Landscapes of Accumulation: Real Estate and the Neoliberal Imagination in Contemporary India


Online ISBN: 9780226385235

Print ISBN: 9780226384900
Publisher: University of Chicago Press  2016, 304 pp


Book Review by Meher Bhagia   16 June 2023

After two decades of scholarly work on the urban process under capitalism, writing an innovative book in this field remains a challenge. Llerena Guiu Searle’s book, Landscapes of Accumulation, accomplished it. Broadly, the book explores neoliberal capitalist processes through which buildings are produced in contemporary India. Specifically, it examines how agricultural and industrial land is transformed into international financial resource in Gurgaon, a satellite city of Delhi. Searle does an excellent job in not just relating Marxist geographic theory to practice but also revealing the limitation of David Harvey’s argument about land markets as a basic coordinating device for the production of capitalist landscapes to explain the Indian situation. She argues that capitalists not just merely respond to the price signals in the already established land markets for the allocation of land to uses, instead, they actively create new markets.

In the introduction of her book, Searle highlights the significance of her work by addressing assumptions held by many scholars that real estate is already a global practice. She provides an example of Neil Smith’s description of gentrification as a global phenomenon, “the mobilization of urban real estate markets as vehicles of capital accumulation is ubiquitous” (p. 9). The key idea of her book is that capital does not unfold on its own. Rather, capitalists circulate, invest, and accumulate capital. She seeks out the work that people are doing to forge routes of accumulation. Working with David Harvey’s idea of “accumulation by dispossession”, she focuses on accumulation because it remains under-explained whereas experiences and processes of dispossession such as violent resettlement of the urban poor through land acquisition policies have been well documented by scholars.

Being an anthropologist, Searle conducted an ethnographic fieldwork for this book in India for sixteen months, between October 2006 and March 2008 and during January 2016. She conducted participant observation with a European real estate fund (EuroFund), whose managing director let her intern at their office, and interviewed more than 140 people involved in the real estate industry including developers, architects, planners, fund managers, investors, brokers, bankers, journalists, and high-rise housing residents. However, unlike most ethnographic research, her work is not a place-based account. Her “ethnographic object” is the encounter or communication between foreign investors and their Indian intermediaries as they attempt to produce a global market in Indian land and buildings.

The book is divided into two main parts, each subdivided into four chapters. In Part I (Chapters 1-4), “Speculating on Indian Futures,” Searle delves into the reasons behind the high demand for land by Indian capitalists and land’s profitability. She posits that high-rise buildings in India are speculative gambles based on forecasted social and economic changes and not the actual changes. The stories and predictions about growth and productivity in India became so ubiquitous that they became accepted common sense for many. There was no statistical data to prove otherwise. In fact, Searle’s informants even suggested that she personally invest in real estate, stating that “real estate is something that has to appreciate” (p. 50). Stories of land price appreciation circulating in 2006-7 were muddled with stories about the growth of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), of incomes, Information Technology (IT) and infrastructure. Her informants called this collective narrative of India’s growth as the “India story”. The author traced the circulation of these stories from business magazines to government publications and developers’ presentations. The investment bank Goldman Sachs contributed significantly to the re-branding of India as one of the “emerging” economies, grouped with Brazil, Russia and China (the BRICs) and thus as a profitable investment destination.

The unprecedented appreciation of land values in India was possible due to the use of such stories to “conjure the possibility of profit”. Anna Tsing calls this phenomenon “spectacular accumulation”. The stories translated predictions into prescriptions. Following the newly liberalized real estate sector beginning 2002 and especially after foreign direct investment in Indian land was further liberalized in 2005, foreign investors entered the real estate market in India lured by the financial media and their stories about India’s growth. Comparing India with developed countries, developers and fund managers provided prescriptions such as the number of malls and hotels required in the cities in order to “catch up” with the developed nations. Searle provides ample examples of large urban projects built by developers such as Delhi Land and Finance (DLF), showing how speculative knowledge creates concrete realities.

