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Accumulation by Dispossession in India

Abandoned: Development and Displacement by The Perspectives Team;


Accumulation by Dispossession in India

Ramaa Vasudevan

here is a rich intellectual tradition of engaged scholarship, where research is sparked by the issues and concerns of ordinary people and informed by a commitment to their struggles. This slim volume brought out by Perspectives, a non-funded independent research group started by some students and teachers in Delhi University, belongs to this tradition.1 It is a thoughtful and provocative critique of the dominant paradigm that shapes developmental policy in India. Displacement has been an integral constitutive component of the process of development in India. The Perspectives Team (hereinafter Perspectives) seeks to address and refute the premise that development necessarily and inevitably involves costs in terms of displacement.

To do this, the group explores the way in which the process of development systematically expropriated sections of the population even as others – the powerful and dominant section – cornered the gains and benefits. The process is fostered through forest laws, in the name of preservation of wildlife sanctuaries, the rush to exploit mineral resources, the large dams, the juggernaut of urbanisation and more recently through the promotion of special economic zones. As part of this investigation they also visited a resettlement colony in Delhi, coal mines and the villages where land acquisition is imminent in Asansol and Durgapur, the Chandil dam site, sites for the proposed iron and steel factories in Tentoposi, villages affected by Turamidih uranium mines, and the Dalma elephant sanctuary in Jharkhand. So the analysis is firmly rooted in an attempt to comprehend the actual experiences of the people on whom sacrifices are imposed in the name of “development”, peoples at the margin of society for whom it is a matter of life and livelihood.

Economic & Political Weekly

march 15, 2008

Abandoned: Development and Displacement

by The Perspectives Team; Perspectives, New Delhi, 2007; pp 196, Rs 50.

The book begins by refuting the argument that the link between development and displacement is an outcome of faulty legal structures. Beginning with a discussion of the legal framework, Perspectives looks at a whole range of laws from the Forest (Conservation) Act and the Wildlife (Protection) Act, to the Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act, and the Special Economic Zones Act (the SEZs Act, in short) to show how the social context of the enactment and implementation of laws leads to the infringements of the rights and interests of already marginalised people – landless labourers, small peasants, tribals and dalits. At the same time, legal safeguards and protections for these sections are in practice subverted.

One of the most powerful legal principles that have been deployed to effect the displacement of people is that of “eminent domain”. The principle enshrined in the colonial Land Acquisition Act of 1894 was used to take over land for mines, plantations and railways while cementing the strategic position of the Indian colony as a supplier for cheap raw materials for the British industrial revolution. The law allows the state to acquire land for “public purpose” by executive fiat while disregarding considerations of the life and livelihood of those dependent on these lands. It was deployed in the pursuit of the goals of developmental planning that was to realise the Nehruvian vision of a modern industrial India. The law continues to enjoy legitimacy and sanction in the period of liberalisation where it is used to make land resources available to corporate capital. It is for instance at the heart of land acquisition under the SEZs Act. Public purpose in this Act is stretched to include real estate development, leisure and entertainment, and a vaguely defined social infrastructure.

One of the most pressing issues raised by Perspectives is the need to critique this colonial relic. Through this principle the power of the state is pitted against interests of the people not for wider pub

lic good but to facilitate the pursuit of private profits. It is the lever that enables the dispossession and displacement of the labouring poor, turning over land and the common property resources that have formed the basis of their livelihood to industrialists and corporations. The magnitude of the problem of displacement, the abysmal record of rehabilitation, especially in the context of the protests around the Narmada Valley project, forced the issue into public debates. But even the recently notified

National Rehabilitation and Resettlement Policy of 2007 – meant to safeguard the interests of those displaced by the development projects – is built around the sanctity of the principle of eminent domain (and the amended Land Acquisition Act that further extends the meaning of “public purpose”).

The 1894 Act was the product of a colonial state that had wrought its own industrial revolution through the enclosure of the commons – a process that threw masses of the peasantry out of its traditional lands, creating the industrial working class. The enclosure movement was an integral part of the historical process of plunder and expropriation – “primitive accumulation” – that forged capitalist relations.2 From the account of India‘s developmental process presented by the Perspectives team, it would appear that the spirit of this Act has been preserved and is now being deployed to promote the neoliberal agenda that has drawn India more securely into the embrace of global corporate capitalism.

