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Regimes of Dispossession: From Steel Towns to Special Economic Zones


  • Michael Levien

  • While absolving them from responsibility, I would like to thank Michael Burawoy, Jamie Cross, Asher Ghertner, Daniel Immerwahr, Colin Pace, Suchi Pande, Jonathan Parry, Raka Ray, Ian Scoones, Wendy Wolford and the anonymous reviewers of Development and Change.


This article compares land dispossession for industrial development under state-developmentalism and neoliberalism in India. Drawing on interviews, ethnography and archives of industrial development agencies, it compares earlier steel towns and state-run industrial estates with today's Special Economic Zones (SEZs) and argues that they embody different regimes of dispossession. While steel towns and industrial estates reflected a regime of land for production with pretensions of inclusive social transformation, SEZs represent a neoliberal regime of land for the market in which ‘land broker states’ have emerged to indiscriminately transfer land from peasants to capitalist firms for real estate. The present regime has been unable to achieve the ideological legitimacy of its predecessor, leading to more widespread and successful ‘land wars’. The article argues more broadly that variations in dispossession across space and time can be understood as specific constellations of state roles, economic logics tied to class interests and ideological articulations of the ‘public good’.