Corruption Plots, Imagined Publics: The Ethics of Space in the Millennial City

Corruption Plots, Imagined Publics: The Ethics of Space in the Millennial City

 A collaborative project between Malini Ranganathan, Sapana Doshi, and David Pike


In today’s cities, corruption narratives are at the heart of a widely accepted yet highly malleable discourse about the exercise of power. Brought to life through street-corner rumors, public protests, and backroom deals, corruption talk does not simply call out the bribe-taking bureaucrat. Rather, corruption stories have become a way to perceive rapid and unequal urban spatial change. In this collaborative book project and digital platform, geographers Malini Ranganathan and Sapana Doshi and literary and film studies scholar David Pike study the work of corruption stories in the imagination of global cities. The project begins with ethnographic forays in two Indian cities—Mumbai and Bangalore—and brings them into conversation with a cross-section of real and imagined urban worlds. In everyday life and in literature, culture, and film, the experience of urban transformation—from the sale of a plot of land to the construction of a luxury high-rise to the fate of a slum—unfolds through corruption plots. At stake in these plots are contested notions of the public, which construe who is harmed, who is to blame, and ultimately, what is the meaning of ethics and citizenship in struggles over space. These narratives and the intensities of feeling they conjure matter because they shape how people negotiate conditions of injustice and inequality and act on city spaces. Existing scholarship across the social sciences and humanities only tells part of how ordinary urban dwellers experience and narrate corruption. Rather than adopting a narrow definition of corruption often given by international development agendas, this project shows how corruption discourse enables a contradictory sense of ethics and diverse notions of the public—what is referred to here as “imagined publics.” It does so by exploring how stories of corruption are situated historically, and how they invoke shifting ethical registers for grasping both spectacular and everyday places.

Award period: August 1, 2017 through July 31, 2019

This project is currently in its early stages. On this page, we feature emerging urban “Topoi” (a term meaning “commonplace”) in which corruption stories are narrated.


Khayelitsha Slum, Cape Town. Photo: M Ranganathan


Jan Sunvai” or “People’s Hearing” in a Mumbai Slum to expose corrupt land grabs by developers. Photo: S Doshi


Slum near Asian Games Village, Bangalore (Ejjipura). Many slums in this vicinity were evicted in advance of the games. Photo: M Ranganathan



Street Justice. An unnamed youth stands in front of one of the many graffiti displays that blanket the undersides of flyovers and various on- and off-ramps at the intersection of 116 Street and Boyacá Avenue to commemorate the shooting death in August 2011 of the unarmed 16-year-old graffiti artist Diego Felipe Becerra, Photo: Archivo SEMANA


Water “mafia” in Bangalore. Photo: M Ranganathan


Water “mafia” in Bangalore. Image: Bangalore Mirror



Always-contested property claims, especially around charitable/religious/educational “trusts”. “This property belongs to Hidyathullakhan. Trespassers will be prosecuted.” Photo: M Ranganathan



Wetland in Bangalore. Photo: M Ranganathan



A special economic zone built with dubious legal clearance on one of Bangalore’s wetlands. Photo: M Ranganathan


Billboard hoarding advertising new luxury apartment complex in Bangalore. Photo M Ranganathan