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The Logistical City

By Brett Neilson and Ned Rossiter

Boarding Gate C10, Suvarnabhumi Airport: midnight approaches at the end of the concourse, beyond the malls and gates collecting passengers for Singapore and Hong Kong. A long line of young Indian men wait to weigh their hand luggage before boarding the Kolkata flight. These are kuruvis, low-level ‘hand-carriers’ employed by shadowy bosses to transport consumer goods like electronics and garments between Thailand and India. Not surprisingly their pre-weighed luggage comes in exactly at the maximum weight allowance. But it is also carefully apportioned according to value, each carrier transporting just enough to stay under the Rs 5 Lakh limit that attracts prosecution for smuggling electronic goods into India. When the laden flight docks in Kolkata, the baggage hall is resplendent with commodities: plasma televisions, hi-fi systems, musical keyboards, not to mention the iPods, mobile phones, digital cameras and computer circuit boards stowed in makeshift bundles of shabby cloth. This is a full-scale logistical operation – a single link in the many networks of formal and informal labour that distribute consumer goods manufactured in China to markets around the globe.

If the Transit Labour Shanghai Platform engaged pre-eminently with chains of circuit board production, markets for re-assembled electronic goods, and networks of e-waste disposal, this baggage hall scene attests that such patterns of connection and distribution are by no means localised only in urban China. Yet it is another and quite different Chinese import that provides the focus for the Kolkata platform: the import of the very model of an economic zone. Here, we are faced with the intractable problem of origins and modes or techniques of translation. How is the plan of urban development and infrastructural development mobilised from China to India? Does this also register the flight of capital from the wealthy eastern seaboard of China to the less capital intensive territories of India? Is a new geopolitical configuration in the making here, or is this a material instantiation of more abstract and global work distinct from the legislative power of the sovereign state?

These sort of questions frame our research in Kolkata and will be tested against more specifically local conditions and politics, which include the history of state formation and the transformation of peasant labour into an urbanised labour force finding new forms of employment that subsist on the fringes of the logistical, IT and IT enabled service (ITES) industries. To be sure, this is not an investigation that provides a gloss on the leapfrogging from agricultural to informational economy, as if that exists beyond the delirium of the World Bank and IMF. Rather, we seek to refine a method of research that brings the practice of collective investigation into a meeting with the politics adumbrated by global logistical operations as they manifest within Kolkata’s new urban developments.

The Rajarhat New Township is an urban development on Kolkata’s north-east fringes originally conceived by the West Bengal government in the 1990s to relieve the city’s housing problems. In the late nineties the West Bengal Housing Infrastructure Development Corporation (HIDCO) was established, charged with the development of this new town, and given wide powers to acquire and sell land, install infrastructure, construct housing, build commercial premises and maintain the future city. Once a lush and biodiverse site of peasant farming, Rajarhat is, with the economic crisis of 2008, now a largely stalled development. Empty land is sparsely dotted with apartment blocks (many of which are still under construction), shopping malls, and office buildings slated for occupation by IT and related service firms such as Wipro, Tata Consultancy Services, Accenture and Infosys. It is here that Transit Labour’s collaboration with the Calcutta Research Group will be carried out. Kolkata based researchers who have conducted field work and archival research for over a year will team with Transit Labour participants, some of whom were present in Shanghai and have made preliminary visits to Kolkata, to investigate the complex mobilities between different labour regimes that coexist within or contribute to the production of this space. The aim is to discern the dissonances and resonances that connect the predicament of Rajarhat to the Chinese situation.

If, as the dominant narratives of Asia’s economic rise would have it, China has become the world’s factory, then India has become the site of virtual migration – the place wired up to perform the West’s cognitive labour. Both of these scenarios present different takes on the concept of the logistical city, whose characteristics are distinct from earlier and contemporaneous city formations – the industrial city, the global city and, more recently, the sustainable city. Where the global city has a focus on the concentration on finance capital and its supporting infrastructure – both typically located in city CBDs – the logistical city tends to locate itself on the city’s peripheries, taking advantage of cheap land, lower labour costs and, ideally, a ‘clean slate’ or surface to make easier the instalment of infrastructure belonging to communication and transport industries along with residential and commercial property developments.

From software innovation to the more mundane propositions of beta-testing and business process outsourcing (BPO), India, or at least selected pockets of it, has been linked into global networks of logistics and labour. Not only do these pockets roll out the source codes that run and link the world’s virtual infrastructures – the transnational dimension of the logistical city – but they also execute a range of low price services, from telephone marketing to legal processes requiring data entry, from medical transcription to human resource management. Rajarhat aspires to be one such pocket. But the political, legal and economic complexities that apply in this site, as well as the violent history of dispossession that lurks beneath the barren surface of its vacant lots, impede this aspiration. Just as Transit Labour’s focus on the logistical operations surrounding cognitive and creative labour in Shanghai questioned the convenience of portraying China as the world’s factory, so the ongoing politics surrounding the collision of market and administrative space in Rajarhat trouble the vision of India as the world’s business park.

