In her book Ahmedabad, Amrita Shah beautifully describes her encounter with veteran BJP leader Surendra Patel, popularly known as ‘Kaka’ and credited with forcing landowners in the rural outskirts to give away their land for the ‘development’ of Gujarat’s former capital city. Echoing his leader Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who tries to sell his pet project — a more aggressive land acquisition law — as something that would benefit everyone, big business and peasant alike, Kaka claims that all the land deals done during his tenure as chairman of the Ahmedabad Urban Development Authority were a “win-win for everybody”.
Shah writes that Kaka “would try various approaches” to deal “with those who did not buy his win-win deal”. First, he would try the “flashing open palm” method, a gesture to signify an intimidating “request”. If it worked, well and good the farmer loses his land and the leader gets what he wants. Else, the veteran bjp leader would be left with no option but to deploy the last resort (he makes a grabbing gesture to show this). Make no mistake, Kaka means business, which in this case means land grab — snatching someone’s land against their will. And, indeed, few would doubt Kaka’s sterling track record in contributing to the “development” of Gujarat through such means, i.e.,by hook or by crook. His man Friday Nimish Joshi describes his success as “Vikase bandhyo vishwas (development-generated trust)”, writes Shah.
Cut to the near future. An imagined version of it. Imagine Modi has pushed through the land acquisition Bill, giving big business exactly what they have been demanding since the erstwhile UPA government replaced the colonial Land Acquisition Act, 1894, with the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement, 2013.
That means governments and businesses do not need to seek the consent of those who would be uprooted from their land and livelihood if they can show that the land is being acquired for national security, defence, rural infrastructure (including electrification), industrial corridors and housing for the poor, including Public-Private Partnerships where ownership of land remains with the government. In fact, beyond paying off the landowners, the government has little to do. It does not even have to find out how many lives a project would affect as no one who does not own the land being acquired would be considered project-affected. There will be no social impact assessment to figure out these messy details. So the fate of landless peasants and others dependent on the village economy centred around agrarian land use can simply be shrugged off.
It also does not matter whether the land is fertile or not. The only thing that counts is the estimated price of land and its value for the government and big business. In short, it’s back to square one with the land acquisition law resembling the British-era Act once again and the Gujarat model of land grab firmly in place through the length and breadth of the country.
Gujarat-based activist Lalji Desai described this as the “Modani model”, given how the Adani Group had benefitted immensely from land deals engineered by Modi on his home turf. Replicating it across the country — what the contentious land acquisition Bill sought to enable — has led to unprecedented and massive take over of agricultural and common land. For instance, more than 7 lakh sq km of agricultural land — three times the size of England — was snatched from farmers across six states (Delhi, UP, Haryana, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra) for the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor, as Vijoo Krishnan, joint secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha (aiks), had warned when the Bill was stuck in Parliament.
Even as the acquisition juggernaut rumbles on, organisations such as aiks within the Bhoomi Adhikar Andolan (Movement for Land Rights) — an umbrella alliance of people’s movements and farmers’ outfits that spearheaded the mobilisation against Modi’s land Bill — plan to “recapture forcibly acquired land”. The new land law did away with every avenue people had to successfully oppose a project through legal means before the acquisition of land, forcing them to organise for taking over the land after it has been acquired from them. With such movements raging across the country, India seems to be on the cusp of a civil war of sorts.
No matter how extreme this imaginary situation may sound today, that seems to be where the country is headed, with the Modi regime leaving no stone unturned to go ahead with a model of growth that depends on displacing huge numbers of people dependent on agrarian and allied occupations and forcing a fundamental shift in urban-rural demographics. “The Bhoomi Adhikar Andolan is yet to arrive at a formal consensus on taking up aggressive counter-mobilisation against land acquisition, including recapturing acquired land, but many of the constituent organisations, including aiks, are seriously mulling the idea,” says Krishnan.
Growing militancy within the people’s movements is also reflected in the tenor of veteran activist Medha Patkar’s recent comments. As convenor of the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM), a constituent of the Bhoomi Adhikar Andolan, Patkar tells Tehelka, “Farmers are committing suicide due to extremely insensitive agricultural policies. But if Modi regime does not give up on its ambition to dilute the 2013 law on land acquisition, rehabilitation and resettlement,then the farmers will force the government to commit suicide. Because it is a do-or-die situation for farmers and others who depend on land for their livelihood.”
So, what if farmers and other rural poor risk breaking the law to resist forcible land acquisition or legalised land grab? No doubt Modi has proved his mettle in “getting things done” for corporates by dealing efficiently with people’s resistance to development-induced displacement in Gujarat. But will he succeed in harnessing the might of the Indian State to do this across the country?
