Thursday, May 21, 2009

Who is Neo-liberal in the Land Acquisition Debate?

R. Ramakumar

One of the most important criticisms of the Left during Elections-2009 was that the government in LF government in West Bengal followed “neo-liberal” policies, which were rejected by the people. The writer who best captured this sentiment was Siddharth Varadarajan. Writing in The Hindu, he notes that the policies of the UPA government heralded the “return of the social democratic paradigm” in India. According to him, the Left parties, instead of encouraging this policy shift, held on to “one free-market policy its rural support base viscerally opposed: land acquisition.” One has to comprehensively reject this allegation.

Siddharth Varadarajan misses two simple facts. One, the effort of the West Bengal government was to ensure that a fair price is paid to the sellers by the purchaser. It was the State government that acquired land from the peasants, on the basis of one of the best rehabilitation packages in India, by regulating the land market in their favour. Two, if at all any argument could be called “free market”, it is the argument of the movements that resisted the West Bengal governments’ attempt to acquire land in Singur. For these movements, the central slogan was the reduction of the role of the state in land acquisition. Let me provide a quote from two prominent spokespersons of the Singur movement:

[Land acquisition] involves a transaction between two private parties, namely the corporation and the land owning peasants without level playing field, and the function of the State should be at least to ensure this transaction is voluntary, particularly because one party in the transaction namely the peasant is economically far weaker. This would mean that the corporations can acquire land at a price at which the peasants are willing to part voluntarily with their land, either individually or through collective decisions, the latter being especially relevant in the case of tribal land. Instead, what has been happening is that the state using force and violence under a cloak of secrecy…(Medha Patkar and Amit Bhaduri, “Industrialization: Which Way Now?”, originally in Ekak Matra, May 2008, Vol. 7, No. 6).

The question is posed in clearer terms by Walter Fernandes, an associate of the Singur movement: “Why should the state acquire land for private companies instead of asking them to buy it through negotiations with the owners?”

The arguments of Patkar and Bhaduri and Fernandez are soaked in neo-liberalism; they are mindlessly towing the neo-liberal argument to create a free land market in India. Compare it with the statements from neo-liberal writers and groups; Bibek Debroy notes:

A free land market does not exist in India, be it in the rural sector or in the urban sector. There is pervasive State intervention. In Britain, the enclosure movement predated the industrial revolution and freed up land markets. Nothing comparable happened in India. Rural land markets are subject to State intervention, primarily but not exclusively, through the colonial Land Acquisition Act. Consequently, free land sales are not always permitted…

Right-wing groups like the New Delhi-based Liberty Institute concur:

The success of the Nano, coupled with the bitter debate over land in Singur, should help us appreciate the urgent need for liberalizing the land market…If the government no longer tries to act as a broker in industrial mergers and acquisitions, there is no reason for it to become a land broker either. But for this to happen, we need to radically liberalize the land market.

The idea that the state should not be involved in land acquisition – allowing a free hand for industrial houses – is a deeply problematic idea. In the absence of the state, small and marginal farmers would meet the same fate as India’s Adivasis, who have historically lost their land to settlers. It is only when the state intervenes that there is any chance of a good deal being worked out for the land sellers; only then can predatory acquisition of land and higher concentration of land ownership be curbed. The intervention of the state, then, becomes an attempt to regulate the market, not promote it as Siddharth Varadarajan argues.

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