Land and equality

Published: Thursday 15 November 2007

in the past couple of years the land question has come more sharply into focus--especially since the government started its aggressive acquisitions to facilitate the establishment of special economic zones. Recent events will give it a lot to think about. The government has announced a new resettlement and rehabilitation policy for displaced people. It has tinkered at the edges but made no tectonic ruptures with past policies contested assumptions remain centrally inscribed. Thus, for instance, the state's overriding right over land remains undiminished and the definition of 'public interest'--the egregious instrument for the acquisition of land--is as conveniently vague as before.

The latter might have to change soon. The supreme court has now ruled that the cavalier invocation of public interest will no more be permitted to inflict force majeure on hapless citizens. Especially to be welcomed is its observation that it is impermissible for the government to acquire land on this basis only to turn it over to private entities or individuals whose primary interest is the pursuit of private benefit rather than altruistic contributions to the common weal. Other procedures it has specified will make it difficult for the government to expropriate agricultural land without first demonstrating rigorous due process, something it has not shown great regard for in the past.

This is the context in which we must situate the massive procession which made its way from Gwalior to Delhi. Christened Janadesh-2007, it was composed mainly of people who had been displaced from their land--their primary source of livelihood--and given either inadequate rehabilitation deals or, more usually, none at all. The march is to press upon the dispensation in Delhi their case for justice. But the rally has another context. While it was making sure progress, its leaders made a quick sortie to the capital to present Sonia Gandhi, the chairperson of the United Progressive Alliance, with a demand for formulating a national policy on land reform. This cuts to the heart of the land issue.

As long as there is no framework for ensuring equitable redistribution of and access to land, the fundamental inequalities of agrarian India--about two-thirds of the country, lest we forget--will not be addressed, forget eradicated. And, clearly, if the challenge of gross inequality is not met, peaceful Janadesh rallies will give way, increasingly, to violent and radical movements for change.

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