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Social Resistances and the Land Question in Contemporary India

The drive for rapid industrialisation and urbanisation in the last one decade has led to the rise of a large number of protests, sometimes even violent, on the issue of land and livelihood across the length and breadth of the country. So severe has been its intensity and degree that it led to the defeat of the world’s longest democratically elected communist regime in one of the Indian states (West Bengal in 2012), which traditionally enjoyed the support of this class. Violent agitations leading to several deaths in the state and finally to the relocation of the proposed SEZ outside West Bengal, may well be a reason for the Left Front to ponder over the drubbing it received; the challenge is to understand the larger sense of disjunction between the developmental paradigm and the issue of land and livelihood for the poor. This paper attempts to assess the nature of social resistance across India.

One of the fundamental principles of democracy is the need for an engaged citizenry and the nature of the social resistance being witnessed in India today clearly exemplifies this condition. In most of the developing democracies, where a predominant part of the population continues to be highly dependent on agriculture and other primary activities for their livelihood, land occupies a critical position. It is not simply a development issue; it is a means to attain democracy, social justice and equity. Land is co-terminus with both social and economic status of the majority of the (rural) population.

Access to land continues to be of critical significance in large parts of India, where agriculture and primary sector activities based on land and other natural resources are the prime source of livelihood for a vast majority of the economically vulnerable rural population. In fact, the entire economic, social and political networks revolve around land. Along with primary activities like agriculture, mining, forestry etc., it is also the basic requirement for industrialisation. The recent few decades has been an important turning point for the social resistances and popular struggles in India. Marked with the decline of Nehruvian phase of India’s developmental history, this period has witnessed several struggles where unlike before, the challenge came from “below”, from whom the Indian State has been promising a better life. Seeing their interests getting seriously subverted through extension of the liberalisation agenda to the land, water and common property related issues in the 1990s, they not only are questioning the implementation of programmes or distributive justice, but the developmental paradigm itself. “Development at whose cost and at what cost” is what they are asking for. The categories, communities, indi­viduals and factors contributing to this struggle are many, but the focus here will remain only on the issue of land and agrarian crisis.

The process of rapid industrialisation has resulted in acquisition of agricultural land and subsequently, the displacement of people on a large scale. Industrialisation, no doubt, is important for development, but prioritizing it at the expense of agriculture and the basic rights of the people for land and livelihood is turning out to be a sad saga of displacement and disaster for those who are still agrarian and rural in nature. The changes made in recent decades over the removal of restrictions on conversion of agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes, primarily SEZs, prospects of easing the ceiling limits and the easing of tenancy laws, growing contractualisation and corporatisation of agriculture, forests, water etc. have turned out to be detrimental to their interests. Reports indicate increased leasing in by large farmers from small landowners, as well as the loss of land by many small and marginal peasants over this period. This has led to a deep agrarian crisis and has resulted in large number of suicides mostly by small and marginal farmers, often indebted on account of loans from informal sources with high rates of interest. In fact during the period from 1997 to 2008, as per the government data around two lakhs farmers had committed suicide. According to the latest census of 2011, nationwide, farmers committed suicide at a rate of 16.3 per 100,000 farmers. This was slightly higher than the 15.7 per 100,000 farmers who had committed suicide per 100,000 in 2001. It is extremely distressing to note that over the years the incidence of farmers committing suicide has been on the rise.

Corporatisation of agriculture which is being pushed under trade liberalisation as a successor of the Green Revolution is leading to new poverty for small farmers as unequal and unfair contracts lock them into a new form of bondage. Food-growing land is increasingly being diverted to non-food crops. Farmers are being displaced on a massive scale. According to the latest released information by the office of the Registrar General of India, between 2001 and 2011, the number of Indian farmers has declined by 9 million people. This is the first absolute decline of the population since 1971; as a percentage they now constitute even less than a quarter of India’s population). This has led to the over exploitation of the natural resources other than agriculture, resulting in grave food insecurity. The per capita land availability is declining over time while the overall demand for food and agricultural production is rising due to high population growth.
Widespread social unrest and the consequent instability is clearly evident from a large number of land struggles and movements that India has been witnessing in the recent years; many of the protests movements have often culminated into mass agitations. In the following section we highlight some of these struggles across the country, to illustrate the state of resistance in the contemporary India.

