Contesting the Unethical City: Land Dispossession and Corruption Narratives in Urban India

Sapana Doshi, Malini Ranganathan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

42 Scopus citations


In this age of global inequality, how people talk of corruption matters. This article examines the role of corruption narratives in struggles against land enclosures (“land grabs”) in two Indian cities. Drawing on ethnographic research on land grabs in Mumbai and Bangalore and critical corruption and geography literatures, we argue that corruption talk by slum-based and lower middle-class residents and activists advances an ethical critique of contemporary capitalism. In our cases, corruption discourse upends mainstream development agendas that narrowly equate corruption with individual acts of bribery and the long-standing notion in India that corruption manifests mainly among the poor and lower rungs of the state. Instead, we find that “corruption” serves as a cultural, semantic, and moral rubric that expresses and shapes a sense of structural injustice in this moment of sharpening urban inequality. Specifically, corruption talk is leveraged to identify and challenge the mechanisms underlying elite land grabs and the hypocritical policing of the poor. Corruption discourse also provides a meaningful framework to voice discontent over the betrayal of the “public interest”—defined here as housing and economic dispossession. Taking care not to unequivocally celebrate its progressive potential, we find that corruption discourse can be and has been repurposed in disruptive ways. We therefore posit the need to examine how corruption politics are expanding—rather than disappearing—from geographies of advanced capitalism.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)183-199
Number of pages17
JournalAnnals of the American Association of Geographers
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2 2017


  • accumulation by dispossession
  • corruption discourse
  • informality
  • land struggles
  • postcolonial urbanism

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Earth-Surface Processes


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