Urban Dreams in a Pamphlet: What’s the Point of India’s Global Investors Meets?

Bagmane Tech park, credit: Ajith Kumar

Early last year, the state of Karnataka in south India welcomed a handful of representatives from across the world, along with many thousands of Indians, to the latest iteration of their Global Investors Meet, Invest Karnataka 2016. Delegates were greeted with a top-notch pop-up exhibition center with air-conditioned meeting rooms, lavish food and carpeted toilets. In the run-up to the event, roadshows were held in South America, Germany, France, UAE and also within India in Delhi, Mumbai and Hyderabad. Participants at the event were offered reams of glossy documentation, including pamphlets, booklets and brochures, as well as web and Facebook sites that together advertised the state and one potential future for it.

Our initial interest in Global Investors Meets, an event platform used in India to encourage investment in specific regions, was how it relates to urban change — we are both urban scholars interested in the region. But it soon became clear to us, as we stepped from the street and into the event venue at Bangalore Palace grounds, that if we were to really understand the sorts of changes underway in the state, then we had to take the materials produced for Invest Karnataka seriously.

In packaging the state of Karnataka and its capital Bangalore, the event, and the publications produced for it, offered a rosy view of problem-free investment that contrasted reality. The state had invested a lot in producing a particular image of itself, and the importance it places on this image, as well as its divergent character, sows the seeds of its own failure.

We wandered through the stalls that were promoting businesses and state initiatives and dipped in and out of plenaries on different aspects of Karnataka’s economy. We greedily gathered up all of the promotional material we could find, shoving them into a handily provided laptop bag with “Invest Karnataka” emblazoned on the side. When we got back to our workplace, we were in awe at the Karnataka laid out before us.

What sort of future does the state government envision? Who is let in and who is left out? Can we dismiss the material as mere propaganda, or does it have a role to play in shaping the state in years to come? In the following months, during our research into Global Investors Meets, we’ve been exploring the role this media plays in relation to urbanisation — how the desires mediated through the promotional material contribute to the fast pace of urban change in the state. We’re looking at how particular sector profiles are advertised, comparing these with related state policies and interviewing actors involved in putting together the campaign. What we found is an image of the state that is both proud and yet insecure, and in which the promise of land plays a central role.

Branding the State by Promising Land

The brochures and pamphlets are awash with place-marketing names for Karnataka and its capital Bangalore (Bengaluru): “Silicon Valley of the East”, “Biotech Hub of India”, “Hub of MNC’s” and so on. This is not all hubris, with Bengaluru often praised by the sort of bodies to which investors pay attention. It recently beat Shanghai and Silicon Valley to be ranked the world’s most dynamic city in the JLL City Momentum index, whilst according to KPMG Cities investment monitor 2016, Bengaluru is well placed amongst the world’s global cities for attracting investments. Moreover, during and following the event, newspapers and sites reported that INR 1.3 billion (around €18m) worth of Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) had been signed.

However, as elsewhere, there was some skepticism as to how much of this promised investment would result in actual money. For instance, we were told by staff at local chambers of commerce that the MoUs were easy to sign, but harder to follow up on as the gestation period of investment projects was long and unpredictable. Furthermore, the low implementation rates of 2–3 percent in the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu, following their Global Investors Meet in 2015, offers a sobering counter to the euphoric press reports.

To worry about the actual numbers is to somewhat miss the point, however, as we must also look at the processes enabled, in part, by the glitz and media buzz surrounding these events — especially in regards to “freeing up” land from rural dwellers. Global Investors Meets and the promises to attract investors go hand-in-hand with bureaucratic reforms that ride roughshod over local democratic practices established for the protection of communities and their livelihoods. Speeding up the approval of land allocation through single window clearances seems to be the main feature of the oft-repeated mantra “ease of doing business”. In the run-up to Invest Karnataka 2016, the state government identified 115,000 acres of land that could be acquired for industrial or real estate projects; 50,887 acres were notified for acquisition; and 21,486 acres had already been acquired.[1]

Moreover, the purview of the Karnataka Industrial Policy 2014–19, which was also heavily advertised during the meet, simplifies procurement of land and speeds up conversion of agricultural land for industrial purposes within a stipulated time period. It allows investors and developers to block off parcels of land and speculate on it, thus obstructing the productive use of land for food production or livelihood. Indeed, as has been argued elsewhere, land speculation, enabled by active dispossession inside and surrounding the city of Bangalore, has become one of the main functions of the government in recent years.

In the entire corpus of materials produced for the meet, few human beings (bar politicians) were included in the numerous pictures, and only twice were those who were to lose their land mentioned. These mentions were accompanied by promises of “fair compensation” and “one job per family” — something that studies have shown do not take into account either the financial realities of displacement or the skill base of those displaced, and are justified based on unrealisable myths in regards to new employment opportunities.

Smooth and Sanitized

As in all democracies, doing things in India is messy and difficult. A company might want land for their new industry, and the state may want to give them that land, but when they try to do so, via legal or illegal means, the people who work or live on the land often are not given an option — they might be in immediate need of cash and thus surrender, or they might resist or negotiate with varying degrees of success.

The India presented in the materials we collected is a country free from messiness or disputes — a state where legislation paves the way for easy transfer of land, sidestepping of employment regulations and the so called “license raj” through “single window clearances”. Land and people are now considered as parts of a “knowledge hub”, “start-up capital” or an IT “eco-system”. It is also a place that looks and feels familiar. Not familiar to locals, but rather familiar to global investors who can relate to “western” landscapes, imagined computer-animated infrastructures and glass buildings of international companies depicted in the brochures.

Such detachment also characterised the event itself. Whilst Bangalore Palace grounds were resplendent with images of the smooth future, the surrounding city was bought to a grinding halt to accommodate it, with traffic jams reaching new levels of stickiness. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the city, there were protests demanding that legislation be brought in that would ”reserve” positions within large private companies for people from disadvantaged castes, similar as to the current practice for state jobs. The protesters were aware of their power to destabilise the image presented to global investors.

It was by thinking through all the media produced by and around Invest Karnataka that we realised why the pomp of the event fascinated us so much. In an attempt to create an image ultra-smooth and sanitized, the organizers had gone too far. They had created a hyper reality that excluded even the merest hint of the human. An unrealistic image that allows those who wish to mess up the sanitized picture of the state the chance to take aim around the edges of the elite dream and dampen the expectations of investors. Within the heart of the dream lay the seed of its own downfall.

Ian M. Cook is a Research Fellow at the Center for Media, Data and Society at the School of Public Policy at Central European University, Budapest, Hungary co-managing the project Sound Relations: Transgressions, Disruptions, Transformations. Trained in sociology and social anthropology and with an interest in time and space, south Asian studies, sound studies, visual anthropology and urban studies, he has conducted ethnographic fieldwork in Mangalore (Mangaluru) and Budapest with research interests including: urbanism, informal economies, modes of learning, housing, land use, development, migration, infrastructure and communal relations. Committed to engagement outside academia he is a podcast host, blogger and organiser of various academically informed cross-over projects.

Swetha Rao Dhananka is a sociologist and currently a freelance consultant and lecturer based in Bangalore. Her research has focused on social justice issues around housing, urban governance and planning and institutional design. This article stems from collaborative work done during a post-doc fellowship hosted at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements and sponsored by the Swiss National Science Foundation.

[1] Karnataka government promotional material: ‘The preferred destination for investors’. Government of Karnataka: Department of Information & Public Relations.

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