Director General of Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) and the Editor of Down To Earth magazine. She is an environmentalist who pushes for changes in policies, practices and mindsets

Land is more than just that

imageMy article last fortnight about people’s fight against POSCO has brought me interesting responses. They call for clarifications and further discussion. The question is about the value of current livelihoods of the people of coastal Odisha. Is earning from betel nut farming being exaggerated to reinforce the romantic and misinformed view that people are fighting projects because they are better off today? The equally valid question, then, is: why are the people so apparently poor if they are earning Rs 10-17 lakh per hectare (ha) each year as I had said?

These are questions that speak of our inability to understand two things. One, what makes people, poor in our eyes, oppose growth we believe in? Two, what makes people poor? First, an explanation. My colleague Sayantan Bera, who travelled across the Jagatsinghpur region of Odisha, meeting villagers resisting the POSCO takeover, will tell you, the problem is our misinterpretation of reality. The fact is that land ownership in this area is not measured in hectares but in decimals—one hectare is equal to 250 decimals. Most people own 10-30 decimals of land, or roughly 1/25 of a hectare. Based on the profit estimate I gave, a household, therefore, earns Rs 40,000 to Rs 70,000 a year—not a lot of money and certainly not enough to make them part of the rich middle class.

But the important issue is that this earning is good enough for them to fight till death the acquisition of their land. The reason is that this money comes on a monthly basis, and year after year. The earning of Rs 3,000-Rs 4,000 per month per family takes people marginally above the wretchedly low poverty line (also called the starvation line). It provides subsistence.

It is this equation with land that we find difficult to understand. I saw this when I visited other poor regions, which are similarly resisting industrial growth. In Nimalapedu village of forested, tribal Andhra Pradesh, I was confronted with the same confusion—a poor village, with no access to electricity, housing or other signs of economic wealth, had fought against (and won) the calcite mining project of the powerhouse of Birla. In Kalinganagar 13 tribals were killed fighting a steel project. The resistance was even more incomprehensible when one considered that the people fighting change were “poor”; they lived in mud-and-thatched huts, which could be exchanged for brick houses; they lived in risk of rainfall and crop failure, which they could give up for cash compensation. The rainfed agricultural fields with low produce could be exchanged for houses in colonies built by the company to resettle them. From our eyes, they looked impoverished and marginal. In our view, the future was only brighter.

These tribal farmers are different from the relatively prosperous farmers in Gujarat fighting the takeover of their land and water body for the Nirma cement plant. But even in the Nirma case, where farmers are more linked to the markets and more capable of “adapting” to new industrial future, the livelihood option that land provides is valued intensely. It is this difference between them and us we cannot comprehend. Wherever I have been, people resisting takeover have told me that the land is their mother; they cannot sell it. This is a sentiment most of us literate and urban Indians cannot grasp. For us, land is property we buy and sell to suit our interest. We also cannot understand this obduracy because we do not understand the value of land-based occupation.

This is partly because for long we have discounted the option of land-based livelihoods in our economic visions. We have only understood that farmers are desperately poor, driven to suicide and migrating to cities. All this is true, but it is equally true that land-based occupations provide sustenance to millions. It is time we understood this struggle for land, water and forests as the fight for livelihood. If we do, we will deal with protesters with respect, giving them rights to decide if they want the takeover of their land and asking them for the price they are willing to take for it. I say this knowing that in our estimation the availability of land and water will be the biggest impediment to economic growth. My colleagues, who studied the six top industrial sectors, including power and mining, estimated the additional land requirement to be close to a million hectare, which is not large in a country the size of India (329 million ha), but it is large when it is somebody’s home, agricultural land and forest. It is this connection between land and its occupiers industrial development must get right.

If we understand this connection we will also learn to take the current occupations more seriously and work to improve economic returns from the land so that it can compete with the returns from what are obviously profitable and economic activities. Around the disputed Nirma project, for instance, the government has invested in water conservation, which has brought benefits, improved productivity and made people prosperous. Enough to want to keep this wealth of land.

I don’t believe the challenge is to pit one economic future against another. But it is certainly a challenge to accommodate the view that there are many ways to growth and wellbeing. The aim is to get there. Together.

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  • Excellent post. You brought

    Excellent post. You brought out the realities. Congratulations.

