I gave versions of this talk and presentation on my book manuscript to the Cities Cluster of the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences (FASS) Research Division, National University of Singapore (NUS). the faculty and students of the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences (CSSS) Calcutta/Kolkata. These talks were chaired by Professor Tim Bunnell in Singapore Professor Lakshmi Subramanian and Dr Prachi Deshpande.

In the late 1890s, an epidemic of bubonic plague swept through the ports of the British Empire in Asia, dramatising the vulnerability of imperial power in its urban centres of command and control. Colonial cities like Calcutta and Bombay served as gateways to regional and global flows of people, money and machines, centralised and accelerated by networks of steam, rail and electricity. Freedom to trade and the rule of law underpinned both business and politics. Within these cities, power was shared and contested between colonial rulers, Indian elites and urban populations.

My presentation explores the social and spatial restructuring of early 20th century Bombay in the wake of the plague epidemic, through a study of the construction of Sandhurst Road, an east-west arterial avenue. Since 1955 known as Sardar Vallabbhai Patel (SVP) Marg, Sandhurst Road was named after the British Governor of Bombay Presidency who tackled the outbreak of bubonic plague in western India in 1896 by establishing the Bombay Improvement Trust (BIT) to “clean up” the city.

The BIT was equipped by the colonial state with draconian powers of compulsory acquisition, land clearance and slum demolition, to erect new buildings and build broad boulevards, and immunise colonial Bombay in the wake of the plague epidemic. The BIT acquired, demolished and redeveloped the city’s slums, swamps and streets, to unclog the city’s arteries and increase its circulation.

Within a decade of its establishment, the BIT emerged as the single largest land-owner in colonial Bombay by seizing and plotting vast tracts into new planning “schemes” – though not without costly legal and technical challenges to its eminent domain from landlords and tenants, temples and mosques, and owners of shops, theatres and quarries.

Arbitrated through Victorian ideas of “market value” and techniques of measurement and valuation in colonial courts, urban environments once valued through overlapping chains of title and uses were now awarded hypothetical cash values, driving speculation and generalising a new logic and political economy in colonial Bombay. I examine this transformation in the urban land market through tribunals and court cases fought against the BIT by Indian claimants along the alignment of Sandhurst Road, Scheme 3 of the BIT declared in 1899, notified for acquisition in 1902, and completed and thrown open to traffic in 1910.

Cases against acquisition and for higher compensation fought by claimants along the road established novel precedents in Anglo-Indian jurisprudence on land acquisition and valuation. These arguments and interpretations of  land and property law continue to shape urbanisation in the cities of post-colonial India and South Asia.

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