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06 December, 2010

The Age of Land Grab

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

India is witnessing the largest land grab anywhere on earth since white settlers drove Native Americans into reservations. Appropriation of farm and forest lands for industrial projects is so extensive that future historians may dub this the Age of Land Grab.

Many countries had similar experiences in the early phase of industrialisation. In England, for instance, farmlands were enclosed and people thrown out, creating a large body of landless who eventually became factory workers. The country being small, the affected population was not very large.

Vast acreage was involved in the land grab operations in America. However, the continent had a comparatively small population when European settlers forcibly seized land.

Two factors set current Indian developments apart from what happened in other lands centuries earlier. One is that the number of people facing threats of displacement is very large. The other is that land grabbing is taking place not only in villages and forest areas but also in heavily populated cities.

Land grab in the urban areas often receive considerable media attention. What goes on in remote areas rarely get reported even when they lead to violent protests.

Political and commercial interests converge in land grab. People resisting attempts to take away their land find themselves pitted against the might of the state. The ideology of the party in power makes no difference at the ground level. Governments controlled by the Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Communist Party of India-Marxist all act in the same manner.

In 2006, Parliament enacted the Forest Rights Act to recognise and protect the traditional rights of the tribal communities living in the forests. Yet several state governments have sanctioned projects in forest areas and are helping Indian and foreign companies to acquire their lands.

In the backward states of Orissa, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh with large tribal populations, governments have allowed huge corporations to set up mega projects in their traditional homelands, which have rich mineral deposits. They have done so overlooking their constitutional and legal obligations to safeguard the interests of the tribesmen and other disadvantaged sections.

Left extremists like Maoists have stepped in and mobilised the tribesmen in many such areas and mounted armed attacks on the state machinery. Some officials speak of the existence of a Red Corridor that extends from the Nepal border to the Indian heartland.

Last September, a people’s tribunal, set up at the instance of a non-government organisation with a retired high court judge as chairman, asked the Jharkhand government to stop forcible acquisition of tribal land. It wanted the government to put on hold all agreements for industrial projects it had entered into and to give the tribes the right to decide the kind of development that should take place in their areas.

Tribal people in Orissa have alleged gross violation of the Forest Rights Act by the Pohang Iron and Steel Company (POSCO) of South Korea, which is setting up a major project in the state. Three of the four members of a committee appointed by the Indian government to look into the allegation upheld the charge. The lone dissenter was an Indian Administrative Service officer of the Orissa cadre who was involved in the clearance of the project.

West Bengal’s Left Front government met with violent opposition from small peasants when it attempted to acquire land in Nandigram for a chemical complex to be set up by an Indonesian company and in Singur for an automobile project of the Tatas. The people’s ire forced CPI-M cadres to stay out of Nandigram for months. Finding the going tough, the Tatas shifted their project to Gujarat.

Protesters in West Bengal could prevail primarily because they received powerful support from the state’s main opposition party, Trinamool Congress.

In urban areas, the land problem has a different complexion. There those in authority are grabbing prime property for themselves or their relatives. Karnataka’s BJP chief minister BS Yeddyurappa, who allotted land to members of his family, has sought to justify his action by pointing out that his Janata Dal (Secular) predecessor HD Kumaraswamy had also done so.

Kerala’s CPI-M chief minister VS Achuthanandan’s campaign against land grabbers in the hill town of Munnar was defeated by his own party and its ally, the CPI. Local leaders of the two parties or their relatives are among those who involved in suspicious land deals there.

Maharashtra’s Congress chief minister Ashok Chavan bowed out recently after it became known that his relatives were among the beneficiaries of a fishy building project involving high army officials.

Some members of the higher judiciary too have figured in land grab allegations. There is no reliable mechanism to call erring functionaries to account. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, December 6, 2010.

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