The government’s unusual decision to re-promulgate the controversial ordinance for a record third time even as a Joint Parliamentary Committee (jpc) is yet to finish scrutinising its nuances has sent out the message that Modi will stop at nothing to impose the Gujarat model in the rest of the country. Highly placed sources in the jpc have confirmed that while most farmers’ organisations and people’s movements vehemently oppose the “anti-farmer” clauses in the ordinance, representatives of big business such as the Confederation of Indian Industry (cii) demand more “industryfriendly” provisions, including reducing the compensation for landowners.
Weeks before Modi was crowned the chief executive of the world’s largest democracy, the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion (DIPP) under the Ministry of Commerce uploaded a report by consultancy firm Accenture titled ‘Best Practices to Improve the Business Environment across States/Union Territories in India’ on their website. Identifying land acquisition as “a major bottle neck in starting businesses in India, especially for larger firms”, the report extolled Gujarat’s record in successful and efficient land acquisition, ranking it over all other states. It also lauded the Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation’s (GIDC) “model for land-related intervention as a best practice”.
Who does this “best practice” benefit? Ask Kanubhai Kalsaria, once a good friend of Modi and three-time BJP MLA from Mahuva Assembly constituency, and he gives an interesting answer. “The Gujarat model is basically about the government acting as a land broker for corporates,” he says. “Take the case of Adani, definitely the best example of the model at work. The rise and rise of Adani mirrors Modi’s political trajectory. In the late 1990s, the Adani Group owned only around 3,000 acres. Now, they own more than 2 lakh acres. Modi gifted them a major chunk at throwaway prices starting at 1 per sq m.” Kalsaria revolted against Modi in 2010 when the Gujarat government decided to forcibly acquire agricultural land for homegrown detergent giant Nirma and went on to join the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).
Modi’s record as the chief minister of Gujarat bears out Kalsare’s chosen epithet of “land broker par excellence”. When the man of the 56-inch-chest fame, who would one day become prime minister, was being hauled over the coals by rival political parties and sections of the national media for his alleged role in the anti-Muslim pogrom of 2002, he was busy laying the policy and legal foundations of what critics would denounce as “corporate land grab”.
The Gujarat Industrial Policy, 2003, widely considered to be Modi’s brainchild, enabled the government to invoke the “urgency clause” in the 1894 Land Acquisition Act “in deserving cases of public or private limited companies to facilitate quicker possession of land for industrial purposes”. That very year, Modi introduced changes in land laws to facilitate the sale of agricultural land for commercial purposes.
Until then it was illegal to sell or mortgage land that had been distributed to farmers as part of “land reforms”. Known as “new tenure” land, they were set apart from “old tenure” land, which could be bought and sold. Modi’s intervention changed the law to allow easy conversion of “new tenure” land to “old tenure”.
This was followed by a government resolution in 2005, which came with provisions to privatise guachar (pastoral) land, which until then used to be part of village commons that every villager could access and use but no one could own. Privatisation of pastoral land has posed serious challenges to the livestock economy.
Activists also draw attention to the Gujarat Drainage and Irrigation Act, 2013, which restricts water use by farmers but gives enough concessions to industry. In effect, it provides eminent domain rights landon water resources to the government by snatching the traditional rights enjoyed by the agrarian classes.
In her study on “liberalisation and land in Gujarat”, Oxford scholar Nikita Sud writes that Modi’s tenure as chief minister was marked by a strange mix of legal and “business-friendly extra-legal role” of State institutions in “facilitating land transfers to private players”. Besides liberalising land policies, the Modi government also amended the Gujarat Infrastructure Development Act, which helped the regime’s favoured companies to bypass tender procedures and acquire land smoothly for certain types of projects.
Based on her intensive interviews with senior bureaucrats, Sud points out that major players in State institutions also recommended private investors to employ retired or serving officials of the land revenue department so as to facilitate smooth transfer of land and then convert the transferred land illegally to non-agricultural status. “The nexus of land conversion goes to the top of the bureaucratic and political pyramids, with different layers of the State taking a fixed cut, for each square foot of land,” she writes. In demonstrating Modi’s penchant for land brokering, Sud also documents her conversation with the CEO of a private firm, who said, “The Chief Minister’s Office (CMO) and its boss will apparently remove all hurdles in attaining land, even if it means skirting around official procedure.”
Sagar Rabari, convenor of Jameen Adhikar Andolan (Land Rights Movement), which mobilises people against land acquisition in Gujarat, confirms Sud’s findings. “The land acquisition model in Gujarat cannot be seen separately from Modi’s larger authoritarian politics,” says Rabari. “Brute force was used to suppress farmers’ resistance against land acquisition for the Maruti Suzuki factory at Hansalpur village near Ahmedabad. Whenever people protest against land acquisition, the police are keen to invoke Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code. Modi was infamous for bypassing the legislature and showcasing the executive’s authoritarian power. Most of the policy decisions on land were not debated in the Assembly.”
