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From Corporate Land Grab to Land Sovereignty (Bhu Swaraj)


“There is a sacred tie between the tiller and the land. Any attempt to snap the relationship is bound to face opposition”.

P. Chidambaram Finance Minsiter

India’s Finance Minister Mr. Chidambaram is not a friend of farmers or a friend of the earth. He is committed to the neoliberal ideology. Yet even he has had to speak out against the corporate land grab of India’s small farms through the creation of Special Economic Zones (SEZ’s) and FDI in real estate. Every place where land is being acquired to create islands of luxury and lawlessness, land wars have erupted. From Kalinganagar to Dadri, from Singur to Nandigarm the force of arms and ammunition in the hands of the police force is being used to assault and kill innocent farmers and tribals defending their land rights, guaranteed by the Constitution, through democratic means, also guaranteed by the Constitution.

The land wars are testing every aspect of India – as a culture based on the earth as a sacred mother – Dharti – who supports us all, – an agrarian economy based on small farmers and peasants, a decentralized democracy which through the 73rd and 74th Amendments has made local communities the competent bodies to make decisions on natural resources

The large scale uprooting of millions of farmers in U.P, West Bengal, Maharasthra is breaking the sacred bond between peasants and the land, which supports them. But it is also breaking the contract between citizens and the state which is based on the state being bound by the Constitution, and the fundamental rights of citizens that the Constitution guarantees.

The Union Government, after prolonged deliberations, notified the Special Economic Zone (SEZ) Rules in February, 2006 operationalising the SEZ Act 2005. The Government has cleared hundreds of SEZs and applications of several other developers are pending.

SEZs are specially demarcated zones where units operate under a set of rules and regulations different from those applicable to other units in the country. The emphasis is on enhancing exports and creating an environment for attracting foreign direct investment (FDI) by offering taxsops. While units in the zone have to be net foreign – exhange earners, they are not subjected to any pre-determined value addition or minimum export performance requirements.

Any private, public, joint sector or state government or its agencies can set up SEZs. Foregin companies, too, are eligible.

SEZ units will be eligible for 100 percent tax exemption for the first five years, 50 percent for the next two and 50 percent of the ploughed back export profits for the next five years. Losses will be allowed to be carried forward. The Finance Ministry has stated this will lead to losses of nearly Rs. 2 trillion

Developers may import / procure goods without payment of duty for the development, operation and maintenance of SEZs. They will enjoy income tax exemption for 10 years, with a block period of 15 years. The developers will also have the freedom to allocate developed plots to approved SEZ units on a purely commercial basis. They will also have the full authority to provide services like water, electricity, security, restaurants, recreation centers etc. on commercial lines. Moreover, they will be exempt from paying service tax.

Within a year of the Central Act and less than six months of the enactment of the Act State legislation, Haryana started to set up the country’s largest multi-product SEZ, stretching over 25000 acres between Gurgaon and Jhajjar off the Delhi-Jaipur highway. It is being set up jointly by Reliance Industries Limited (RIL) and the Haryana State Industrial and Infrastructure Development Corporation (HSIIDC). RIL alone will invest Rs. 25000 crores, while Rs. 15000 crores will be put in by companies interested in investing in the SEZ.

It is claimed that the SEZ has provisions for a cargo airport and a 2000 megawatt power plant, and would generate 500,000 jobs and that the State Government would earn revenues up to Rs. 10,000 crores. Reliance is the major stakeholder with 90 percent stake in the joint venture company while the remaining 10 percent rests with HSIIDC. On 31st December, 22 Panchayats organised a strategy to fight Reliance’s Land Grab.

Reliance has also grabbed about 10,000 hectares of land for SEZ in Pen Tehsil of Raigad district in Maharasthra. The villagers now know fully well they are pitted against the formidable adversary – the giant Reliance, which has claimed 25,000 hectares land for its own SEZ in Haryana. It is spreading its wings in textiles, power, contract farming, medicinal herbs, sugar industries and retail stores. They realize that the Company has enormous sway over the political, bureaucratic establishment and the media. Yet in Raigad too farmers have declared that they will not allow their land to be taken away.

This land grab will totally pauperize our peasantry and create a new generation of corporate zamindars. Average land holdings in India are two acres and less. To rob the small peasants of what little they have and put in the hands of giants like Reliance with Rs. 100,000 crore wealth is to create a country of disposed paupers. Land grab for SEZ’s will also aggravate the agrarian crisis by robbing farmers of their main resource – land.

The use of the outmated colonial Land Acqusition Act of 1894 to forcefully evict peasants and grab their lands for coproations violates the Constitution and the Human Rights of farmers. It also contradicts the rhetoric of trade liberalization – of getting the Government out of the market and the economy.

