Contesting Land Acquisition in India's Capital Region

Large-scale land-development projects have been consuming the agriculture-dependent villages that surround India’s capital. As a Royce Fellow, I studied this phenomenon by talking to activists, government officials, affected farmers, lawyers and builders in an area just beyond the boundary of Delhi called Noida Extension, in the state of Uttar Pradesh. For the past five years, these actors have been embroiled in a protracted legal battle between the farmers and the development authority in the region.  There have also been several deaths that have resulted from police violence against agitations by .    

This conflict is the result of a very undemocratic land acquisition process, an archaic national Land Acquisition Act, and an exclusionary economic growth strategy.  Across India, state governments have touted large-scale acquisitions as essential for the economic growth and development of the country.  However, farmers are becoming aware that they will reap no rewards from surrendering their land, other than the relatively low monetary compensation that they receive for it.  This awareness has spurred a process of rent-seeking, in which the farmers organize to demand the maximum amount of compensation for their land, while the development authorities try to protect their exorbitant profits they make from selling the acquired land to builders.  The farmers in Noida Extension are challenging the acquisition in the courts, while also organizing agitations and public meetings to garner media attention.  Their strategies have been successful in halting acquisitions and construction, which is evident by the concrete skeletons of half-constructed luxury apartment buildings that litter the landscape in the region. 

The story of undemocratic land acquisition has been told countless times in the context of India however the political-economy of dispossession has been evolving rapidly in recent years.  There are two major indicators of this trend.  First, there is now a new Land Acquisition Bill being considered in Parliament, which purports to be more farmer-friendly than the previous Act, which has barely been amended since the British instituted it in 1894.  Second, courts have been ruling on the side of farmers in disputes over compensation, illegal acquisitions and police violence in the process.  Land acquisition has always been a point of contention in India, but it seems as though the issue has reached a breaking point.  Media reports of massive police violence against agitations in West Bengal, incessant protests by social movement organizations against the “colonial land acquisition bill” and protracted legal battles, among many other things, have put pressure on the state and central governments to respond.  These efforts are being made by the State to smooth acquisition process and to facilitate its aggressive industrial growth agenda.  In other words, they are trying to create conditions for more ‘voluntary’ displacement, in which the authorities incentivize farmers to surrender their land in order to develop the land as quickly as possible.

From the farmers and the stakeholders that I have talked to, I am skeptical that such an Act would be able to solve some of the structural issues associated with land acquisition, such as:

  • There is a lack of jobs available for low-skilled workers, meaning there are no formal employment opportunities for farmers who lose their land.  Creating an environment for such opportunities should be a focus of policymakers, otherwise the displaced population will go into informal and ‘redundant’ forms of labor that are outside the purview of labor laws. 
  • There is a lack of formal land titles or records in rural areas, making ownership undefined.  Land records need to be kept by local governments so that people have a sense of legal ownership over their land.  This will allow for a more formal transfer of land from owner to buyer and give landholders more bargaining power in the acquisition process. 
  • Agricultural land needs to be allotted and protected to ensure the food security of the country.  Fertile farmland is being sacrificed for these projects, especially around the urban areas, which reduces access to fresh produce. 

These points derive from discussions with farmers and activists who are deeply concerned with the broader implications of an unsustainable industrial growth strategy.  A Land Acquisition Act needs to be accompanied by localized efforts by state and regional governing bodies to do the above.  If such demands are not met, farmers will keep agitating and legal battles will become more protracted, a reality that policymakers and industrialists are starting to realize.  In this sense, there is consensus that something needs to be done, but a centralize Land Acquisition Act can only do so much in properly addressing the localized issues of displacement across India.

            My experience talking with farmers, activists, and authorities in Noida Extension has revealed the complexity of this issue and the democratic tools that farmers have in resisting and altering land acquisition.  The farmers are now in a legal battle in the Indian Supreme Court to nullify the initial acquisition process and to reclaim ownership of their land.  After winning in the High Court last year, farmers are confident that the law is on their side.  Some farmers and activists said that they would agitate by destroying construction equipment and obstructing the construction process if their demands are not met in the Supreme Court decision.  Conversely, a high official from the development authority in the region indicated that they will challenge any such decision by the court until the farmers give up and accept the compensation.  Some sort of compromise must be made between these two groups or the losses will keep accumulating for all stakeholders.  It is clear that the window for compromise is painfully narrow in this situation.  As one affected farmer told me, “If they want to come kill us, let them kill us.  We have nothing anyway.”