Print edition : September 15, 2017

Members of the Dongria Kondh tribal community group at a gram sabha that rejected Vedanta's proposed mining project in the Niyamgiri hills of Odisha, on July 23, 2013. Photo: K.R. DEEPAK

At a rally in Khammam on June 29, 2015, where tribals sought rights over land tilled by them for many years. Photo: G.N. RAO

Corporate interests are trying to grab enormous tracts of land with the support of the state, but their attempts are being met with an unprecedented unity among landowners and others dependent on the land for their livelihood.

A LAND grab of unparalleled proportions is on across India. The Central and State governments, Indian and foreign companies and even individuals are either buying land or acquiring large tracts of land on long-term leases at ridiculously low prices. They are nothing but vehicles for unbridled capital accumulation, being undertaken in the name of grandiose projects such as special economic zones (SEZs), national investment and manufacturing zones (NIMZs), industrial corridors, economic corridors, “smart cities” and other taxonomically innovative names. What really marks out the ongoing aggrandisement is the aggressive and brazen intervention of the state on behalf of powerful corporate interests.

These logistics corridors, NIMZs, SEZs and “smart cities” that criss-cross the country are literally cutting into the lives of millions of people, much like how national boundaries were once drawn over paper maps in the colonial era with scant respect for the people who lived in the frontier regions. But unlike in the colonial era, these projects are creating turmoil, uprooting people across vast tracts of land. Massive infrastructure projects, industrial corridors, mining, captive ports, and irrigation and real estate projects involve en masse eviction of the peasantry, tribal people, forest dwellers, the fishing community and marginalised sections already living in precarious conditions. The loot of resources is being facilitated by the abrogation of hard-won land rights, and all principles of justice are being thrown to the winds as even basic relocation with effective rehabilitation and resettlement provisions is glaringly absent. This blustering violence of capital is not going unchallenged. We are witnessing the unfolding of a struggle at all such spots of acquisition through the building of cross-class alliances and a hitherto unseen kind of unity of the affected people.

Neoliberal overdrive

Massive protests against land acquisition under the antiquated colonial Land Acquisition Act of 1894 in different parts of India for over a decade were often met with brutal repression and even led to the loss of lives. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government was forced to enact The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013, known as LARR 2013, after wide consultations with different stakeholders and debates in Parliament. LARR 2013 had many problems that were pointed out by the groups such as the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), the National Alliance of People’s Movements and the Left parties, and amendments were moved in Parliament to strengthen it and ensure that it protected the interests of the peasantry and those dependent on land. Although the final Act was a watered-down version, following a compromise struck between the UPA and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), it nevertheless was an improvement over the colonial Act as it enshrined the principle of prior informed consent and incorporated the concept of social impact assessment, apart from providing for safeguards on account of the country’s food security interests.

After coming to power, the NDA government reversed its earlier stance on LARR 2013 and sought to enforce amendments through the ordinance route in December 2014. This facilitated the smooth takeover of land for corporate profiteering and real estate speculation. This, in effect, takes us back to a situation worse than the colonial era as even the British rulers did not include a provision in the Act that allowed for land to be acquired for private companies without seeking consent. Under the colonial Act, land could be acquired forcibly under the “eminent domain” doctrine without seeking the consent of the peasantry but only for government projects. The BJP government appears to have taken inspiration from the Nazi era in Germany, when a law was enacted that had provisions for the free expropriation of land for the purposes of establishing so-called public utilities.

In effect, it reinstated the most draconian provisions of the colonial Land Acquisition Act of 1894 and removed the necessity to seek the consent of farmers and others dependent on land while also doing away with social impact assessment altogether. The class of projects under the new Section 10 A continues to be exempted from these requirements. It includes five items in a “special category”, including land for industrial corridors and for infrastructure projects under the notoriously opaque public-private partnerships. Since most acquisitions fall under these two categories, it completely nullifies the minimal safeguards contained under the original LARR 2013. Moreover, the provision for a review by an expert group has been dispensed with.