Struggles against Land Acquisition: 

Struggle against land acquisition is one of the major struggles that several states in India are witnessing today. The forcible occupation of land by mining projects, plantations, richer farming communities have left large numbers of poor people landless in the state. This has also affected several indigenous communities as their lands have been systematically captured and ravaged for the sake of forest resource, minerals or agriculture. This struggle is getting support from a vast network of NGOs and several eminent social activists. Several organizations have come together under the banner of National Alliance of Peoples Movements (NAPM) to show their solidarity behind this pressing issue. Due to limited space, we present here only a selective list of struggles for the purpose of this paper.

Sustained campaigning by people’s organizations against their eviction from arable lands is clearly visible in large parts of Odisha, where the government has initiated large-scale mining operations. People’s organizations have been successfully mobilized people to put claims on the encroached forest land. Tribal movements in Kalinga Nagar industrial area against acquisition by Tata Steel in Jajpur district, against displacement due to dams and hydroelectric projects in the districts of Koraput and Milkangiri, against the alumina refinery project of Vedanta Aluminium Ltd. in the Niyamgiri Hills has on some occasions successfully compelled the State government to accept it demands but have failed on many. There has been widespread mobilization over the issue and a large number of people all over the country took their side in solidarity. Protest rallies, demonstrations and court cases were organized, and a 17 km long human wall was staged to declare their resolve to protect Niyamgiri Hills and their aboriginal tribes.

The state of Chattisgarh too is witnessing similar protests. As the authors are writing these texts, the Dongria Kondhs, at nearly 350 KM north of the State capital, Raipur, registered a historic victory against Bharat Alumunium Company Ltd (BALCO), an affiliate of India focused global miner, Vedanta. While initially they had emphatically rejected Vedanta’s project at Niyamgiri Hills, at the base of Dharamjaigarh Hill range in Raigarh, this time they dismissed another project of Vedanta. BALCO is in the process of acquiring 1,070 hectares of land granted as part of a mining lease in Dharamjaigarh block for its power plant at Korba,which will affect the three panchayats of Dharamjaigarh block — Sahpur (which includes Taraimarh), Baysi and Rupunga, housing more than a dozen villages and 365 hectares of forestland. Series of gram sabhas were hosted in three panchayats to obtain consent from the villager, but the villagers simply boycotted the sabhas expressing their dissent. [1]

There has been a widespread fear, anguish and discontent among the villagers leading to constant protests in Karnataka over land grabbing under the pretext of setting up SEZs in Bangalore, Koppal, Dharwad, Mangalore, Kolar, Belgaum, Hassan, Ramnagar and Mysore. Some of such protests are against the ESSAR in Belar and Dhurli; the Tata Steel in Baliapal, Badeparoda, Dabpal, Barangi, Chhuragaon, Chhindgaon, Kumhli, Takraguda, Belar and Sirisguda; the Nandagudi SEZ in Hoskote; the POSCO steel plant in Manglore and the Mangalore Special Economic Zone Limited (MSEZL) in Mangalore notified by the Karnataka Industrial Area Development Board (KIADB). In most of these cases, the villagers have been demanding de-notification of their land and showing strong determination of not giving up their land. In case of MSEZL, they have been protesting under the umbrella organization ‘Krishi Bhoomi Samrakshana Vedike’ against the proposed 2000 acre SEZ that displaces over 2000 residents spread across several villages.

