Smita Gupta
Indian School of Women's Studies and
Development, AIDWA, New Delhi, India
Primitive accumulation best explains surge in dispossession after advent of finance
capital driven neo-liberal policies in India. PA has to be clearly understood as the
separation between resources and petty producers, as inherent to and even
‘constitutive’ of capitalism, and not necessarily as a transition between modes of
production, limited to capitalism’s pre-history.
Nor is PA a transient ‘fix’ to crisis or an aberration ( as Harvey suggests), not part of the
pure “logic of capital”. PA and capitalist accumulation differ in terms of how the
separation between producers and resources occurs: through extra economic coercion
or through “the silent compulsion of the market” (which Harvey wrongly elevates to
the pure “logic of capital”).
Through the submission of ‘living labour’ to the reign of capital and separation of
direct producers from their means of production and subsistence, PA both facilitates
and is an outcome of the internationalization of the ‘circuit of capital’ under neoliberal policies.
The wider appeal of Harvey’s neo-Smithian formulation of PA which tends to sanitize
capitalism of its repugnant bloody and brutal aspects lies in its view of present day
imperialism (“new deal” in Harvey’s formulation) as benign and acceptable.
Neo-liberal Reforms in India
• Replaced post-independence regulatory and protectionist framework –
disparagingly called ‘license permit raj’ –with fiscal conservatism,
deregulation, trade liberalization, financial sector reforms and privatization.
• Abandoned developmental, welfarist and protective role of State. This
happened through three mutually reinforcing processes, (a) A sharp decline
in state expenditure on policies for socio-economic development and
welfare to retain the “confidence of investors”. (b)Devastation of national
production activities due to competitive cheap imports due to trade
liberalization (c) incentivizing private investment in infrastructure,
urbanization and industries through tax and price concessions and handover
of natural resources to unleash “animal spirits”
• Priority given to attracting foreign investment and the lifting of restrictions
on private corporate investment generated an extraordinary ‘race to the
bottom’ among the state governments, competing to offer more and more
attractive concessions to woo private capital.
The growth model requires the state to unleash ‘animal spirits’ for an ‘investor
friendly environment’, like Bentham’s ‘laissez-faire authoritarianism’, ‘liberty’ of
capital depends on subordination of labour and resources to capital’s will.
The global circuit of capital in its financialized phase and the thrust for free trade
and attack on agriculture has as its primary aim the re-opening of the lands of the
global South to possess and annex tropical biodiversity
This results in environmentally unsustainable and socially inequitable plunder of
natural resources, and the subjugation and disciplining of labour through
deregulation and growing labour reserves.
Public policy either privatizes or statizes land. As the neoliberal state abandons the
dirigisme’s conception of holding natural resources in public trust statization and
privatization have the same outcome – dispossession of direct producers and
hoarding by big private players.
The pressure from World Bank etc. to end community land systems, a key
“impediment” to the penetration of global capital esp in mining and infrastructure.
All open CPRs must be enclosed, and traditional rights restricted, otherwise
investors will have to negotiate with individual communities for their resources.
The private players increasingly are speculative squatters, rarely using the annexed
resources “productively”. Even after receiving all the “incentives” from the state,
the land resources are financialized often using shell companies
• In the last quarter Century, India experienced renewed plunder and loot of
land and land-based natural resources on a hitherto unprecedented scale,
as the means to boost capitalist super-profits.
• It also witnessed agricultural distress because of the agrarian crisis brought
on by rising costs, falling prices and trade liberalization resulting in low
growth, falling profitability, growing landlessness, casualisation of labour,
increase in small and marginal holdings and fragmentation, and widening
rural-urban gap
• The fragility of rural livelihoods due to falling viability of cultivation and
squeeze on off-farm employment, has rendered rural workers extremely
vulnerable to even the smallest of shocks resulting in distress out-migration.
• Environmentally unsustainable land use and technologies as well as
inadequate investment on small-scale eco-regenerative labour-intensive
land and water conservation have caused huge ecological degradation,
destroying the quality and productivity of land resources in agriculture,
forestry and allied activities.