Despite rumors circulating about falling prices and some investors exiting the market in 2007, many developers and investors chose to ignore the rising prices and the possibility of a sudden crash. A prevailing sense of optimism persisted, fueled by the belief that the market would be revitalized by the influx of “genuine residents.” This notion hinged on the idea that the growth of the IT industry and the increasing presence of multinational corporations would create high-paying jobs for young Indians, including women, and expose them to Western culture, thereby transforming housing trends. However, the author argues that the story of social change in India was greatly exaggerated by the media and the real estate industry. In reality, statistics tell a different story. “Only 15 percent of urban Indians are college graduates” (p. 95), contrary to the exaggerated claims spread by the media.

Searle also argues that spectacular accumulation is made possible by changing the social relations and practices in which the land and buildings are embedded to make them internationally tradable. Part II, “Conflict and Commensuration” discusses these changes. She traces two value projects in this part; investors’ attempts to make Indian real estate industry “transparent” and to construct “quality” buildings.

Chapters 5 and 6 mainly explore the “transparency” project through which new relationships were forged between Indian real estate developers and foreign investors. It led to the transformation of Indian developers into internationally acceptable business partners and buildings into standardized products that could be traded abroad. Layers of contacts and local knowledge is required to construct buildings in India due to the complex processes through which land parcels are consolidated, permits obtained, land-uses changed and building plans approved. To overcome this difficulty, foreign investors take assistance from Indian real estate developers who already have “land banks”. They would not invest until the land has been aggregated, is buildable, and is transferable. However, they complain frequently about the lack of transparency in the Indian market. Referring to James Scott’s work on legibility, Searle shows that “transparency” projects not just merely seek to disclose information; they are tools of power as they assist in simplifying, standardizing, and transforming people and practices. Similarly, the investors desire to gain more control on the Indian land by transforming it into an internationally legible and risk-free asset. The author also asserts that the Indian developers do not merely comply to their needs, rather they advance their own interests in raising the value of their firms and to “scale up” their businesses.

Chapters 7 and 8 trace the frictions in the relationship between foreign investors and Indian developers. EuroFund’s strategy for and struggles in generating profit through its “quality project” was hinged on showing the differences between international and Indian real estate industry. By critiquing and mocking Gurgaon’s architecture, the fund attempted to create space for producing “quality” buildings. “Quality” meant not just structural integrity, but a built environment which conforms to the international business elite’s tastes. Indian developers, on the other hand, had little incentive to spend on quality building construction and finishes. They valued land and their expertise in assembling it more than the EuroFund’s development expertise. They were interested in “lowest possible costs, highest possible margins, and quickest possible turn-around times on projects” (p. 207). The two conflicting modes of spectacular accumulation highlight the variations in capitalist practices that shape urban landscapes.

Searle concludes the book by writing her experiences of visiting Gurgaon again in 2014. Despite the enormous transformation of the city, the landscape she saw was not the one envisioned by many in 2006. The global financial crisis of 2008 created plot twists in the “India story”. None of the urban projects met their delivery deadlines and the private developers were heavily indebted. However, capitalist processes did not stop here. The value projects described in the book created conditions for new value projects. For instance, Blackstone, a private equity based fund in New York City bought many devalued commercial buildings in India, creating a portfolio of Indian assets larger than DLF’s. Creating such routes of accumulation requires a lot of work; capital does not move on its own accord.

In Landscapes of Accumulation, the author accomplishes to reveal the work people are doing in producing and circulating capital. The reader will remain engrossed and amused throughout the book picturing the many anecdotes and stories included in it. Searle has also provided maps, photographs, tables and graphs to support her arguments. This remarkable book is written in lucid English making it accessible to many. It will appeal to students and scholars in urban geography, urban studies, urban planning, architecture, anthropology, sociology and political science and is indispensable for anyone wishing to understand neoliberal urbanization in the global South.