Land acquisition in India

Author - Baijayant 'Jay' Panda

Posted on - 20 March 2007

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This article was published on ‘The Indian Express’ on 20th March 2007





Article Title:”Force is not a multiplier”

With the zeal of a new convert, West Bengal’s communist-turned-capitalist chief minister has been pushing hard for big industrial projects. This ‘industrialise or bust’ approach has led to distinctly mixed results: while on the one hand, he and his government have been lauded for reversing decades of capital flight out of the state, they are now squarely in the dock for trampling all over the aam admi while acquiring farmland for industries.
The latest carnage, last week, at Nandigram has seen the total body count tripling since the first deaths after protests began last year. But the real tragedy is that the violence has been repeated, indicating that lessons have not been learned.

Next door, Orissa has faced a similar challenge. The similarities are striking: both states have reformist chief ministers who have led their coalitions through re-election victories — in itself unusual in India’s anti-incumbency politics. Both CMs have been credited with turning around their states’ battered economies, both have attracted massive investments, and both, sadly, have been faced with the death of protesters by police firing.

But it is the differences between Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and Naveen Patnaik that are of great significance and which may hold lessons for those seeking a way forward from this quagmire. I must disclose that as a BJD MP from Orissa, I am not an entirely disinterested party. But I have seen some of these differences first hand and believe it is important to understand them.

After the Kalinganagar firing in January 2006, Orissa faced the stark prospect of large investments coming to a grinding halt, not least because of the subsequent blockade by protesters that crippled transportation to and from the area. What was worse was that the predicted cooling-off period after a spate of heightened protests did not materialise anytime soon. And the situation was further exacerbated by the influx of professional protesters from other parts of the country, who were happier to stop industrialisation than to seek solutions.

The Orissa CM’s immediate response had been to stipulate that no force would be used to remove the blockade, despite the obvious difficulties it caused to the state’s economy by cutting off a highway. He also met the protesters repeatedly in attempts to find mutually acceptable solutions. But as the days turned into weeks and then months and there was no sign of a resolution, the pressures mounted on the Orissa government to move in the police once again.

That is a defining moment that both these heads of government have faced. At what point do you decide enough is enough and, risking ‘collateral damage’, decide to send in the police? In the case of West Bengal, it was two months (the gap between the January and March firing deaths in Nandigram). The CM has subsequently stated that he “knew there would be resistance” although he could not anticipate that it would lead to so many deaths. Translation: we were prepared for collateral damage, but not quite this much.

In Orissa, on the other hand, the decision to not use force again was stuck to, despite much criticism and provocation (including from within the ruling parties). But not only were the police not sent back to forcibly remove the blockade, ruling party workers were also actively restrained from doing anything that would fan the flames, such as organise counter demonstrations and protests. And many channels of dialogue were continually explored to find an acceptable solution.

The result was that gradually the protests petered out and, although the blockade continued, the locals started resenting it and some of them filed a PIL in the high court. By the time the court gave a decision earlier this year (more than a year after the incident) ordering the state to remove the blockade, it turned out to be the face-saving solution all sides had been looking for.

The delay temporarily slowed down a couple of Orissa’s industrial projects, but they are back on track now, and other projects never slowed down at all, partly because of a revamped rehabilitation policy. But in West Bengal, the Nandigram project is now being described as dead. The two significant differences in approach after similar tragedies were that, in West Bengal the police was sent in despite promises of not resorting to force, and large numbers of the ruling party cadre were also mobilised to deal with recalcitrant farmers. The lesson seems to be that Indians just don’t respond well to coercion, even when the government keeps assuring them that it is for their own good.

This is where we are fundamentally different as a society from those that are less democratic. Some Indians envy the sheer efficiency of totalitarian states like China, which deal brutally with such resistance to grand plans, but in the process manage to deliver double-digit growth decade after decade. But emulating it here doesn’t work. Call it a Democracy Tax if you will, there’s no wishing away the fact that our need for consensus building acts as a speed breaker.

India has done remarkably well in the past 16 years despite such speed breakers, perhaps because many politicians have learnt to build consensus — even if not as fast as many of us would like — in this era of coalitions. The ones that are not used to meaningful opposition are the ones that are still adapting.

There may be other lessons as well, perhaps dictating a major revamp of land acquisition policies. Because it will be hard to get farmers in lush, irrigated lands like Nandigram to consensually agree to be evicted even if the government persists with the line that theirs is sub-optimal “single crop” farmland. If you and I were farmers there, we wouldn’t agree to move without first having a concrete and lucrative alternative in hand, including retraining and jobs, not just cash compensation.