These three factors, namely, the plunder of land and land-based
resources; agrarian distress and environmental degradation have
together resulted in dispossession and displacement of large populations
• Thus, the current growth model is itself predicated upon state-sponsored
encroachment through extra-economic coercion ostensibly for
industrialization, urbanization and infrastructure. This has resulting in
massive dispossession and displacement of petty producers. Dispossession
includes all forms of loss of access to and ownership of these resources – be
it private, community or public rights. The notion of dispossession includes:
(i) exclusion and loss of access; (ii) outright evictions and loss of ownership,
occupation or tenure; and (iii) ecological degradation and loss of soil fertility
and bio-mass.
• Land resources include forests, minerals, soil, biomass and vegetative cover,
water, etc. These exist broadly in three types of property relations: (a) As
‘common property resources’ (b) As ‘state owned resources’ purportedly
held in public trust (c) as private property. I use the term land to include all
these resources and property relations.
• The crucial policy and legislative changes that have led to dispossession
include the agrarian crisis and distress; forest laws, fencing and evictions;
land alienation; forcible land acquisition; reverse land reforms; enclosures
through titling; eco-degradation; changing land use policies and evictions in
cities; policies of infrastructure, industrialization and urbanization, etc.
Forests, Diversion and Evictions
The State fenced forest land (23% of total area) using the forest
conservation act (1980) and the wildlife protection act (1972) to establish
pristine inviolate areas free from human activity.
These were essentially ‘bloody legislation’ to separate forest dependent
communities from the forests and even as they overnight became
“encroachers” and were evicted from their own land, the forest land was
diverted to mega “development” projects - since 1980 to 2000, an average
of about 40,000 hectares was diverted annually, rising to a lakh hectares a
year between 2001 and 2006, and currently it is 90,000 hectares. The total
land diverted since 1980 is about 14 lakh hectares till March 2014.
UPA constituted a Project Monitoring Group in June 2013 and cleared 152
of the 437 projects (each worth >Rs 1,000 crores) totaling about Rs 5.3
lakh crores of a total pendency of Rs 15 lakh crores.
NDA reduced the bar on projects to Rs 500 crore. It has also introduced
deemed clearances, and a Project would be considered approved if no
objections are raised within a specified time period (6 weeks in some
cases). For “security” and fighting “Maoism”, they are considered
approved on application.
Adivasi land alienation
• Land alienation, a euphemism for land grab of adivasis land by nonadivasis, is widely prevalent despite several policies and laws in place for
restoration of lands to adivasis.
• The Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 or PESAA has
specific provisions dealing with the protection of resource rights of
adivasis. This Act has been completely subverted by the state and
corporate sector.
• The Rules to implement the Act have never been issued by the central
government leaving it to the 8 sub national governments.
• Not even one out of the 29,596 cases of alienation and restoration were
ruled in favour of the adivasis in Madhya Pradesh while in Orissa 43,213
out of 104,644 cases were decided against adivasis. Even Left ruled Tripura
rejected 20,043 cases out of the 29,112 cases.
• Fifth Schedule States have found a novel way of undermining adivasi land
protection: by converting rural areas into urban ones! Since the protection
is not extended to urban areas within the Fifth Schedule, the criteria for
notifying areas as urban and rural are manipulated and the stringent
provisions of PESAA are bypassed by merely re-classifying them as urban
so that land can be easily taken over
Forcible land acquisition
The colonial Act
• Till 2013, for over six decades after Independence, the legal framework for land
acquisition was provided by the archaic colonial Land Acquisition Act, 1894 (LAA).
The main purpose of the LAA was to acquire land in a quick, cheap and easy
manner with little concern for livelihoods and rehabilitation of landowners.
• One of the biggest weaknesses of the 1894 Act was that “public purpose” is the
sole and absolute prerogative of the executive, through opaque and authoritarian
procedures not subject to democratic and judicial scrutiny. Land was often
acquired in the guise of a more plausible purpose and then transferred to some
other use.
• The LAA kept acquisition costs low by an unfair and arbitrary method of evaluating
the price of land and restrictive coverage of persons and assets resulting in very
low compensation. The procurer (the Government) decided the price, and refused
to transfer any part of the gains of the higher values accruing from the proposed
change in land use to the affected persons, and the payment of depreciated value
for assets made it impossible to replace them.
The neo-liberal Act
• The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition,
Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013, title notwithstanding, replaces a
colonial Act with a neo-liberal one. The price for compensation is now linked to the
stamp duty and circle rates rather than the highest actual market price as ordered
by the Supreme Court, which are notoriously under-reported. The acquirer namely
the state continues to determine compensation, which is a conflict of interest.
