In India, Development Fuels Disputes Over Land

Protests against land acquisitions are soaring in India as the country’s restless economy increasingly encroaches on traditional landowners and ways of life — at times with violent results

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Tsering Topgyal / AP

Farmers from India’s Haryana state cross a main road as they take out a protest against the land acquisition by the Haryana government in New Delhi, March 5, 2013.

On a warm spring afternoon, New Delhi’s famous India Gate is a quiet place. Cars and buses cruise the wide road that runs under the stately memorial, where a few well-dressed tourists pose for pictures. Rows of colorful boats bob on a nearby lake.

And then there’s Babaji Jana. For the past year, Jana has been lying on a footpath in front of India Gate, staging a silent protest against officials who, he says, forcibly took his land. Shirtless and in dirty gray trousers, the 43-year-old farmer from the eastern state of Orissa holds the Indian flag as he recounts how his local district council confiscated part of his 6-hectare plot to build a road and sold the rest off. He was not given compensation, so he brought his protest to the nation’s capital. “I used to be a landowner, and now I am on the streets,” says Jana.

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He is far from alone. Protests against land acquisitions are soaring in India as the country’s restless economy increasingly encroaches on traditional landowners and ways of life — at times with violent results. In 2007, when the Marxist government of West Bengal unveiled plans to take over land in Nandigram for a chemical park, villagers clashed with government forces. The violence lasted over a year, killing 14 people and injuring many more. In 2011, bloody protests broke out in Orissa over the construction of a road as part of a massive steel-mill project. Women and children formed a human chain to prevent work from going ahead.

The landgrab protests, analysts say, are likely to worsen. In 2011, there were protests in 130 districts in the country. A report released in December predicts a major rise in similar conflicts all over India by local communities in the coming decade in protest of landgrab. The report, prepared by the Washington-based Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) and the Society for Promotion of Wastelands Development, blames India’s government agencies and private investors for the growing spate of clashes. “The government’s own acquisitions for different industrial development [and] mining projects show that they will require at least 11 million hectares more by 2025,” says Arvind Khare, RRI’s executive director. “With the kind of protests and violence we have seen because of the 4.6 million [hectares of land acquired by the government to date], can you imagine the nature of protests when another 11 million is grabbed?”

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In an interview with TIME last year, India’s Finance Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram said while land acquisition is essential for development, the government has to weigh up the need for development and the interests of local residents. “You cannot put up a factory or a hydroelectric project or mine minerals unless you have land,” Chidambaram told TIME. What he describes as a balanced land-acquisition bill is now being debated in Parliament, but many already criticize the legislation for not taking into account the interests of millions of people who are dependent on the forests, pastures or common lands to which long-standing custom, but not statute, grants them rights. (There is some legislation to protect the rights of India’s indigenous forest communities, but major infrastructure projects are exempt from its strictures.)

“If you really start looking at the struggle and violence and conflicts taking place in rural areas, you will find that most of those conflicts where protests are getting more organized and more violent are those that are on the common land,” says Khare, who has championed land rights around the world for more than three decades. “These are the people who are not covered by the present legislation or the legislation the government is talking about.”

Until they are, men like Jana will continue his protests. “I have nothing left to lose,” he says, “so I will continue my protest till my last breath.” Unfortunately, not every protest will as peaceful.

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