Silent displacement

Published : Feb 29, 2008 00:00 IST

Harvesting mustard at Ranhoala village on the outskirts of Delhi. Fields such as this are being replaced with palatial farmhouses.-SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

Harvesting mustard at Ranhoala village on the outskirts of Delhi. Fields such as this are being replaced with palatial farmhouses.-SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

The proliferation of private enclosures in the rural peripheries of many cities marks a tendency that is affecting both land-use patterns and class relations.

Harvesting mustard at

Recently I had occasion to drive to a village located some distance outside Delhi. I thought I would be driving through rural roads traversing many villages, and I looked forward to experiencing some of the sense of openness that comes to city-dwellers when they visit rural spaces. I had anticipatory visions of acres of farmland under the rabi wheat crop, or glorious yellow fields of mustard, all around me as I travelled.

Instead, I drove for several hours along narrow paved roads bordered on both sides by enormous walls. It was impossible to see any fields because the entire area of farmland all around had been enclosed into properties of the (mostly urban-based) rich: palatial farmhouses surrounded by their manicured gardens and lawns, and some vegetable patches that are the casual concession to agriculture in these new manifestations of rurality.

The walls along the road changed in character every so often, as the ownership of the properties apparently changed. But they had some characteristics in common: they were all sufficiently high as to inhibit any curious passerby from observing anything behind them, and forbiddingly preventive of any attempt at unlawful entry by the extensive use of barbed wire and splintered glass on top. These private walls were also typically quite wide and imposing, so that the narrow village road in between was not only hemmed in and sandwiched between them but also seemed like nothing more than a rather forlorn passageway from these elite residences to the nearby urban centres.

The "villages", or what remained of them, had become little clusters of habitations and small shops along the road, hemmed in to such an extent that the only openness came from the sky above. Even trees had been removed from most of the road to allow for the encroaching and demarcating private walls to establish their defining presence.

The shops and petty commercial establishments, too, reflected the material change that has overtaken this countryside, dominated by real estate agencies that specialised in farmhouses, hardware shops for construction activity, the occasional auto repair shop that advertised its ability to deal with SUVs, and the new staple of such environments: private agencies to protect the new wealthy residents. Even the inevitable kirana shops were interspersed with the outlets of large corporate retailers and the occasional designer boutique for furniture and artefacts.

It is hard to figure out when exactly this happened or how long it took for the transformation, but it appears that the process is now almost complete. A large part of the rural area around Delhi and its satellite cities has been converted into private playgrounds of the rich, the site for their occasional rest, recreation and celebration, and is only nominally farmland any more. It is not held by small peasants, or even by those who get the larger part of their income from farming, but by those who see this as one more piece of attractive real estate in a portfolio of landholding.

In the process, the attributes of the villages of these formerly completely rural areas are changing fast, not only in terms of ownership and cultivation patterns but also in terms of the material means of support of the local population and their lifestyles. The question, of course, arises as to what has happened to the residents, a significant proportion of whom must have lost their land to the new urban entrants, and others who would have worked either as rural labour or in providing the farming community with various local crafts and services.

Land-use conversion

It is likely that this process is not something that is confined to Delhi reports from other major metros suggest that similar things are happening in the rural areas around Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Chennai as well, to take a few examples. The irony is that all this is still classified as land under agricultural use, with all the attendant economic and legal implications.

There has been much discussion, debate and outcry about land-use conversion in India recently. There is no question that the transformation of land from agricultural to industrial or other non-agricultural use, however desirable the ultimate goal may or may not be, is a process that is painful, fraught with conflict and redolent of class struggle. This is now widely recognised even by the Central and State governments and issues of compensation and rehabilitation have become high priorities on the policy agenda.

However, there is little discussion or even awareness about cases where land is voluntarily sold by farmers to bigger players and is officially still agricultural land. Yet, if the proliferation of private enclosures in the rural areas around Delhi to create garden homes for the rich is any indication, this is a silent but extensive tendency that is affecting dramatically both land-use patterns and class relations in the rural peripheries of many of our cities.

Unlike some other land-use conversion involving industrial use, this process does not even create any new jobs, and so is probably an even larger net destroyer of local employment. So, it is probably time for this process to be taken note of and addressed in terms of considering whether such new development deserves to be still treated as farmland and what is to be done about the conditions of those who have been displaced by it.

This is doubly important because this process is closely analogous to the real estate development that is currently the chief instrument of land-use conversion in the rural hinterland of urban areas across the country. The boom in real estate and property has spawned more than an explosion of high-rise construction in city centres. It has generated very rapid and aggressive urban extension, with new commercial, residential and entertainment-oriented construction coming up in what were previously agricultural areas and transforming them also into effectively urban locations.

In the National Capital Region, for instance, that is, the area including Delhi and the satellite cities of Noida, Faridabad, Ghaziabad and Gurgaon, it has been estimated that land is being purchased from farmers, developed and, thereby, diverted from agriculture at the rate of around 10,000 hectares a year. This reflects the operation of market forces in that there is no involvement of the state in either regulating prices or ensuring fair compensation and rehabilitation of those who earlier earned a livelihood from such land.

The trouble with such market-determined transfer is that farmers who were the original holders of the land rarely get anything close to the real value of the land because they are typically dealing with larger, more corporate and well-informed buyers who can anticipate more correctly the potential urban development. The cash amounts involved may seem large to the farmers at first, but are often frittered away in consumption and do not enable the households concerned to sustain themselves over time.

Most of all, such a market process denies any possibility of compensation and rehabilitation to other stakeholders, such as tenants and agricultural workers, in the previous landholding pattern. That is why it is so important for the state to be involved in mediating such transactions and ensuring that adequate compensation is provided in a sustainable manner. Of course, such involvement of the state must itself be democratically accountable and directed towards serving the interests of the displaced rather than of the displacers.

However, the very fact that such real estate development covers not just corporate and commercial expansion but also residential accommodation, including possibly apartment complexes and flats for the middle classes and the less well-off groups, makes the political stakes more complex. The group of beneficiaries of this process of land transfer then contains many who would protest the more open land grab by large corporates associated with the development of SEZs.

But that is all the more reason why such land transfer should not go unnoticed and why such silent displacement with possibly socially damaging effects should not be allowed to proceed in so unregulated a manner.

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