    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore (AP), India
    Wind Energy Expert

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • All land should belong only

    All land should belong only to the Nation, ie, Motherland, like water resources.

    Any one wants to utilise the land for any productive activity, farming, industry, commercial, residential, can lease the land from the Nation or State, and make whatever profits they can, from the assets on the land.

    This way, most of the disputes, property and real estate wars will not arise.


    Jagdeep DESAI


    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • The article is sensible and

    The article is sensible and balanced.
    Holding on to land is primitive instinct.
    But what about the people who depend on the forest product and do not have any land to cultivate. Should we give them back the right to the forest products and keep them perpetually at a level which is .
    at least in this age , almost living like animals ,
    no matter what poetic language we use to describe their lives.
    Is it us vs them ? are they a primitive civilization
    to be preserved in a sanctuary?
    These are difficult questions but we must ask these questions unless we just take up any issue
    because it is fashionable to do so.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Sunita: I usually do not

    Dear Sunita: I usually do not find time to read the DTE but read with much interest this editorial of yours. As an involuntary resettlement specialist I can only say how true all that you have written. And it is so perceptive and empathetic. We struggle to find alternative livelihoods for people displaced from their land both physically and economically and you have made a clear analysis of this prognosis. Thank you.

    Biswanath Debnath
    Asian Development Bank
    Manila, Philippines

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Your commentary is on point

    Your commentary is on point but needs major additions to reflect an important further reality. The people displaced by these projects not only lose their accustomed means of basic support, but they also have little to no reason to believe that alternative livelihoods will actually be available to them on any sustained basis.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • One thing that I find

    One thing that I find difficult to understand is,if the focus is on industries and real estate,what about farmland??WHERE WILL OUR FOOD COME FROM?

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Your articles on land

    Your articles on land acquisitions are well grounded and close to reality as we are witnessing such stories almost on daily basis in India.
    Land being the most critical raw material or most important component of any developmental project has become the most contentious issue and has also brought the bitter reality of rich and poor India. Land has traditionally been providing the best source of livelihood to our masses and is the most sustainable source of livelihood however subsistence it may be.
    It seems from the various examples of conflict regarding LA as seen in recent times that the core issue is the source of livelihood and survival rather than the land itself.
    There are numerous examples of successful LA where good R&R practices have been employed and the farmers or the land losers have got their adequate replacement value of the land.
    Now the LA conflict can be seen as two different interest groups, one such as urban areas where there are ample livelihood opportunity and the land losers see their land as an opportunity to further their monetary interest as you have mentioned that here the land is treated as commodity, whereas in our hinterland where the dependence of the community on the land is intrinsic to their very survival. In such areas the issue of LA is much more sensitive and should be treated with lot of caution and the interest of those land owners or dependents should be given preference over any developmental activity. In such areas LA process should start much in advance with some intense social studies and interventions so as to prepare people for the eventuality of LA backed by a very robust R&R. but this approach should not be taken as granted in taking of any land. Under all circumstances the will of the landowners and their sovereign right over the land must be respected.

    Kumar Rakesh
    Associate Consultant
    ERM India

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Excellent article and rightly

    Excellent article and rightly pointed out that urban dwellers can not appreciate the sentiments of Farmers for whom the land is mother.I would like to highlight one aspect that about 44000 sq of area was under 5161 towns and now the total number of towns and cities have gone upto 7935.Perhaps we have no idea that how much of agricultural land is converted into urban use.Perhaps this is the right time to evolve National Landuse Policy which should appropriately recommend which areas are suitable for what kind of use.Under no circumstances ,the rich fertile land be allowed to get converted into urban use.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • The Editorial By Miss Sunita

    The Editorial By Miss Sunita Narayanan is Realistic.Even Small Lands Growing Cash Crops Of Betel Nuts can make Families self sufficient.betel Nut(Supari)is expensive Now a Days Similarly So Many Seedlings can be planted very close to each other on small pieces of Land. Black pepper can be grown on these palms to bring additional Income.Banana,curryleaves,pineapple and vegitable can be planted as inter crop and ducks can be raised for poultry,eggs & organic pest control simalteniously. Most Importent thing is rural population engaged in small scale Farming can produce their own Bread & Butter without relying on anyone .They can feel security and sence of selfness from these Lands.It's about Saving rights of Hundreds of Poor Farmers Or Tribal population of India from Capitalism. Our System is Agriculture based and not Industry based.No One can survive eating Gold,Silver and Diamonds.We need to bear clearly in our Minds that Mother Earth,Forests,water bodies and Agriculture provide us essence of our life the Food and not Heavy Industry.While promoting cotage & Small Scale industries for betterness we must respect sentiments of People and their right no matter either they are poor,tribal or whatever.Even I have attached to My Land from My chiledhood and I can fight to keep My land intact.Lets Remember Thoughts Of Mahatma Gandhi.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • To day farm lands are

