When the going is good our swagger is unbearable, and when the going gets tough our despondency is equally unbearable...,” union rural development minister Jairam Ramesh recently said.
The Indian tendency to swing from one extreme to the other, which Ramesh rightly despises, is unfortunately the hallmark of the new land acquisition regime that he has navigated — from being shamefully anti-people it has now become regressively anti-development.
Yes, there was that one sentence the minister delivered at the end of the debate that went on for 16 hours in both houses of parliament — that the new law strikes “a middle path that helps industrialisation and urbanisation while protecting the interests of farmers, Dalits and tribals”.
Otherwise, it was an extraordinary show of unanimity and mutual admiration between parties, all romanticising farming and rural life (many said ‘Land is our mother’); almost all ridiculing or neglecting industrialisation, urbanisation and even modernisation.
It appeared the entire parliament had suddenly become Lohiaites, though thankfully nobody called for a ban on the English language.
It is wrong to count land law along with the laws for food, education, work and information that the Congress enacted, which are all essential for and perpetuate growth. Growth and welfare could have made a virtuous cycle.
The land law, on the other hand, could have a restrictive impact on growth and could negatively impact government revenues and, consequently, welfare spending. Moreover, by discouraging urbanisation and thereby the concentration of people, the delivery of such welfare will remain expensive and, most likely, ineffective.
The new regime will disproportionately benefit the landowning middle castes, who are already riding a wave of political empowerment, at the cost of Dalits and tribals, for whom empowerment lies in speedy urbanisation, industrialisation and the break-up of the village system, as Ambedkar would argue.
The pro-middle-caste emphasis was furthered by the last-minute amendments that excluded irrigation projects from certain provisions of the law.
The new law may severely limit the expansion of the emerging Indian middle-class, which is breaking out of poverty, by making urban housing and amenities unaffordable. It may also make development in India’s eastern region, which is densely populated and the least developed, even more difficult.
The layers of bureaucracy and procedure that the new regime brings will be far more difficult in the contested politics of West Bengal and Bihar than in Maharashtra and Gujarat. It is an irony that Ramesh has been a champion of Dalits, tribals, eastern India and the new middle class — all of whom could be adversely affected by this law.
For growth and equity, a massive shift of population from agriculture to other sectors and from rural to urban centres is necessary. An Indian version of Luddite politics that the erstwhile Socialists propagated resisted this change. This bill revives that politics. It is bad politics and bad economics.
Back to the swing between extremes, Ramesh himself has moved from resembling a Social Darwinist who counted Jagdish Bhagwati as his guru to what he is now in a matter of 15 years. We could call that political Darwinism — to align with Rahul Gandhi’s pro-poor politics. But this is not pro-poor either.
(Varghese K George is political bureau chief, Hindustan Times - Delhi)