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Whose land is it, anyway?

A comprehensive study attempts to answer the politics of land and land-acquisition in India


Ravi Shanker Kapoor
In Gone With the Wind, Gerald O'Hara tells his daughter Scarlett that "land is the only thing in the world worth working for, worth fighting for, worth dying for, because it's the only thing that lasts". In another age and another country, it's still worth working for, fighting for and dying for. So, Sanjoy Chakravorty is not wide of the mark when, right at the outset, he says, "All the competing elements of Indian society appear to have converged on a single issue - land - or, to be more specific, changes in land use and ownership."

Divided into three parts - the present, the past and the future - the book is a comprehensive account of land. A major drawback, though not flaw, is the author's reluctance to explore the philosophical, moral and ideological aspects - the ones related to property rights - of the debate. Fortunately, the lack of depth is more than compensated for by the book's impressive comprehensiveness.

It begins with a survey of conflicts caused by land acquisitions. The author disabuses us of the rich industrialist-fleecing-poor farmer myth in the beginning: "a majority of the conflicts are directly between some form of government [central or state] and a local population." In fact, "90 per cent or more of the land acquired and people displaced or affected by acquisition since independence has been for state projects. In other words, this is not new, but somehow this is not news." This is not amazing because the reality conforms to neither the canons of intellectual establishment nor the spirit of popular narrative.

While public discourse on the subject is disjointed, politics is hypocritical. Sanjoy Chakravorty, professor of geography and urban studies at Temple University, Philadelphia, and fellow at the Centre for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania, is puzzled that political parties are relatively new players in the land acquisition process, considering that land acquisition "is such a significant phenomenon, affecting the lives of millions of people". He correctly points out that most of the recent actions of political parties are "purely opportunistic; generally a party is in favour of land acquisition where it is in power and against it where it is not". But this is general behaviour: promote reforms when in power, talk socialism when in opposition.

One of the strong points of the book is its ability to present the issue in a proper historical setting. Professor Chakravorty goes back to the Mughal period, its zamindari/mansabdari system, revenue collection by the Marathas, the earlier and later British systems, how land rights and land markets were created, how the traditional patterns (especially in tribal areas) were disrupted, and so on.

His observations often militate against the reigning nationalist-Leftist narratives that blame the British for India's ills: "it is not obvious that the colonial system created outcomes that were inferior to what existed before… On the question of taxes there is little doubt that the colonial regimes were almost never more burdensome than the pre-colonial regimes." Further, "a peasant is likely to have more power in a market system than in a non-market feudal system. The image of the pre-colonial wholesome, communitarian, organic village society is a romantic myth".

Since Independence, the agricultural land market has been constrained by numerous state interventions, the author writes, adding that gatekeepers representing the state have been installed with the usual evil concomitants. Apart from bad policies, high inequality and an excess of money supply (white, black and foreign) have jacked up land prices, especially after 2000. "In New York and Singapore, around 47 years of the national per capita income is needed to purchase housing in the most desirable neighbourhoods. In Mumbai the comparable number is 580 years."

The book is not without shortcomings, however. It is astonishingly elementary. Professor Chakravorty says the Bharatiya Janata Party is part of the ruling coalition in Odisha, which is wrong. But the biggest shortcoming is the author's superficial treatment of the concept of property rights in India. The assault on this right, which was a Fundamental Right when the Constitution came into force, started in the beginning. The First Amendment, introduced in 1951, curtailed property rights in the name of the abolition of zamindari; another right that was restricted was freedom of expression. For the next two-and-a-half decades, there were political and ideological debates, innumerable court cases, more constitutional amendments and, finally, the downgrade of the property right in 1978.

The denouement came in the form of the strengthening of the state and fiercer use of land acquisition laws. While big landlords had to face litigation and sometimes lose land, the poor eventually suffered the brunt of the empowerment of the state. Professor Chakravorty does talk about the law of unintended consequences, and also mentions the abrogation of the property right as a Fundamental Right, but academic poise seems to inhibit him from getting into the philosophical debate.

So, he says civil society groups have organised resistance to land acquisitions. But he does not add that most civil society bodies are doctrinally opposed to business. In the last chapter, however, he loses his scholarly equanimity. As if exasperated by the theatrics of pinkish activists, he writes about the people who have inspired the new land acquisition legislation: "I believe it is futile to attempt to convince those who are ideologically opposed to private capital."

Owing to its wide sweep, thorough analysis and a huge collection of data on the subject, The Price of Land is indeed a good read. It will tell you why, in India, land is worth working for and fighting for.

Acquisition, Conflict, Consequence
Sanjoy Chakravorty
Oxford University Press
273 pages; Rs 825 (Hardbound)

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First Published: May 23 2013 | 9:25 PM IST

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