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New landed gentry of a Divided India

The writer has worked as a communications professional for various non-profits across India, and is based in New Delhi.
Published : Feb 22, 2020, 3:11 am IST
Updated : Feb 22, 2020, 3:11 am IST

The landed class rewards loyalty and descendants are employed by families over eras.

The land is seen as rightfully belonging to the upper classes and castes, and illegal were anyone else to occupy it.
 The land is seen as rightfully belonging to the upper classes and castes, and illegal were anyone else to occupy it.

A curious aspect strikes passersby in Hyderabad’s upscale Jubilee Hills area. Lanes upon bylanes, villas on sizeable estates once occupied by bustling families today lie vacant. In exchange for a meagre wage, a small family or an individual maintains the grounds, and lives in a tenement on site. In adjacent Banjara Hills, more such properties are being replaced by builder apartments and exclusive gated communities priced at crores of rupees. This phenomenon has swept most of India’s metropolitan cities, and is especially visible in New Delhi, where every third residence is under remodelling for sale or lease. As influential families with generational wealth from pre-Independent India, or ones that acquired it in the years post-liberalisation and the information technology boom have turned global, with members migrating and settling abroad in pursuit of a better life, their movement and behaviour is starkly altering the politics of land back home in India.

These properties largely retain their original ownership, or are replaced with complexes where the plot owner retains one or several flats. They may have invested in more realty in what was once suburbia, now swallowed by cities and soaring property value. With their families (some second generation) occupying the upper classes in the global north, the new landed gentry of India divides its time abroad, and drops in to maintain these properties and settle pending matters on leases. Not much binds them to modern India, save nostalgia, a handful of relatives and remaining friends. With exceptions, the relationship between landlords and tenants remains feudal. In exchange for regular payments, shelter alongside small favours such as bare minimum repairs are extended by someone with significant power and control over a major portion of an individual or a family’s life at constant threat of eviction, or the loss of security deposit. Similarly, salaries disbursed to the staff for upkeep are just enough to keep them locked into dependence. The landed class rewards loyalty and descendants are employed by families over eras.

Individuals with generational income continue to own either crumbling or restored ancestral mansions flung across cities and towns. Chettinadu or Kolkata immediately spring to the mind — several retained for the owners’ regional or cultural affinity, few for architectural details and historical familial legacy, but almost all as a marker of influence and status quo as the locations reveal. Residences form the surface, but influential families of the upper strata across the country and the erstwhile aristocracy have managed to pass on havelis, temples, palaces down the family tree.

Our current Prime Minister and his colleagues in so many ways reflect the interests of this well-heeled, well-educated group. Largely abroad, back home occasionally to tend to matters, ensure the bare minimum to keep one’s head above water, and then onward to peregrinations. India then is a plot or a property to be managed; Indians are paltry tenants.

The link between overseas Indians with the funding and rise of fascist groups back home are well documented. The inimitable journalist Ravish Kumar, speaking at the University of California (Berkeley) in November 2019, noted how the very people who managed to use welfare systems to rise and establish themselves abroad, funnel resources to ensure these routes never appear in India, and if they do, are corrupted or destroyed. The recent abolition of the Dividend Distribution Tax makes real estate investments lucrative for non-resident Indians and further rewards them for their pro-establishment choices.

The intent to retain land at all costs within families or clans swings votes conservative. The global landed gentry of India, despite their semi-feudal or significant open outlook in other realms, chooses politics which ensure the status quo as it identifies the consequences of owning multiple fixed assets. Personal biases or ideological politics drive owners to rent to individuals of favoured communities or financial ability, indirectly aiding ghettoising and gentrification. If they choose to sell, it is largely to wealthy companies, and influential individuals and families who inevitably hail from the dominant classes and castes. As people are pushed together in ghettoised neighborhoods, the local government reduces access to civic amenities, and further isolates citizens from crucial contributors to mental health such as community parks.

Property value speculation and impacting factors further drive individuals to band together towards the kind of politics that erases or dissuades settlements of oppressed communities and migrants, many employed in the very construction of the highrises that the landed groups invest in. The land is seen as rightfully belonging to the upper classes and castes, and illegal were anyone else to occupy it.

Over time, realty will move into the hands of a generation settled abroad that will not be invested in the well-being or concerns of a large population largely alien to them. The landholdings only form a cross-continental financial safety net, as we see with the former royal families of India, who slip in and out, maintaining palaces left to them by ancestors as high-end hotels serving to network with the global elite. We have effectively created a colonising class populated by our own fellow citizens.

As the nation enters its third month of dissent provoked by the brute forces of right-wing extremism, and grows increasingly disenchanted with capitalism, how a polarised India tackles the ravages of a new zamindari system will shape democracy, and the fortunes of its citizens, for decades to come.

Tags: dividend distribution tax