Law Making for Corporate Land Grab - P J James

21 April 2015
Utilizing its absolute majority in the Lok Sabha, though the Modi government has succeeded in passing the notorious Land Acquisition Bill [Right to fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Re-settlement (Amendment) Bill, 2015] in the lower House by the third week of March 2015, fully knowing that the same cannot pass through the legislative process in Rajya Sabha, subverting the parliamentary process, the government has re-promulgated the Land Acquisition Ordinance on April 3 2015. In order to re-promulgate the Ordinance, the Rajya Sabha had to be prorogued on March 28, as an ordinance cannot be issued while the House is in session. Since the Ordinance has incorporated the nine amendments introduced when it was passed in the Lok Sabha, for becoming law it now only requires the nod from the Upper House when it is to be reconvened on April 23. Meanwhile, based on a petition filed by four farmers' organizations, on April 13, the Supreme Court had directed the central government to respond to the constitutionality of the re-promulgation of the Land Acquisition Ordinance.

Background of the New Move

Until the onset of neoliberal policies, especially till the strengthening of forcible land grab by MNCs and Indian corporate companies as part of the so called the 'second generation of reforms' under the UPA regime, the law pertaining to land acquisition prevailing in India had been the colonial Land Acquisition Act of 1894. The land acquisition act of 1894 was created by British colonialists with the purpose of facilitating acquisition by the government, both central and provincial, of privately held land for "public purposes". The word "public purpose", as defined in the act, refers to the acquisition of land for constructing infrastructures such as railways, roads, ports, plantations, military purposes, etc., and social overheads and public utilities such as educational institutions or schemes such as housing, health or slum clearance, as well as for projects concerned with rural planning or formation of sites. The 1894 Act was the culmination of a long drawn out process started by the British government in the year 1824 when a land acquisition act was enacted for the Bengal provinces. Later in 1857, though a new Act applicable to the whole of British India was made, it had to be modified as Act X in 1870. And the 1894 Land Acquisition Act was the final one that replaced all previous ones purging all anomalies making the law as a completely self-contained one.

In every respect, the 1894 Land Acquisition Act was a draconian colonial law that fully served British capital accumulation process and political interests in India. As per the Law, consent of land owners was not at all required for the appropriation of land for 'public purposes.' Compensation which was very nominal was available only to the legal owners of land while the real tillers of the soil including dalits, tribals, agricultural workers, tenants, sharecroppers, artisans, and so on who had no ownership of land were totally excluded from compensation or rehabilitation at the time of eviction. According to the Act, social or environment impact assessment studies were also not mandatory. During the colonial period itself, innumerable tribal and peasant uprisings had taken place against forcible land acquisition by central, provincial and local governments and several people became martyrs.

After the Transfer of Power in 1947, the Indian government, along with the verbatim adoption of a number of British laws, adopted the 1894 Land Acquisition Act also. Since then, though various amendments have been made from time to time, the basic administrative procedures associated with the 1894 Act have remained same. During the Nehruvian period roughly spanning 1950-90, in the guise of public sector oriented, state-led development, for building up large-scale projects like heavy and strategic industries, dams, canals, thermal plants, sanctuaries, social overhead facilities, roads, railways, ports, airports, mining, etc., around 22 million people, majority of them being adivasis and dalits, had been displaced from their habitats. In bourgeois parlance, this displacement is categorized as "development-induced displacement." As of now, around 75 percent of the displaced people since 1950 are not all rehabilitated as per government sources.

