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Land Acquisition, Neoliberalisation and Hegemony in India

by Alf Nilsen on May 3, 2017

On 1 January, 2014, the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act (LARR) – India’s new law on land acquisition, rehabilitation and resettlement – came into force after a particularly long and tortuous trajectory through the country’s law-making institutions. Ushered in by the second United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government (2009-2014) and the Congress Party, the LARR was considered to be particularly significant as conflicts over land acquisition and dispossession have been an endemic feature of India’s postcolonial development. These conflicts were initially linked to the acquisition of land for the large dams and industrial plants that were to spearhead the nation’s state-led modernisation. However, following the neoliberalisation of the Indian economy since the 1990s, such conflicts are now increasingly fuelled by state acquisition of land for private investments in mining and special economic zones. The scale and scope of these conflicts are far greater than what was the case during the state-led phase of India’s postcolonial development. Until this point, land acquisition was governed through the Land Acquisition Act of 1894 – a colonial creation that arrogated extensive powers of eminent domain to the state, while failing to protect the interests of marginal rural populations. Congress ministers and policymakers, consequently, touted the LARR as a law that would both ensure a smooth land acquisition process for business groups and adequate compensation for rural populations.

In a contribution to the recent volume The Land Question in India: State, Dispossession and Capitalist Transition, Kenneth Bo Nielsen and I situate the LARR in a wider process that was characteristic of the UPA regime (2004-2014) – namely the introduction of a series of laws that safeguard the rights, entitlements, and needs of subaltern groups. Propelled in no small part by collective action and advocacy, the National Rural Employment Guarantee, the Right to Information Act, the Forest Rights Act, and the LARR have come to constitute what Sanjay Ruparelia refers to as a new rights agenda in India that enshrines new civil liberties and socioeconomic entitlements through law.

In the context of an unfolding process of neoliberalisation in India, these new laws converge to constitute a new terrain of resistance for subalterns who seek to contest the marginalising consequences of this process. Our contribution is concerned with sketching out a Gramscian reading of what this terrain entails in terms of possibilities and constraints for the pursuit of oppositional projects from below in India today.

We do so by engaging in detail with the relationship between land struggles and law making that resulted in the passing of the new LARR in 2013. What we are witnessing when the Indian state responds to pressure from social movements and advocacy networks by initiating law-making processes, we propose, is neither an unequivocal expression of democratic accountability nor an outright stratagem of co-optation on the part of the state. Rather, it is a complex and at times contradictory practice aimed at the negotiation of a “compromise equilibrium” between, on the one hand, subaltern groups that are both vulnerable to marginalisation and capable of mobilisation, and, on the other hand, dominant groups whose economic interests are intimately linked to the exploitation of the spaces of accumulation that are currently being constituted by market-oriented reforms. And the negotiation of this equilibrium, we argue, is ultimately intended to facilitate India’s process of neoliberalisation.

It is no accident, of course, that land acquisition became so central to the neoliberal project of the UPA regime. As state governments have come to acquire more and more land for private investors, India has witnessed thousands of “land wars” over the past decade. This does indeed signify a shift in the balance of power that has occurred in India’s political economy in favour of corporate capital, which now increasingly sets the terms to which other political formations can only respond. Yet as several partially successful land struggles testify, Indian politicians and state governments are not immune to popular pressure emanating from social movements resisting new forms of displacement and dispossession. It is this contradictory equation, we argue, that has animated the crafting of hegemony through rights-based legislation in contemporary India.

In our analysis of the LARR, we map the emergence of the Act to argue that, in the context of mushrooming and often violent conflicts over land acquisition, law-struggles and law-making need to be understood dialectically. On one hand, social movements mobilise to advance or implement legal frameworks in order to oppose the marginalising ramifications of neoliberalisation. On the other hand, political authorities design and introduce legal frameworks in order to contain opposition and construct the basis for consent to a regime of dispossession in a context of neoliberal restructuring. This is achieved through a combination of seemingly generous provisions for resettlement and rehabilitation with a widening of the definition of the public purpose for which the state can acquire land.

As a concession to the long-standing demands of social movements that have challenged forced displacement, the Act puts forward a series of progressive propositions on compensation and rehabilitation: It proposes an inclusive definition of project-affected people; it seeks to entrench legally enforceable rights to rehabilitation; and it raises the rates of compensation for land and labour lost. Arguably, this amounts to what Gramsci labelled a sacrifice of an economic-corporate kind that is made by dominant groups in the interest of eliciting the consent of subaltern groups – in this context it may thus make it easier for the state to turn barricaders into bargainers when land is acquired.

However – and conversely – the Act also illustrates how the construction of a compromise equilibrium through the making of such concessions operates within certain limits, and ultimately has to bolster what Gramsci referred to as the decisive function exercised by the leading group in the nucleus of economic activity. Firstly, the LARR makes it possible for the Indian state to consolidate the restructuring of India’s political economy in a direction that creates spaces of accumulation for private and globalised capital, and thus to emerge as a more fully-fledged neoliberal state. Second, the fact that public purpose has been defined in such wide terms might constrain the political space in which social movements can articulate political projects that challenge the form and direction of development in contemporary India – in particular in terms of the role of the state and its obligation to be accountable to those groups who have lost the most and gained the least from neoliberalisation.

However, as is well known, the LARR plot thickened when India, in May 2014, India elected a new BJP-led government that was committed to further liberalising and economically enabling reforms as perhaps no other Indian government in the past had ever been. The means to this end was to expand modern infrastructure amenities and mass employment opportunities through rapid industrial growth across the country. One of the first signs of this policy emphasis was the government’s attempt to amend the LARR – a move that followed intense lobbying and pressure by industry groups in the wake of Modi’s electoral win.

The government sought to achieve this amendment by introducing an ordinance in late December 2014 that modified several key provisions in the 2013 Act that had conceded to civil society demands for better protection of rights for displaced populations. Moreover, while the 2013 Act had made social impact assessments mandatory for all projects except irrigation, the ordinance did away with this provision for several kinds of projects. Several other protective clauses were also done away with and the definition of public purpose was further expanded and the definition of the kind of private entities for whom land can be acquired was widened.

In an attempt to turn the ordinance into law, the BJP-led government sought to pass a revised LARR in 2015, but met with strong opposition both inside and outside parliament. Social movements and farmers’ organisations – including the BJP’s own farmers’ front, the Bharatiya Kisan Sangathan – protested the bill as an infringement on their rights and hard-won victories in the making of the 2013 Act. The proposed new bill ultimately foundered in the Rajiya Sabha where the NDA does not (yet) have a majority. A Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) has been set up to deliberate on the proposed changes to the 2013 act, but it is still unclear what the outcome of the JPC’s work will actually be.

The trajectory of the LARR of 2013 is an unfinished one, and there is much to suggest that we are likely to see renewed struggles over land and law in the not too distant future. Indeed, coupled with its authoritarian and majoritarian leanings, the attack on the LARR and parallel attempts to undermine other progressive laws and development policies by the current regime reveals much about the nature of the Modi government’s neoliberal project. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that whereas business has increasingly acquired the ideological dominance to define what development means in India today, it has not yet fully acquired a matching political dominance that allows it to pursue this agenda with full consent or compliance – not even with a Modi-led government in place in Delhi.

(This post was with input from Kenneth Bo Nielsen)

Alf Nilsen
Alf Gunvald Nilsen is Associate Professor at the Department of Global Development Studies and Planning at the University of Agder and Research Associate at the Society, Work and Development Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand.

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