The government also expanded the definition of industrial corridors to include land up to one kilometre on either side of designated roads or railway lines serving these corridors. Organisations such as the AIKS had called for provisions to ensure acquisition of land to the extent required and legal safeguards for landowners. However, the rights of landowners and those dependent on land and community rights were all diluted and the basic tenets of transparency were ignored. Food security safeguards were done away with, and even fertile multicropped land and productive rain-fed land could be acquired without any restriction. The possibilities of minimal and basic rehabilitation and resettlement benefits to those dependent on land other than owners of the land were totally discarded. There was no proposal for a land use policy at the Centre or in the States. Exponential enhancement in earnings owing to change in land use and unending profits accrue only to the corporate companies, and there was no move to share it with the original owners and dependents on land. The government’s claim of offering jobs to one person of a family is akin to removing the family’s main source of livelihood and giving a token job to one person of the family—it violates the basic common sense that peasant farming in India is largely a family affair and that the losses of many cannot be compensated by offering menial jobs to a few.

These developments have led to an unprecedented wave of protests across the country. The peasantry and other sections dependent on land for their livelihood have come together, threatened by the loss of land and their sole source of livelihood. Organisations of the peasantry such as the AIKS, along with hundreds of organisations of agricultural workers, Adivasis, Dalits and forest dwellers; and other people’s movements have formed the Bhumi Adhikar Andolan (Movement for Land Rights) and built massive resistance. Opposition parties also mobilised against the ordinance within Parliament and outside. Political exigencies and electoral considerations forced the Central government to place the proposals in abeyance, albeit temporarily.

The attempts to subvert existing land reforms and land acquisition, land lease and land use laws have been put on the fast track. After repeated attempts at amending LARR 2013 failed, the BJP sought to push through its agenda of circumventing land reform laws in States where it or its allies were in power. NITI Aayog, the so-called think tank, which does not even make a pretence of being independent, pitched in to recommend the dilution of even the beneficial provisions of various laws relating to land. Several States have amended their land ceiling laws and land use rules. The Vasundhara Raje-led BJP government in Rajasthan passed the Special Investment Region Act and the Land Pooling Scheme. In August 2016, Gujarat passed the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Gujarat Amendment); in Andhra Pradesh, it acquired the form of the Land Pooling Act; Telangana issued the 123 Government Order, which, when scrapped by the High Court, was replaced by the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition and Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Telagana Amendment) Act, 2016, which allowed for smooth takeover of land. The BJP government in Jharkhand brought amendments to the Chhotanagpur Tenancy Act, 1908, and the Santhal Paragana Tenancy Act, 1949, which safeguarded against illegal land transfer and ensured the restoration of illegally transferred tribal land to the original owners. There is a neoliberal overdrive in States ruled by the BJP and its allies, but other States such as Karnataka, ruled by the Congress, and Odisha, ruled by the Biju Janata Dal, are not lagging behind; they have also brought in legislation to facilitate the easy takeover of land.

The most oppressed sections, such as Dalits and Adivasis, have been the worst hit by these policies. Although the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, or PESA; the Forest Rights Act, 2006, or FRA; and the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution in unambiguous terms include a directive to “prohibit or restrict the transfer of land by or among the members of the Scheduled Tribes in such area(s)”, the resource-rich regions have become the most sought after, and illegal takeovers are being reported from these areas.

Corridors to misery

In this context, it is to be noted that large-scale acquisitions and conversion of agricultural land and forest land for SEZs, mining, industries and urbanisation are taking place. Land acquired in the name of SEZs and industrialisation is also often on unfair terms and misused for real estate purposes.

The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) noted the non-utilisation of land earmarked for SEZs. Out of a total of 45,635.63 hectares of SEZ land allotted as of 2014, work had begun on only 28,488.49 ha. The CAG found gross violations in 17 States. Odisha was the worst offender as 96.58 per cent of SEZ land remained unutilised. In the State, over Rs.75,000 crore was raised by mortgaging such land illegally; in 10 years, only 2 per cent of the projects were ready to be started. Most companies that sought captive coal mines and associated land never used them except to boost their own value. Several hectares of land acquired for SEZs invoking public purpose were later sold or used for other purposes. Among the groups that diverted land acquired for SEZs were Reliance Industries and Essar Steel.

Since the enactment of the SEZ Act 2005, 576 formal approvals of SEZs covering 60,374.76 ha were granted in the country, out of which 392 SEZs covering 45,635.63 ha were notified as of March 2014. Out of the 392 notified zones, only 152 had become operational, and SEZs had made no noticeable impact on the national economy, the audit said. A right to information (RTI) request has revealed that contrary to the government’s claims that the earlier Act had stalled development projects, only 8 per cent of around 804 industrial projects stalled across India were due to land acquisition problems.

