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  • Disposession without Developent: Land Grabs in Neoliberal India by Michael Levien
  • Dana Kornberg
Disposession without Developent: Land Grabs in Neoliberal India
By Michael Levien. 2018.
New York, NY: Oxford University Press. 332 pages.

Levien's Dispossession without Development exhibits the best of U.S. Sociology: rich empirical data, causal argumentation, and generalizable claims. Yet it does so with incisive and necessary historical specificity and a stubborn practicality that shrewdly eschews romantic notions of resistance or heart-wrenching monolithic tales of destruction, all while maintaining explicit commitment to the dispossessed. Dispossession Without Development traces, in unusually satisfying detail and with widely generative conceptual tools, why land dispossession occurs and traces the uneven effects of this "social relation of coercive redistribution" (4) on local communities.

Packed with sharp theoretical insights and original findings, the book makes a strong, if nuanced, case for the negative consequences of dispossessing rural communities of their land—especially in a neoliberal age where dispossession tends not to lead to jobs or remunerative businesses, but rather to depleted subsistence, heightened insecurity, and greater subservience. This, Levien argues, diverges from longstanding debates on the origins of capitalism that posit dispossession as either a necessary evil or the replacement of an idealized commons. While Levien's findings lean more towards the latter, he rightly criticizes romantic notions of a unified past based on particular European-centered histories, instead showing how patterns of ownership transform through existing planes of social difference that are historically and contextually specific.

Levien's account of land dispossession gracefully navigates a dizzying cluster of geographic scales. Using Burawoy's extended case method, he details processes of dispossession in the small village of "Rajpura" (a pseudonym) in the northwestern Indian state of Rajasthan, with the more ambitious objective of understanding the contextual specificity of what he calls regimes of dispossession. "A sociological understanding of dispossession," he writes, "requires that we descend from the heights of abstraction to understand how regimes of dispossession collide with specific agrarian milieux" (17). In Levien's case, the heights of abstraction are identified as the origins of capitalism debates; regimes of dispossession are the developmentalist and now neoliberal Indian state; and the specific agrarian milieux is the socially fractured and arid village of Rajpura. It is these ingredients that are on display in the production of the Mahindra World City development, a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) project based just outside of Jaipur, which, unlike other projects across India, received little protest from local residents and no sustained call to block its construction.

The book draws on an impressive array of original evidence that, like the analysis, is centered in a small village that lives in the shadows of the Mahindra World City but simultaneously pushes far beyond it. The project's data consist of nineteen months of fieldwork carried out in the village of Rajpura between 2009 and 2016, 116 interviews, and a village survey. Levien's multiple standpoints (from both high- and low-caste households) and long-term engagement affords him extensive access to village dynamics. In order to trace the actors behind capitalist and state-driven processes that may have otherwise appeared ephemeral or inevitable, Levien also included corporate and government organizations in his research, documenting the specific institutional events and decisions that made the Mahindra World City possible. And, not satisfied with confining his perspective to the region of Jaipur, Levien traveled to six other states and SEZs in order to contextualize his findings.

The book first examines the statist and local village conditions that made the dispossession of land for the SEZ possible (Chapters 2 & 3) but spends the bulk of the text (Chapters 4-7) examining the consequences of dispossession for village residents in terms of the distribution of land, economic capital, employment, and infrastructure and services. The final substantive chapter (Chapter 8) examines the consequences of this for local political alignments.

Chapters 4 and 5 constitute the heart of the text, though each of the book's chapters is substantial and crucial for advancing the argument. Chapter 4 examines the local processes through which dispossession occurred, explaining how compliance was...


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