Changing pattern of struggle against land acquisition in India

By Soroor Ahmed,,

Until the tribes and other weaker sections of the remote, and mineral-rich rough terrains of east-central India were getting displaced from their homes in the name of forcible acquisition of land for projects of ‘public purpose’ there was little opposition at the national level to the Land Acquisition Act enacted way back in 1894 by the British.

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In the name of projects of ‘public purpose’ the government, over these decades, not only built hospitals, schools, dams, defence industries etc but also facilitated the growth of private industries.

(Courtesy: /newsnation)

Industrialization actually started in India at the fag end of the 19th century. But that was done more to benefit the British colonial power than the people of India.

Be it the pre- or early post-independence era the heavy and medium industries were set up in the raw material rich regions. Therefore, the entire region of what is now called Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Odisha and parts of West Bengal gradually became the industrial heartland of the country. All these places then had heavy concentration of tribes. They resisted and revolted, but were crushed.

A couple of decades before the industrialization, that is in mid-19th century, thousands of adivasis from the then Chota Nagpur plateau, now Jharkhand, were forcibly transported to tea gardens of Assam, where they are still at loggerheads with Bodos.

In 1908 the British enacted Chota Nagpur Tenancy (CNT) Act, apparently to calm down the anger of the tribes. But in the last one century CNT Act failed to check the large scale transfer of land from tribals to non-tribals.Thousands of tribals and other weaker sections are yet to be rehabilitated.

Jamshedpur, Ranchi, Bokaro, Dhanbad, Durgapur, Burnpur, Rourkela, Bhilai, Bilaspur, Durgetccame up on the industrial map of India. The country was no doubt benefited but perhaps not the son of the soil.

The first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru adopted freight equalization policy in 1952 so that the industries do not remain confined to the mineral-rich pockets of the country. As the idea was to encourage industrialization in different parts of the country––especially the coastal region for trade purpose––raw materials such as iron ore, coal, copper, aluminium, etc. were provided to industries at subsidized rate by the central government. Gradually states like Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, etc. started getting industrialized, while the mineral-rich states started stagnating. The latter pressurized the Centre to abandon this policy in 1993.

Those were the early years of nation building and many landlords did not mind parting with their surplus land. The fear of the enactment of land ceiling act (and other related laws) was also hanging over their head. They donated land (Bhoodan) to be redistributed among the landless. However, at many places it achieved partial success as the feudal chiefs quickly learnt the art of hoodwinking the law.

As the western and southern states have relatively less fertile land than the north and east Indian plains and they have good coast lines, which is essential for export and import, industrialization grew faster. Acquiring land in the less fertile regions did not become as big an issue.

The tribals and the weaker sections, whose land were acquired, were pushed to the margin. The non-tribal farmers whose lands were acquired much later managed to get somewhat better deal. But here too the situation varied.

The land taken from them were not situated in far off jungles, but in more accessible parts of the country. For example, several satellite towns grew up around Delhi. The better off among the landed class with right connection managed to earn some quick bucks but others did not get fair deal. Yet, their resistance to acquisition of land at least got more media attention than that of tribals in obscure places.

The carving out of new states necessitated creation of new capitals. The truncated Andhra Pradesh is to acquire one lakh acres of land in the extremely fertile Godavari region. Similarly, the proposed Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor has plans to acquire 390,000 hectares (approx. 10 lakh acres) of land in the first phase. Seventy per cent of it would be agricultural land.

At places industrialists and land mafia started doing real estate business with the huge plots acquired in the name of projects of public purpose.

Though the Odisha government succeeded in acquiring 2,700 acres of land having betel vines, for Posconear Paradip in 2013, the scene in other places in the state is not so smooth. Here both tribal and non-tribal groups are still up in arms.

But Nandigram and Singurin West Bengal are examples of how a well-entrenched government can be brought down as it tried to acquire thousands of acres of fertile land for industries and SEZs. The then Gujarat CM Narendra Modi took Nano to his state in no time. But he succeeded as getting land in less fertile Gujarat is not such a big deal.

Sensing the sensitivity of the issue of land in the green belt Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, who came to power with a big promise to industrialize the state, soon developed cold feet. Even his move to give a boost to agro-based industry failed to click. A few years back a national television channel even did a story on how the Bihar Industrial Area Development Authority (BIADA) land was misused by businessmen-politician nexus. BJP chief Amit Shah in his April 14, 2015 (Ambedkar Jyanti) speech in Patna raised the issue. What he left unsaid was that when all these misdeeds were happening his party was in alliance with Nitish Kumar.

As the land reality has changed over the century and the affected farmers now are mostly traditional land-owning class––and not just tribals, many of whom gradually became Maoists after losing the Jal, Zameenaur Jungle battle––the UPA-II deemed it fit to come up with somewhat humane approach. Needless to mention the move to enact a new law in 2013 got support of the opposition parties. The BJP then took the credit for it.

Otherwise there is hardly any protest over the proposed Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Amendment Bill 2015, which is going to deal another blow to tribals. As the non-tribal land-owning castes are not likely to be hit little voices are being raised against the Modi government on this count.

The problem with NarendraModi is that he hails from the state where land is not as sensitive an issue as in lush greendensely populated seven lakh square kilometres of northern Indian plain. The Nandigram and Singur resistance brought down 34 years of Left Front rule, which otherwise had a good record of dealing with the land issue. Operation Barga was their success story. Yet they failed to gauge the mood of the people.

In this era of mechanization, industries are giving much less employment. Retrenchment is rampant. For example, the strength of TISCO in last quarter century has come down by about 75 per cent.

There are innumerable cases of factories acquiring more than 1,000 acres of land in a project worth Rs 2,000 or 3,000 crores, but giving just a couple of hundreds of jobs, or even less. And there are innumerable stories of industries going sick and reducing into waste land vast stretch of land in the vicinity due to pollution.

For industrialization geo-sociological factor is as important as economic and political. Even in the US there is much less of industrialization in the fertile Mississippi-Missouri region in comparison to the coastal east, west and north –– even Chicago is a port city.


(Soroor Ahmed is a Patna-based freelance journalist. He writes on political, social, national and international issues.)