Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Indian Land Grab

Land is India's scarcest resource and the source of livelihood for over half its population. There is not a homogenous Indian farmer, nor is there a single land market. The average size of land owned by a farmer was a mere three acres a decade ago; it's even less now. In states like Kerala, Bihar, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, the average holding is between half an acre and two acres. To put this in context: the average landholding is 110 acres in France, 450 acres in the US, and even higher in Brazil and Argentina.

Farming is the least productive sector of the economy - agriculture accounts for 15% of India's GDP, while employing more than half of its workforce. There are two basic ways to increase productivity. One, make agriculture more efficient, and two, change land use from agriculture to something else. The development process of independent India followed exactly that prescription. A large scale, state-led effort to irrigate and modernise agriculture was combined with a massive state-led drive to industrialise and urbanise. Both led to land acquisition on a very large scale.

The instrument used was a land acquisition law from colonial 1894 India that the government of independent India found convenient to deal with fragmentation of land holdings - with one blow it removed the twin problems of "holdouts" (or unwilling sellers) and unclear or disputed titles. Since India's independence in 1947, it is estimated that more than 50 million acres of land - about 6% of India's total land - were acquired or converted, and more than 50 million people affected. Most affected landowners were paid little. Many were never paid. Non-owners who were dependent on land for livelihoods were routinely not paid. Very little resettlement or rehabilitation was done, and what was done was shoddy. Tribals and dalits (formerly known as untouchables) were the worst sufferers. It was a severely unjust system that ruined millions of families and in the process produced modern India - its infrastructure, irrigation and energy systems, industrialisation, and urbanisation.

The turning point came in 2006-7 with the setting up of tax-free special economic zones to attract foreign investment. Many civil society groups argued that special economic zones were an official way for Indian businesses to grab farmland and protests against land acquisition became a nationwide phenomenon.

In December, the Narendra Modi-led BJP government passed an ordinance or an executive order removing the "informed consent" and "social impact assessment" requirements for a range of projects, including those relating to defence and national security, rural infrastructure, affordable housing, industrial corridors, and infrastructure. There is nothing in the new land bill which protects the most vulnerable populations like tribespeople from the machinations of land acquisition.

They are prey to a range of corrupt practices involving politically-connected insider information and local land mafias leading to the possibility of much-reduced payoffs and contrived consent.

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