There Is a Global Fight Against Land Grabs by Oligarchs - Will You Stand Up in Solidarity?

One of the powerful images that travelled across the wires in the first week of December is from when the Obama administration and the Army Corps of Engineers officially denied the easement to cross under Lake Oahe, halting the Dakota Access Pipeline, signaling a real, moral and physical victory. This was not just a win for the land rights movement, but also for the cultural rights of the indigenous peoples of North America, the Native Americans. The pipeline protest has faced months of resistance from the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and members of over 100 other tribes from across the U.S., Canada and Latin America. Iconic journalists like Amy Goodman, among others, spotlighted the selective gaze of the journalistic profession, while risking much to ensure that North America and the world imbibed strength and vigor from the struggle. The images as the struggle showed the hopeless, one-sidedness of power, while they also highlighted resistance. As activists shut down bank branches, a powerful spiritual resistance symbolized by David Archambault, the head of the Standing Rock Sioux, conveyed a strong message to protect ancestral graves. Protesters were met with attack dogs, and the visuals resembled the Birmingham and Alabama protests of 1963.

Switch to India. The world’s largest democracy, run at present by a proto-fascist and majoritarian force with a 30-month record of trampling on all manner and fashion of fundamental freedoms.Since November 8, the entire country—especially its farmers, workers, self-employed and small businesses—have been reeling as the result of an ill-thought-of move to de-monetize the Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 rupee notes. With much of national and international media attention tracking the implications of this move, the all-out, sinister attempts to trample the land rights of India’s tribal population—its indigenous peoples and farmers—have been overshadowed.

Jharkand is a small, resource-laden eastern state that is flanked by West Bengal. It was created for Indian tribal people but has been dominated by non-tribal elites since its birth in 2000, and it has witnessed non-violent and peaceful protests virtually excluded from the national and international media gaze. On December 3 and 4, the entire state came to a standstill and was brought under a law to stall protests. Colleges and universities had police blockading them, in a bid to quell statewide protests organized to express state-wide outrage. The national media lens was absent even as Jharkand, one of India’s youngest states, was and is on the boil. This selective media coverage had gone hand with aggressive corporate-political policies of “globalization” that has become synonymous with land grabs of resource-rich areas. The developments emerged after the BJP-dominated State Assembly illegally passed amendments to the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act and the Santhal Pargana Tenency Act, with a sinister aim to snatch away the rights of India’s Adivasis.  Even as State Repression increases, the indigenous people have resolutely and peacefully fought back to reclaim what is theirs.

Brute force has also been used as Jaharkand’s tribal people tragically lost their lives to the resistance over the past months. The political opposition's fierce protests against the Bills to bring amendments to the age-old Chotanagpur Tenancy (CNT) Act and SanthalPargana Tenancy (SPT) Act spilled onto the roads of the state capital, Ranchi. The JVM-RJD-JDU and the Left held a march and staged demonstrations, inviting a showdown with police who had to use water canons and teargas shells to tame the crowd. If the state legislature, where the Bills were passed by a voice vote, witnessed utter pandemonium, the scene outside was no less chaotic. Since July 2016, but since October 2016 particularly, the Jharkand government has been deploying force and guns to quell tribal protest in Jharkand. The third incident occurred on October 1 in Hazaribagh, Jharkhand, where the police used their brutal power and killed four persons by firing on the crowd. These people were peacefully protesting against land acquisition for a Thermal Power Plant, which would cause their displacement.

Law vs People

Under colonial British rule, some legislation with a view to protect the tribal people and their rights over natural resources was introduced, including the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act, 1908 (CNT) and SantalPargana Tenancy Act, 1949 (SPT). Aimed at preventing land alienation of the indigenous Adivasi community, powerful lobbies had over the years ensured amendments that diluted the protection offered by these laws, especially in the CNT Act—which allows indigenous land to be seized for public-sector undertakings such as mines and industries. Under this pretext, thousands of acres of rich, forest land has been, over the years, forcibly appropriated from Jharkand’s Adivasis using the outdated Land Acquisition Act of 1894 enacted by the British. The compensation, fixed by petty bureaucrats, has also been meager without any rehabilitation of the displaced. A minimal estimate is that about 24 lakh acres of land was thus alienated and 19 lakh people have been, over the decades, displaced. A cruel, further push in this policy of unfair seizure of land was brought in with the neoliberal policies adopted from the early 1990s, which has paved the way for private industrialists to invest in mining and industries.

It was with respect to this overall situation that the infamous Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) between government and industry were signed, almost always without ratification by the duly-elected state or central legislatures.