The state of Maharashtra is witnessing protest against the state’s land grab attempts to build India’s first and largest hill station- Lavasa, spread over 5,058 hectares on the backwaters of Warasgaon dam in the Western Coasts, about 65 km from Pune. Lavasa Corporation Limited, a subsidiary of Hindustan Construction Company Limited (HCCL), has planned to develop this project with fancy promises of a dream at the cost of the nightmarish experience for 18 villages, mostly inhabited by tribals, spread out in the Mulshi and Velhe districts of Pune. Similar protests are witnessed against the multi-product Reliance SEZ in Raigad (to be spread across 14,000 hectares of land in 45 villages in Pen, Panvel and Uran tehsils); Indiabulls SEZ in Sinnar-Nashik (to acquire about 7,500 hectares of land from the fourteen villages of Sinnar block) and the Pan India Paryatan Limited (also known as ESSEL) SEZ in Gorai-Mumbai (to acquire about 5743 hectares of land). The farmers have formed an anti-SEZ committee and have passed resolutions in the Gram Sabha (village councils) stating that no more land acquisition from their villages would be permitted for India Bulls SEZ as majority of the farmers want to continue their farming for their livelihood which is also an asset and a cultural identity for the generations to come. More than 25,000 people gathered at the Azad Maidan, Mumbai, to protest against forced land acquisition and requested the state government to stop the ESSEL SEZ in Gorai-Mumbai. [2] In 2013 the state witnessed yet another protest against the land acquisition for the ambitious Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC) project. On the occasion of Maharashtra day on May 1, the Farmers’ Anti-corridor Struggle Action Committee, an outfit of peasants from 78 villages of Raigad district, which stand to lose 67,500 acres (27, 316 hectares) submitted a memorandum to Chief Minister of Maharashtra, demanding complete halt of the project. According to official data, nearly 18 per cent (56,760 sq km) geographical area of Maharashtra will be impacted by DMIC. [3]

Andhra Pradesh has been at the fore front of promoting Special Economic Zones (SEZs), following the passage of the SEZ Act in 2005 by the Central Government. As on March 2008, a total number of 54 SEZ had been notified under the SEZ Act by the GOAP and several more were at various stages of approval. Andhra Pradesh is also one of the few states that have laws protecting the sale of tribal land in ‘Scheduled areas’. However, protests against land acquisition for the SEZ are very common across the state. Some of such protests are being witnessed against Kakinada SEZ, and the Apache Leather SEZ in Sriramapuram. This has seriously affected livelihoods of a large number of agricultural wage labourers belonging to Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribe (ST) communities have been seriously affected in the process. The proposed bauxite mining in Vishakhapatnam district also displaces 9,312 families comprising 44,000 tribals and 60,000 families dependent on coffee plantation and cultivation and is witnessing a strong resistance from the farmers.

Gujarat, popularly known as India’s leading industrial state (although in the ranking of notified SEZs, it stands fifth), although may not have witnessed violent protests against the SEZs, it is misleading to concluded that the concerns of the people displaced have been paid adequate attention. The growing SEZs are only accelerating the process of marginalization and making several smaller communities of Gujarat invisible. The first proposed SEZ project by SKIL Infrastructure at Okhamandal, Positra was successfully stalled after a two year agitation led at the local level by Gram Vikas Trust, Unnati and Jansangharsh Morcha. The agitation had started building up in April 2001 after land acquisition notices were served to residents of 17 villages in the coastal area. In Mundra, ever since the Adanis begun their operations for a jetty followed by construction of a port, warehouses, godowns, infrastructure like roads, rail, airport and finally a power plant, there have been phases of unrest. In the year 2000, the Vaghers of Jharpara village organized themselves and did a 42 day sit-in after they were evicted from their temporary shelters at the village fishing harbor. In a way, this was the first expression of organized protest against the Adani Port. However, all limits were crossed when false cases were filed against those leading the struggle. Desperate and angry, they protested under the banner of the Machimaar Sagar Sahas Samiti, along with groups like Setu, and Ujjhas Mahila Sanghatana, and filed a petition in the Gujarat High Court. With these issues in hand, a convention was organized by Gujarat Lok Samiti and Gujarati Biradari (local organizations) on 11th May, 2008. Currently, the Gujarat government’s plan to acquire land in 35 villages in four districts and develop it into a Special Investment Region to establish automobile industries in the area is being vehemently opposed by the farmers under the banner of Jamin Adhikar Andolan Gujarat. They have painted warnings on the walls asking industrialists and government officers not to enter the village for land acquisition otherwise they will have to pay a heavy price. [4]

In Kerala too, the tribals and the dalits are fighting against the Plant of Coca Cola for appropriating the ground water resources and polluting the livelihood resources and thereby affecting the tribals, dalits, small and marginal farmers near the plant. The struggle has been spearheaded by Anti Coca Cola Peoples’ Struggle Committee consisting of several peoples organisations including Janakeeya Cheruthunilpu Vedi a constituent organisation of All India Peoples Resistance Forum (AIPRF), Adivasi Struggle Committee etc. The struggle against the Plachimada Plant of Coca Cola was launched on 22 April 2002 with a symbolic blockade and an ongoing continuous dharna (picket) by mainly the Adivasis, particularly by women and children, belonging to the Eravalar and Malasar communities classified by the government as Primitive Tribes.