However, the most important departure is the use of the state’s eminent domain
and expropriatory powers for private companies by bringing private companies into
the very definition of public purpose and effectively abandoning the distinction
between acquisition for private companies and acquisition for the state (and state
owned companies).
• Even though the 1894 Act allows the use of the state’s eminent domain to forcibly
acquire land for public purpose acquisition could not be done for “private
purposes” of a company simpliciter, and had to be made in the “larger public
interest”. This notwithstanding, the courts and the executive had colluded to use
the “mischief, defect and the lacuna” in the statute. Parliament has now removed
the distinction between acquisition for companies simpliciter and acquisition for
public purpose for the state and its “instrumentalities/agencies”, putting it on the
same footing.
• However, the UPA government was forced to put in very weak and
contested but provisions nonetheless for Social Impact Assessment, prior
informed consent, higher compensation and greater accountability of
government functionaries.
• The NDA government has now brought in an ordinance to remove or
dilute each and every progressive aspect of the UPA 2013 Act to make it
industry friendly. In doing this, the present Government finally becomes
what even the Colonial British rulers balked at: real estate agents for
private companies.
• Public purpose is the sole justification for the expropriation of private land
or diversion of common property resources, and legitimizes the use of
eminent domain of the state for expropriation. And yet, shockingly, the
Ordinance dilutes it even further and removes the only mechanism and
procedure for its determination; and removes all limitations and
restrictions on the misuse of the powers of eminent domain.
• Prior informed consent from the land loosers is another essential part of
democratization – this has been rendered ineffective.
• In India, there are no systematic official records of the total extent
of land acquisition or displacement. Non-official studies quoted by
the now wound up Planning Commission suggest that the total
number of persons displaced / affected by projects for the period
1947 to 2004 is around 60 million, involving 25 million ha. of land,
including 7 million ha. of forest and 6 million ha. other common
property. The adivasis constitute 40% of the total
displaced/affected persons by projects, while Dalits are 20%.
• According to a rare and painstaking study of a single state, Gujarat,
based on the perusal of Gazette notifications over 57 years, the
State has acquired roughly 3.2 millions hectares of land for
development projects and displaced around 25 lakh people,
between 1947-2004. Thus around 5% of the state’s total population
has been displaced and 16% of its geographical area acquired.
Reverse land reforms:
• Land reforms were to remove barriers to agricultural investment and remove
exploitation in the agrarian structure due to inequality in land distribution and
tenurial systems. Abolishing intermediaries, transfer of land to recorded tenants
and redistribution of ceiling surplus land were the three pillars. But there was a
large gap between law and its implementation.
• Of late, policy analysts have suggested rolling back land ceiling laws as they hinder
investment and adoption of economies of scale. The fragmentation of landholdings and the dominance of small-holding agriculture are cited as a cause for
concern, with some arguing for a bottom ceiling on the smallest size. A corollary to
this is the liberalizing of the existing restrictions on agricultural tenancy.
• The National Agricultural Policy wants to incentivize reverse tenancy (small lessorlarge lessee) and develop lease market for increasing the size of the holdings by
giving private lands on lease for cultivation and agri-business. Further, ‘private
sector participation” through contract farming and land leasing arrangements was
• States have moved or proposed amendments for three types of changes : (1)
raising land ceiling (2) redefining farming activities to include agro-based industry,
farm research, post-harvest agriculture-based companies and infrastructure for
farming (3) permitting tenancy (even reverse tenancy) and agriculture-based
companies to take land on lease.
• Punjab and Haryana have done away with the land ceiling for nonagricultural use, with retrospective effect. In a single stroke, the "grave
violations" of land ceiling laws by real estate companies, stocking
thousands of acres of land in false names or floating multiple firms to
acquire adjacent stretches have got legal sanction.
• The ongoing clamour for re-classification of Mangar sacred groves in
the NCR by realtors from uncultivable hills to agricultural land has to be
seen in light of these amendments.
• The Planning Commission set the repeal of the Urban Land (Ceiling &
Regulation Act), 1976, within a committed time frame as a precondition
for states to access funds under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban
Renewal Mission (JNNURM). They are then required to constitute
‘Screening Committees’ to decide on the use of land under their
possession to be sold for the real estate sector through tender–cumauction. Except for Assam, Bihar and West Bengal, all the others have
fallen in line to access funds and free the highly valued urban land for
private real estate developers.