A chain of industrial and economic corridors has been planned across the length and breadth of the country. For the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC), which is 1,483 km long and passes through six States, the area earmarked for industrial areas, NIMZ and investment regions alone accounts for over six lakh acres (one acre is 0.4 hectare). The Visakhapatnam-Chennai Industrial Corridor, traversing 800 km, is a part of the East Coast Economic Corridor, which is aligned to the Golden Quadrilateral. In Andhra Pradesh alone, it is envisaged that over 79,960 acres will have to be acquired for four nodes and 11 potential clusters. For the Chennai-Bengaluru Industrial Corridor, which is 560 km long and has three identified nodes (one each in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh), over 47,563 acres are under threat of acquisition. The Amritsar-Kolkata Industrial Corridor, which is 1,840 km long and has 17 nodes declared so far, and the Bengaluru-Mumbai Economic Corridor, which is over 1,000 km long with 10 nodes in Karnataka and Maharashtra, are two of the other corridors. These figures are only the tip of the iceberg.

Seven dedicated freight train corridors criss-crossing the country are also under various stages of planning and construction. What is being portrayed by McKinsey and different financiers such as the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the Japan Bank for International Cooperation as an attempt to cut “waste in logistics” and to “catch up” with China is part of a global network of corridors that the trinity of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation as well as the World Economic Forum envisage as a facilitator of free trade and free trade agreements (FTAs). It comes with all the paraphernalia of FTA-compliant laws and legal regimes that will allow unhindered movement of goods without tariff barriers. Nicholas Hildyard, author of Licensed Larceny: Infrastructure, Financial Extraction and the global South (2016), calls it “annihilating space by time”. He says: “[This is] more than just bigger and faster railways and roads or deeper and larger ports and airports. The corridors now being planned [and constructed] are also conceived as free trade zones, where tariffs are progressively removed.” These “massive” corridors, he argues, are being built around the world to facilitate the extraction of wealth on a much wider scale.

The Andhra Pradesh Capital Region Development Authority points to an area covering about 8,603 sq km (21 lakh acres). The proposed capital city, Amaravati, alone is to occupy over 53,621 acres. Over 33,000 acres of land, much of which is fertile multicropped land, has been “pooled” under coercion and using blatant intimidation. It is notable that none of the capitals of major countries such as the United Kingdom, the United States, France or Germany occupies such a vast expanse of land. The Andhra Pradesh government also aims to “pool” over one lakh acres for the Machilipatnam Port and Industrial Corridor. This is a gigantic acquisition and many times more than what is needed for an optimal port. The State government acquired four lakh acres and is planning to acquire seven lakh acres more for its land bank. The Telangana government too has acquired six lakh acres and proposes to acquire many more lakhs of acres.

NITI Aayog is reportedly proposing to revive coastal economic zones), and apparently two have been envisaged, each spread over 2,000 to 3,000 sq km, or 5-7.5 lakh acres, with much of the land in ecologically fragile regions. The Sagarmala project seeks to expand 12 ports and 1,208 islands. According to a Press Information Bureau release, it envisages 415 projects at an estimated investment of approximately Rs.8 lakh crore for new ports and the modernisation of existing ports, improved port connectivity, port-linked industrialisation and coastal community development for phase-wise implementation between 2015 and 2035.

In Uttar Pradesh, it is estimated that more than 23,000 villages will be affected by the ongoing acquisitions. In the case of the Yamuna Expressway, 1.43 lakh acres is being acquired, while 37,362 acres is being acquired for the Ganga Expressway. The dedicated freight corridor will also see the acquisition of thousands of acres of fertile land. A lot of land acquired for the Yamuna Expressway has been used for golf courses and a Formula One racing track and for projects that are unlikely to result in jobs. The proposed 100 “smart cities” project will also lead to widespread displacement. The water that will be exploited for the purpose will also lead to serious imbalances and shortages. Significantly, one of the proposed “smart cities” is close to the Myanmar border in Manipur, which may well endanger the ecologically fragile region. Apart from altering the demographic balance, this may result in social tensions in an area predominantly occupied by tribal people.

Massive irrigation projects such as the Polavaram Dam and the Mallanna Sagar in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana will have an impact on States such as Odisha and Chhattisgarh and lead to submergence on a gigantic scale. According to official figures, the Polavaram project will result in the submergence of about one lakh acres of agricultural land in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, affecting 276 villages. For the Mallanna Sagar project, 18,000 acres is being acquired and an estimated 16 villages and 5,000 acres will be submerged. The dismal state of rehabilitation and resettlement and the experience of the people of the Narmada Valley are pointers to what may be in store for the people who will now be displaced.

