Development or Displacement?

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Development projects often displace more people than they develop. What makes land acquisition so tricky in the subcontinent?

It’s not often that the village of Erravalli in Telangana’s Medak district makes news headlines, leave alone that the state’s chief minister pays a visit. When K. Chandrashekar Rao did so on August 22, 2015, a local newspaper report commemorated his visit, and noted that “when some of the villagers tried to follow him, they were asked by police to continue their designated work instead of following him.”

Chief ministers have their reasons for wanting a low profile. Doubtless, the villagers went on with their lives, and let the chief minister be. He oversaw the clearing of bushes and old buildings, returned from time to time to check on his high-tech farmhouse and, noting the condition of houses in the area, later announced that 200 two-bedroom houses would be constructed at a cost of five lakh rupees ($7339) each.

The catch was that in May 2016, his government would announce that 16,000 acres of land were needed for the building of the MallanaSagar dam – with 175 acres from Erravalli to be affected. The neighbouring village of Vemulaghat would be wholly submerged, losing 775 acres. The next month, the Chief Minister moved into his $7.3 million official residence in Hyderabad.

Frequent protests, including one where ten women fell unconscious watching other villagers get lathi charged, didn’t manage to faze the government, whose irrigation minister stated in September 2016 that the project had to be completed “at any cost.” This included nearly three months of curfew being imposed under Section 144.

Human Costs of ‘Development’

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The reason development is such a contested word in India today has to do with its human costs. Between 25-50 million people have been displaced from their homes since independence, as mentioned in a report prepared by the erstwhile Planning Commission of India.

With no official count of those displaced, even the government’s highest economic planning institution had to rely on third-party academic studies for the number. Writing on this number, and doing the mental math that estimates at least 10,000 people being displaced for each of the 3600 dam projects India has undertaken, Arundhati Roy wrote that she felt “like someone who’s just stumbled on a mass grave.”

What happens to those who are displaced? One study estimated that only a third displaced by development projects were resettled ‘in a planned manner’. Even those who manage to receive compensation (and many do not) are left short-changed – they are paid on the basis of the market value of their land, and not for the value of livelihoods lost.

For many, there’s no replacement for ancestral land. When the government tried to acquire land near Vizianagaram to build a new depot for the Navy, farmers refused to part with their holdings – even at the rate of Rs. 33 lakhs per acre. The situation is particularly bad for Adivasis, who make up 60 percent of those displaced in total. For these tribal groups, living off their land is the only life they have ever known.

The Laws of the Land

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For most of independent India’s history, the land law was based on the Land Acquisition Act of 1894 – first passed by a British government that needed a quicker, legal way of acquiring land for its own purposes. It granted sweeping powers for the government to acquire land in the ‘public interest’, without significant recourse for compensation – or any mode of consultation with those to be affected.

It turned out to be a convenient act for post-independent governments hell-bent on industrial growth also in the spirit of ‘public interest’. The ensuing displacement of people in the name of development projects has been unparalleled.

The 1894 Act was not significantly altered until 2013, with the ‘Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act’. This offered better rights and compensation packages and necessitated a Social Impact Assessment (SIA) and an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) to be conducted before a project could be cleared. However, it was criticized for not including Adivasi lands under its ambit of ‘scheduled territories’.

Bypassing newer legislations

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In July 2015, the Telangana state government passed Government Order 123 – with an aim to ‘expeditiously procure land for public projects’. It sought to bypass the requirements for an Environmental Impact Assessment and Social Impact Assessment (requiring the consent of 70-80 percent of concerned landowners for a project to get the go-ahead) without providing relief to agricultural labourers whose lands they sought to acquire. Instead, it held out the temptation of a quick single payment made at the onset of the project – sweetened by handouts such as the construction of two bedroom apartments in Erravalli. Then, in August 2016, the High Court quashed the Order, saying that “the Government is not a private property dealer”.

The state government wasn’t the first to remove the ability of landowners to say no. Since 2014, the NDA government has run an amended version of the 2013 Act, removing the clause requiring an SIA. By passing it through the Ordinance route, they didn’t have to deal with a hostile Rajya Sabha. But by 2016, they had to allow it to lapse.

However, state governments, who can pass their own amendments, were encouraged to take inspiration – with Gujarat leading the way in removing the clauses requiring an SIA. On December 31, the Andhra Pradesh state cabinet moved to study it and amend the existing land law on similar lines – causing rising fears among farmers residing near the proposed state capital of Amravati. Jharkhand and Chhatisgarh have also proposed and contemplated their own amendments.

The impact of this was particular in the case of India’s many stalled metro projects. With many of these behind deadline due to land acquisition issues, the Centre is considering introducing an ‘urgency clause‘ that will enable them to acquire land within 30 days of requesting it – without an SIA.

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The Metro project has caused significant urban displacement. A United Nation Environment Program report found that of the 2500 slum ‘jhuggi’ households displaced by the Delhi Metro, more than 66 percent earned less and were forced to travel more after displacement than before.

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Accumulation by Dispossession

Several academics and activists argue that taking away the public’s land in the name of the larger public good concentrates power amongst the private capitalists who stand the most to gain by utilizing these lands for industrial or commercial purposes. However, such critiques ignore the societal benefit of projects undertaken in the ‘public good’. Development projects such as irrigation, housing or electricity have the potential of returning gains to the people – in the form of better infrastructure and higher opportunities.

States that hasten their ability to acquire land often gain in their Ease of Doing Business (EDB) rankings, a metric propagated by the World Bank Group, as the new indicator of development. With potential political gains from buzz words such as development, states compete to look more business friendly than each other, aping the Gujarat model that made a Chief Minister the Prime Minister. Displacement, once a reluctant necessity, is increasingly becoming a byword for development.

With the Mallannasagar project, some of the lands affected fall under the chief minister’s own constituency. Not even political patronage could prevent the same old story of dam, displacement, and deprival from playing out in the area.

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