The Daisy Cutters
- A government report critical of the land acquisition policies in rural India
- Says cycle of growing lawlessness, poverty, violence is a natural outcome of state’s neo-liberal economic agenda
- Amendments altering protective laws to attract private investment has further marginalised the poor
- Report slams state patronage of Salwa Judum in Chhattisgarh
Once upon a time “the temples of modern India reduced millions of tribal people to ecological refugees”; now “the minerals seen as the building blocks of modern India” are putting them “at risk of losing their land through acquisition and further disruption of their societies and economies”. No, that’s no dire warning from some rights activist but, significantly, a part of a government report, ‘State Agrarian Relations and Unfinished Task of Land Reforms’, by a 15-member committee of the Union rural development ministry in January 2008. Headed by minister C.P. Joshi himself, it includes the secretary, land resources, four other civil servants (two of whom are retired), three economists and six representatives from the NGO sector. Curiously, the chief author of the report is B.K. Sinha, a retired IAS officer who now heads the National Institute of Rural Development in Hyderabad.
The report promises to stir up a hornet’s nest, suggesting as it does radical changes in land management, stressing that the cycle of growing landlessness, poverty and violence is a natural outcome of the government’s neo-liberal economic agenda. It also warns that if immediate steps are not taken, it could be a downward spiral. The report admits that even within the government there is a view “that distributive justice programmes have been overtaken by the development paradigm”, and that many states had amended protective laws to attract private investment but these have ended up further marginalising the poor. It also makes a connection between the alienation of tribals from their land in central India and the rapidity with which Maoist influence in this area is growing—and also slams the government’s patronage of the Salwa Judum in Chhattisgarh.
That said, the report is a “modified” version of the original document. When the original draft was shown to the RJD’s redoubtable Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, the current minister’s predecessor and under whom the committee was formed (and in whose tenure most of the report was formulated), he told Outlook he had “pointed out that it had taken an extremist line; so it was toned down”.
But the more than 250-page tome is apparently not toned down enough for UPA-II, with its recommendations on reducing the land ceiling, a homestead policy, tenancy registration, giving tribals the right to decide how their land would be used, and so on. Sources in government say the report is “impractical, too utopian” and simply “does not take into account ground realities”. The report now awaits the approval of the National Council on Land Reforms headed by Dr Manmohan Singh. Council members include the deputy chairperson of the Planning Commission, central ministers from the ministries concerned —agriculture, social welfare, tribal welfare, environment and forests—chief ministers and a group of experts.
If the report is “too utopian” for the government, even committee members admit that some of the report’s key recommendations may be difficult to implement. Dr A.K. Singh, economist and director of the Giri Institute of Development Studies in Lucknow, told Outlook, “The report suggests that tenancy registration should be strictly enforced. In UP, it has never happened as land has always been leased to tenants in an informal way. It is doubtful that it can be implemented in UP, especially as land is a state subject.”
Yet other committee members point out more contradictions. Neelima Khetan, CEO of Sewa Mandir, Rajasthan’s largest NGO, says, “The report recommends that homestead rights be given to all poor people, by distributing surplus land. At another place, it talks of using Common Property Resources effectively. How will the two be reconciled?”
But P.V. Rajagopal, who heads Ekta Parishad and was the moving spirit behind the Janadesh Yatra in ’07 (when 30,000 tribals from 18 states arrived in the capital to press their demands), which compelled the government to set up the committee on land reforms, is more sanguine. As a member of the PM’s Council on Land Reforms, which will put in place a policy framework and take a final view on how the recommendations will be implemented, he’s already gearing up for battle. “The government is torn between a World Bank-led reforms agenda and the one that people like me are espousing. Of course, there will be tensions between the two groups when the council meets. The government, I am sure, will realise that if it goes the corporate way, it will only increase migration, poverty and violence,” says Rajagopal.
Indeed, while the report focuses on the entire country (including a section on the Northeast), the part relating to the tribals and Dalits has special resonance today, as government forces engage in a bloody war with the Maoists in central India. The report is devastatingly frank about the collusion between government and big business, even accusing the two of funding and fuelling the Salwa Judum in Chhattisgarh. “This open, declared war will go down as the biggest land grab ever.... Tata Steel and Essar Steel...wanted seven villages or thereabouts...to mine the richest lode of iron ore available in India. (After) initial resistance from the tribals...the state withdrew its plans. A new approach was necessary.... (It) came about with the Salwa Judum...headed by the Murias, some of them erstwhile (Maoist) cadres. Behind them are traders, contractors and miners.... The first financiers of the Salwa Judum were Tata and Essar...640 villages...were laid bare, burnt to the ground and emptied with the force of the gun and the blessings of the state. (Some) 3,50,000 tribals, half the total population of Dantewada district, are displaced, their womenfolk raped, their daughters killed and their youth maimed. Those who could not escape into the jungle were herded together into refugee camps run and managed by the Salwa Judum...640 villages are empty. Villages sitting on tons of iron ore are effectively de-peopled and available for the highest bidder. The latest information being circulated is that both Essar Steel and Tata Steel are willing to take over the empty landscape and manage the mines.”
Clearly, the government has little time to lose, as Rajagopal points out, “There is pressure from the Maoists and growing violence on the one hand, and there is the pressure from non-violent mass movements to take a fresh look at the land issue.” Indeed, the report may have some virtually undoable suggestions—and certainly some contradictions (inevitable, given it has sought to be fair to the competing perspectives of equity, ecology, growth-efficiency, and community and gender). The government can ignore this report only at the cost of not just its own future but, more importantly, that of the country.