Accumulation by Dispossession

Harvey3 has argued that imperialism in the age of neoliberalism has rediscovered “the original sin of simple robbery”. Global capitalism continues to recreate, preserve and extend itself through an ongoing process of primitive accumulation. In Harvey’s exposition this process of “accumulation by dispossession” is actively


promoted through the neoliberal agenda. In India this process has been driven in particular through privatisation of resources held in common and state redistributions in favour of capital (for instance, tax exemptions). The investigations and fact findings of Perspectives are a stark testimony to the process of accumulation by dispossession in India.

The book chronicles the various pretexts by which the Indian state has displaced people while serving the interests of corporate capital. Liberalisation has for instance entailed the active promotion of mining interests in the regions of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Orissa, both through the privatisation of public sector enterprises and by opening theses regions to foreign capital (for instance, the Utkal Alumina refinery at Kashipur and the POSCO plant at Jagatsighpur). Land is taken over, natural resources, including forests and rivers, denuded and exploited by big corporate capital while the ordinary people living in these regions face the loss of their lands and livelihood. The team’s report of their visit to coal mines around Asansol bears witness to some of these devastating effects. The marginalisation of tribals under the forest laws now subsumed in the recent initiatives to court industry by granting rights to degraded forest lands and wastelands

– the so-called “multi-stakeholder partnership for forestation” that is simply another means of commercialising forests. Again, dams have been one of the major causes of displacement in India. The policy debate on the efficacy, performance, environmental consequences and cost effectiveness of these large river valley projects continues in the face of social movements opposing such projects and empirical research disputing their benefits. What is indisputable is the fact of the 40 million people, largely dalits, adivasis, and small and landless peasants, displaced due to such projects in India. It is equally clear that the biggest beneficiaries are large landowners and organised industry.

Apart from seizing land to enable corporate capital to set up mines, dams, infrastructure and other industrial projects, the state is now deploying the SEZs Act to takeover vast tracts of land for the same end of boosting corporate profits. As states vie with each other in their aggressive pursuit of foreign capital, farmlands are being handed over to private capital for infrastructure development in these enclaves with streamlined procedures, tax breaks and good infrastructure that aim to lure investors in export-oriented industries.

Even as the state seeks to facilitate the procedures and concessions for corporate capital the mechanisms of redress and rehabilitation for those dispossessed by these acquisitions remains opaque, inadequate and tortuous. Ignoring the recommendations of the National Advisory Council, the proposed national rehabilitation and relief policy provides for “fasttrack exercise for land acquisition” and does not incorporate transparent, equitable and adequate procedures for consultation, contestation and compensation. Millions of the labouring poor are driven out of their lands by this relentless logic of accumulation by dispossession and in the absence of any meaningful rehabilitation policy, seek a livelihood in the proliferating urban centres. Here too, they bear the brunt of the forces of displacement through closures, demolitions and sealing operations in the name of refashioning the urban landscape into


1857 Essays from Economic and Political Weekly

A compilation of essays that were first published in the EPW in a special issue in May 2007. Held together with an introduction by Sekhar Bandyopadhyay, the essays – that range in theme and subject from historiography and military engagements, to the dalit viranganas idealised in traditional songs and the “unconventional protagonists” in mutiny novels – converge on one common goal: to enrich the existing national debates on the 1857 Uprising.

The volume has 18 essays by well known historians who include Biswamoy Pati, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Peter Robb and Michael Fisher.The articles are grouped under five sections: ‘Then and Now’, ‘Sepoys and Soldiers’, ‘The Margins’, ‘Fictional Representations’ and ‘The Arts and 1857’.

Pp viii + 364 2008 Rs 295

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march 15, 2008

Economic & Political Weekly


“global, investor-friendly havens” – the socalled “urban renewal missions”.

