Modi’s Seized Earth Campaign

Narendra Modi is poised to add another chapter to the ugly history of government-assisted land grabs in India.

Indian supporters of the Delhi Pradesh Youth Congress shout slogans against Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal as they clash with police outside his house during a protest against the suicide of a farmer at a rally organised by Kejriwal's Aam Admi Party in New Delhi on April 23, 2015. A farmer hanged himself in front of hundreds of protesters gathered in the centre of the Indian capital on April 22, 2015, to rally against the government's contentious reform of land purchasing laws. AFP PHOTO / Chandan KHANNA        (Photo credit should read Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images)
Indian supporters of the Delhi Pradesh Youth Congress shout slogans against Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal as they clash with police outside his house during a protest against the suicide of a farmer at a rally organised by Kejriwal's Aam Admi Party in New Delhi on April 23, 2015. A farmer hanged himself in front of hundreds of protesters gathered in the centre of the Indian capital on April 22, 2015, to rally against the government's contentious reform of land purchasing laws. AFP PHOTO / Chandan KHANNA (Photo credit should read Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images)

NEW DELHI, India — In February, Rameshwar Samrat, a 50-year-old farmer from the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, stood in a rally at Parliament Street in New Delhi. Around him, some 1,000 villagers from across the country, from the fertile hills of Assam to the arid desert of Rajasthan to the agrarian plains of Punjab, shouted slogans and punched their fists in the air. A few hundred yards away, the Indian parliament was locked in a furious debate that would determine their future.

Samrat comes from Chhattisgarh’s Raigarh district, a region once known for its fertile farms and verdant forests. He belongs to the state’s indigenous Kewar tribal community that forages in forests and practices rain-fed agriculture. Samrat, father to an adult son and a 13-year-old daughter, grows paddy and peanuts on five acres of land that his family has owned for generations. He does not make much money, but owns his house, can feed his family, and educate his children.

Since winning the election last May, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been on a mission to speed up economic development and investment. His government has announced policy initiatives like Make in India, to encourage domestic manufacturing, and Smart Cities, which is aimed at boosting urban renewal. He’s introduced labor reforms and initiatives to stimulate foreign investment in railways and even defense.

But Modi’s new policy on land acquisition, which directly affects Samrat, is the biggest and most contested all. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government wants to pass a law that would allow it to acquire land for a broad range of projects, including defense, national security, and certain private industries, without seeking permission from land owners, most of whom are small farmers or tribal people like Samrat. Fertile land with multiple crops can be taken, too. Owners will be compensated, but will have no choice in the matter.

On March 10, the new land law cleared the Lok Sabha, India’s BJP-dominated lower house of parliament, with minor amendments. Now, it’s waiting for a vote in the Rajya Sabha, the opposition-led upper house in the upcoming monsoon session of parliament, which begins in July.

Business analysts support the BJP’s land law. Investment bank Goldman Sachs has applauded the proposal, saying it removes barriers to key infrastructure projects that will boost India’s economy. Modi has defended the proposed law, saying its promise of high compensation for land is a step forward, and that NGOs speaking against the law are “trying to mislead farmers.”

But after a farmer hanged himself from a tree in New Delhi during a political rally on April 22, India’s agrarian crisis has taken center stage. Pushed to the edge by unseasonal rains in March and April that devastated crops across the country, millions of farmers are in deep financial distress, and hundreds have committed suicide over the past three months. They fear the new land law will deliver the final blow. “I’m not fooled that this law is progress for me,” said Samrat, who voted for the BJP in last year’s elections because he expected inclusive growth from Modi. “It is already clear I misjudged him.”

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Modi’s new proposal adds a new chapter to the ugly history of government-assisted land takeovers in India.

For decades, the Indian government has played middleman for development, often acquiring land from citizens on behalf of private companies or for infrastructure or industrial projects that it declared have a “public purpose,” which in India can cover anything from dams and highways to private real estate and commercial projects.

