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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 1 New Delhi December 26, 2015

Land and People: 1894 To 2015

From Colonial Rulers to Corporate Masters: 121 Years of Resistance

Saturday 26 December 2015, by S G Vombatkere

Control over Land

Land is a non-renewable resource. Along with water, it is essential for survival of human and non-human species. It is not merely a source of food and livelihood for the food-producers, but also a socio-cultural basis of life, especially in India, where “bhoomi” is sacred, along with rivers. Land and water are two of the “panchamahabhutas”, the five fundamentals of life itself.

The British politically unified India and brought central laws to India at a time when India was far wealthier than Britain, and was the “jewel in the crown” of the British Empire. These were required to impose colonial rule and efficiently exploit India’s enormous natural and human resources to feed the industrial monster at home. Establishment of railways and posts and telegraphs were among the measures introduced for this purpose, using the latest (at that time) technology.

The colonial rulers had a clear eye on the importance of land, and invented the principle of “eminent domain” to administer land of all kinds in India. This was done by enacting the Land Acquisition Act of 1894 (LAA-1894), according to which the Government of India was the primary owner of land, private ownership of land was only at the pleasure of the government, and any land could be acquired by the government for a “public purpose”.


After a 90-year-long struggle, India won Independence from British rule in 1947. The number “90” is piquant because it also took 90 years for the first amendment to the LAA-1894. In 1984, 34-years after We the People gave unto ourselves the Constitution of India, Parliament amended the LAA-1894, but retained the principle of eminent domain. However, the questioning of land acquisition had started and the demand for land rights by forest and rural communities had commenced. In this, the role of activist-intellectuals with a sense of justice and equity, was not inconsequential.

Apart from the Preamble of the Constitution assuring justice, equality and freedom to all citizens, the Constitution also calls for land reforms for distributive justice, and special treatment for historically oppressed commu-nities. These contents of the Constitution have a direct bearing on land, because it was tribal or rural people whose lands and livelihoods were impacted by the juggernaut of development introduced in independent India.


The British established industrialised mining of coal, gold and other minerals. Since the timber needed for ship-building was in forests, and the land beneath the forests was rich with minerals, the British enacted laws concerning forestry. This, along with the LAA-1894, consolidated the British control over resources.

Post-Independence, industrialisation included rapidly growing demand for land and water. Land was required not only for the construction of industrial infrastructure, but also for resources underground. The control over resources, established by the British “sahibs”, was continued by Independent India’s new masters.

Land-losers to development in independent India continued to be the forest and rural farming communities. In 50 years starting 1950, over 50 million people were displaced by dam projects alone, and the largest segment of them —about 40 per cent—were adivasis or Dalits. (European and American slave traders of the 16th and 17th century took about 200 years to displace 60 million African people across the Atlantic Ocean as the labour force for the economic growth of America.)

Protests by the affected people concerning displacement for development projects continued, but were barely reported by the media, and, when reported, restricted briefly to the inner pages. However, in November 2007, the West Bengal Left Front Government cracked down on the people at Nandigram, who were peacefully resisting displacement for establishment of an industrial chemical hub, pleading loss of land and livelihood. The crackdown was conducted by using not only excessive police force, but also allegedly sending armed lumpen elements who raped, killed and humiliated village people who were resisting displacement. This attracted wide condemnation and received unusually extensive media coverage, possibly because a Left Front Government was responsible. Nandigram was a watershed for people demanding land rights, and led to concerted demands for the repeal of the LAA-1894.

Land and Livelihood Rights

Considering that over 50 million people had been displaced over the decades and many of them more than once, the NAPM made a demand for the Union Government to prepare and circulate a White Paper on all land acquisition, resettlement and rehabilitation which had happened since 1947. It also called for a moratorium on land acquisition until the White Paper was brought out, and until all displaced people were actually resettled and rehabilitated. The demand was essentially for “no forcible displacement”, “alternative sustainable liveli-hoods” and “prior consent of Gram Sabhas”. All these primarily demanded recognition of land and livelihood rights as a part of the funda-mental right to life, justice and participative democracy for people to determine their own future. No White Paper was prepared.

The initial demand was for development without displacement of poor adivasi and rural people, and challenged the development model itself. But the inevitability of development for industrial growth according to the economic reform agenda of the New Economic Policy, 1991 (NEP-1991) resulted in a more pragmatic demand for development planning with transparency and consultation, with minimum displacement and just rehabilitation. This led to the drafting of a National Land Development Planning Bill, which was expected to provide participative justice through involvement of Gram Sabhas.

Effects of NEP-1991

Together with the people-excluding focus on economic growth, liberalisation and privati-sation are important components of the NEP-1991. These resulted in governments approa-ching international financial institutions for loans for various projects. State Chief Ministers travelled abroad to negotiate loans to attract foreign investors, and some States enacted laws for land acquistion for industrial parks, with provisions making it easier to acquire land than possible under the LAA-1894.