‘The global economy is rebalancing’. So begins a pamphlet entitled ‘Global Delivery: A Course to High Performance in a Multi-Polar World’ published by consulting, technology and outsourcing company Accenture in 2008. The booklet continues: ‘In this rapidly evolving environment, business leaders must find innovative ways to access new engines of talent, and manage an around-the-world and interconnected workforce to achieve global delivery and ultimately reach high performance’. This slick corporate language provides an ideological framework that materialises itself in logistical networks and processes that link up, coordinate and monitor the performance of workforces worldwide. Such ideological and material realities touch ground in places like Rajarhat. In February 2011, Accenture opened a Delivery Centre in the Unitech Infospace development, an unfinished IT park with Special Economic Zone status in Rajarhat’s Action Area III. Transit Labour’s visit to the site revealed a string of ramshackle tea shops assembled across the road. Run by former peasants and agricultural workers forced into ‘service villages’ during the period of land acquisition, the squalid and makeshift aspect of these informal businesses strongly contrasts the gleaming futurism of the IT development. Moreover, it registers the coeval and contiguous existence of heterogeneous labour regimes across the variegated spatial terrain of Rajarhat.

Transit Labour is convinced that the struggles and debates that have surrounded the removal of Rajarhat’s peasant population from the land provide an original and productive angle from which to recast empirical and theoretical discussions of cognitive labour, software studies and the global transformations of capitalism. By the same token, we believe that questions of logistics and IT infrastructure/development provide an analytical lens through which to approach the politics of land expropriation in ways different to the leads offered by subaltern studies and its rival theoretical traditions.

Anthropologists Marc Augé and Jean-Paul Colleyn observe that the ‘Asian examples of spectacular economic take-off owe little to “development” strategies and much more to movements of global capitalism and geopolitics’. Such a perspective resonates with Transit Labour’s emphasis upon logistical operations that coordinate movements across populations and borders. In focusing the Kolkata research on the dangerous flip between software applications and peasant dispossession, we want to suggest that processes of primitive accumulation occur not only through the seizure of land but also through the workings of protocol.

For media theorist Alexander Galloway, protocol ‘refers to the technology of organization and control operating in distributed networks’. Protocological control, then, is a governing system whose technics of organization shape how value is extracted and divorced from those engaged in variegated modes of production. This includes both cognitive labour within the IT industries and relations with the former peasantry now redeployed as labour-power for services of varying degrees of formality. While different protocols govern the sociality and economies specific to these forms of labour, their relation is established through the development phase of Rajarhat where construction workers, service and care labour, urban planning officials, architects, IT engineers, new residents, and so on contribute to the logistical economy of the IT industries.

The politics that emerge from this variational process are the politics of the logistical city, a city that occupies the peri-urban spaces of Kolkata and connects with transnational circuits of labour and commodities. The political tensions peculiar to the logistical city also include conflicts between protocological systems. In such instances, the global dimensions of logistical calculation coalesce around local sites such as Rajarhat and tensions may arise through different protocols designed to implement standards. The organisational procedure for installing fibre optic cables that meet with international standards could, for instance, conflict with procedures adopted by local contractors responsible for ensuring environmental and occupational health and safety standards are met by workers charged with the handling and disposal of cables. New vistas of the political are made apparent in such scenarios in which protocols and standards constitute logistical systems of governance.

Logistics knows its subjects. In visualizing and managing the movement of people, capital and things, it produces knowledge about the world in transit. The challenge today is to devise techniques and strategies that operate outside the territory of control exerted by logistics technologies and their software algorithms. Such a challenge can never be met from the local alone. Resistance in the form of labour strikes or sporadic acts of protest and infrastructural sabotage are, after all, accommodated for in the spectrum of logistics in terms of ‘fault tolerance’. Even if such actions force the withdrawal of business interests, the retraction is most likely temporary and can readily be substituted by a new corporate actor coupled with a more violent suppression of dissent. Rajarhat is too attractive a site for the public-private alliance between the state and corporation when the potential capital accumulation promised by information economies is already economically enhanced through the sacrificial gift of primitive accumulation.

The method of research we propose requires attention to the ways in which the local imports the formula of the logistical city into the fabric of its own urban imaginaries. We are especially struck by the resemblance Rajarhat’s urban planning has with residential and commercial infrastructure spread across China’s cities. What is the passage of communication at work here? Is this an instance whereby legions of urban planning consultants and government officials from India and China enact technocratic procedures of ‘knowledge transfer’?

Our discussion in Rajarhat with researchers from Calcutta Research Group suggests otherwise. Ishita Dey’s research understands the resemblance between China’s new urban developments and Rajarhat as more a case of Indian urban planners gleaning impressions of how such developments might appear and proceed in a space like Rajarhat. It would seem experience is the ground upon which the plan is generated. But the projections of planners are not the only kind of fantasies set in motion by such encounters. There is also the commissioned economy of global architecture firms that play an enormous role in producing the sort of urban imaginaries that help connect places like Rajarhat with, say, new urban developments in cities like Tianjin in China’s north-east or Ningbo in Zhejiang Province.

Architectural renderings of buildings, spaces and even entire economic zones that will inhabit the logistical city of Rajarhat project a bizarrely sleek and well-proportioned future in which the only evidence of human life is carefully positioned silhouettes. Who are these shadowy figures? And what are the social, economic and political processes that will produce their subjectivity? These are questions that Transit Labour investigates, working through the logistical operations that connect this space to China and the strange temporality that interrupts this ever less plausible future form of Rajarhat’s agricultural past and economically unpredictable present.

Published in Transit Labour: Circuits, Regions, Borders, Digest no. 3, August, 2011.

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