Neoliberal Development Vision

In the face of this evidence of the systematic and relentless logic of accumulation by dispossession, the book argues that the “issues of displacement cannot be looked at in isolation” but are integral to the distorted developmental model that is being espoused – the basis of the unprecedented growth performance (with the rate of growth of real gross domestic product expected to cross 9 per cent). This growth performance has been characterised by agrarian stagnation on the one hand and the disproportionate growth of the services sector. A major impetus to industrial performance in the period of reforms came from the surge in the growth of consumer durables demanded by the large upper middle class. The developmental model, based on the logic of global corporate capital, derives its impetus from the expropriation of the rural poor, the exploitation of natural and common property resources. While documenting the phenomena of “developmental terrorism”, Perspectives stresses that the repeated instances of state repression are not stray aberrations but are pivotal to the exclusionary developmental model that preserves itself by restricting democratic space (p 155).

Neoliberal reforms heralded the retreat of the developmental state, but it has not ousted the state from its crucial role in the Indian macroeconomy. While in the earlier phase of “development planning”, public investment was crucial in extending the home market, in the present phase the state has played an active role primarily as a facilitator of “accumulation through dispossession”. This connection reflects the ongoing mechanisms of primitive accumulation in India that the state machinery is enforcing through the liberalisation agenda. Dispossession has enabled this transformation and India’s recent spectacular growth performance.

The question that arises is what are the macroeconomic constraints facing the Indian economy? How have recent economic developments circumvented or redefined the principal constraints on development? The Indian economy has been characterised as being faced with a

Economic & Political Weekly

march 15, 2008

binding agricultural constraint, which restricts the supply of the most important wage good, and raw materials on the one hand, and on the other, demand due to low income levels. The phase of liberalisation has seen an exacerbation of inequality alongside the slow growth of employment (particularly in rural areas) and a redistribution of income in favour of profits and rentier incomes. This has stimulated the demand for both consumer durables and specific services, which have been the more dynamic sectors through this period, but at the same time, the sectoral pattern of growth has allowed the effective easing of the agrarian constraint. That this rapid transformation was taking place while nearly 1,50,000 farmers committed suicide between 1997 and 2006, and in 2006 alone there were about 17,000 farmer suicides, is a stark manifestation of this structural change.4

But the core developmental issue remains that of fostering industrial development by absorbing the labour surplus of the stagnating agrarian sector. If one is to develop a critique and alternative to the model of development and displacement that dominates policy discourse we need to address this issue. This is in a sense the same problem of primitive accumulation – the expropriation of the peasantry to pave the way for industrialisation. It was “primitive socialist accumulation” that was at stake in the course of the New Economic Policy in the Soviet Union where the imperatives of fuelling industrial transformation was the justification for squeezing the peasantry through the use of state power. This is also the premise on which the seizure of agricultural lands and handover to corporate capital is being justified. Abandoned brings this issue sharply to the fore.

The Politic of Resistance

But the process of displacement and marginalisation has also engendered resistances in different parts of India. Nandigram where the Left Front government of West Bengal had proposed to set up a chemical hub under the Salim group has been the site of a brave resistance of villagers to the seizure of their lands. Following the recurrence of violence in the wake of the state backed attempts to reoccupy the lands, Nandigram has become a symbol of the extent to which state power is committed to the repressive defence of this neoliberal developmental model. But it is equally a manifestation of the irrepressible groundswell of opposition to the relentless logic of the neoliberal juggernaut.

As political parties across the spectrum embrace the neoliberal development vision, the distinctions in the economic programmes of different parliamentary parties becomes increasingly blurred. The widespread anger and outrage that the Nandigram violence inspired is not a symptom of a revolt against politics. It is in fact a reflection of the coalescing of political opposition to the collusion of state and capital that lies at the heart of the politics of accumulation by dispossession, of a search for forms of struggle and organisation that could effectively challenge the neoliberal hegemony. It is not an accident that the diverse social movements engendered by displacement are becoming increasingly important in the politics of people’s resistance in India. So even though instances of resistances, as Perspectives suggests, have been primarily localised mobilisations against specific projects, it is in the coalescing of these mobilisations that the hope for alternative sustainable developmental models will emerge. The Perspectives Team does not claim to have the answer to how the path to alternatives may be traversed, but this volume is essential reading for those who would like to engage with this process.



1 A revised edition of the book has come out in January 2008. 2 Karl Marx, Capital, Volume I, Penguin, 1973, Part VIII. 3 David Harvey, The New Imperialism, Oxford University Press, 2003. 4 ‘Farm Suicides Worse after 2001’, The Hindu, November 13, 2007.

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