In Jharkand alone, of the 105 MOUs signed, only 10 to 12 could be implemented in the 16 years since the state’s formation. The cost of the resistance was high: as many as 2,000 activists face criminal charges and even incarceration for being part of peaceful protests. The Indian media, however, does not report this story.

It was in response to these widespread people’s movements that the earlier United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government had been compelled to enact the Land Acquisition Act of 2013, by which better compensation and rehabilitation was offered to users and owners of land. Some significant features of this 2013 law are: increased compensation amount enhanced to four times the market rate; compulsory environment clearance necessary for the industry or mine; obligatory public hearings wherein the consent of 80% of the population was mandatory for private industries and 70% for public sector industries; and social audit by independent expert group to assess the  economic, social, cultural impact on the communities caused by the industry/mine functioning in their midst. Only on the satisfactory fulfillment of the above conditions, industries or mines would be given the go-ahead signal, according to the 2013 law. This was a hard-earned victory for the land rights movement.

Not so for Narendra Modi and the forces that he represents. In 2014, months after assuming power, the Narendra Modi regime tried to test the political waters by bringing in a Land Acquisition Ordinance to overturn this 2013 Law. In 2014, the central government tried to amend the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and  Resettlement Act of 2013 through an ordinance. This was followed by a series of very vociferous and protracted protests by the Opposition, Farmers and their organizations, even civil society groups. Under the pressure from this overwhelmingly united protest the government at the centre caved in and was compelled to refrain from the proposed amendments.

It was the united political opposition at the center, in Parliament and outside, that put a brake on the Modi government’s overt intention to disenfranchise farmers and landholders. Modi was forced to withdraw the much-criticized ordinance.

The corporate-driven government did not stop at this. Shifting the burden of dismantling the 2013 Land Acquisition Act to state governments—especially those ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) —the NDA II government asked the States to enact their own laws, ordinances and amendments so that corporate entities could more easily acquire land and start their industries and mines, bypassing statutory requirements of the 2013 Central legislation.

Since 2014, therefore, not only Jharkand but at least three other BJP-ruled states have gone ahead and contravened the central laws by passing state legislation that significantly dilute the hard-earned land rights of cultivators, tribal people, farmers and indigenous peoples. Gujarat, Maharashtra and Rajasthan are the others.

Gujarat is another example worth looking at. The western Indian state provided Narendra Modi with a political launching pad of a development model touted as pro-growth, when in fact it promoted jobless growth that empowered high wealth concentration. Gujarat has seen simmering protests from farmers’ organizations and groups across the spectrum, protesting the rapacious policies of the state government. Conscious of the growing resentment with which the amendments in the Ordinance were viewed, and the groundswell of opposition to it in Gujarat, the state government has still imposed and amended the very provisions of the land law that were opposed. Once again, the government has chosen to side with the few crony capitalists against the vast majority of its own citizens.

The amendments were cleverly introduced in the Assembly on a day when the opposition had been suspended from the House. There was therefore practically no discussion or debate on the proposed amendments in the Assembly. It is a mockery of democracy that such a crucial Bill was introduced on a day that the opposition is absent in the House, and the legislation passed without debate.

What do the amendments do? They are extremely regressive and remove nearly all of the land in Gujarat from the ambit of consent, SIA (social audit) and R&R (Relief and Rehabilitation) requirements. In other words, it is no longer even an amendment; it now overturns LARR 2013 in substance and spirit all together. The new legislation passed in the Assembly empowers the authorities to exempt projects “vital to defense of national security of the country,” “infrastructure and electrification project or affordable housing for the poor” or “industrial corridors set up by the State or its undertakings” and “infrastructure projects under public-private partnership” from social impact assessment or consent clauses as incorporated in the central Act. It also allows the State or its undertakings to acquire land up to one kilometer on both sides of designated railway lines or highways in industrial corridor projects.

“Through this Bill, we are doing away with Social Impact Assessment clause, as it consumes lot of time. Further, it will not be necessary for the government to acquire consent of 80% affected parties if we are acquiring land for social and defence sector,” said senior Minister Nitin Patel, who piloted the Bill in the Assembly.

In short, the State Bill has all the provisions that the NDA government had incorporated in the ordinance, promulgated by the Modi administration, to amend the UPA act.

‘Statement of Objects and Reasons’ Exposes the Intent of the Proposed Law

The ‘Statement of Objects and Reasons’ accompanying the Bill, provides a justification for the amendments:

The Central Government has enacted the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013. Gujarat is an industrially progressive State and more and more investment is coming to the State. The State Government aims to provide all basic facilities and infrastructure to the entrepreneurs. However, it has been experienced that after coming into force of the said Act which has very stringent provisions for acquiring the land, land acquisition has become a very lengthy and difficult proposition. It is, therefore, considered necessary to make the procedural part of the land acquisition smooth and easy without interfering with the rights of the persons whatsoever whose lands are acquired. (emphasis added).

