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The voracious land-eaters of India

Friday, 30 January 2015 – 5:00am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna | From the print edition
By paving the way for land acquisition, the Centre has made a disastrous move

Observers have noted similarities between the insatiable land appetite of some industries in early 21st century India and in 19th century Great Britain. In Britain it was called the great enclosure movement. The textile, woollen, and some other industries enclosed large chunks of land, pushed the farmers out, devastating their lives. Thousands consequently perished in hunger while many more left the land for the New World. The economic historians today, however, refuse to certify that this unbelievable acquisition of land was a pre-condition for the growth of the first industrial nation. Yet, in the wake of the NDA government’s land ordinance some intellectuals and policymakers are trying to establish the same dubious correlation for India’s economic growth.

On the other hand, it may be said that conflict over land acquisition has engulfed India, unsettled her democracy, and hampered her development. Over 250 land-acquisition-related conflicts were recorded in the country in only two years — 2013-14. Most conflicts are due to government takeover of land on behalf of private business, and at times for setting up fast corridors. Given the history of India’s complex land tenure, including forest tenure, the government is always inclined towards making non-transparent decisions that affect people’s lives. Only land acquisition prices increase to show that compensation rules are guided by social justice. The basic result is an uncontrollable financialisation of land which ruins small farmers.

The Xaxa Committee on the status of indigenous people has made observations on forced displacements triggered by large-scale land acquisitions: nearly 60 million people have been displaced and affected by projects between 1947 and 2000. During this period, people were displaced from 25 million hectares, including seven million hectares of forests and six million hectares of other common property resources. The government now proposes dilution of rights of the indigenous people. The tribal affairs ministry has drafted revised rules on tribal consent which are now being reviewed by the ministry of environment, forests, and climate change. This goal is to facilitate the process of handing over forest and semi-forest land to industry by altering existing regulations that require consent of tribal village councils before forest land is given to industries.

As far as policy goes, there is not much difference between the previous UPA government and the current NDA government. During the earlier regime, attempts to dilute the requirement had often failed, though there was persistent pressure from finance, home, industries, trade, mining, and other ministries to tamper with the norms and requirements. Today NDA makes a similar claim that the process of seeking the consent of gram sabhas delays projects, and the stipulation should be done away with. In these ministerial shenanigans the environment ministry is posited against the tribal affairs ministry. The former apparently is alert to developmental needs, the latter is conservative and resistant to changes.

But of course, the main question: why the ordinance? Commentators have already noted the undemocratic way in which the NDA government wants to move. That observation is correct. But more interesting is the fact that the President readily gave his consent, which shows the wide support among the members of the political class for neo-liberal reforms.

The land ordinance reportedly makes several changes to the law. In the original 2013 law, if compensation had not been paid for over five years to landowners or the land had not been taken over by the government in that time, the owners had the right to reclaim it. Now, if the possession of land has been taken by the government agency within five years, this retrospective clause would not apply as long as the government agency acquiring the land has deposited the compensation amount in court or any account maintained for the purpose. Likewise the ordinance has done away with the strict provisions that required action being taken against government officials for violating the law. Now, courts cannot take cognisance of any misdeed committed by officials under the Land Acquisition Act, without the prior approval of the state concerned or the central government. The government has also slackened the provision of returning unused acquired lands to the original owners.

Some states object to the ordinance. The Union government’s position is that the ordinance is not being imposed on the former. If they wish, they are free not to implement the supposedly objectionable parts. Then why make the ordinance at all? Why not leave it to the states and see in this competitive game which state yields to please the industrial barons. The central ordinance sets a protocol. Once the standards are set, the Union government knows that the recalcitrant states will have to — sooner or later — follow suit. If in the process large-scale peasant disturbances break out, the paramilitary forces will able to sort out the troubles.
With so much of a risk, one may ask, why the hurry, why the necessity for a measure that brooks no delay? This is where we must see things plainly without the blinkered glasses of an economist.

The mad spree to acquire land more than what the stated purpose requires in a given case shows the return of land as the most crucial asset as capital in the beginning decades of the twenty first century. Amid inflation, land is often the most insured asset, whose value is least likely to corrode. Likewise, land control is the route to make wealth through rent, whose difference with profit is now barely recognisable. Land as capital is a special thing. Its nature as hereditary fortune ensures the longevity of wealth. Commodity trading requires land for special purpose. New towns require land. Special Economic Zones require land. Transit corridors, roads, airfields need lands. Logistics make sense only when land is available. All require extra land to be held as an asset. Asset management is essentially land management.

In this age of aggressive land acquisition, all sorts of 19th century characters are dabbling in its murky waters: land sharks, contractors, labour-recruiting agencies, estate managers and holders, and, of course, government officials to help the shady characters. Not to forget the thousands of wandering labourers in search of construction jobs. Do not ask, if through all these India will industrialise or only real estate owners and developers will boom. Do not ask, what will happen to large chunks of population deprived of land. Make your own visit to this futuristic India.

The author is Director, Calcutta Research Group

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