Chief Ministers held Global Investors Meets at which business and industrial honchos were offered facilities to establish their enterprises. Among the important offers was land from government-created “land banks”, which were nothing but parcels of land acquired by the State Government and placed in a catalogue on offer for foreign investors to establish commercial and industrial projects. Thus, governments traded in land acquired from poor landholders. Also, the Special Economic Zones Act 2005, called for land to offer to investors. With these measures of economic reform due to the NEP-1991, there was a breath-taking jump in the scale of land acquisition for industrial, commercial and infrastructural projects.

The NEP-1991 was effectively a policy of industrialisation-at-any-cost, and resulted in neglect of the rural-agricultural sector. Farming became increasingly a victim of industry which raised the cost of inputs, while the national agriculture policy states: “Privatisation of agriculture .... would be part of government’s strategy to synergise agricultural growth ... Private sector participation will be promoted through contract farming and land leasing arrangements ...”, clearly showing the tilt towards entry of private capital into land.

The governments’ thrust towards industriali-sation-at-any-cost was because of a strengthened politician-bureaucrat-corporate nexus. It is necessary to note that compensation, such as provided for in the LAA-1894, was for people who could prove ownership of land or property. Thus landless people, who were part of the agricultural economy, and often constituted over 40 per cent of the displaced persons, were not entitled to compensation, leave alone resettlement or rehabilitation. Such arbitrarily and summarily displaced people with no place to go, often drifted into urban slums or onto unoccupied or unused land, and governments treat them as encroachers and evict them. However, when corporates in active connivance with political and bureaucratic officials forcibly displace people and illegally occupy land in contravention of extant laws, the governments regularise the occupation. This asymmetric policy brings out the clear government bias in favour of corporates and against poor people.

Progressive Legislations

Notwithstanding the trend towards pro-corporate and anti-people policies in relation to land, besides the historic 73rd Constitution Amendment (1992) which created the Panchayati Raj Institutions, the progressive legislations are the “Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996” (PESA, hereafter) and the “Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006” (Forest Rights Act or FRA, hereafter).

Since the 73rd Amendment providing self-governance to panchayats exempted schedule areas, PESA was enacted to enable tribal self-rule by empowering forest village Gram Sabhas. However, two decades later, there remain several impediments to the effectiveness of PESA due to lack of political will and resistance to change in the social power hierarchy, but more impor-tantly due to the machinations of the politician-bureaucrat-corporate nexus, which blatantly neglects or over-rides tribal rights.

FRA is intended to end the historic injustice concerning livelihoods of forest-dwelling communities by securing their tenurial and access rights and provide them a stake in forest conservation. It also enables preservation of traditional, indigenous knowledge systems, intellectual property and biodiversity. Further, FRA recognises and secures community rights over community forest resources in addition to the individual rights of forest dwellers. However, FRA suffers in implementation like PESA, and for similar reasons.

People Resist and React

People threatened or confronted with displace-ment and loss of land and livelihood have always resisted, but they have been either unorganised or the government-corporate nexus has been too strong. The Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) is the best-known movement to secure the rights of displaced people in the context of rising waters of dam reservoirs. The NBA has resisted peacefully at various levels, and even caused the World Bank to withdraw from funding. The NBA’s call is not merely “Narmada Bachao”, but also “Desh Bachao”. This has resulted in ideas encapsulated in slogans like “Jal-Jangal-Jameen konyachi? ... Aamichi! Aamichi!” and going beyond resistance to re-construction according to a people-centric model of development, “Desh Bachao, Desh Banao”. More recently, recognising that the neo-liberal forces are violating the Constitution, the people’s move-ment policy is encapsulated in the slogan “Samvidhan Bachao, Desh Bachao! ... Desh Bachao, Desh Banao!“. The NBA’s example has been a clarion call for people across India and even abroad to resist the onslaught of neo-liberal forces of industrialisation-at-any-cost.

The Durge Forward

In 2006, a Development, Displacement and Rehabilitation Bill was drafted and placed before the National Advisory Council. Important features of this draft Bill were the need for mandatorily conducting a social impact assessment (SIA) due to displacement, in consultation with the concerned Gram Sabhas. This initiative resulted in the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill, 2011 (LARR-2011).

The foreword of this Bill reads: “Infrastructure across the country must expand rapidly. Industrialisation, especially based on manufacturing has also to accelerate. Urbanisation is inevitable. Land is an essential requirement for all these processes.” Further, “[This Bill] seeks to balance the need for facilitating land acquisition for various public purposes including infrastructure development, industrialisation and urbanisation, while at the same time meaningfully addressing the concerns of farmers and those whose livelihoods are dependent on the land being acquired.” 

