Gujarat: The Art of Land Grab

Pushparaj Deshpande

anandi_benMark Twain once quipped, “buy land, they’re not making it anymore”. In stark opposition to this exhortation, the recent bills passed (amidst vehement opposition) by the Gujarat government seem to be based on the assumption that someone, somewhere is making more of it! Among other things, the Gujarat Agricultural Land Ceiling (Amendment) Bill, 2015 and the Gujarat Tenancy and Agricultural Land Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2015 seek to do dispense with the Gujarat Agricultural Lands Ceiling Act, 1960, whose main purpose was to distribute surplus land to the landless in the state (most of whom are from marginalised communities). The Bills also allow the diversion of surplus agricultural land to industrial houses (which can transfer or sell the land after five years). Finally, and perhaps most contentiously, the Bills validate illegal transactions by the payment of ten per cent of the prevailing jantri rate (index of base value of land) of any disputed land.

Essentially the Gujarat government has shelved the idea of land reforms, despite evidence that when properly implemented, it leads to positive socio-economic, and human development outcomes (as in Kerala). Both Aristotle and Gandhi argued that the State is a union of families and villages, having for its end a happy, self-sufficing and honourable life, something that the government is mandated to fulfill. Access to land and the products accruing from it is a crucial variable in ensuring such a life, something that the Gujarat government is completely undermining. While the Anandiben Patel government has been criticised for this regressive move (by farmers’ groups, civil society and the political opposition), little attention is given (perhaps deliberately) to where her policies are stemming from. Marx once quipped that “history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce”, and to trace the farcical nature of Patel’s policies, one need look no further than her predecessor. Dissecting the state’s development story, what’s striking is to what extent history repeats itself.

PM_modi-ireThe reason why little attention is given to the rapacious appropriation of land (which continues to be a variable of Gujarat’s ‘development’ trajectory) is that an impression was created (thanks to BJP’s brilliant PR machinery in 2014) that there was excess, unutilized land in Gujarat that was channelized under CM Modi. Preempting concerns about the adverse effects on agriculture, it was consistently argued that agriculture in Gujarat was thriving (thanks to innovative technologies that maximised yield per acre, which freed further land for other uses). To further cement this myth, it was aggressively proselytized that under the stewardship of Narendra Modi, agriculture in Gujarat grew at ten per cent. Nothing could be further from the truth. The agricultural sector in Gujarat for 11 years before Chief Minister Modi’s tenure grew at an astounding 20.8 per cent! However, largely because of the anti-farmer policies deployed by the Modi administration, this dropped to 7.4 per cent (1998-‘99 to 2005-‘06) and further plummeted to 4.1 per cent (between 2007-’08 to 2011-’12). Given how this was consciously whitewashed by ‘experts’ extolling the Moditva development model, it’s not surprising that the NDA government’s efforts to replicate these anti-farmer/anti-agriculture policies across India are not deemed objectionable.

These ‘experts’ also diverted their eyes when CM Modi surreptitiously diverted large land banks to corporations for what can only be characterised as a pittance. Consider this: 262 land estates were painstakingly created since 1980 to re-distribute to landless farmers and to small scale industries. While some of these were undoubtedly distributed (which led to a boost in agricultural productivity and consequently to the 20.8 per cent growth rate), this was executed by earlier governments. As a 2013 CAG report pointed out, because of the Gujarat government’s rapacious policies, 182 of the above mentioned 262 land banks are now controlled by corporations.

Similarly, legislative changes were brought by CM Modi, ostensibly to benefit agri-businesses, but in actuality encouraging crony capitalism. For example, a May 2005 resolution (Gr. No. JMN/3903/453/A) allowed corporations to appropriate up to 2000 acres of Common Property Resources and arable land (which are recognised as critical for the subsistence needs of rural poor) for Rs. 23 lakh (payable over 20 years)!

Not only that, these corporations were further allowed to a) change land use pattern and b) mortgage these lands to any banks, which were deliberately given the freedom to dispose of the land in any way they deem fit. In situations (and there are a number of such examples) where a corporation owns both a real estate firm and a bank, the parent company could direct its own subsidiary to buy the land, mortgage it and get its own bank to ‘sell’ the land back to its parent company. And then, in his avatar as Prime Ministerial candidate, Modi ji had the audacity to argue that “the government has no business in doing business”!

