Government policies — which champion economic progress — and their reinforcement by the judiciary to near-complete negation of equity and land rights of the poor go against justice for the vast majority.

Financial institutions and corporate houses deserve credit for India's success in the globalised market, an extremely competitive battlefield. The liberalisation of the economy and its consistent growth during the recent worldwide recession have resulted in the demand from industry for an even greater share of the country's resources and for a favourable playing field, in order to promote phenomenal growth. The failure of the socialist model, despite its quest for an egalitarian social order, mandated that the country shift its philosophy for the creation of wealth to the efficient capitalist paradigm. The success of India's new approach argued for strengthening the process and supporting its national and global players, so that the vibrant economy would, in turn, lift the majority of its people out of poverty.

Corporate houses, with the aim of consolidating their success, have demanded their pound of flesh in return for increasing the growth rate. Their demand for tax breaks, in order to increase investments, has resulted in massive subsidies for the rich. Their need for water and electricity has meant large dams and the destruction of the ecology of the catchment areas and basins of major rivers. Their need to exploit natural resources has prompted the clearing of forest lands and the ancestral homes of the tribal folk for mining and industry. Their quest for expanding the manufacturing sector has resulted in the takeover of agricultural property. The slogan “It's the economy, stupid!,” popularised by United States President Bill Clinton, is now the catchphrase for India's future. Yet, the discerning observer can see that it is actually about land and its ownership.

Colonisation without qualms: Much of the industrialised western countries developed at the expense of their indigenous people or by exploiting their former colonies. American Indians and indigenous Australians soon became internally displaced peoples, herded into camps and now living in special reservations. Their ancestral lands — without recognised, registered and individual titles — were acquired for development. Though not acknowledged, the innumerable deaths, and the loss of their culture and livelihoods qualify for the largest genocide in recorded history. Millions died in the Americas and those who now live in the designated reservations are ghettoised; the destruction of their way of life has led to problems such as alcohol, drugs, truancy, unemployment and crime.

In India, the decline of the Mughal Empire led to a power vacuum and its consequent colonisation by the British. They quickly realised the value of India's huge resources and took charge of its vast common and forest land. The Crown became the custodian of all such property. Millions of Indians, tribal people with their hunter-gatherer traditions in particular, were dispossessed of their ancestral land. The situation in free India was no better after the Constitution continued the colonial tradition and transferred all power over common and forest land to the government. One could argue, in fact, that India's independence meant only a change in the colonisers as far as the tribal population was concerned.

The road to perdition: Despite the software boom, with its steel and glass high-rise buildings, mindboggling technology and the associated affluence in our very own Silicon Valleys, it is not hard to see that the country provides foot soldiers for the computer world. One does not need to be a soothsayer to predict that the road to superpowerdom will have to be paved with a phenomenal increase in our manufacturing sector and our exploitation of the country's natural wealth. The economic liberalisation meant that those with capital began to eye the government's vast land holdings. Many deals for extraction of natural and mineral wealth markedly favour corporate houses, which make fortunes in comparison to the pittance the government receives for the natural resources.

Tribes and tribulations: Forest dwellers gradually realised that they were no longer the custodians of their ancestral land; they could no longer rightfully claim it or its produce. With a stroke of the pen, they could be moved, leaving them without livelihood. The urgency to honour agreements with corporate houses for forest land, worth billions of dollars, meant that those who refused to move in Chhattisgarh were killed or their villages torched by the government-sponsored militia, Salwa Judum. Many were threatened and herded into camps. The clearing of forest land in the jungles of central India is reminiscent of the genocide in the Americas. Massive paramilitary operations target Maoists who oppose this sell-out. However, the extensive support the rebels receive from the tribal folk argues that they are fighting for a people's cause, albeit with non-democratic, violent and unacceptable methods.

Dammed and damned: Building large dams across major rivers to harness water and power resources often spells damnation for the millions evicted. The failure to implement the proclaimed rehabilitation policies for the displaced has resulted in grave injustice. Much of the water and electricity generated from these massive projects actually goes to urban India, with no real benefit to those who lost their land and livelihood for it.

Exiling people from their homeland to strange and arid destinations destroys their way of life, resulting in poor futures for generations. Ethnic, regional and social differences, often ignored, have a much greater impact on lives than government policies such as reservation.

Tricky trickle-down economics: Millions of poor and tribal people have been moved from their ancestral lands to make way for many development projects. These schemes, meant to lead the country to economic progress, seem to be mainly for urban and rich India. The promise of nirvana, via the trickle-down economics of capitalism, is surely a cruel trick on the most vulnerable and marginalised of people. It has led to disillusionment in the government and in the democratic institutions.

Land rights and restoration: The Constitution clearly recognises the need for social justice and has many principles to produce a just society. Ownership of land gives people a greater stake in peaceful coexistence. There is need for statutory protection of the land rights of tribal people from absolute government control. It is essential to develop mechanisms whereby tribal communities will have jurisdiction over their common and ancestral land and control over their destiny. The takeover of their land for sustainable development should be based on negotiations that are just and fair. It should not destroy their livelihoods and culture, and should directly benefit them.

The lack of ownership of land in the current economic scenario is a proxy for destitution. It means an inter-generational perpetuation of the cycle of poverty. Land ownership allows for social mobility, which no social welfare scheme and reservation policy can match. The current “landless” status of much of the tribal population makes it vulnerable to the greed and ruthlessness of capitalism.

It is good ethical and legal precept and practice, that when two rights clash, neither right is absolute. Surely, the persistent policies of the government, which champion economic progress, and their consistent reinforcement by the judiciary to near-complete negation of equity and land rights of the poor and the tribal people go against justice for the vast majority.

India's quest for economic growth should not always trump its people's right to equity and ownership of private, common and ancestral land; the pursuit of financial prosperity for some should not obliterate the lives, livelihoods and cultures of others. Who will argue this cause within the democratic framework of India? Who will support the just claims for equity and land for millions of its people? The struggle for fairness and justice within our lifetime is a worthy goal. Surely, the time to act is now.

(Professor K.S. Jacob is on the faculty of the Christian Medical College, Vellore.)

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