The state of Jharkhand due to its mineral rich resources over attracted over 55 big corporate giants including Mittal, Essar, Jindal, Bhusan, RPG Goyanka group, Ballabh Steel, Neelanchal Iron and Power, Pawanjay Steel and Power and several others in the last ten years. Among recent violent protests, one of the most violent was in Keredari in Hazaribagh, 125 km from Ranchi, where National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) was acquiring land to mine coal. More than 10,000 families in 23 villages are opposing NTPC’s acquisition. The Coal India Limited subsidiary Central Coalfields Limited (CCL)’s proposal for the Magadh-Amrapali-Pachra project in Chatra in central Jharkhand also plans to acquire 17,141 acres of land under CBA Act to triple production from 48 MT annually to 127 MT by 2015. This is currently, the largest acquisition on in Jharkhand. [5]Thus, it is currently witnessing a people’s movement against several of these projects in various parts due to dispossession of tribals from their land in large numbers.

An All India National Convention against SEZ, land grabbing, displacement was organized in December, 2009 at Delhi by the All India Co-ordination of movements against SEZ, land grabbing and displacement, an initiative which has been formed to co-ordinate the various peoples’ movements on these issues all over India. Representatives from anti-SEZ movements of nearly all states participated to express their solidarity.

Other movements on similar lines include the struggle on the issue of rehabilitation against displacements due to dams and hydel projects. The most popular among them is Narmada Bacho Andolan (NBA), continuing for over 20 years. But similar voices are now being raised against the Pahladia dam in Assam, the Tipiamukh Multipurpose Hydel Project in Manipur, the Polavaram dam in Odisha and Chhatisgarh and Varasgaon and Temghar dams in Pune. The Polavaram project is expected to lead to the submergence of about 365 settlements in three States, displacing about two lakh people (125,000 would be tribals alone). The Koya movement in the Bastar region in Chhatisgarh is protesting against the dam and has given a written appeal to withdraw the same, as the dam would completely destroy the habitat and collective identity and life of the Koya tribe.

Struggle for Right to Land and Livelihood

The rising importance of land in the recent years has also brought the issue of land reforms back into demand. There have been attempts by people’s movements to ask for right to homestead land and livelihood for every citizen. A campaign by landless women to put unused land into productive hands is gaining momentum. In a ground-breaking bid to empower women and end hunger among oppressed communities in Andhra Pradesh, over 25,000 applications for land have been filed by Dalit women. Taking a Government Order as a starting point, the women are intent on making rights that are currently on paper, a reality for hundreds of thousands of desperately poor households in the state.

The Chengara struggle launched Chengara (in the Pathanamthitta district of Kerala) by a Dalit activist, Laha Gopalan in 2007 in Kerala is a fight to re-claim ownership of land that has been part of a long standing promise of the Government. The movement brought in landless people, mostly from Dalit communities from various parts of the State, to occupy the plantation and start living there. At present nearly 5000 families, more than 20,000 people have entered the Harrison Malayalam Private Ltd Estate, living in makeshift arrangements. The struggle demands permanent ownership of agricultural land through transfer of ownership from the Harrison Company to the Dalits and Adivasis.6 The Sadhu Jana Vimochana Samyuktha Vedi, the collective that leads the struggle, has opted for the land take-over as strategy remembering the tradition of the great leader Ayyankali, the militant Dalit leader whose mission was to ensure liberation of Dalits from various forms of slavery, right to agricultural land, as well as right to education in Kerala.