But government's "rehabilitation policy" throughout dealt only with "direct displacement" and the millions of landless poor peasants, agricultural workers, rural artisans, fisher-people who have become migrants or slum dwellers as a concomitant of the so called development process are not at all covered by any kind of rehabilitation either by central or state governments. Dam projects alone have displaced close to a million adivasis and many more dalits while 10 percent of Indian tribals today are displaced people. For instance, 60 percent of the 200,000 people directly displaced by Sardar Sarovar project in Gujarat are tribals. Ironically, during the neoliberal period, when the so called state-led development of the erstwhile Keynesian period gave way to outright corporate growth for which the state has become a facilitator, the 1894 Land Acquisition Act has been an effective weapon in the hands of Congress-led UPA regime to usurp land from peasants and marginalized sections for several corporate-led projects such as SEZs, PPP and BOT projects with no public purpose at all. More often, considerable differences existed between the market value of the property and the value that the land acquisition officer pays the land owners. Even the limited relocation and rehabilitation benefits eligible for peasants and land owners as covered by the harsh Act were not followed up adequately. Not only the UPA government at the Centre but even the state governments invoked the Act to acquire multi-crop, irrigated and highly fertile agricultural lands in the guise of industrial and infrastructural development. A notable instance of opposition to land acquisition based on the provisions of the draconian 1894 Act that gained both national and international attention has been the peasant resistances against governmental land expropriation in Singur (a place in the Hoogly district) and Nandigram (a place in the East Medinipur district) in West Bengal that finally led to the fall of the CPI (M) led government in West Bengal, which ruled the state consecutively for 34 years.

Corporatization and Growth of Land Mafia

The whole issue of corporate land acquisition and forcible expropriation of the real tillers of the soil from their livelihood and habitats and the ever-intensifying socio-political conflicts and contradictions associated with this process in India today should be situated in the broader context of global corporatization of land itself. Taking advantage of the advent of stagflation coupled with the setbacks suffered by the International Left in the seventies, imperialism buried Keynesianism and resorted to neoliberalism, the economic essence of which has been the rapid penetration of speculative finance capital to every sphere of the economy relegating productive activities to the background. If capitalism had already transformed land as a commodity, under neoliberalism, it has been transformed into a principal speculative asset together with other money-spinning businesses by corporate capital. Along with global agribusiness giants such as Cargill, Monsanto, Pepsi, etc., all kinds of speculative capital including even global hedge funds and hot money flows which could accomplish cross-border transfers of billions worth of speculative finance in split seconds were driven to hitherto unknown levels of land grabbing in Afro-Asian-Latin American countries. Thus, according to reliable reports, by the end of 2014, MNCs have appropriated around 100 million hectares (approximately 250 million acres) of prime land in neocolonial countries ( As a consequence, the biggest-ever corporate land grabbing and the resulting displacement of the people from habitats of the past one decade took place in Africa and South East Asia. In the resistance against state's forcible land acquisition at the behest of land mafia, for instance, hundreds of people were butchered in Indonesia during this period. According to a Report of the Indonesian Human Rights Commission, pertaining to land acquisition during 2012, more than 5000 human rights violations have taken place in Indonesia.

As already noted, compared with the erstwhile capitalist era of primitive accumulation which initiated the process of commodification of land, today when productive agricultural and industrial activities in terms of volume have become a subset of the speculative financial bubble, real estate business and speculation in land are principal means of wealth accumulation led by corporate capital. In the so called development, which is a synonym for corporatization today, land has become the primary means for big agri-business oriented farms, commercial enclaves, casinos, express ways, industrial corridors, smart cities, townships, high-speed railways, hubs, SEZs, manufacturing zones, bio-fuels and above all for the large scale diversion of black money. In the people are evicted or displaced from habitats in multitudes all over the world.

For instance, take the case of China which of late has evolved as one of the biggest economic powers in the world. On an average, around 4,00,0000 peasants are being displaced from land there per annum. Of course, the rate of corporatization of agriculture today is the highest in China. Big and very big agricultural farms and mechanized dairy farms housing more than 10000 cows have become regular feature there. Together with the huge land concentration necessitated by this, forcible eviction and displacement of people in the name of SEZs are routine things in China. As per moderate estimates, if the present trend continues, by the year 2025 around 250 million people displaced from land will have to join the ranks of urban slum dwellers. With an arable land of just 120 million hectares, China has to set apart almost 25 million hectares for industrial waste-disposal alone. If the present trend of corporatization-induced land concentration continues in China and India, within two decades, 65 percent of the people in both countries will be forced to become urban dwellers and majority of the real tillers of the soil will be slum-dwellers.