The primary justification for the amendments, it appears, is to safeguard “investment” and “provide all basic facilities and infrastructure to entrepreneurs.” Farmers and others dependent on land, who were the drivers of the changed law of 2013, do not even find a mention in the “Statement of Objects and Reasons.” So much for “farmer-friendly” governance and government!

It also states that the “procedural part” of land acquisition should be conducted “without interfering with the rights of the persons … whose lands are acquired.” This is a no-brainer. When the list of projects to be exempted from “consent” and “social impact assessment” requirements is expanded, how can it not “interfere with the rights of the persons … whose lands are acquired?” This is merely paying lip-service to the “rights of persons,” while actually carrying out actions that will negate that very objective.

Farmers and others who are dependent on land, who were the drivers of the changed law of 2013 (under UPA II at the Center), do not even find a mention in the “Statement of Objects and Reasons” of the Gujarat 2016 Bill.

Further, the justification for the amendments in the RFCTLARR (Gujarat Amendment) Bill of 2016 is that since the LARR 2013 “has very stringent provisions for acquiring the land, land acquisition has become a very lengthy and difficult proposition.” This, despite the fact that studies have shown that over 92 per cent of the in-pipeline projects were held up due to reasons other than land acquisition-related issues.
 Ironically, LARR 2013 has never been implemented in Gujarat. On what basis was the statement that it makes land acquisition “lengthy and difficult” made? Even the work for minor and sub-minor canal network for the Narmada command areas was delayed, intentionally, despite the farmers willing to give land for it until the changes in favor of the corporate interests had been made. Without an honest attempt having been made to implement the 2013 Act, a deceptive conclusion has been reached that land acquisition has become “lengthy and difficult.”

The rationale of the 2013 law, brought in after a painful period of negotiation between all “stakeholders,” was to bring in a degree of protection to farmers and land owners, those persons and communities dependant on fertile and arable lands. This was the primary reason for bringing in the consent and social audit clauses and making the law “stringent.” It was meant to discourage land acquisition at the scale at which it was happening under the old law.

The Statement of Objects and Reasons of the 2016 Gujarat Bill does admit that the proposed amendments “exempt certain projects from the application of the provisions of the Chapter II of the Act which relates to determination of social impact and public purpose as also from the provisions of Chapter III of the Act which relates to special provision to safeguard food security.” However, it is silent on the fact that, along with these exemptions, projects are also exempt from consent and R&R (Relief and Rehabilitation) provisions. A Comparative Table of the 2016 Gujarat Bill, the 2014 Modi Government ordinance and the 2013 LARR can be read here.

Clearly, the moves of the Modi government to ignore India’s peasantry and decaying agrarian sector, and push an unhealthy culture of land grab that can benefit the rich few, have simply changed track, not been abandoned. This poses a fresh and new challenge to the political opposition and people’s movements all over the country.

Significantly, land laws are being changed, even as dissent and protests are being crushed. In two other states ruled by the same party that Narendra Modi represents, both the Maharashtra and Gujarat governments have attempted to enact laws that criminalize all criticism and dissent: the Gujarat Protection of Internal Security Act (GPISA) and a similar Maharashtra Law.  Both of these proposed laws will in fact be tools in the hands of the states to target any individuals or movements resisting government policy or action. Though these have been stiffly opposed by civil liberties groups, this is no guarantee that these, too, will not be steamrolled through and passed. These proposed laws render any and all criticism of the existing political dispensation, especially the growing rage of the minority communities and Dalits against an increasingly intolerant regime, criminal.

Media and Corporate Capital

All these challenges become even more acute, and mass organization and mobilizations to contest them even more difficult, with the composition of the Indian media having undergoing a drastic change and corporate capital determining what we see, view and understand.

In an interview in September 2014, P. Sainath explained this phenomenon. As previously summarized:

The interview also explores the complete domination of Indian Parliament by “more than millionaires” [the 2014 Indian Parliament has 353 of the 545 Members of Parliament worth Rs 10 million; when the last Parliament – 2009—had only 145 MPs worth Rs 10 million] and in turn these very individuals ( and their corporate business interests owning controlling shares in media). This enjoys a rare convergence, hitherto unparalleled that was witnessed in the brazen corporate campaign to spearhead Modi to power in 2014.

There is a stranglehold on free thought, expression, association that is, most dangerously of all being constructed by this unholy nexus. Protest, then, is unseen, but for fragmentary information available through the social media and some valiant internet news portals. Indian democracy stands at a challenging threshold, struggling to break out of this stranglehold and nexus.

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