Big Story 10

India's land conflicts will persist until acquisition policy is inclusive, says expert

MUMBAI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Conflicts over land in India will persist until the government’s policy on land acquisitions for industrial use is made more inclusive to benefit villagers and farmers who have to give up their land, said an expert who has studied recent clashes.

Standoffs between the state and farmers have risen in India as demand for land increases, affecting millions of people and jeopardizing billions of dollars of investment..

While a 2013 land acquisition law was aimed at protecting the rights of farmers, some key provisions have been diluted in several states. Officials say this is essential to ease acquisitions for faster economic growth.

“Dispossession is seen as necessary for development,” said Michael Levien, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and expert on land acquisition in India.

“But in reality, it’s a very exclusionary growth model that offers farmers very little; the state is merely a land broker for private investment. There is no development in this model.”

About 65 million people were displaced in India by dams, highways, mines, power plants and airports between 1950 and 2005, according to the Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.

After independence from British rule, India launched massive state-led industrial and infrastructure projects such as dams, steel plants and mining that required vast tracts of land.

The compensation was low and there was often little by way of resettlement, but there were fewer protests because the projects were seen to be for public good.

Following the liberalization of the economy in 1991, land acquisitions were largely for the private sector. These have triggered more protests as the projects are seen to benefit few.

At the same time, increased mechanization is taking away some manual labor, while a lack of training of farmers and farm workers for alternate jobs is leaving them with few livelihood options.

“People lose their farm incomes, their livestock, face water shortages and ill health, and the few jobs they may get do not last very long,” said Levien, whose upcoming book examines the effects of land acquisition on some villages in Rajasthan state.

“The village economy is usually decimated. How is this a sustainable model when there is no consideration for uneven development or social inequality?”

More than 60 percent of India’s population of 1.3 billion depends on agriculture for its livelihood.

The 2013 law requires consensus to buy land, a social impact assessment, rehabilitation for those displaced, and compensation up to four times the market value.

But states’ ability to bypass some of these requirements is dismantling vital checks and balances and leaving farmers vulnerable to coercion, Levien said.

There are more than 400 land-related conflicts raging across India currently, affecting more than 6 million people, according to Land Conflict Watch, which maps land conflicts in India.

The protests will only increase unless the government ensures a more inclusive approach, said Levien.

“The land wars are not going to go away,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“The protests are not only more ubiquitous, they are more effective; not because they are better organized, but because this model is becoming harder to justify.”