According to the Indian Space Research Organization’s (ISRO), roughly 69 per cent
or 228 million hectares of India’s lands are dry, and extremely vulnerable.
Desertification threatens one-fourth of India’s geographical area, or 81 million
hectares. Satellite imagery from Resourcesat also shows that land degradation has
already affected a third of the country’s area at 105.48 million hectares.
Environmental degradation have an adverse impact on the access to land and landbased resources, both in terms of quantity and quality. The destruction of the
inherent productivity of land –private and common - compels owners to abandon
cultivation and collection and be forced to migrate out in search of work.
In the arid and semi-arid region of central and western India, distress out-migration
from the region is largely because of environmental degradation processes and
shrinkages of common property resources. Restricted access and availability of
common property would only exacerbate ‘degradation-pushed distress migration’.
The combination of three processes – reduction in public investment in
employment intensive environmental regeneration; the shrinking of the commons
through large infrastructure, urbanization and industrial projects and more
draconian property regimes due to enclosing and fencing – increases ‘degradationpushed distress migration’ from private and common lands.
Evictions in urban areas
• A whole host of reasons, like large infrastructure and development projects; urban
renewal and new urbanization; city beautification; safety and security concerns;
sports extravaganzas; industry, industrial corridors and Special Economic Zones
(SEZs) are uprooting individuals and communities from their homes in cities.
• With growing demands on land in urban areas, local authorities are more and more
shifting unauthorized settlements and slums of the poor from within the city to its
periphery. Furthermore, large sections of the urban poor and working class live as
“encroachers” in slums, tenements, pavements, and the like and their occupational
rights as squatters are always under threat from imminent eviction. The majority of
urban residents in India today exist in various states of illegality.
• To make matters worse, their workplaces are increasingly under threat as urban
planning and zoning cities has meant relocation of employment-intensive industries
outside city limits, for example the relocation in Delhi under Court diktat on account
of “pollution”.
• With the informal economy emerging as the residual sector engulfing a whole range
of street based distress self employment, the attack on street vendors and hoarders
with restrictions and regular police and municipal action against them, the urban
poor loose out their workplaces too, facing violence, extortion and eviction on a day
to day basis.
• The two worlds split more and more – the elite into its
gated and exclusive townships with private security,
‘world class’ infrastructure and facilities, and the working
poor in more and more distant ‘nowhere lands’, falling
off the city map. Slum clearance is nothing but an
attempt to take over the settlement and habitation of
the working poor and Delhi alone plans "voluntary
relocation" of another half a million people. The
judiciary entered the arena of urban planning in a most
draconian and anti-poor form
“The Indian capital offers brutal confirmation of Jeremy
Seabrook's contention that ‘the word 'infrastructure' is
the new code word for the unceremonious clearance of
the fragile shelters of the poor.’” The land freed through
slum clearances is then used for high value commercial
enterprises like malls, complexes, office buildings or
luxury housing colonies.
Enclosing through titling:
The government wants to confer conclusive ownership titles to landholders through a
Land Titling Bill. It is an exercise to “prepare a record of all immovable properties”. It
squarely places the onus on the individual through “compulsory intimations to land
titling authority” to keep the records updated under threat of punishment, even loss
of title to the land or interest in the land, and warns: “All persons are deemed to have
notice of every entry in the Register of Titles”.
This kind of consolidation and centralization of land records is likely to facilitate even
greater dispossession and land grab by becoming a large land bank. It recognizes only
two categories of land, private and government, with the latter being a residual
category. Community resource rights and common property is not recognized and will
be recorded as ‘government land’, thus enclosing commons. It is ambiguous regarded
the manner in which tenancy will be recorded, and is likely to result in becoming yet
another reason for the concealment of unrecorded tenancy and eviction of poor
The fact that this is to ease market transactions in land becomes clear given the
introduction of an “indemnification” clause, in which the government indemnifies any
person or entity who acts on the basis of the title in the centralised records and would
bear the cost of litigation and ancillary matters if they were to arise. It is not about
updating land records. It is not about the accuracy of land records, but about its
finality for purposes of determining encumbrances and saleability. It is about deciding
on a means by which land may be easily dealt with in the market.