A lesson from the Nandigram carnage
Ever since humans have existed forced displacement has been a constant feature in world history. Compulsory displacements that occur for development reasons embody a perverse and intrinsic contradiction in the context of development.
Either for reasons of war, natural disaster, over population, economic hardship, infrastructure construction or for the needs of infrastructure development ie to build infrastructure for new highways, power generation, dams, rural and urban water supply and SEZ projects, industries, irrigation, transportation, or for urban developments such as hospitals, schools, and airports, population displacement always changes lives and shapes existences.
Such projects are, however, indisputably needed. They improve many people's lives, provide employment and supply better services. In the same way, these projects also create major impositions on some population segments due to people's loss of livelihood and their potential impoverishment.
When communities are forcibly displaced, the existing production systems are dismantled, much valuable land and buildings, and other income generating assets are lost.
Links between producers and their customers are often severed and local labour markets are also disrupted. Symbolic markers, such as places of worship, religious mela grounds and ancestral graves are disturbed too. Links with the past and with people's cultural identity is also affected.
However in recent years, one social issue that has caused intense discussion among academics, social activists and planners is the forced displacement of people from their productive assets, particularly land and housing due to infrastructure projects. Though the process of acquisition of land for setting up mining, irrigation, transportation or mega SEZ projects is not new, the magnitude of adverse impacts was never comprehended in the past as it is today.
The liberalisation of the economy, growing needs of public infrastructure in the country have threatened traditional sources of sustenance of people. More and more agricultural lands and built up properties are being acquired for the purpose. The situation is aggravated due to the conversion of agricultural lands voluntarily or involuntarily into public infrastructure.
All this has unleashed a situation where more and more people are being displaced from their communities and traditional ways of life. How many of them are co-opted into the new economic order and how many remain victims of development is the question.
There is a growing awareness of the sweeping powers of government, under the Land Acquisition Act of 1894 (amended Act of 1984) that empowers to acquire private lands and properties in public interest.
Growing social activism against such sovereign domain of government is not only in response to untold hardships and miseries caused to the affected people but also a protest against the very mould of development that alienates people from their traditional sources of sustenance.
Therefore, the growing pace of development under liberalisation, the intensity of displacement has also increased.
Unaccustomed to new ways of life, the affected people face a hostile situation where they have to compete as individuals, different from their community based settings in this race of development.
The past few decades have witnessed rapid economic growth in the country and the process forms a part of planned development. This is manifested in the setting up of large-scale projects in power generation, mining, industry, road infrastructure and irrigation and even in creating new urban settlements. This entails large-scale land acquisition and even demolition of homesteads.
The project implementing authorities, which used to be mostly public sector organisations in the past but have recently included the private sector in a big way, opt for compulsory acquisition of land or homestead mainly under the Land Acquisition Act of 1894 and now, under the Amended Act of 1984.
The intensity of such land acquisitions has grown so high that many rural communities are threatened with separation from their traditional sources of livelihood and social networks. Therefore, the growing speed of development has resulted in a situation where more and more families, mainly in rural areas, are getting separated from their productive assets and they hardly get fair treatment from the projects in terms of their resettlement and rehabilitation.
They have no say in the legitimacy of setting up such projects as the government is empowered with legal rights in the name of public interest to acquire their property and assets under the Land Acquisition Act.
The power to acquire private property for public use is an attribute of sovereignty and is essential to the existence of a government. The power of eminent domain is recognised on the principle that the sovereign state can always acquire the property of a citizen for public good, without the owner's consent.
The right to acquire an interest in land compulsorily has assumed increasing importance as a result of requirement of such land more and more everyday, for different development projects.
The growing social activism against development projects has, however, blurred the distinction between a right project and a wrong one. If one takes the stand that present development essentially promotes consumer culture within a capitalistic framework and is not suitable for a majority of Indian people, most of the development projects can be considered as anti-people.
The growing speed of development under liberalisation has increased the intensity of such displacement to the extent that communities living in their traditional settings are getting displaced with the loss of their traditional sources of livelihood.
Once displaced, the affected people are pushed into an open-market situation as individuals competing for their survival in a hostile new environment. A majority of them prove to be losers in this new race of development.
Therefore, it is a need for objective studies to assess its dimensions, and it invites the attention of policy-makers, NGOs and social scientists for a sustainable Relief and Rehabilitation (R&R) policy in the country. In the absence of such a policy, the nexus between affected people, government and politicians is bound to cause immense damage to the country.
To sum up, the violence at Nandigram threatened to halt the inexorable march of Special Economic Zones (SEZs). In this perspective, land acquisition is seen as an offshoot of the mould of development and it drew wide attention in which thousands of affected families and like-minded people came forward against this project.
The media and NGOs not only focussed on the inadequacy of R&R programmes but also questioned the very basis of such projects. The issue is now being debated in a wider socio-political context, in which land acquisition for the development purpose is a sensitive matter and needs to be looked at in a humane way.
If there were more transparency and openness in the land acquisition process from all concerned, the suspicions would vanish.
Only monetary compensation for the land to be acquired is not a solution; the Social Impact Assessment (SIA) must also be well understood and addressed adequately.
Mohammad Isa Ansari is a social scientist attached to New Delhi-based Intercontinental Consultants and Technocrats Pvt Ltd. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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