In all such sites of acquisition, marginalised sections such as the landless, tenants, agricultural workers, Dalits and Adivasis are the worst hit. In Andhra Pradesh, the “assigned lands” given to Dalits and Adivasis are being “pooled” at a rate much lower than that applicable to land of equal extent held by the higher castes. There are also charges that the government is arbitrarily taking over such land without any compensation, rehabilitation or resettlement. Wasteland surveys are being used to forcibly evict the small and marginal farmers who have been cultivating such lands for generations. In Karnataka, over 40 lakh cultivators of government land, called “bagair hukum” cultivators, are faced with the threat of eviction because of the policies of the Congress government in the State.

Land acquisition is thus emerging as a major source of primitive accumulation and transfer of wealth and resources from the people to the corporate world. The role of the state cannot be more duplicitous: it aggressively intervenes on behalf of powerful interests by evicting people from the little land they possess and also allows the brazen violation of whatever legal protection the victims enjoy. The FRA and the PESA and are being violated in Scheduled Areas even as lakhs of applications for forest rights and land pattas are being systematically denied: “shamlat” land enjoyed by Dalits in Himachal Pradesh, D Form patta land given to the poor in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana and lands distributed to Dalits and other weaker sections in other States are now being targeted for takeover. The tenants, landless agricultural workers, artisans and the rural poor are denied any rehabilitation or resettlement or protection of livelihoods. The subversion of LARR 2013 by most States has robbed those dependent on land of whatever little safeguards it guaranteed.

In the Vedanta case, the Supreme Court in 2013 ordered that the gram sabhas of the 12 villages on the Niyamgiri hills in Odisha, home to the Dongria Kondh, the Kutia Kandha and other tribal communities, could decide whether they held any religious and other rights over the hills. They were also given the right to determine whether the mining of bauxite in the Lanjigarh mines on the foothills of Niyamgiri would affect their traditional religious rights. The landmark judgment held that if the rights were affected by the proposed mining, then the clearances to mining rights stood to be annulled. The 12 gram sabhas unanimously rejected the mining that Odisha Mining Corporation was planning to do in a joint venture with Vedanta. The Environment Ministry rejected the clearance to the project. The BJP-led NDA government has continuously attempted to do away with the need for tribal consent. The latest instance has been the effort to allow conversion of agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes in Jharkhand by amending tenancy Acts that protect the land rights of tribal people. Large-scale acquisition and takeover of Dalit land, apart from discrimination in valuation and outright denial of their claims in some cases, are also being reported from different places.

Building resistance

The peasantry and those dependent on land for their livelihood realise that their future depends on their ability to challenge the blustering violence of capital by building broad unity. In Polavaram, Mallanna Sagar and Narmada Valley, and in forests, SEZs, corridors and ports across the country, struggles are being patiently built despite extreme repression. Careful evaluation of different models of industrialisation, mineral extraction and exploitation of forest and water resources, and learning lessons from mistakes committed have led to the development of a position on land acquisition. Organisations that have been involved in the struggle have evolved: from sectarian isolation, they have realised the need for a network based on a shared experience and cooperation towards building resistance.

The Bhumi Adhikar Andolan formed to resist the land acquisition ordinance has now spread to several States. Solidarity and active involvement in the struggle against the submergence of over 40,000 families in the Narmada Valley, linking up with struggles of tribal people being displaced by the Kanhar dam and the acquisition for the DMIC in Maharashtra’s Raigad district are all processes towards building united struggles. It is also linked to the struggle to prevent large-scale evictions of cultivators of government surplus lands for generations and to protect the forest rights of Adivasis and traditional forest dwellers. Thousands of acres of land acquired in the name of SEZs, industrialisation and on other pretexts have remained unutilised for years. These are going to emerge as the sites for mobilisation of the landless and for occupation of land. The slogan of “zameen wapsi” could well be the clarion call of the future.

The resistance to indiscriminate land acquisition aimed at facilitating the loot of minerals, forest and water resources is part of the struggle towards redistributive land reforms. It is also a part of the struggle for ensuring the housing rights of the homeless and livelihood security. For the peasantry, which is already reeling under an unprecedented crisis of collapsing incomes and the large-scale forcible expropriation of the only means of livelihood for them, it could well set the stage for a wider unity that has remained elusive for far too long.

Vijoo Krishnan is joint secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha.