The Bhangar violence in West Bengal recalls yet again the intensity of conflicts over the acquisition of land for infrastructure projects. These conflicts continue despite the new and ostensibly improved land acquisition law, with its higher terms of compensation, social impact assessments, and prior informed consent for projects involving the private sector. But if the 2013 law was enacted to comprehensively address opposition to land acquisition, why do governments still get land acquisition wrong?
Infrastructure projects are initiated for the “greater common good”, but the people dispossessed by them of their land, livelihood, and environment rarely benefit from all their goodness. The scale of the projects keeps growing. The information regarding them is little or often not accessible at all, and those affected discover the project’s full implications either by accident or by doggedly exercising their right to information. Prior informed consent remains a farce. There are no clear procedures for establishing consent in the case of private sector involvement and there is complete exemption for state-led projects. Compensation is often the proverbial fish bone — the inadequateness of compensating security of land, livelihoods, socio-cultural lifeworlds, not to mention the loss of environment and biodiversity, have been discussed ad nauseam. The impoverishment of large numbers of small and marginal farmers and the landless is inevitable, but the insecurity faced by large farmers once compensation money dries up in conspicuous consumption has also been documented widely.
The insider and the outsider
Agitators are portrayed by ruling governments as being under the influence of “outsiders” when, in fact, infrastructure paradigms, investors and beneficiaries are always the outsiders. The state asserts its sovereignty as the sole authentic “insider” and moves in police troops to protect its sovereign right from agitating locals. The outsider trope is particularly irrelevant when it applies to citizens of this country, but remains salient in state attempts to delegitimise agitations against land acquisition.
Dating from the struggles of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) in the 1980s against the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP), the quality of state intervention and discourse outlined above remains uncannily familiar. This is despite the 2013 land acquisition law, and extends across parties.
Thousands affected by the SSP were in fact on dharna during the monsoon of 2016, marking 31 years of the NBA’s struggle for justice for those dispossessed by the project. At a height of 138.68 m now, only the reservoir gates of the SSP dam remain pending before full submergence of the upstream areas. The 2016 agitations saw relay fasts by those already dispossessed and woefully short of promised rehabilitation, and satyagraha by thousands more facing submergence — some without promised resettlement and others not even recognised as adversely affected. The year passed with yet another assurance of just rehabilitation, and the 2017 monsoon already looms ahead.
In bitter irony further downstream, residents from 22 villages affected by the Dholera Smart City project protested against the ‘denotification’ of agrarian lands from the SSP’s promised irrigation canals in Ahmedabad district, Gujarat. The water that was promised to peasants in Gujarat by the construction of the SSP is now to be officially diverted to supply real estate and infrastructure projects for a city that, if developed, will destroy the existing agrarian infrastructure and socio-cultural and ecological lifeworld of the area.
The official endorsement of what constitutes ‘infrastructure’ is rooted in ideas of infrastructure aiding capitalist circuits, increasingly created in direct partnership with capitalist investors. Existing agrarian and local infrastructure is devalued, rendered backward, and considered in need of improvement for greater economic growth to accrue. Who benefits from these projects? The thousands agitating in the Narmada valley at the end of three decades bear witness to this trajectory of economic growth and development. So do the residents of the Dholera villages who stand to lose not just the promise of irrigation, but the very land they survive on.
The agitations over Special Economic Zones (SEZs) are other recent reminders. POSCO’s inability to set up a plant in Jagatsinghpur, Odisha, as it had not yet obtained forest and other clearances is a case in point. This came after 11 years of tenacious struggle by local residents against the project. Similar agitations have unfolded in Nandigram, Mangaluru, Maharashtra and Goa, stalling projects or eventually pushing out SEZS developed by corporate giants and backed by state forces.
The Bhangar story
In the violence in Bhangar, the Trinamool Congress that agitated against the high-handedness of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Nandigram and Singur claims the people first agreed to part with 14 acres of land and then outsiders created unrest. The local residents, reportedly organised under the Jomi, Jibika, Paribesh O Bastutantra Raksha Committee, claim that they had no knowledge of the full extent of the project. In negotiations with the government and the Power Grid Corporation of India Limited, they were informed only of a power sub-station that would improve the power supply of the area. They discovered belatedly that on completion, the Bhangar sub-station would receive power from the Sagardighi thermal power plant and the Farakka unit that would then be transmitted via high-tension wires to Kolkata, the northeastern States and Purnea in Bihar. They demand an environmental impact assessment to ascertain the adverse impacts of the high-transmission lines on the local population, agriculture and ecology. Agitations have left two dead, several arrested and many injured since November 2016. The story unfolds in painfully familiar tedium as state representatives claim that land was acquired with consent, compensation was negotiated with the residents, and outsiders are instigating violent agitations.
Who pays for the losses of life, livelihood, peace and well-being of the local residents during months and years, sometimes decades, of agitation? What of the loss to the exchequer, and ultimately the Indian public, for all the effort made to suppress agitations and democratic principles by the state’s sovereign assertions over the greater common good? Where does the state source its sovereign power over citizens in a democracy? Eminent domain is a colonial doctrine imported by the colonial government to India and retained by the independent Indian state to institute capitalist development — the sine qua non of pre- and post-Independence development in India. Who is the ‘insider’ occupying the sovereign powers of the state over citizens?
Preeti Sampat teaches Sociology at Ambedkar University, Delhi.
Eminent domain is a colonial doctrine imported by the colonial government to India and retained by the independent Indian state