Pardon my French. I would love to comment about Maharashtra deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar’s callous conjoining of irrigation and urination as etiquette worthy of Marie Antoinette. But with the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (LARR) Bill, 2011, gridlocked in Parliament, and with further meetings to discuss the proposed law among political parties scheduled for next week, Frédéric Bastiat will do.
The 19th century French political economist and member of that country’s assembly is remembered for several reasons, among these for popularizing the notion of opportunity cost, and also for “the fatal idea of legal plunder”. In his work The Law, Bastiat wrote: “Under the pretence of organization, regulation, protection, or encouragement, the law takes property from one person and gives it to another; the law takes the wealth of all and gives it to a few—whether farmers, manufacturers, ship owners, artists, or comedians. Under these circumstances then, certainly every class will aspire to grasp the law, and logically so.”
And so, “each of us has a natural right—from God—to defend his person, his liberty, and his property”. Among other things, the treatise was an attack on socialism, which Bastiat described as “legal plunder”.
In India, these rights were in one way or another enshrined in the Constitution as fundamental rights, until the first amendment to the Constitution in 1951 diminished the idea of the fundamental right to property. It opened the door for land acquisition and reorganization by government in those decidedly socialist times. This right was later “made pointless by Indira Gandhi” as prime minister, I heard a Supreme Court lawyer declare at a workshop on land and property rights at the Institute of Rural Management in Anand last December, “but at least she didn’t delete it”.
It was entirely diminished in 1977 when the 44th amendment to the Constitution led by the post-Emergency era Janata government “did away with the fundamental right to acquire, hold and dispose of property”.
The irony is that today this socialist purpose is justifiably described by many critics as legal and even illegal plunder with a decidedly capitalist bent, as governments in New Delhi and several Indian states enable aggressive acquisition of land both in the name of public purpose and private enterprise, in numerous provable cases little more than unabashed brokers to the will of business. In the decades of socialist overdrive, private property remained a cherished goal, one that was mostly articulated in hushed tones by business interests and landed gentry. In the time since 1991, to acquire someone else’s property and right to livelihood at any cost—obfuscation, intimidation, injury, arrest, death—to the acquisition-affected appears to have become practice du jour. In Bastiat’s estimation, an acquired right to plunder.
Horror stories related to resettlement and rehabilitation on account of projects are not new in India. But things have come to such a pass, especially in the states of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa, West Bengal, and in parts of Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka that I would red flag this issue as an internal security threat. It contains all factors that generally draw recruits to any resistance: corruption, the deepest abuse and exploitation, lack of governance and justice, and a sense of abandonment. Prominent elements of both private and public sector enterprises are complicit in perpetuating this environment of anger and resentment.
The stated purpose of the proposed land acquisition legislation is paramount as negotiations progress to give final shape to the draft law. I don’t know about fundamental rights, but surely it is a fundamental necessity: “A Bill to ensure a humane, participatory, informed consultative and transparent process for land acquisition for industrialization, development of essential infrastructural facilities and urbanization with the least disturbance to the owners of the land and other affected families and provide just and fair compensation to the affected families whose land has been acquired or proposed to be acquired or are affected by such acquisition and make adequate provisions for such affected persons for their resettlement and rehabilitation thereof, and for ensuring that the cumulative outcome of compulsory acquisition should be that affected persons become partners in development leading to an improvement in their post acquisition social and economic status…”
And here, pardon my Indian. After all, one of the things Chanakya wrote about was on impoverishment and disaffection affecting the king—to the extent that either people “go over to the enemy or kill their ruler themselves”. Such outcome could accrue when the ruler “fails to give what ought to be given and exacts what he cannot rightly take”.
Sudeep Chakravarti is the author of Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column focuses on conflict situations in South Asia that directly affect business.
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