Everyone's Afraid of Land Acquisition

Published: February 16, 2015 11:50 IST
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(Anush Kapadia is a lecturer on political economy at City University in London)

Our thinking around land acquisition is broken. We need a new conversation to break the deadlock between pro-people lobbies and narrow business interests. Right now, it appears as if we are condemned to a strict trade-off between democracy and development, and development apparently must come at the price of some dislocation. The old egg-breaking-to-make-omelets metaphor seems to be our lamentable governing idea.

This is a deeply dangerous way to think about development. How else might we frame this question? Is there a set of win-win solutions here for both democracy and development? Or are we destined to manage this tragic trade-off?

There is a way out, and it begins by changing our mindset and thinking about people not as venal victims but as investors with real assets to bring to the table.

Where we have erred is perhaps being governed too much by some mutant combination of sarkari-speak and management-speak. "Project-affected persons" are deemed to be no more than "stakeholders" that have to be managed by some combination of monetary and non-monetary incentives (read: force).

This is not particular to land acquisition. Before all the good-governance talk, our entire governmental narrative was about dispensing patronage to some injured group that required "relief." In some sense, this narrative is the collateral damage of the democratic upsurge we have seen over the past forty years. Historically-suppressed classes and castes have successfully used the language and institutions of electoral democracy to improve their social and political standing.

The entire message around "backward" castes is paradigmatic here; the real historical injury of centuries-old, caste-based oppression has been used, justifiably, to democratise the narrow, upper-caste domination of the levers of power.

Good-governance-talk, then, is transparently about rolling back these democratic gains by making certain key bits of government machinery "independent" of the increasingly democratic state. "Corruption", although a genuine problem, is often used in bad faith as dog-whistle politics for lower caste mobilizations. It is little wonder that upper castes and classes were so excited about the Aam Aadmi Party.

Outflanked by lower castes at the ballot box, upper castes seek to remove key institutions from the ambit of electoral politics permanently, thereby shrinking the institutional power that elections can yield. Where lower caste movements took over key government institutions, AAP promises an upper caste take-back by using the language of good-governance.

It is clear that this process of democratization has been partially captured by elites within "backward" communities. But given the level of the historical and on-going injustice in our society, some level of cynicism can and must be tolerated by historically privileged communities. Corruption is no excuse for anti-democratic legislation.

The real problem is in some ways worse than corruption. It is that our method of democratization has driven us into a cul-de-sac wherein we have only one way to talk about politics: the battle between doers and victims. We have a polity that creates huge incentives for "injury-talk" because this is the most efficient means to access and legitimize state action. As successful as lower-caste-led democratization has been, it has come at a cost: "injury-talk" has set up a dynamic that ends up being extremely damaging for democratic development.

In other words, the seemingly obvious trade-off between development and democracy is actually the rhetorical effect of our injury-talk-dominated public discourse. To see how this works, think of how several feminists dislike the language of victimhood when analysing misogyny and patriarchy.

The language of the victimhood paints women as passive, as people who have things done to them rather than agents of their own futures. In just the same way, the dominance of injury-talk in our politics creates the impression that there are two sets of people: doers and victims, active agents of development and passive, project-affected people.

Taking a lesson from this kind of feminism, we perhaps need to start seeing "project-affected persons" as more than the victims of "development." If we define development as oligarch-led corporate growth, then anything anti-oligarch is also anti-development. If we take as natural that all the state should do is ameliorate the nastier but inevitable effects of capitalism, then any broader state action is a violation. If we see injury-democracy as a fetter on capital-efficiency, then we need a strong man to sort things out.

If and only if we buy each of these positions, then we have a strict trade-off between development and democracy. But none of these positions are natural. They are themselves the outcome of a deep politics of ideas.

Here's another framing. Farmers who own land, as well as the landless labourers who scrape a living out of that land, these people are the owners and operators of a prized asset, a key factor of production: land. They are already the winners of development because they have perhaps the most non-fungible factor of production. Capital, like the required labour, can always be moved in. But land...as Mark Twain famously quipped, "Buy land, they're not making it anymore."

Instead of getting the red-carpet treatment for winning the developmental lottery, landowners and operators have been press-ganged into our prevailing narrative frame as the victims of the piece, indeed almost the obstructionist villains. This has led us to our current impasse over "compensation."

Sure, land-owners are themselves tactically playing the part of the victim. But can we blame them when this is the political path of least resistance to better their lot? Our political system sends out the signal that the persona of the victim is the most effective means to unlock state coffers. The parallel in caste politics is the spectacle of many several communities striving to achieve the badge of backwardness.

This politics of injury is of course the stock-in-trade of our civil society organizations, again mobilizing the dry technicalese of "social impact assessments" to find for themselves a rich furrow to plough, dispensing poor relief in the manner of mid-Victorian evangelicals, securing their souls and often unwittingly providing the velvet glove for the oligarch's mailed fist. Because these do-gooders are also governed by injury-talk, it is only too simple for our neoliberal discourse to brush them aside as anti-development.

We must indeed brush aside the do-gooders, but not to make way for neoliberals. The do-gooders' well-intentioned, rear-guard narrative is utterly insufficient to challenge the storm raging out of Gujarat. We must set aside the vocabulary of injury and victimhood for one of equal participants as equity holders of that key factor of production.

What does this mean in concrete terms? Instead of giving people closed-ended cash for the asset they now hold, give them asset for asset. Make them equity partners in the project by construing their land as their investment. Assets are open-ended: they yield value into the future. Cash is just cash, you can run through it, then you're done. Cash has none of the pride of ownership that is associated with land. Replace immovable with movable property, deal people into the upside of the project permanently. Make stakeholders equity holders; it's win-win.

Think of an industrial project that requires the dislocation of a cluster of villages. Instead of haggling over the amount of compensation to be given to villagers, simply form a Special Purpose Vehicle with the land and the future production enterprise as its assets; its liabilities would be share capital handed out to land owners and landless cultivators according to some formula decided locally. This equity distribution could be one element in a reconstruction package that includes job training and perhaps even some cash component, but equity-for-land would be the cornerstone.

The lack of trust that pervades these projects has its source in the stark but fictitious trade-offs outlined above. In order to build a bridge to the paradigm of equity (in both financial and ethical senses of this useful term), the government would have to stand behind the investment vehicle that is divided up between those bringing land, labour, and capital to the table. Only a solid government guarantee of flows of funds from this vehicle to the land owners and operators will close the circle. The state again performs a role as the solver of collective action problems, but by guaranteeing the people's equity rather than expropriating them in the name of development.

Thinking of land owners and operators as victims of - and fetters on - development has condemned our debate to swing between the poles of protection that is anti-development and development that entails sad but unavoidable collateral damage. Instead, our business and government elite should see people with land rights as the equity holders that they are, offering them asset-for-asset so that they participate in the upside surpluses permanently. Because the paradigm of equity will unlock more projects, the pool that will be shared only grows.

We will definitely have to experiment with design that will have to be participatory; there can never be a one-size-fits-all solution. But replacing the paradigm of injury with the paradigm of equity creates a space of win-win solutions that we owe it to ourselves to explore.

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