There are several telling examples of Modi’s penchant for ordinances related to land policy. An apt case would be the January 2009 ordinance on Special Investment Region (sir). The size of an sir in Gujarat varies from 10,000 hectares to 92,000 hectares. The ordinance became an Act despite drawing flak from several quarters. The major criticism was that the government was artfully extending the Gujarat Town Planning Act to the rural areas through the Act. As per the sir Act, the government can acquire the entire land in an sir for developing infrastructure alone. After developing the land, the government can hold on to up to 50 percent of the area and return the rest to the original owner.
To put it simply, if the government takes 10 acres from a farmer, she would get only five acres back after the land is developed. “In several cases, the farmers are not returned the land that was acquired from them but allotted alternative plots in faraway, remote places. In the name of industrialisation, the State offers greenfield sites to neoliberal capital,” says Rabari, recalling his experience from the struggle against the Dholera sir. “Because of intense opposition from villagers, the bjp regime was forced to cancel three sirs,” says Lalji Desai, another activist involved in rural mobilisations against sirs.
“The Gujarat government acts as a khap panchayat when it comes to land acquisition. Every brutality is justified in the name of Gujarati pride,” says Mahesh Pandya, convenor of Gujarat Social Watch. On whether there is truth in widespread allegations that many bjp leaders act as brokers and middlemen in all land deals, Pandya says, “They get to know in advance from sources inside the government if a land project is coming up and make quite a killing.”
Under Modi’s watch as chief minister, agriculture in Gujarat saw unprecedented and massive corporatisation, which formed the backdrop to the much-hyped growth in the state’s agrarian sector and the violent dispossession of marginal people from the rural economy that accompanied it.
Atul Sood of New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University found that “the average size of marginal holdings is becoming smaller in the state compared to the national average and large farmers (owning more than 20 hectares) are gaining in terms of area”. This trend indicates distress sale of land by small and marginal farmers who can no longer afford the exorbitant input costs. Input costs like electricity tariff for agriculture in Gujarat are relatively high compared to the national average. There is ample evidence that landlessness is rising among smallholder Dalits and in Adivasi areas such as Dahod, Dangs and Panchmahal. Enclosure of commons as private property is further accelerating the marginalisation of landless people who historically relied on the commons to partly make up for the economic deprivation implicit in their place in the agrarian social structure.
Taking on the deluge of criticism directed at Modi’s agrarian vision, policy and practice, RSS ideologue and Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS) national secretary Mohini Mohan Mishra tells Tehelka, “A lot of misinformation is being spread against the BJP regime in Gujarat. That is happening even though the official statistics on growth prove that Modi has revolutionised agriculture in Gujarat.”
A critical scrutiny of the Modi regime’s treatment of rural India and its fiscal policies ever since it took power at the Centre clearly hints that the government is keen to redistribute wealth upwards — i.e., from the working class and peasants to big business, a classic case of “class robbery”. No wonder no one expects Modi to dilute his idea of ‘land reforms’ — epitomised in “land from the tiller” and “land to the corporates” — which entails snatching most of the small holdings and commons and turning them in for real-estate speculation.
To achieve this, Modi need to hardsell his vision as a “win-win” game to the farmers. The entire bjp party machine is trying to do exactly that. The government successfully convinced the bks to dilute its position on the consent clause, among others. Some Opposition members in the jpc tell Tehelka that some of their overenthusiastic committee colleagues from the bjp have been trying to convince the farmers about the “positive side” of Modi’s amendments to the upa’s land Act, such as more compensation.
It won’t be easy, though, for Modi to have his way. The Indian farmer seems to be aware of the changing political economy of the land market and the huge difference between the price of the land they sell and its potential selling price once it is developed as real estate. For instance, John Hopkins University sociologist Michael Levin used rti inquiries to compute this differential in the Mahindra World City SEZ in Rajasthan, where land was forcibly acquired by the bjp government. Based on 2011 prices, the developer made a startling profit of 2.5 crore per acre. Besides, lack of livelihood options outside agriculture under the current jobless growth model also makes farmers unwilling to part with their land.
Modi has always boasted of being a true swayamsevak, a volunteer of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). But his regime’s vision is not at all in sync with the Sangh’s declared position on agriculture, as depicted in the bks motto “Krishi Mit Krishaswa” — a Rigvedic mantra that means, “Don’t gamble, do farming and live graciously on its earnings.” Modi is doing the exact opposite: he is gambling with other people’s land and driving out small and marginal farmers from the source of their livelihood. So, what will the RSS do with Modi in the saddle?