Land acquisition for such plans followed a 120-year-old colonial law, under which takeovers were non-negotiable and paid woefully outdated compensation. On several occasions, takeovers under the law sparked protests across the country, ranging from decades-long non-violent agitation against the Sardar Sarovar Dam in west India that displaced 250,000 people, to 2008’s violent farmer uprisings in West Bengal against coercive acquisition of farmland and forced evacuations by the state for a Tata Motors car factory. A 2014 report by the Indian government’s chief auditor showed that 14 percent of the lands acquired under the law invoking “public purpose” were diverted for commercial activities. Nearly 50 percent lay idle. “The acquisition of land from the public by the government is proving to be a major transfer of wealth from the rural populace to the corporate world,” the report said.

Under pressure to amend the process, the previous Congress party-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government began to consult with corporate lobbies, NGOs working in affected communities, opposition parties, including the BJP, state governments, and other stakeholders. In 2013, the UPA finally replaced the colonial law with a new Land Acquisition Act that established fairer terms for compensation, and made it compulsory for the government to obtain consent from 80 percent of affected families for private projects and 70 percent for public-private partnerships. For the first time in Indian history, it also mandated an analysis of the project’s social impact — that is, its long term effects on land owners and the community as a whole, which would factor in a project’s impact on everything from agriculture to water sources to schooling.

Although the 2013 land law retained the government’s middleman role in private sector land acquisitions, it ensured market-rate payments and by giving voice to affected communities, included checks and balances to prevent exploitation and misuse in the name of development.

After Modi’s BJP was voted into office last year on a sweeping pro-development mandate, however, it called the 2013 land law — which it had worked on while it was in the opposition — “defective” and “a threat to national security.” Citing the urgent need for electricity, highways, and GDP growth, it denounced the process of seeking consent as a barrier to prosperity, and said that several state governments, including Congress-ruled ones, wanted to roll it back. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said the 2013 law had turned India into a “nation of incomplete projects.” (His ministry later admitted that of all stalled projects in the country, only 8 percent were held up because of land acquisition problems.)

Still, on the last day of 2014, the BJP government released a temporary executive order that retained the 2013 law’s high compensation component, but dropped all the consent and social impact analysis requirements for a range of projects, including industrial complexes, affordable housing, and infrastructure projects. They claimed a new law would ensure that a lack of consent did not hold up critical plans. They put it forward in the Lok Sabha early this year.

Medha Patkar, an activist who leads the National Alliance of People’s Movements, an umbrella organisation of NGOs and civil society working for the rights of poor communities, called the new law short-sighted, and said it will undo years of dialogue and progress. “If industries must acquire rural land, the law must ensure that the companies do due diligence towards the people who survived on the land till then.” she says. “Experience shows that companies will not rehabilitate or resettle people, employ locals, or pay them the right price for land without it being made mandatory.”

The law does seek to provide reasonable compensation for government-acquired land. But direct compensation is only one part of the equation, and activists say it’s unclear how companies will design rehabilitation plans — that is, how they will make up for the loss of community resources like wells, schools or grazing areas that may have been on the acquired land — without the requirement for a social impact assessment.

India is the world’s largest producer of many fruits and vegetables, and second largest of global staples rice and wheat. Suneet Chopra, joint secretary of the All-India Agricultural Workers’ Union, adds that the land law particularly endangers agriculturists – who make up 55 percent of the country’s population. This is because the BJP’s proposed land law now allows industries to acquire multicrop, irrigated farmland, which was generally prohibited under the 2013 law in order to safeguard India’s food security. This means fertile farmland like Samrat’s is now fair game. “It is a disaster for food produce and rural India,” Chopra says.

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In shunting aside the need for consent, the BJP’s proposed reforms are poised to make official what for decades has been the reality on the ground: When governments and companies pair up to acquire land for large-scale projects, the desires of local communities are almost always sidelined. Sometimes these acquisitions obey the letter of the law, conforming to the bare minimum requirements, but often, they ignore that, too.