    To day farm lands are gradually becoming less and less remunerative. Labor is slowly migrating to cities and availability for farm labor is depleting and cultivation is becoming impossible. In scenario like this most of the views are exaggerated and by vested interests. One probale solution could be that industries coming up on such fertile farm lands only to provide shares in their companies to the farmers loosing the land , besides a certain amount of reduced remuneration (one time payment) which will ensure the farmerto immediately rehabilitate himself as also over longer periods to get some recurring remuneration by way of dividends.
    How is the Idea????!!!!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • No doubt one of the reasons

    No doubt one of the reasons for the reluctunce of the poor to part with their lands is the fear that they will therby expose themselves to unknown difficulties in acually getting satisfactory alternative livelihoods on a sustained basis.
    Equally important is the fact that the poor too are well aware of the spiralling prices of land - fuelled primarily by the investment of unaccounted and ill-gotten wealth plundered in all possible ways by politicians and their cronies.Everyone knows that within a short period of time whatever compensation they have to settle for today will appear measly.
    Mark Twain's advise " Buy land, they've stopped making it" has a colloraly - "Don't sell land, they've stopped making it". Which the poor too are smart enough to realize.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Very good. Well thought and

    Very good. Well thought and logical. Professional editorial. I like it.

    Shafiul Alam

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • The small scale landowners

    The small scale landowners can see value in their land and a future, however small. But they can see only an immediate gain for selling the land. They know that cash in hand is a fleeting thing and can't replace the land. However this thinking is based only on a lack of faith and belief in the modern concepts of ownership, and for lack of another noun, banks. If the industrial developers will gain value for the land, why can they not offer equivalent ownership in the company rather than a few coins? Perhaps because the farmers would not accept it. But the true worth of that land is the income per month. This income is what should be offered to the farmers, not a one time payoff. Basically developing a believable stock market where assets could be owned by small shareholders and income guaranteed would go a long way to developing India's future.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • The editorial "Land is more

    The editorial "Land is more than just that", sums up the core issue beautifully; in a country where a large percentage of population is dependent on agriculture and allied activities it is land based livelihoods that need to be promoted. It is paramount that fertile farm is not diverted for non-agricultural purposes. It is pertinent to quote here from the National Policy for Farmers based on the recommendations of the National Commission on Farmers, that was adopted in late 2007 -
    "Prime farmland must be conserved for agriculture except under exceptional circumstances, provided that the agencies that are provided with agricultural land for non-agricultural projects should compensate for treatment and full development of equivalent degraded / wastelands elsewhere. Further, the commitment under the existing re-settlement policy of the Central / State governments would be fulfilled in letter and spirit. For non-agricultural purposes, as far as possible, land with low biological potential for farming would be earmarked and allocated. State governments would be advised to earmark lands with low biological potential such as uncultivable land, land affected by salinity, acidity, etc., for non-agricultural development activities, including industrial and construction activitiesÔÇØ

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • The improvment in returns in

    The improvment in returns in any industrial activity over the conventional land use is certain. Even if one pays a high price for the land, much higher than the adjoining market value, the problem of engagement of the oustees, for the full family reamins. The solution therefore lies in finding ways for gainful employment/ engagment of the entire family in addition to fair market price compensation. I see no respite from LA woes unless the engagemnt issues are adressed.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Sunita, I agree with your

    Sunita, I agree with your point that most of the people see the development or growth through their eyes. Most of the people have only seen or read the gloomy things of this development sitting in their homes or offices. People like me who travel to many rural areas regarding conservation activities and work, realise the grave presence of these two India,s with in India.

