“India has certainly arrived”, exclaimed Sandeep, my neighbor (a passionate sports fan) talking about the recent Formula 1 Grand Prix on a glistening, newly-built race track. For some, India is definitely shining. And after all, it’s quite something to belong to a nation with promising GDP growth and the potential to be one of the world’s leading economies.
But I looked at my neighbour and wondered if he was aware of the fact that this shiny strip of tarmac is built on the only source of livelihood for a great many people. An infrastructure company – JP Infratech – acquired land from the Government to build luxury townships and sports cities including the Formula 1 race track in Greater Noida in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh – land which was forcibly grabbed under the pretext of building a 165 kilometre Yamuna Expressway from Delhi to Agra in Uttar Pradesh. The land belonged to some 300 farmers and was bought by the government of Uttar Pradesh at the rate of Rs 800($6) per square meter and sold to the Yamuna Expressway Industrial Development Authority for the tidy sum of Rs 10,000($200) per square metre.
The authorities claim that the land was taken in accordance with the Land Acquisition Act 1894. This act allows the government to forcibly grab land from poor farmers at an arbitrary price in the name of ‘public interest’. Maybe it’s time one asked just who is the public and whose interest is actually being served? It’s quite dangerous when power and money join hands as they do here where the government uses its power to promote the interests of the rich. Designed to promote colonial interests, the 1894 Land Acquisition Act is now used in the same manner to promote corporate interests by evicting and displacing the poor. In many cases the ‘public interest’ has been various governments (both state and central) acquiring land and then selling it to private investors at higher prices. This has led to mass agitation and protests in the country (See here and here). Several amendments have been made to the Act in the past, the latest of which – the Land Acquisition and Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill of 2011 has already been put before Parliament. However the farmers say that this Act does not represent their best interests.
Land grabbing is not new in India and the displacement it causes has always been present. As P. Sainath writes in his book, “Everybody Loves a Good Drought”, “ in the period of 1951-90, over 26 million people got displaced by development projects such as dams, canals, mining, industries, thermal plants, sanctuaries and defense installations”. Yet displacement by development has become more vicious since India’s liberalization in 1991 when the private sector emerged as a new player and needed land to build export processing zones, shopping malls, residential complexes, hotels and factories. And the displaced normally do not get employed in other sectors of the economy as they are not equipped for such jobs.
Growth is not all bad. However, when it comes at the cost of the poor, maybe it’s time we looked closely at what kind of growth is being promoted. Or it’s time that the government spelled out ‘public interest’ as ‘corporate interest’ and stopped misleading the public.
The farmers who lost their only means of livelihood are pushed deeper into poverty while my neighbour waxes lyrical about ‘Shining India’. Farmers have been protesting in the state and are also gearing up for a court battle in the Supreme Court in November. But will the livelihoods of farmers get the same kind of lavish attention as Formula 1? And can justice be promised when they are fighting the very entity that is supposed to protect their rights?
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