Do Bigha Zameen (1953) is the epic film by Bimal Roy about the plight of a marginal farmer with two bighas of land. The farmer, Shambhu Mahato, indebted to landlord Thakur Harnam Singh loses his only source of livelihood—his farmland. The landlord uses all his tricks to acquire Mahato’s land for a city-based businessman who wants to construct a mill.
The script is still being played after six decades, although in real life, with millions of small and marginal farmers struggling to save their land from zamindars (landlords). The only change is the cast of characters with the role of zamindar being played by the mighty state. The instrument of debt has been replaced by the outdated land acquisition law, which authorizes the state to acquire any fertile land at any price that it desires. The small-time city businessman is now the giant real estate firms and the big companies which are looking at zamindars to help them build manufacturing plants. Millions of Shambhus struggle to save their land, but eventually lose out in the name of development. In the last five years, the story has played out in various forms, be it Singur, Nandigram, Bhatta-Parsaul, Jaitapur, Srikakulam, Niyamgiri Hills or the forests of Bastar.
Many of you would not agree with the characterization of the present struggle against forcible acquisition of fertile farmland. After all, we need land for development; the farmers are compensated for the value of land. But then why are the farmers protesting.
The issues are primarily the nature of land acquisition, the compensation and the purpose for which it is acquired. For most farmers in rural India, land is not only an asset, but also the most important source of livelihood and sometimes the only source of livelihood. The reality is that for many farmers, there is very little choice other than farming the land.
Part of the reason has been the lopsided growth in the last two decades where the share of agriculture in the gross domestic product has gone down considerably, but not in terms of employment with almost 50% of the workers still earning their livelihood from agriculture. It is a different matter that this has created the duality of a high and fast-growing non-farm sector with a lagging agriculture sector. With low skills and literacy, most farmers are clueless about what they should do with the compensation. It invariably ends up as consumption expenditure rather than investment for future income.
The second problem is the nature of projects for which land is acquired. No doubt some of them are critical investments and related to the developmental needs of the country. But the underlying assumption of most of these developmental projects should also be that the dispossessed population should be able to enjoy the benefits of this development. More often than not, the developmental needs are far removed from the requirements and the supply of skills that the displaced population has. This distrust about the very nature of development is not unfounded, but is borne out of evidence where land for roads and other critical infrastructure has actually been given away for a song to private builders.
The irony is that the development of new infrastructure such as highways and roads is aimed at benefiting private builders by adding to the land value compared with its usefulness for the local community. In the end it becomes doubly beneficial for private builders who not only get the land at cheap prices, but also see appreciation of land value because of the accompanying infrastructure. But since such appreciation of land prices is never shared with the original owner, the farmer will always feel cheated whatever be the compensation paid. Simply because the valuation of compensation is always done at the pre-developed land, whereas the value unlocked by private developers is many times higher after the infrastructure develops. This creates a kind of distrust among the farming community about the very nature of development.
Some of these tendencies have got a boost in the last two decades with states willing to play the role of middlemen by acquiring land for private good in the name of public good. Part of the reason has been the dwindling resources of the state governments that have forced them to use revenue from land as a source of financing development. The public-private partnership model has forced many states to look at alternative sources of finance to undertake infrastructure development. Such a model has invariably been through concession to the private parties in return for investments in infrastructure. Secondly, in the race for competitive bidding to attract investment in their respective states, state governments have often used land as the easiest bait. The private sector has been too happy to play on in this competitive game among states.
Needless to say, the governments’ inability to legislate the amended land acquisition Bill has only added to the confusion with states coming up with their own versions of the land acquisition Acts. The only way such conflicts can be resolved is by creating alternative livelihood options, which are more lucrative than farming. Such efforts require investment in skill building and creation of employment opportunities for providing exit route to the farmers. The option of annuities for a limited period of time is only a partial solution to such problems. But the real issue that needs to be addressed is that the issue of land is not only about assets, compensation and development, but is largely a question of the farming community and its livelihood. Until then the farmer will continue to fight for his “do bigha zameen”.
Himanshu is assistant professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University and visiting fellow at the Centre de Sciences Humaines, New Delhi.
Comments are welcome at email@example.com