In the entire history of humankind, this is the first time that urban population is outstripping rural people. During the erstwhile era of 'industrial capitalism' when productivity had been growing at a rapid pace, those displaced from land could be accommodated in other avenues. But under corporatization of the 21st century where deindustrialization and depeasantization have become the hallmark of decadent capitalism, no such avenues are available to the millions being displaced from land and habitats at an alarming rate. The result has been the unparalleled swelling in the ranks of slum dwellers all over the world. Comprising more than one-third of the entire global urban population, slum dwellers, whose number had already crossed 1000 million, forms what is called an "informal" or "unorganized" proletariat as the rapidly growing and most "wretched" social class on earth. No doubt, the emancipation of this stratum of society is inseparably linked up with a reversal of corporate land grab—one of the central political questions of the present situation.

Indian People's Resistance against Land Acquisition

Let us come to the case if India. As already referred, when the UPA government at the centre and various state governments irrespective of the name of the parties leading them as part of corporate development came forward for large scale acquisition of land from peasants and other marginalized sections by invoking the heinous provisions of the 1894 Act, people's resistance also began to mount throughout the length and breadth of the country. Along with Nandigram and Singur in Bengal, peasants and oppressed peoples challenged the corporate and state forces in Kalinga Nagar in Odisha, Noida in UP, Jaitapur in Maharashtra, Narmada in Gujarat, Chutka in MP and so on. Of course, these struggles were not overnight developments. Over the years, people from their own experience have understood that displacement and eviction from land lead not only to landlessness but also to several immediate and long-term consequences as joblessness, marginalization, loss of access to common property resources, increased morbidity and mortality, food insecurity, homelessness, social disarticulation and above all loss of education to their children. Mass protests against land acquisition in different parts of the country led to delay in starting several projects and to appease the corporate investors by speeding up the land acquisition process, the Manmohan government introduced two 'amendment' bills to the 1894 Act—viz., Amendment Bill in 2007 and the Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill in 2009. These amendments strictly defining the purposes for which land could be acquired and limiting the provisions of the 1894 Act and ensuring rehabilitation for evictees were also intended to pacify the people. However, these Bills lapsed in 2009 even as people's fury against the 1894 Act went on intensifying. Together with the surging public opinion against the continued use of a colonial law, successive defeats of the ruling party in Assembly elections and bye-elections also compelled the UPA government to entrust the task of drafting a new Bill of land acquisition addressing several concerns with the National Advisory Council in 2011.

The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition,

Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013

As a matter of fact, the 2013 Act passed by the UPA government was the culmination of intense debates and discussions at several levels that began in 2007. The two parliamentary committees involved in the consultative process that provided the necessary inputs for the Act were led by BJP leaders who were in the opposition then. The Act incorporating most of the suggestions of BJP members, focused on providing not only compensation to the land owners, but also extended rehabilitation and resettlement benefits to the livelihood losers from the land, which were in addition to the minimum compensation. The minimum compensation to be paid to the land owners was based on a multiple of market value and other factors laid down in the Act. The Act discouraged land acquisition when such acquisition would include multi-crop irrigated area. The Act changed the norms for acquisition of land for use by private companies or in case of public-private partnership (PPP) projects with the provision of compulsory approval of 80 percent of the landowners. The Act also introduced changes in the land acquisition process, including a compulsory social-impact study, which must be conducted before an acquisition was made. Moreover, if the acquired land is not used for the stipulated purpose within five years of acquisition, provision was incorporated in the Act to return such lands to the original owners.

Despite these provisions, the 2013 Act had several loopholes. By not recognizing local self governments as "appropriate governments" in matters of land acquisition, it violated several provisions of the Panchayati Raj Act. By focusing on the immediate and direct consequences of land acquisition, the Act by UPA government ignored several of its indirect and long-term consequences. Whatever be in the statute books, it is common knowledge that a government which is the champion of corporatization will go on encouraging rampant land speculation. Among other things, the most serious issue was in relation to the usual Indian situation where landowners were "absentee landlords" while real tillers—the poorest of the poor-- had no title deeds, such that only the former were eligible for "fair" compensation. Further, the provision in the 2013 Act that land acquired but not utilized within five years should be returned back to the owners was not at all intended for implementation. For, as the latest report of the Comptroller and Auditor General reveals, as of December 31, 2014, 45635 hectares of land forcibly acquired from peasants over the years in the name of SEZs continue to be unutilized. Same is the case with vast areas of land acquired for railway development through the PPP route. A concrete example is that of the usurpation of 1250 acres of prime land in Navi Mumbai by Ambani, which is still kept unutilized.