Previous governments in Gujarat had institutionalised a policy that limited the acquisition of agricultural land by non-farmers (by insisting that the farmer must stay within eight kilometres of the farm). This was subsequently abrogated by CM Modi, who actively facilitating the capture of rural land by (non-local and non-farming) corporations. This has consequently led to a complete re-structuring of the rural landscape of Gujarat with a dramatic increase in land holdings over 20 hectares in the last decade (which has squeezed out the small farmer). And yet the ‘experts’ praising the Moditva development model said nothing.

In their haste to prioritise accelerated growth, these ‘experts’ also turned a blind eye to all manners of sin when it came to land acquisition in Gujarat. This article is bound to be misconstrued, so an important caveat is necessary here. This is not to malign the idea of industry or even the need to streamline ease of doing business. Industrial development does need to be expedited, but to realise this at the cost of local communities, rather than rationalizing bureaucratic red tape or other administrative hurdles, is counterproductive. This is exactly what the Gujarat government has, and continues to do, oblivious to its pernicious effects. Broadly, land acquisition in Gujarat is characterized by a) the deliberate circumvention of existing laws by arbitrary policy changes, b) the bypassing of communities who live and depend on the land, and c) the use of savage force to suppress legitimate protests.

For example, consider the much touted SEZs in Gujarat, which were accomplished largely by encroaching upon cultivated or gauchar land. There have been numerous cases where overnight, large chunks of gauchar land in villages were summarily converted into industrial land. A prime example of this is the Mundra SEZ (called Adani Port and SEZ, spread over 10,000 hectares), which is being developed as a port and a special trading zone, and has already displaced 56 fishing villages and 126 settlements. Not only did the fishermen lose their customary rights as a result of this development, but the farming villages in the area were also been stripped off their livelihoods. Another example of this is the Nirma SEZ in Mahua. Nirma was allotted 268 hectares to set up a cement plant, besides a mining lease on more than 3,000 hectares in areas across the coastline in Bhavnagar district. Under CM Modi, the Gujarat government knowingly re-classified the acquired land as “wasteland” and deprived over 15,000 people of their livelihoods.

Similarly, a CRY study pointed out how, in stark violation of the Forest Rights Act, over 2000 hectares of forest land were callously cleared for the Adani group to set up a salt washery and a desalination plant. The Gujarat government first declared that land as ‘wasteland’, and then turned a deaf ear to the protests of local communities. Activists have also pointed out how brute force was used to suppress farmers’ resistance against land acquisition for the Maruti Suzuki factory near Ahmedabad.

Finally, a committee headed by Sunita Narain (to inquire into possible environmental and livelihood violations due to land acquisition) pointed out several instances of deliberate procedural lapses (including bypassing mandatory public hearings, starting construction without taking the consent of communities etc.) by the Modi Government. And yet proponents of ‘Moditva’ said nothing.

There are numerous other examples of how the Gujarat government in the last 14 years has ruthlessly crushed dissent by either clamping down on legitimate protests, or by bypassing local communities entirely. This rampant land grab in Gujarat (first under Narendra Modi and now under Anandiben Patel) has severely exacerbated the socio-economic deprivation of historically marginalised and vulnerable communities. The ‘experts’ who cite the Moditva model of development, in fetishising development as an end in itself, completely overlook the ends of any development, namely the continuous upliftment and empowerment of the body of people.

Wendell Berry once tellingly remarked that “the soil is the great connector of our lives, the source and destination of all”. Its significance to farmers and communities that depend on it cannot be overemphasized. To then reduce land to a mere commodity effectively also commodifies the communities dependent on it. This not only threatens the food security needs of the nation, but also the sector that still employs about 50% of India’s workforce. Franklin D. Roosevelt once warned that “the nation that destroys its soil destroys itself”. It’ll do both Gujarat and the NDA governments well to pay heed to that.