Farmers’ protest in Greater Noida

FIRST THE NECESSARY CLARITIES: The war over land in India is not an argument over development. It is an argument about justice. The spectacle of a “unified opposition” baying for Mayawati is misleading because the story of the dead farmers in Greater Noida last week is not a unique one. It is a tragic facsimile of the story of the dead farmers in Congress-ruled Andhra Pradesh. Or BJD-ruled Odisha. Or BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Or NCP-Congress ruled Maharashtra.

In fact, back in 2007, both media and metropolitan India had denounced the eruptions at Singur and Nandigram as the cynical machinations of Mamata Banerjee playing spoiler. But those events not only helped bring 30 years of CPM rule to a close, they made visible everything that is chronically wrong with land acquisition in India. First, there are the insupportable Acts. The colonial Land Acquisition Act, 1894, forces citizens — if necessary, at gunpoint — to hand over land for undefined “public interest” without consensus, consultation or the right to negotiate highest prices. The SEZ Act allowed industry to get thousands of acres at rock-bottom prices but stipulated that only 30 percent of that had to be used for manufacture, while 70 percent could be deployed for real estate speculation. And “compensation” and “employment” are glib terms trotted out in defence of the colossal land grab underway in the country, but the truth is, until the people of Bengal revolted, there was not even a Relief and Rehabilitation Bill in India.

Desperate fights on the ground have forced these illthought out laws back into Parliament for redrafting, but getting a fair price is not the only issue. Forcible land acquisition is a deeply disruptive process. It is pushing people off from a land economy to a money one. Trouble is, land can sustain generations: money disappears in days. Buy a small house, buy a small car, and you are left with no money, no food and no skill set.

Typically too, agricultural land is owned by some and tilled by others. But both owner and sharecropper are able to live off the land. In an acquisition, though, only the owner is given compensation, the sharecropper gets nothing. There is, therefore, no formal audit of the development refugees every development project is creating in India.

India’s land wars are going to escalate by the day. Keeping government out of the negotiations is only one part of the answer. There are tougher questions still. How should projects be located? (There were 50,000 defunct factories in Bengal, but rather than push to reuse those, both Tatas and the Salem Group chose the richest agricultural land for their new project sites.) Most importantly, even after a sale, how can farmers be made continuing shareholders in the windfall profits that accrue from their land, so they become part of a burgeoning economy rather than its ravaged residue?

The stories in this package have some shocking figures. And policy analyst Devinder Sharma has even thornier questions about industry versus food security. Our elected representatives would do well to have a high-quality debate on all this in the monsoon session of Parliament rather than barking uselessly at each other’s equally clay feet.

Shoma Chaudhury is Managing Editor, Tehelka.