Modi Regime's Land Grab Law

The Modi government that took over power with the offer of 'good days' for corporate capitalists very soon realized that the success of its pro-corporate 'Make in India' program invariably depends on a free and unfettered land acquisition regime in the country. Ironically, the BJP as parliamentary opposition, as already noted, did play a prominent role in inserting several apparent pro-farmer clauses in to the 2013 Act. But following the ascendancy of Modi-led BJP regime in May 2014, the so called investor community in India and abroad characterized the 2013 Land Acquisition Act that came in to effect on January 1, 2014 as "very restrictive" for industries. The Modi-Jaitely combine and its economic advisors also very well know that full integration of India with the global 21st century land grab is a pre-condition for unhindered financial inflows and corporate accumulation thereof.

The core of BJP government's proposed law grab law is the removal of "consent" clause and "social impact assessment" clause from the 2013 Act. As such, both government and corporate companies will no longer need the mandatory 80 percent consent or social impact assessment (SIA) for land acquisition in five sectors, viz., for national security, defense production, rural infrastructure including electrification, industrial corridors and housing. In a general sense, these five areas cover all the PPP projects (see, Jaitely's Budget characterizing India as world's largest PPP market) announced as part of Modi's 'Make in India' program. Accordingly, the new Land Ordinance/Bill has amended Section 10 (A) of the 2013 Act. Also whether the land is fertile or not will also not be taken into consideration while acquiring it for these five specific sectors. Thus even if the land is extremely fertile or multi-crop as was the case with Singur and Nandigram, it can be acquired if it fits the criteria of these five sectors.

The Modi regime has also made its Land Acquisition Bill an all-embracing one by bringing in to its ambit the other 13 so far excluded Acts to remove all procedural delays in corporatizing India. Of course, this is done in a pro-farmer guise of extending rehabilitation, resettlement and compensation provisions to the other areas which are excluded from the purview of Land Acquisition Act. These Acts include the Coal Bearing Areas Acquisition and Development Act 1957, the National Highways Act 1956, Land Acquisition (Mines) Act 1885, Atomic Energy Act 1962, the Indian Tramways Act 1886, the Railways Act 1989, the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act 1958, the Petroleum and Minerals Pipelines (Acquisition of Right of User in Land) Act 1962 and the Damodar Valley Corporation Act 1948, The Electricity Act 2003, Requisitioning and Acquisition of Immovable Property Act 1952, the Resettlement of Displaced Persons (Land Acquisition) Act 1948 and the Metro Railways (Construction of Works) Act 1978. If the proposed Land Acquisition Bill becomes law, then all land acquisitions pertaining to the above-mentioned Acts will also be subject to the provisions of the new Act, thereby completely eliminating all administrative bottlenecks and ensuring 'ease of doing business' by prospective investors.


The proposed Land Acquisition Act facilitating corporate land grab in India by trampling on the fundamental rights of the vast majority of people depriving them sustenance and habitat is a piece of legislation which is more draconian and harsh than the colonial law of 1894. If allowed to be passed, its immediate impact will be the displacement of 50,000,000 poor and marginalized, majority of them dalits and adivasis, from their livelihood altogether. As is obvious, while the displaced millions will be driven to slums, the vast land thus appropriated, in accordance with the laws of motion of corporate capital today, will not be used for employment-oriented production, but for the ballooning of the speculative-real estate sectors and to the emergence of a few billionaires. According global real estate consultancies, India is the third largest growing real estate market in the world and attracted by the red carpet laid down by Modi regime, leading corporate realtors are on their way to India. Together with recommendations of the TSR Subrahmanian Committee Report that calls for an overhauling of all Indian environmental regulations including even those existing since colonial times, the proposed Land Acquisition Act will also lead to an environmental catastrophe of epic proportions. It is the solemn duty of all those who love the people of this country to strive for the broadest possible unity to resist and defeat this anti-people and anti-national piece of legislation at the earliest.
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