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Updated: November 18, 2013 22:03 IST

Privileging landowners over farm workers

P. V. Srividya
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THE PRICE OF LAND — Acquisition, Conflict, Consequence: Sanjoy Chakravorty; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 825.
THE PRICE OF LAND — Acquisition, Conflict, Consequence: Sanjoy Chakravorty; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 825.

Can the new land acquisition law make up good for the historical wrongs committed on the marginalised by the Indian State?

Sanjay Chakravorthy, researching the bill (now an Act) as it stood in 2011, attempts to extrapolate the consequences of the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act by dissecting the history of the Indian State in land acquisitions and the economics of land markets.

The primary criticism of LARR by Chakravorthy rests in its pricing approach. LARR envisions an effective price of land that combines its purchase cost (for land owners) with rehabilitation and resettlement costs (for livelihood losers). The purchase cost would be double the market price in urban settings, and quadrapuled in rural settings. This multiplication of market price is bound to create a new class of windfall gainers, who, by virtue of ownership of land, stand to multiply their incomes several times over their lifetime earnings. The approach is blind to the way land markets function. It does nothing for the constituency of the historically dispossessed and displaced such as Dalits and Adivasis (primarily users of Common property resources), who lack ownership.

Chakravorthy characterises the Indian State as a ‘giving State’ and a ‘taking state’. The ‘giving State’ brought in half-willed land reforms that led to marginal redistribution. The ‘taking State’ indulged in ‘regressive redistribution’, where the poor were dispossessed and the benefits given away to the non-poor and less poor (through power subsidies as a consequence of thermal plants, irrigation projects through dams). The State has been the egregious land taker leading to change in land use of over 50 million acres leaving over 60 million people affected. According to Chakravorthy, the historical dispossession by big projects was not ‘accumulation by dispossession’ as projected by activists, since the private sector had no role to play in this dispossession by the State. It was ‘development by dispossession’ and the Indian State was culpable for 90 percent of large scale displacement and dispossession.

The author critiques the moral high ground assumed by the State through LARR, where it steps in with an enlarged bureaucratic apparatus necessitated by the Act. Chakravorthy locates the success of an acquisition on the ‘reservation price’. Past acquisitions by the State were marked by market price way below the reservation price, imposing costs on the landholder. However, LAAR seeks to over compensate the landowner, a move that will trigger social costs for users. Dwelling on current land markets, the author says there is already a known price in urban/peri-urban regions, where the gap between the reservation price and the market price is narrow or absent (he calls them Type A and B lands). These are regions where there is no need for ‘market price discovery’. LARR has been designed for Type C lands – in rural areas, where market price had to be discovered, based on proximal land dealings. Then there are Type D lands, that are ‘priceless’ – tied to cultural values and belief systems.

The author also contests the assumption that a high price for land is sufficient to avoid conflicts. Price is inconsequential where the land is ‘priceless’ like the Type D regions. Chakravorthy lauds the inclusion of the hitherto excluded livelihood losers and users of Common property resources in the rehabilitation package. But the extent of compensation to livelihood losers would pale in the light of exorbitant land owner compensation envisaged in LARR. The author sees the proliferated media space and information revolution as viable checks and balances to unjust acquisitions. While at one level, Charkravorty calls for the State to withdraw from the acquisition process, at another, he critiques LARR for disallowing acquisition by the State for private sector. Instead, he suggests the use of ‘informed consent’ by the project-affected as the only yardstick for both public sector and private sector acquisitions.

The author stops short of suggesting one ideal alternative and instead believes States should evolve state-specific acquisition processes, tailored to regional variations of tenancy, ownership and economic potential. LAAR is more of ‘playing to the gallery’, and agnostic to economic and urban geography. The author claims a middle path — one that he believes will be responsive to the historically marginalised and dispossessed and balances the necessity of urban growth and development.

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