In Samrat’s district of Raigarh, people have experienced this combination of intimidation and ambiguity when it comes to land, water, and forest rights. In Sarasmal village, adjacent to a network of coal mines owned by Congress politician Naveen Jindal, locals have filed hundreds of complaints of land grabs and forgeries of consent documents by Jindal Steel and Power Ltd. Near Pata village, several private and state-owned companies have received the greenlight to raze many sections of the verdant Hasdeo Arand forests to clear the way for coal mines, ignoring assertions from local communities and environmentalists that mines will damage the area’s biodiversity. In Tamnar town, in the same state, industries and mines have received environmental clearances to expand, despite village council meetings declaring that the rivers and air are already severely polluted.

On paper, the indigenous people of Raigarh have several constitutionally enshrined rights over forest land. India’s constitution stipulates that companies must seek the approval of local tribes for any use of forest land for industry. Their consent is also mandatory for land acquisition under the 2013 land law.

But in reality, their opinion counts for little. “Forget asking for written approval. They don’t even conduct hearings in which we can voice our concerns,” said Mouna Rathiya, a 35-year-old tribal woman living in Sarasmal. Rathiya found that she had lost her 10-acre farm to the Jindal mines only when the district magistrate summoned her to hand her the check. “They pulled away my land and my rights from under my feet, that’s it.”

It is common for government bodies and companies working together to ignore participative procedures, and use intimidation and forgery to feign community approval. Industry heads blame the impossible Indian bureaucracy that makes participative processes corrupt and time-consuming, while villagers struggle in courts and start rallies and protests to fight violations.

When the Congress-led UPA government was initially revising tribal rights and environment laws, it had sought to include local communities in state decisions involving environmental protection, the use of natural resources, and land acquisition. In public hearings, communities could bring up complaints over the harmful environmental impacts of projects: In cases where forests were going to be cut, tribal councils had to be consulted and the loss of common property compensated. But by the end of 2013, the UPA succumbed to political pressure and industry lobbying, and openly backpedalled on these directives, exempting several companies from the procedures via executive discretion, and giving away large tracts of forests to be razed.

Today, the BJP is going several steps further. Since the first month of the Modi government, the ministry of environment has issued a series of memos allowing existing coal mines to expand production capacity by as much as 6 million tons in some cases without conducting public hearings. The environment ministry has also reportedly sought to drastically limit the powers of tribal councils to approve handing over forests for industry use.

Finance Minister Jaitley argues that participative processes have held back “hundreds of crores of projects.” But the 2014-2015 state-administered Economic Survey of India found that this is not true. Instead, it was “over exuberance and a credit bubble” that were to blame for stalled private projects, as companies with access to easy credit made plans that later proved unviable. Only 13 percent of stalled private infrastructure projects have been held up by land acquisition, the report said. Of all proposed projects in the private sector, only 5 percent await environmental clearances.

Meanwhile, industrialization and infrastructure construction have tended to disproportionately affect the most marginalized. Tribal communities, only 8.6 percent of India’s total population, constitute about 40 percent of those displaced by development projects. “Growth and transparency are desired goals,” says Delhi-based environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta. “But you can’t dilute regulations to simplify procedures.”

Consultation matters not just for its own sake, says Aruna Chandrasekhar, senior researcher with Amnesty International India. Including people in the system helps identify and prevent pollution and forcible evictions. In the absence of dialogue to address people’s concerns, projects are also likely to face lengthy litigation, protests, and the same delays that the government wants to prevent. “The changes show a troubling shift in the perception of the relationship between business and human rights, which assumes that compensation is the only currency that matters,” Chandrasekhar says.

As all avenues of dialogue are being shut down, villagers and farmers are taking their fight to the streets of Delhi to try to make sure they are seen and heard. Samrat’s family had already lost access to the forest they foraged in, and his village was surrounded by mountains of debris dug out from coal mines. His farmland, even with its dwindling harvest, is his only asset. He hoped to have a say in what he wanted to do with it. But the Delhi rally in February was Samrat’s sixth. The blue ink of the word “unfair” on his placard had begun to run.

Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images

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