The Gujarat Model of Land Grab

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In her book Ahmedabad, Amrita Shah beautifully describes her encounter with veteran BJP leader Surendra Patel, popularly known as ‘Kaka’ and credited with forcing landowners in the rural outskirts to give away their land for the ‘development’ of Gujarat’s former capital city. Echoing his leader Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who tries to sell his pet project — a more aggressive land acquisition law — as something that would benefit everyone, big business and peasant alike, Kaka claims that all the land deals done during his tenure as chairman of the Ahmedabad Urban Development Authority were a “win-win for everybody”.

Shah writes that Kaka “would try various approaches” to deal “with those who did not buy his win-win deal”. First, he would try the “flashing open palm” method, a gesture to signify an intimidating “request”. If it worked, well and good the farmer loses his land and the leader gets what he wants. Else, the veteran BJP leader would be left with no option but to deploy the last resort (he makes a grabbing gesture to show this). Make no mistake, Kaka means business, which in this case means land grab — snatching someone’s land against their will. And, indeed, few would doubt Kaka’s sterling track record in contributing to the “development” of Gujarat through such means, i.e.,by hook or by crook. His man Friday Nimish Joshi describes his success as “Vikase bandhyo vishwas (development-generated trust)”, writes Shah.

Cut to the near future. An imagined version of it. Imagine Modi has pushed through the land acquisition Bill, giving big business exactly what they have been demanding since the erstwhile UPA government replaced the colonial Land Acquisition Act, 1894, with the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement, 2013.

That means governments and businesses do not need to seek the consent of those who would be uprooted from their land and livelihood if they can show that the land is being acquired for national security, defence, rural infrastructure (including electrification), industrial corridors and housing for the poor, including Public-Private Partnerships where ownership of land remains with the government. In fact, beyond paying off the landowners, the government has little to do. It does not even have to find out how many lives a project would affect as no one who does not own the land being acquired would be considered project-affected. There will be no social impact assessment to figure out these messy details. So the fate of landless peasants and others dependent on the village economy centred around agrarian land use can simply be shrugged off.

It also does not matter whether the land is fertile or not. The only thing that counts is the estimated price of land and its value for the government and big business. In short, it’s back to square one with the land acquisition law resembling the British-era Act once again and the Gujarat model of land grab firmly in place through the length and breadth of the country.

Gujarat-based activist Lalji Desai described this as the “Modani model”, given how the Adani Group had benefitted immensely from land deals engineered by Modi on his home turf. Replicating it across the country — what the contentious land acquisition Bill sought to enable — has led to unprecedented and massive take over of agricultural and common land. For instance, more than 7 lakh sq km of agricultural land — three times the size of England — was snatched from farmers across six states (Delhi, UP, Haryana, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra) for the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor, as Vijoo Krishnan, joint secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), had warned when the Bill was stuck in Parliament.

Even as the acquisition juggernaut rumbles on, organisations such as AIKS within the Bhoomi Adhikar Andolan (Movement for Land Rights) — an umbrella alliance of people’s movements and farmers’ outfits that spearheaded the mobilisation against Modi’s land Bill — plan to “recapture forcibly acquired land”. The new land law did away with every avenue people had to successfully oppose a project through legal means before the acquisition of land, forcing them to organise for taking over the land after it has been acquired from them. With such movements raging across the country, India seems to be on the cusp of a civil war of sorts.

No matter how extreme this imaginary situation may sound today, that seems to be where the country is headed, with the Modi regime leaving no stone unturned to go ahead with a model of growth that depends on displacing huge numbers of people dependent on agrarian and allied occupations and forcing a fundamental shift in urban-rural demographics. “The Bhoomi Adhikar Andolan is yet to arrive at a formal consensus on taking up aggressive counter-mobilisation against land acquisition, including recapturing acquired land, but many of the constituent organisations, including AIKS, are seriously mulling the idea,” says Krishnan.

Growing militancy within the people’s movements is also reflected in the tenor of veteran activist Medha Patkar’s recent comments. As convenor of the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM), a constituent of the Bhoomi Adhikar Andolan, Patkar tells Tehelka, “Farmers are committing suicide due to extremely insensitive agricultural policies. But if Modi regime does not give up on its ambition to dilute the 2013 law on land acquisition, rehabilitation and resettlement,then the farmers will force the government to commit suicide. Because it is a do-or-die situation for farmers and others who depend on land for their livelihood.”

So, what if farmers and other rural poor risk breaking the law to resist forcible land acquisition or legalised land grab? No doubt Modi has proved his mettle in “getting things done” for corporates by dealing efficiently with people’s resistance to development-induced displacement in Gujarat. But will he succeed in harnessing the might of the Indian State to do this across the country?

The government’s unusual decision to re-promulgate the controversial ordinance for a record third time even as a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) is yet to finish scrutinising its nuances has sent out the message that Modi will stop at nothing to impose the Gujarat model in the rest of the country. Highly placed sources in the JPC have confirmed that while most farmers’ organisations and people’s movements vehemently oppose the “anti-farmer” clauses in the ordinance, representatives of big business such as the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) demand more “industry-friendly” provisions, including reducing the compensation for landowners.

Weeks before Modi was crowned the chief executive of the world’s largest democracy, the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion (DIPP) under the Ministry of Commerce uploaded a report by consultancy firm Accenture titled ‘Best Practices to Improve the Business Environment across States/Union Territories in India’ on their website. Identifying land acquisition as “a major bottle neck in starting businesses in India, especially for larger firms”, the report extolled Gujarat’s record in successful and efficient land acquisition, ranking it over all other states. It also lauded the Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation’s (GIDC) “model for land-related intervention as a best practice”.

Who does this “best practice” benefit? Ask Kanubhai Kalsaria, once a good friend of Modi and three-time BJP MLA from Mahuva Assembly constituency, and he gives an interesting answer. “The Gujarat model is basically about the government acting as a land broker for corporates,” he says. “Take the case of Adani, definitely the best example of the model at work. The rise and rise of Adani mirrors Modi’s political trajectory. In the late 1990s, the Adani Group owned only around 3,000 acres. Now, they own more than 2 lakh acres. Modi gifted them a major chunk at throwaway prices starting at 1 per sq m.” Kalsaria revolted against Modi in 2010 when the Gujarat government decided to forcibly acquire agricultural land for homegrown detergent giant Nirma and went on to join the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).

Modi’s record as the chief minister of Gujarat bears out Kalsare’s chosen epithet of “land broker par excellence”. When the man of the 56-inch-chest fame, who would one day become prime minister, was being hauled over the coals by rival political parties and sections of the national media for his alleged role in the anti-Muslim pogrom of 2002, he was busy laying the policy and legal foundations of what critics would denounce as “corporate land grab”.

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