In 2012, large number of landless tribals and displaced farmers, estimated over 45,000 walked to the national capital, New Delhi, under the banner of an NGO Ekta Parishad demanding “a comprehensive National Land Reforms Act and effective implementation and monitoring institutions to provide access to land and livelihood resources to the poor landless, homeless and marginalized communities”. This was in continuation to their Janadesh Yatra, held in 2007 which had brought nearly 25, 000 people from Gwalior to Delhi on foot. The Government at that time had constituted a “Committee on State Agrarian Relations and the Unfinished Task in Land Reforms”. A draft national land reform bill is under process.

Struggle against corporatization of agriculture

Recently, the Punjab government started contract farming in a number of crops in an attempt to diversify the cropping pattern of the State to fulfill the government’s objective of moving 10 lakh hectares away from the paddy - wheat rotation. Several companies like Escorts, Mahindra & Mahindra, Rallis, Pepsico etc. were involved in the contract. The State government through the public sector organization, Punjab Agro Food Corporation became the party to the contract. It had committed to buy the produce in case the firm could not procure. These contracts for some crops were ill-conceived and had run into several problems. As many companies reneged on the contract, in order to pacify the angry and agitating farmers, the Punjab government stepped in and procured the crops. Instead of withdrawing gradually from procurement, the government ended up procuring or because of the lacuna in the contract farming models pursued in the State. Framers were dissatisfied with the inputs supplied by the firms and the extension service provided by them, as they had charged the farmers. The high open market price of some commodities compared to the contract price also contributed to the dissatisfaction of the farmers. Quality interpretation of the produce also became a source of dispute.

The Zameen Bachao Andloan in Kutch also has emerged in the context of the Gujarat government resolution of May, 2005 allocating 45.6 lakhs hectares of wasteland to industrial houses and big farmers on lease for 20 years for corporate farming. This land is recognized as wasteland in government records and traditionally the land was tilled by Dalits, Backward Classes, small and marginal farmers. On Jul 29, 2010, a dharna was organised by the Adivasi Bhoomi Avakasha Samithi in front of the Secretariat on Wednesday demanding withdrawal of the order which will scuttle the government’s agreement with the tribal people and abandoning of the move to transfer land meant for distribution to tribal people at the Aralam farm to a private company.

To sum up, the present economic trends in India are negatively affecting land use and distribution in a variety of ways, only some of which have been described here. Attempts to either reverse these trends or propose alternative approaches to development present a significant challenge to the policy makers in the country. A comprehensive programme of land reforms clearly seems to be the prerequisite for an agricultural transition geared towards rapid economic transformation, especially if we are interested in issues such as expansion of productive employment and ensuring equity in asset distribution. While there is considerable variation in the regional and sub-regional political-economic patterns across the country, it is evident that the relatively successful agricultural performances have often occurred via the peasant route. A comprehensive agrarian reform has to be brought back to the policy radar. In the context of the growing corporate pressure on land and other natural resources in the name of ‘development’, it is imperative that a factor as critical as land needs to be in public domain and it shall not, in any circumstances, be subjected to the free play of the market. Also, the State must retain the right to regulate land use as is socially desirable. The State must be actively involved in any process dealing with the transfer of agricultural land in order to ensure that the affected farmers etc. are given their rightful due.

There is need to realize the increasing importance of land reform to the national and global agenda from national food security, economic, ecological, and social perspectives. In order to be effective, land reform must be seen as part of a wider agenda of systemic restructuring. However, as far as the health of India’s democracy is concerned, what can be unmistakenly said is that the state of social resistance and popular struggles will only add up to make it more and more vibrant and strong.


[2For details see Sampat Kale (2010). The Anti-Sez Movement in India: An Account of the Struggle in Maharashtra, National Centre for Advocacy Studies, Pune.

[4For details see http://ibnlive.in.com/news/gujarat-farmers-protest-against-land-acquisition-by-modi-government /396950-37-64.html?utm_source=ref_article; also see http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes .com/2013-08-26/news/41455619_1_kenichi-ayukawa-mandal-becharaji-maruti-suzuki

Las opiniones y conslusiones expresadas en el siguiente artículo son de exclusiva responsabilidad del autor y no necesariamente reflejan la posición del CETRI.