The intention of this Bill was “to ensure, in consultation with local institutions of self-government and Gram Sabhas established under the Constitution, a humane, participative, informed consultative and transparent process for land acquisition for industrialisation, development of essential infrastructural facilities and urbanisation with the least disturbance to the owners of land and other affected families whose land has been acquired or proposed to be acquired or are affected by such acquisition, and make adequate provisions for such affected persons for their rehabilitation and resettlement thereof, and for ensuring that the cumulative outcome of compulsory acquisition should be that affected persons become partners in development leading to an improvement in their post-acquisition social and economic status and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.” The bias favouring industrialisation is clear, but this Bill included the essential elements of land rights, justice and transparency, even if the contents were flawed in some respects for people who would suffer displacement.

After due process, the LARR-2011 was comprehensively renamed as The Right to Fair Compensation, Resettlement and Rehabilitation and Transparency in Land Acquisition Bill, 2013. But two major flaws remained—the ill-defined “urgency clause” and the sly, manipulative inclusion of private purpose into “public purpose” for acquiring land.

The Bill was passed in Parliament and became law, namely, The Right to Fair Compensation, Resettlement and Rehabilitation and Trans-parency in Land Acquisition Act, 2013, referred to briefly as the Land Acquisition Act 2013 (LAA-2013), and included repeal of the LAA-1894. The LAA-2013 came into force with effect from January 1, 2014, during the evening months of the Congress-led UPA-2 Government, before the Central Election Commission enforced the code-of-conduct prior to the general elections.

In bringing the LAA-2013 into force at this time, perhaps the UPA-2 expected electoral gains, but whatever the timing and its defects and infirmities, the LAA-2013 was a necessary and welcome change from the LAA-1894. However, expectations of electoral benefits from operationa-lising the LAA-2013 were dashed, as the Congress suffered its worst-ever electoral defeat in 2014.

The BJP Dispensation

The BJP won a ruling majority in the 17th Lok Sabha, and formed the NDA-2 Government on May 26, 2014. However, notwithstanding the NDA-2’s overwhelming strength in the Lok Sabha, the Opposition had the upper hand in the Rajya Sabha. The demands of industrialisation under the growing influence of the corporate lobby to destroy rural resistance to land acquisition led the NDA-2 Government to attempt further diluting the LAA-2013.

Accordingly, the already-flawed LAA-2013 was tweaked by the NDA-2 regarding conduct of SIA and consent of people who would be displaced, to bring out a Land Acquisition (Amendment) Bill, 2015 [LA(Amdt)Bill-2015, hereafter]. It was tabled in the Lok Sabha even before the LAA-2013 was implemented, indicating the impatience of the land-hungry corporate backers of the NDA-2. The LA (Amdt) Bill-2015 caused a huge outcry from people’s grassroots movements across the country and raised the hackles of the Opposition in Parliament, and the Bill was stalled due to the NDA-2’s lack of strength in the Rajya Sabha. Considering that the UPA-2 was responsible for the infirmities in the LAA-2013, it is worth conjecturing whether the support that people’s movements received from the Opposition in the 17th Lok Sabha was with the clear intent of supporting the rights of the people on-the-ground.

In June 2015, the NAPM sent its objections and constructive comments on the LA (Amdt) Bill-2015 to the Parliament’s Joint Committee. Frustrated by the stalling of the LA (Amdt) Bill-2015, and possibly by the strength of the NAPM’s arguments, the NDA-2 Government attempted the “ordinance route”. This was also stymied by a determined Opposition, and the NDA-2 was obliged to announce in August 2015, that it would not promulgate the land ordinance.

People’s movements are not complacent with this reprieve, being convinced that the NDA-2 will make renewed attempts to ease land acquisition for corporate business and industry. People’s movements have created a platform to demand land rights, and formed the Bhumi Adhikar Andolan (Land Rights Movement).

The Days Ahead

TheBhumi Adhikar Andolan has observed December 15, 2015, as the Chetavni Divas (Day of Challenge and Warning to neo-liberal forces) to not only realise full forest rights as envisaged by the FRA but to take the movement beyond, to achieve the people’s sovereign rights over land, water and natural resources, and to oppose forced land acquisition. This approach will also address the decades-long, ongoing agrarian crisis.

People’s movements are set to take a more proactive role in the coming days. This will surely attract the use of force (police and perhaps even military) by the corporate-led state against the protestors, demonstrators and dissidents. One-hundred-twentyone years after the LAA-1894, the stage is set for another independence movement in India.

Major General S.G. Vombatkere, VSM, retired in 1996 as Additional DG, Discipline and Vigilance in the Army HQ AG’s Branch. With over 400 published papers in national and international journals and seminars, his area of interest is strategic and development-related issues.