Land, a sacred trust is being commodified by using state muscle to deny farmers their rights and then establish corporate monopoly on land ownership. It also contradicts the purpose of the land acquisition act which was supposed to be used for acquiring land for public purpose, not for private gain and monopoly ownership rights. Worst of all, it undoes India’s land reforms. Zamindari was the colonial mode of maximizing revenue from the land. Once India’s land was usurped, the collection of public revenue became a prime concern of the colonizing powers. Someone needed to be taxed. Before the British came to India produce was taxed but the land itself was not. To collect the tax, the British needed proprietors of land who would collect rents from the cultivators and pass it on to them. How could this be done?

The answer was extremely simple – create landlords. The task of finding the landlords was not too difficult – who better than those who already were used to collect money from the peasants for the state? The Zamindars formed the majority of the new landlords.

A motley collection of rural overlords in late 18th century Bengal conveniently and misleadingly went under the single name of zamindar. To compound the confusion, these varied elements in the Bengal countryside bore no resemblance to the village zamindars. The Bengal zamindars encompassed at least four separately identifiable categories; the old territorial heads of principalities, such as the rajas of Tippera and Cooch Behar; the great landholdeing families who paid a fixed land tax and behaved like feudatory chiefs, such as the Rajas of Burdwan, Dinajpur, Rajshahi, Jessore, and Nadia; the numerous families and who held offices for collecting land revenue over a number of generations; and revenue farmers established by the grant of Diwani in 1765.

In a bad “case of mistaken identify”‘ Lord Cornwallis, the governor general, by a grand proclamation on March 22, 1793, followed up by a barrage of regulations, conferred the prized private property right in land to this diverse group of rural overlords unified only in name. And it was the unjust extraction of revenue that led to the great Bengal Famine. Zamindari abolition got rid of the conditions of famine of 1942 in Bengal by getting rid of concentration of land ownership and the inhuman diversion of the produce of the land to pay revenues. Besides the Zamindari Abolition Act, independent India also enacted land Ceiling Acts in rural and urban areas. By putting a ceiling on ownership of land, land was distributed among larger numbers of farmers, making India a land of small peasants, not rich landlords controlling thousands of acres.

These land reforms are now being undone by the anti-reform of the neo-liberal paradigm. The assets of the small farmers are being transferred to giant corporations. Zamindari is now being institutionalized through SEZ’s. Like Lord Cornwallis’ grand proclamation, hundreds of thousands of acres of prime farming land are being made the property of corporations.

West Bengal which distributed land to the tiller through operation Barga is today using police force to rob land from the tiller and create a police state. When people fight back land acquisition for Tata Motors in Singur through the Krishi Jan Raksha Committee, a plantform of nine political parties and groups, led by Trinamul Congress of Mamta Banerjee and including CPI (ML), the Party for Democratic Socialism, CUI (ML) Janmat-ul-Ulena.

In Nandigram, six farmers were killed when Bhoomi Uiched Pratirodh (Resistance to Land Acquisition) Committee resisted Land Acquisition for the Salim group in Indonesia. The Communist regime of West Bengal is fighting not just farmers but its own philosophy of land reforms based on land for the tiller. Its current philosophy has become land for corporations. In a country where 60% people depend on land, protests against land grab are inevitable.

The protests against land grab for SEZ’s have spread like wildlife. On 17.1.2002 the Government was forced to suspend new clearances worried that protests would affect its fate in the upcoming elections. The proposal of the Prime Minister to give dispossessed farmers “stock options”, is no solution. It is based on two false assumption – one that the Government has the right to violently appropriate the land of small farmers and peasants for its corporate friends wherever and whenever it wants. This is not democracy, it is corporate feudalism.

Secondly, the Prime Minister’s assumption of “stock option” in place of farmers land rights suggests that he has a world view that small farmers can be fully dispossessed and uprooted from farming, and the real wealth of farmers in their land can be replaced by crumbs in the speculative finance economy bubble. We merely have to remember how the financial bubble burst in South East. The Prime Minister has also invited Edward de Soto who promotes commodification of land to the 10th centennial celebrations of Gandhi’s satyagraha on 30th January, the day of Gandhi’s martyrdom . Soto is not just for removed from Gandhi’s ideas of Swaraj and satyagraha, his proposals infact total undermine Swaraj.

Now that the Government has blinked on the SEZ issue, it is important to return to first principles, and decide democratically, from the grassroots what does land mean to us? Who will own the land? What will it used for? Who will decide?

The future of the Indian people and Indian democracy rests on the land question. While the Government is forced to pause in its inhuman project of land grab, let the farmers and the democratic forces of the country join in evolving charter and an agenda for land sovereignty – Bhu Swaraj.

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