At the Edge of the City: the Peri-Urban in South Asia

Durba Chattaraj
Date and Time: 
Wednesday, January 23, 2013 - 4:30pm

Stanford Humanities Center, Boardroom


Little-Box Retail: Illegality and Improvised Documents in Small-Town West Bengal

As small towns in India experience rapid growth, local municipalities face difficulties in planning for changes in population size and composition. In this paper I examine “little-box retailers”– small, one-story shops which line the main streets of many towns in India. Functional and minimalist in their physical form, these shops depend on and draw their customers from the mobility engendered by the highway along which the town is located. Focusing specifically on the small town of Diamond Harbour in West Bengal, I describe the informal nature and tenuous legal status of many of these “little-box retailers” and uncover a complex, extra-legal system of leases which are granted by a local municipality to these shopkeepers. These extra-legal leases are not simply an example of corruption, but are rather the policy response of a cash-strapped municipality to a situation where over half of the shops within the town are unauthorized. I argue that these leases are a form of “Improvised Regulation” – they are pragmatic, pieced-together and politically-mediated practices used by the local state to regulate growing elements of the town's built environment which are not authorized.


Durba Chattaraj is a Senior Fellow at the Critical Writing Program of the University of Pennsylvania