The Gujarat Model of Land Grab

Homegrown resistance Farmers opposed land acquisition for a Nirma detergent plant in Mahuva, Saurashtra
Homegrown resistance Farmers opposed land acquisition for a Nirma detergent plant in Mahuva, Saurashtra. Photo: Vijay Pandey

The Gujarat Industrial Policy, 2003, widely considered to be Modi’s brainchild, enabled the government to invoke the “urgency clause” in the 1894 Land Acquisition Act “in deserving cases of public or private limited companies to facilitate quicker possession of land for industrial purposes”. That very year, Modi introduced changes in land laws to facilitate the sale of agricultural land for commercial purposes.

Until then it was illegal to sell or mortgage land that had been distributed to farmers as part of “land reforms”. Known as “new tenure” land, they were set apart from “old tenure” land, which could be bought and sold. Modi’s intervention changed the law to allow easy conversion of “new tenure” land to “old tenure”.

This was followed by a government resolution in 2005, which came with provisions to privatise guachar (pastoral) land, which until then used to be part of village commons that every villager could access and use but no one could own. Privatisation of pastoral land has posed serious challenges to the livestock economy.

Activists also draw attention to the Gujarat Drainage and Irrigation Act, 2013, which restricts water use by farmers but gives enough concessions to industry. In effect, it provides eminent domain rights landon water resources to the government by snatching the traditional rights enjoyed by the agrarian classes.

In her study on “liberalisation and land in Gujarat”, Oxford scholar Nikita Sud writes that Modi’s tenure as chief minister was marked by a strange mix of legal and “business-friendly extra-legal role” of State institutions in “facilitating land transfers to private players”. Besides liberalising land policies, the Modi government also amended the Gujarat Infrastructure Development Act, which helped the regime’s favoured companies to bypass tender procedures and acquire land smoothly for certain types of projects.

Based on her intensive interviews with senior bureaucrats, Sud points out that major players in State institutions also recommended private investors to employ retired or serving officials of the land revenue department so as to facilitate smooth transfer of land and then convert the transferred land illegally to non-agricultural status. “The nexus of land conversion goes to the top of the bureaucratic and political pyramids, with different layers of the State taking a fixed cut, for each square foot of land,” she writes. In demonstrating Modi’s penchant for land brokering, Sud also documents her conversation with the CEO of a private firm, who said, “The Chief Minister’s Office (CMO) and its boss will apparently remove all hurdles in attaining land, even if it means skirting around official procedure.”

Sagar Rabari, convenor of Jameen Adhikar Andolan (Land Rights Movement), which mobilises people against land acquisition in Gujarat, confirms Sud’s findings. “The land acquisition model in Gujarat cannot be seen separately from Modi’s larger authoritarian politics,” says Rabari. “Brute force was used to suppress farmers’ resistance against land acquisition for the Maruti Suzuki factory at Hansalpur village near Ahmedabad. Whenever people protest against land acquisition, the police are keen to invoke Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code. Modi was infamous for bypassing the legislature and showcasing the executive’s authoritarian power. Most of the policy decisions on land were not debated in the Assembly.”

There are several telling examples of Modi’s penchant for ordinances related to land policy. An apt case would be the January 2009 ordinance on Special Investment Region (SIR). The size of an SIR in Gujarat varies from 10,000 hectares to 92,000 hectares. The ordinance became an Act despite drawing flak from several quarters. The major criticism was that the government was artfully extending the Gujarat Town Planning Act to the rural areas through the Act. As per the SIR Act, the government can acquire the entire land in an SIR for developing infrastructure alone. After developing the land, the government can hold on to up to 50 percent of the area and return the rest to the original owner.

To put it simply, if the government takes 10 acres from a farmer, she would get only five acres back after the land is developed. “In several cases, the farmers are not returned the land that was acquired from them but allotted alternative plots in faraway, remote places. In the name of industrialisation, the State offers greenfield sites to neoliberal capital,” says Rabari, recalling his experience from the struggle against the Dholera SIR. “Because of intense opposition from villagers, the BJP regime was forced to cancel three SIRs,” says Lalji Desai, another activist involved in rural mobilisations against SIRs.

“The Gujarat government acts as a khap panchayat when it comes to land acquisition. Every brutality is justified in the name of Gujarati pride,” says Mahesh Pandya, convenor of Gujarat Social Watch. On whether there is truth in widespread allegations that many BJP leaders act as brokers and middlemen in all land deals, Pandya says, “They get to know in advance from sources inside the government if a land project is coming up and make quite a killing.”

Under Modi’s watch as chief minister, agriculture in Gujarat saw unprecedented and massive corporatisation, which formed the backdrop to the much-hyped growth in the state’s agrarian sector and the violent dispossession of marginal people from the rural economy that accompanied it.

Atul Sood of New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University found that “the average size of marginal holdings is becoming smaller in the state compared to the national average and large farmers (owning more than 20 hectares) are gaining in terms of area”. This trend indicates distress sale of land by small and marginal farmers who can no longer afford the exorbitant input costs. Input costs like electricity tariff for agriculture in Gujarat are relatively high compared to the national average. There is ample evidence that landlessness is rising among smallholder Dalits and in Adivasi areas such as Dahod, Dangs and Panchmahal. Enclosure of commons as private property is further accelerating the marginalisation of landless people who historically relied on the commons to partly make up for the economic deprivation implicit in their place in the agrarian social structure.

Taking on the deluge of criticism directed at Modi’s agrarian vision, policy and practice, RSS ideologue and Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS) national secretary Mohini Mohan Mishra tells Tehelka, “A lot of misinformation is being spread against the BJP regime in Gujarat. That is happening even though the official statistics on growth prove that Modi has revolutionised agriculture in Gujarat.”

A critical scrutiny of the Modi regime’s treatment of rural India and its fiscal policies ever since it took power at the Centre clearly hints that the government is keen to redistribute wealth upwards — i.e., from the working class and peasants to big business, a classic case of “class robbery”. No wonder no one expects Modi to dilute his idea of ‘land reforms’ — epitomised in “land from the tiller” and “land to the corporates” — which entails snatching most of the small holdings and commons and turning them in for real-estate speculation.

To achieve this, Modi need to hardsell his vision as a “win-win” game to the farmers. The entire BJP party machine is trying to do exactly that. The government successfully convinced the bks to dilute its position on the consent clause, among others. Some Opposition members in the JPC tell Tehelka that some of their overenthusiastic committee colleagues from the BJP have been trying to convince the farmers about the “positive side” of Modi’s amendments to the UPA’s land Act, such as more compensation.

It won’t be easy, though, for Modi to have his way. The Indian farmer seems to be aware of the changing political economy of the land market and the huge difference between the price of the land they sell and its potential selling price once it is developed as real estate. For instance, John Hopkins University sociologist Michael Levin used RTI inquiries to compute this differential in the Mahindra World City SEZ in Rajasthan, where land was forcibly acquired by the BJP government. Based on 2011 prices, the developer made a startling profit of 2.5 crore per acre. Besides, lack of livelihood options outside agriculture under the current jobless growth model also makes farmers unwilling to part with their land.

Modi has always boasted of being a true swayamsevak, a volunteer of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). But his regime’s vision is not at all in sync with the Sangh’s declared position on agriculture, as depicted in the bks motto “Krishi Mit Krishaswa” — a Rigvedic mantra that means, “Don’t gamble, do farming and live graciously on its earnings.” Modi is doing the exact opposite: he is gambling with other people’s land and driving out small and marginal farmers from the source of their livelihood. So, what will the RSS do with Modi in the saddle?

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