In this paper, the researcher describes the small roadside shops which line a major national highway in West Bengal, India. Situating herself specifically in an important roadside town along the highway, Diamond Harbour, she describes the world of “little box retail” in the town, arguing that while “little box” retailers form the center of local economic and social life, a majority of them are unauthorized structures, which squat illegally on state land. Given that highway towns lined with roadside markets are a very common urban form within India, and that the space immediately bordering highways falls within the Right of Way of relevant road-building authorities, it is likely that there are millions of similar cases of illegal little box retailers across the country.
Durba demonstrates that these illegal shops are central, not marginal to Diamond Harbour’s economy, and that the local municipality collects taxes from them. She uncovers the unusual way in which the municipality taxes these unauthorized structures, through the creation of informal “trade licenses”. While some might dismiss these documents as illicit examples of local-level corruption, she argues that they present an innovative case of a municipality's attempt to achieve a compromise between the law and on-the-ground reality. She reads these illegal leases as forms of "improvised governance" which are created using the imperfect options at hand, and which attempt to mediate the dissonance between the law and actual practice in everyday life in India.
While these improvised documents provide benefits to both the municipality and shop owners, the researcher argues that roadside shops in contemporary Bengal are regulated not legally, but politically. They rely on the support of political party functionaries for their existence. Finally she argues that Diamond Harbour presents just one case of the widespread marginalization of the law in roadside markets across West Bengal, as well as the rest of the country. As India proceeds on the path of highway modernization and road widening, it becomes important to question the future of these vibrant, and unauthorized, roadside marketplaces.
Durba Chattaraj is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Director of Writing at Ashoka University. Her research addresses economic and cultural transformations in India in an era of globalization, and is based on fieldwork conducted along National Highway 117, which connects the metropolis of Calcutta to rural and marginal areas in West Bengal. Her current research focuses on informality and space in New Delhi.