    Our politicians and heads of state who talk so much of about development and economic progress should visit these poor and remote areas in different parts of the country Like Mahatma Gandhi who travelled throught the country before starting his freedom struggle. Thats the best way of judging your understanding of the ground realities to develop proper ground level implementation planings.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Some people evicts others to

    Some people evicts others to prosper at their cost and the victims resist instead of getting ruined as it happened earlier. Prosperity and development, even progress are relative words. Aim of life and aspirations are different so all humans cannot meet normally at the level of their respective wants and needs. Leaving all things aside, wanton destruction of nature and established habitats are ruinous jobs for even the existence of the earth, what of some people. We all resist such acts.
    Aju Mukhopadhyay

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • It seems to me that many

    It seems to me that many farmers resist sale of their land not only because of tradition, but also because of ignorance. They may not be aware of what livelihood alternatives they have, or the skills/confidence to succeed in those alternatives. Are there any NGOs who are avalable for the farmers to go to learn more about what they can do with the sale proceeds, or who are available to hand-hold the farmer through the re-education/ re-training process?

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • There are interesting

    There are interesting observations in the article. One talks here of small land holdings of a few decimals per household.

    This is in stark contrast to what happened when NH-6 was being built in Kharagpur - Panskura zone of West Midnapore. This area had vast tracts of flower growing land and fertile cultivable land with landholdings of each house hold running into acres. The flower growers gave up substantial portion of their flower growing land and fertile cultivable land in exchange for what was then considered adequate compensation and without any resistance.

    The flower growers who were also cultivators have fruitfully utilized the compensation to send their wards to very good schools, often private schools outside the state of West Bengal as they believed the new generation would not be interested in cultivation/flower growing. They have invested the compensation money very well and are well off.

    I have to admit of course that all of them have some landholdings still where they are profitably growing flowers even now.

    This is a very complex issue.

    The left government had done extensive land reforms but that broke up vast tracts of single person held land into small parcels which went to the bargadras or cultivators who used the cultivate the land for the absent landowner. Now that land is fragmented extensively in West Bengal it is impossible to find land for industrial growth. The land reforms movement of 60s and 70s led to present situation and demise of left government in West Bengal.

    Unless one develops infra-structure in arid areas of Purulia, Birbhum, West Midnapore no industrialist would venture there. Even as and if the government tries to develop the infra-structure, the land use would change, electricity, water would be available and the teeming millions of West Bengal and nearby states would migrate, occupy the land leaving industrialists and government in Catch 22 situation.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • S N,i agree completely.A son

    S N,i agree completely.A son of an illiterate rain-fed land farmer family,as a person engaged in agriculture for a few years, and as a person investigated many anti-sez moments Andrapradesh,India i know the intrinsic value of land to a peasant, especially who do not posses 'modern skills'

    The question of ecology&environment can not be overemphasized.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Sunita Ji, I am always

    Dear Sunita Ji,
    I am always facinated by your articles, particularly related to mining or steel. I have been working in mining areas all my life in various capacities i,e Ex engineer to Chairman of the biggest mining co ( non coal).Your article has aptly brought out that land for these people is not a mere tradeable commodity but a part of them. However, if handled properly with a human touch,they will willingly part with their land. They have to be convinced that they would be better off if they give up their land for economical & industrial development of their area. Investors should not only explain the benefits but demonstrate by actual action on the ground even before they talk of acquisition.The land owners can still be engaged in vocations near to their heart even after acquisition & setting up of industry. There are examples in india itself where the villagers supported setting up industry in the area despite opposition by NGO's. Sanghi's cement plant in Gujrat is an example of this. Even before Sanghi's talked of acquisition, they build water bodies in the area which had no drinking water. Villagers fought in the courts in favour of Sanghis. Investors must understand the emotional need of the people before talking of acquisition.
    Thanks PC Gupta
    G-105 Saket, New Delhi-17
    M: 98 18006329

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Yes, it is not easy to

    Yes, it is not easy to understand when one says that land is his/her mother. But it is not also very difficult. The problem is with the definition of development.
    If we understand that whatever small piece family land is providing the family its bread and butter since generations and will possibly provide the same to coming generations as well. The compensation provided in term of cash/job will only support only one or two generations.
    One more important fact is ignored in definition of development is environmental cost of development apart from social cost. In long run, over generations, it is farming only, has fed millions sustaining economically, environmentally and sometime socially.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
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