Follow us on:   

India’s Looming Land Wars
January 29, 2015, 8:24 am

It took almost 120 years for the Indian Parliament to “unanimously” repeal the much criticized, draconian, colonial Land Acquisition Act (1894) and replace it with “The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013”.

The Land Acquisition Act had been perennially controversial because it deals with the forcible take over of land from tenants and owners under circumstances where they are determined not to sell their land.

Despite the criticism that the 2013 law still allowed the government to assist the private sector in forcibly acquiring land from farmers, it did represent a fundamental shift that seemed to pay heed to the rights based framework for citizens -albeit within a neo liberal, growth oriented economic paradigm.

One year later, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) now in power, made a sharp departure from its earlier position, and passed a set of sweeping amendments to the 2013 act through ordinance (executive order).

These amendments have drawn extreme and opposite reactions: They have been celebrated and welcomed by the corporate sector both within and outside India, while sharply denounced by farmer’s groups, civil society organisations, and opposition parties.

In many ways the future of India will be determined by the changing relationship between farmers, corporations, and the government, as the provisions of this amended law are used and abused across the Indian countryside.

Millions displaced

Most often, acquisition of land for large projects ends up displacing huge numbers of people and entire communities. In the post-independence era alone, over 60 million Indians are estimated to have been displaced from their homes and villages, often being paid no more than a pittance as remuneration or compensation.

The colonial idea of “eminent domain” has been consistently used to establish dominant state power for the purpose of imposing its will in regards to land and natural resources. This is, for obvious reasons, the key to economic control.

In the case of a law with such a long history of engagement and effect, we need to look at different stages of past experience, in order to understand what we can expect in the future.

Farmers hold photographs of their relatives who committed suicide, during a protest in Bathinda, in the western Indian state of Punjab, asking the government to write off the farmers' debts and allot plots to homeless farm laborers [Xinhua]

Farmers hold photographs of their relatives who committed suicide, during a protest in Bathinda, in the western Indian state of Punjab, asking the government to write off the farmers’ debts and allot plots to homeless farm laborers [Xinhua]

In colonial times, a foreign power created, fashioned, and used the Land Acquisition Act to appropriate resources – land, forests, minerals etc. – for its benefit only.

“Development of infrastructure” was an occasional fig leaf used to justify the large scale loot of public resources from India.

Post-independent India attempted to establish a “planned economy” with distinct socialist objectives, and the development of the nation, and the public sector became a synonymous clarion call.

The Nehruvian vision (shaped by India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru) saw the public sector develop large infrastructure, energy, and irrigation projects, and oversee the exploitation of the country’s minerals.

The rationale behind this state owned and state driven paradigm was that the fruits of development would be shared by all Indians in a progressive redistributive manner. In fact, this model of “development” wreaked horrible cost on huge numbers of poor, marginalised, mostly rural communities who lived in these areas.

They were displaced from their lives and livelihood, and paid a pittance for their land. They had no voice and the dominant discourse was that some people had to suffer the ‘costs’ of development in the larger public interest.

Eminent domain became ‘eminent public domain’, where the government of independent India was acting in what it called “national interest”. Interestingly, this idea was used not just for control over infrastructure and natural resources but also to justify more redistributive polices such as agrarian land reform and housing for the poor.

Public interest, was at least partially qualified by India’s Constitutional principles.


From the early 1990s, the principles of equity and common property began to change dramatically as the planned, socialist, economy was replaced with a neo-liberal framework which placed absolute faith in the “market”.

Redistributive ideas or state responsibility towards carrying out the development agenda was replaced by the engine of private ownership, private enterprise, and the inherent wonders of a free market.

In terms of land and natural resources, this meant the opening up of ownership and control for all private entities.

Eminent public domain of the state, did not fit in this theoretical construct, as the market was supposed to take care of development as well as protect the interests of property owners.

Ironically, the 1894 Land Acquisition Act continued to be used for the next 20 years to meet the interests of those who controlled the neo-liberal Indian state.

Land began to be acquired by the state on behalf of private enterprise culminating in the extremely controversial Special Economic Zone (SEZ) Act where huge tracts of land were forcibly taken from farmers and rural citizens and handed over to large corporations and companies for so-called manufacturing and employment generation enterprises.

It is now obvious that there was enough to gain in just the land and associated resources to make windfall profits for companies. They did not need to really set up the manufacturing enterprises which would have even begun to generate jobs and development as promised by the SEZ Act.

In a report about the SEZ Act submitted to Parliament three months ago, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India revealed that “The acquisition of land from the public by the government is proving to be a major transfer of wealth from the rural populace to the corporate world. Questions have already been raised on account of loss of revenue on tax holidays and the effect on agriculture production,”

The report also found that out of 39,245.56 hectares of land notified in six states, 5402.22 hectares (or 14 per cent) of were de-notified and diverted for commercial purposes.

“Many tracts of these lands were acquired invoking the ‘public purpose’ clause. Thus, land acquired was not serving the objectives of the SEZ Act,” the audit said.

Creating conflict

The take-over of land for private purpose using the justification of public purpose also led to unprecedented rural conflict. Protests erupted across the country, and even well entrenched governments like the Left Front Government in Bengal paid the price of pursuing forcible land acquisition from peasants.

