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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 10 New Delhi February 23, 2019

Land Acquisitions in India: A State of Exception

Sunday 24 February 2019, by Arup Kumar Sen

The eminent political philosopher of our time, Giorgio Agamben, argued in an interview: “. . . the state of exception or state of emergency has become a paradigm of the government today...The state of exception establishes a hidden but fundamental relationship between law and the absence of law.” He further argued in this context: “...governance through administration, through management, is in the ascendancy, while rule by law appears to be in decline”. Agamben highlighted a paradox in the state of exception: “Today we see how a maximum of anomy and disorder can perfectly coexist with a maximum of legislation.” (Giorgio Agamben’s interview with Ulrich Raulff, originally published in German in April, 2004)

The land acquisitions in India in recent years perfectly fit with Agamben’s conceptualisation of the state of exception. The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (RFCTLARR) Act, 2013 was enacted on January 1, 2014. The RFCTLARR Act replaced the colonial Land Acquisition Act, 1894. The new Act ushered the biggest reform in land governance. To put it in the words of Ishani Sonak (Down to Earth, December 16-31, 2018): “It gives people a say in land acquisition and makes the process participative, humane and transparent. The Act promises to put an end to forcible acquisitions, enhances compensation to landowners, resettles and rehabilitates families displaced by land acquisition and gives the gram sabha decision-making powers in land acquisition.”

What is the outcome of the new Act? Ishani Sonak noted that soon after it was enacted, “the newly-elected NDA Government diluted the Act through an Ordinance. It also tried to amend the Act with similar debatable provisions.” It is found that five years after the Act was introduced, “lands are still being forcefully taken, and farmers still do not get their due for the land they lose”.

Sonak further reminded us that as land requisitions and acquisitions fall in the concurrent list, State governments can amend Central laws with the President’s assent. She drew our attention to the latest State land Acts passed by the governments of Jharkhand and Andhra Pradesh in 2018 to bypass the progressive provisions of the RFCTLARR Act. The general outcome of the exercise of constitutional powers by State governments regarding land acquisition is that “States are on an overdrive to fill land banks as acquisition is difficult under the RECTLARR Act, 2013”.

A blatant instance of forcible land acquisition took place in the State of Gujarat for the well-advertised Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train project, under the Gujarat Land Amendment Act, 2017. To put in the words of Jayesh Patel, President of the Gujarat Khedut Samaj, a farmers’ rights organisation: “The project will affect 192 villages in Gujarat. Fertile and well-irrigated agricultural land is being diverted for the train project, but no consent has been sought from gram sabhas, nor a social impact assessment done.” (Cited bySonak)

The recent land acquisitions in India bear testimony to Agamben’s theoretical formulation—coexistence of “a maximum of anomy and disorder” with “a maximum of legislation”. The dark aspects of the acquisitions are displacements and dispossessions of a large number of people. In the language of David Harvey, India’s land acquisition strategy may be characterised as “accumulation by dispossession”.

(All the information related to land Acts and acquisitions cited above are taken from Ishani Sonak, ‘Legal Deceit’, Down to Earth, December 16-31, 2018)

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