India is caught up in land wars. Villagers opposing forcible acquisition of farm lands for industrial and infrastructure projects are posing problems to governments all over the country. Most protests are peaceful but there have been violent uprisings too.
The involvement of small but militant groups like the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) in resistance movements in some areas, especially the tribal belt, adds a new dimension to the problem.
Last month violence erupted in the Noida area of Uttar Pradesh, adjoining the national capital, forcing the state government to put on hold acquisition of land for the Yamuna Expressway designed to provide quick movement between New Delhi and Agra, the most popular tourist destination. At least 15 persons have been killed in clashes between police and protesters in the state in the last four years.
More than six decades after the country gained freedom, authorities still invoke a law enacted by the British in 1894 when they want to acquire land. That law empowers the state to acquire land for any public purpose. Taking advantage of the vague definition of ‘public purpose’ in the law, governments have used it to take over private property and hand it over to businessmen to set up industrial projects.
The most fatal flaw of the law is the absence of provisions to ensure proper resettlement and rehabilitation of the people who are dispossessed. State governments often acquire land in excess of the actual need. The land war battlefields extend from Gujarat and Maharashtra in the west to Orissa and West Bengal in the east and from UP in the north to Karnataka and Kerala in the south.
The heroic struggle waged by social activist Medha Patkar for several decades on behalf of the tribal people affected by the massive Narmada dam has brought into sharp focus the issue of the state’s responsibility to ensure rehabilitation of persons displaced by development projects. Hers has been a peaceful struggle of the Gandhian kind.
Agitators at some other places have resorted to violence. The blame for this must be shared at least in part by rapacious businessmen and recalcitrant authorities who habitually ignore the agonised cries of the victims.
In many places farmers engaged in land war have received powerful support from civil society groups whose opposition to projects generally stems from environmental and health concerns.
The agitators have met with success in some places, overcoming the economic might of the corporate sector, sometimes with the help of enlightened official functionaries but more often in the face of ruthless repression.
The powerful Reliance group was able to get the Maharashtra government’s support for a proposal to set up a special economic zone spread over 100 square kilometres in the Raigarh district, but had to drop it because of stiff opposition from farmers.
The Union Environment Ministry recently stepped in to halt work on the Vedanta Resources’ $1.7 billion bauxite mine project in Orissa’s Niamgiri hills, considered sacred by the local tribes. Some time ago it had similarly stopped work on the South Korean industrial giant Posco’s $12-billion steel project in Jagatsinghpur district. However, under incessant pressure from the Orissa government, it later gave the company the go-ahead. The Posco Pratirodh Sangram Samiti (PPSS), which has been leading the movement against the project, has threatened to intensify its agitation.
People’s power registered its most impressive win in West Bengal where agitating farmers, who received powerful support from Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamul Congress, beat back the Tata group, which wanted to set up a car project at Singur, and Indonesia’s Salim group, which planned to establish a petrochemical hub at Nandigram.
Armed cadres of the Communist Party of India-Marxist, which headed the state government, had joined policemen in the crackdown on the farmers. The party had to pay a heavy price for the misadventure. In the recent elections it was voted out after being in office continuously for more than three decades.
The new government has offered to return to farmers the land acquired for the Tata project. Clearly India needs to rethink its policies. It cannot afford to alienate farmers when ensuring food security is at the top of the national agenda. It has to replace the colonial land acquisition law with one that will protect the interests of the farming community and provide for resettlement and rehabilitation of all people dislocated by development projects. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, June 6, 2011.