Reliance Industries, the country’s biggest and most powerful business house was unable to take possession of land for its project sanctioned just outside Mumbai, and acting under intense peoples’ pressure the State of Goa rejected the SEZ Act altogether.

It became increasingly clear that if industry wanted land, the framework of the Land Acquisition Act 1894 would have to be changed; this led to a two-year public debate on what the components of the new law should be.

Interestingly, the corporate sector, so much a proponent of private ownership, was most vociferous in insisting that the state acquire land on its behalf.

Economic growth, and the creation of new jobs was impossible without this support, they claimed.

Despite fundamentally contradicting a free market paradigm and the sanctity of private ownership, they ensured that the new Act would still allow for forcible acquisition – albeit under restricted conditions.

Farmers groups, small land owners, tribal and rural populations did also manage to insert some of their principles into the framework.

The four most important ones for those facing displacement were:

a) Prior informed consent of at least 80 per cent of land owners;
b) Mandatory independent evaluations to help determine public purpose. The Social Impact Assessments (SIA) were to take into account the effects of displacement on entire communities,to help prevent trauma and long lasting turmoil in the environment and economic and social ecosystems;
c)Multi-cropped land was not to be acquired in order to protect India’s food security; and
d) The idea of “adequate compensation” and better rehabilitation was revisited and some degree of compensatory payments for displacement of land owners and communities were introduced into the new law.

Bring in the muscle

The 2013 law did make it difficult for Government to acquire land on behalf of Private entities. That is why the driving force behind this ordinance was a corporate sector determined to use the muscle of the Indian State to forcibly acquire land that citizens were unwilling to sell.

The ordinance was promulgated a few days after Parliament was adjourned, clearly with the intention of bypassing the Parliamentary process. It now seems clear that the Corporate sector was only willing to wait until the new pro-business government came in to power to ensure reversal of many provisions of the 2013 law that offered some measure of protection to people and the environment.

This ordinance will remain controversial for as long as it exists because it goes to the heart of the battle over economic resources.

In India, where almost every little plot of land is owned by people or organically connected to communities, land (and what lies below) is not just a precious resource but a matter of life and death. It is therefore likely to be the cause of many land struggles and even land wars in the days to come.

Through the insertion of a new chapter III A the ordinance has exempted the 2013 law from itself.

First, it has created a new loop hole or trap door through which five categories of projects can be insulated and exempted from the otherwise mandatory requirements of the Act.

Next, it has defined this category of projects that can be excluded so loosely that the vast majority of projects including land for corporate and private enterprises can be passed through that trap door.

Finally, by adding 13 laws to the purview of the Act the government claims that the ordinance expands the scope of the Act. However, given the nature of exemptions created in Chapter III A, the addition of these 13 laws would essentially apply only to aspects of enhanced compensation.
Even this remains a value arbitrarily determined by the government, and not by the willingness to sell at an appropriate price – the essential element of a free market.

There are other important regressive measures in the ordinance. It expands the definition of “companies” to all private entities. It makes it easier for them to retain land even though it has not been put to the purpose for which it has been acquired.

The ordinance allows the acquisition of multi-crop and irrigated land, and makes no provision for compensatory land to protect the food security of India.

It even enables private profit-making medical and educational institutions to be classified as infrastructure projects and therefore exempts them from consent and Social Impact Assessment (SIA) requirements.

India's landless, for hundreds of millions of poor farmers and for so-called tribal communities who often live in resource-rich areas where lucrative mining operations are causing massive environmental damage [Image: People's Archive of Rural India]

India’s landless, hundreds of millions of poor farmers and tribal communities often live in resource-rich areas where lucrative mining operations are causing massive environmental damage [Image: People’s Archive of Rural India]

By exempting the requirement of the SIA, the ordinance obliterates the rights of other citizens who will also be displaced but who are not land owners.

The ordinance does not allow a review by an independent authority to examine the claim of how much land is needed; whether the project uses the “least displacing option”; and whether the provisions and processes of the Act have been carried out to protect the environment and the rights of all those being displaced.

In effect, it gives companies a free run once they have managed to get land through the protection of one of the exemption clauses. This perhaps explains why Goldman Sachs has so warmly given a “thumbs up” to what is essentially a blatant attack on the peoples’ right to determine the price, (or not sell) their property.

Of colonies and Freedom

Over 150 years ago, India formally became a colony when the East India Company “sold” the country to the British Government. That sale was of course paid for by the Indian people, for the honor of being ruled by her Majesty’s government.

The land ordinance today requires the government to provide land to private enterprise – paid for by the Indian people, for the privilege of being developed and ensuring a high growth rate with a “Make in India” label.

The recipe promises a boiling pot – huge profits at one end and suffering at the other end of the spectrum, and as a consequence much strife and conflict in the days to come.

Protests against the ordinance have begun.

As the law begins to be applied on the ground and people are served notice to give up their land, one can expect this to grow into an unprecedented groundswell of protest. It is unlikely that this ordinance will last very long.

However, the turmoil it causes to Indian society, the polity, millions of lives and the environment, must lead us to ask sooner rather than later whether we can afford the cost of this model of economic growth.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the publisher's editorial policy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Anti-Spam * Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.