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Which people?s democracy?

The present unrest in Nandigram & Singur underlines the State?s methods of handling displacement, writes Satyajit Singh.

india Updated: Jan 09, 2007 00:49 IST

As Nandigram burns and the unrest in Singur continues, the issue of displacement, a new form of land alienation, seems to have finally entered the concern of political parties and statecraft. The stakes have been raised from displacement in Singur, Nandigram and other SEZs, to a question of the ideological and social basis of the State. In the case of West Bengal, it is also a contest over the core constituencies of the political parties.

While political parties are keen to profit from pinning down the Left Front government in West Bengal, the issue of displacement is a much wider one that concerns all state governments. The peaceful satyagrahas and petitions to the judiciary on displacement by displaced tribals could now well be replaced by the new Nandigram-type encounters.

At the core of the conflict is the eminent domain vested by the Land Acquisition Act of 1894 on the State to acquire private property for public purpose. The colonial government used this Act, much like the mafia uses threat, to acquire land for the interests of trade and power. The State plays the roles of the judge, jury and executioner as it notifies the land to be acquired, decides the compensation, and often uses force to move the oustees from the acquired land. Unfortunately, this ‘threat principle’ continues in our sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic.

What constitutes a public purpose is often decided by a representative government with an eye on the next elections. The parameter of public purpose needs to be discussed and defined in our democratic republic. It may be time to differentiate between public good (such as irrigation, railways and educational institutions) and private enterprise (such as a Rs 1 lakh car project, a retail mall or factories for consumer goods) in the definition of ‘public purpose’. It may be best to leave the acquisition of land for private good to the market. An exception can be made if, due to the service of land acquisition provided by the State, there is an element of ‘publicisation’ of the project through, say, a 10 per cent equity transfer to the State. However strange it may sound, a market-based exchange principle that determines the realty market is more democratic than the threat principle of a coercive and monopolistic State. After all, the buyer and seller enter into an agreement only when the deal is beneficial to both of them.

The problem emerges when the State’s definition of ‘public purpose’ includes projects such as Singur and Narmada that differentiate between the beneficiaries and the victims of development. The intervention of the State as partisan towards the ‘beneficiaries’ invites charges of rent-seeking or being short-sighted as to equate growth with development, and foster growth at the cost of other values such as justice, equity and equal opportunity that also determine development. Even though the 73rd and the 74th constitutional amendments, along with the Ninth and the Tenth Plan documents, have emphasised the need to democratise development through the institutions of local governments, large-scale displacement projects continue to be carved out at the state and national levels without local government involvement.

It is expected of a welfare and democratic State to follow a benevolent principle of displacement for public purpose that does not limit the exercise of land acquisition to providing only compensation. This needs to be underlined, for it is not possible to agree to a theoretical framework for fair compensation given that land is linked with livelihoods, common property and other resources, not to mention cultural and kinship ties. Economically, too, land values go up steeper in relation to other products as population increases and land use patterns change. Given that the future is uncertain, it is difficult to determine the parameters of a fair compensation. However, if compensation is supplemented with additional developmental inputs that benefit the oustees (development being the function of the State), then it may be possible to establish a mechanism to determine a fair compensation through democratic means.

Such a benevolent principle would democratise the discourse and implementation of displacement, and make it possible to shift the paradigm from involuntary displacement to voluntary resettlement. Under the threat principle, the State and its partners have managed to externalise the cost of displacement (by only granting compensation) which needs to be internalised (by a fair compensation along with the displaced having stakes in the process of development) at conception and implementation. The oustees need to be seen as human resources for the development project and should have the first right to the benefits of the project, at least in all State projects.

The excuse normally proffered that the oustees may not have the requisite education or skills for a project is a lame one, for the State cannot hold them responsible for a service that it has not been able to deliver to them for so long. Benefit-sharing should also be extended to a share in the revenue that the State makes on the project, along with equity partaking in the case of corporations involved in public good. Hence building capacity, providing employment opportunities, creating safety nets to help the oustees negotiate the rehabilitation process, and establishing a mechanism for collective bargaining and negotiation to determine a fair compensation and development package needs to be internalised in the cost of the project itself.

A democratic dialogue to initiate the process towards democratisation of displacement is possible. The UPA government and its Left allies, who are seen as champions of economic growth and are also keen on providing social protection and opportunity, have to take a bold step in this direction.


Satyajit Singh is a faculty member of the Department of Political Science, University of Delhi