This book is a timely work recording the evolution of the right to property since India gained her Independence
The issue of land acquisition has caused huge ruckus in Parliament recently with the introduction and passing of the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Amendment) Bill, 2015. The warring groups are distressed farmers struggling to defend ownership over their property on the one side and the supporters of land grab for industrial and public purposes on the other. The recent battle, however, is simply reminiscent of conflicts in earlier times between land owners fighting for their dear rights and opponents supporting the expropriation of land for various uses.
V. Krishna Ananth’s The Indian Constitution and Social Revolution: Right to Property since Independence is a timely work recording, and quite extensively at that with the study of the Constitutional debates and legal judgments, the evolution of the right to property since India gained her Independence.
In the immediate aftermath of the independence movement that witnessed an overwhelming participation of the common masses, social justice was the primary concern driving the actions of India’s political class. Affirmative action was justified as compensation for past injustice meted out to peasants, and the law of the land was framed in a way to support government action redistributing land holdings in favour of peasants.
The reparation argument for land redistribution may convince many about the moral legitimacy of land redistribution. But it was ultimately the socialist dream of achieving economic equality that hijacked land policy in the initial decades after Independence. The drafters of the Constitution made enough leeway through amendments to the right to property in order to allow government expropriation of land.
In the ensuing decades, however, as India moved towards embracing neo-liberal economic policy, the unintended consequences of a botched land policy would eventually show up. Land acquisition laws that were created to legalize eminent domain action to foster economic equality soon began to favour the ulterior motives of crony business groups looking for cheap land for their projects.
All through, the judiciary has, to an extent, remained a counterweight to the executive: impeding initially the violation of the property rights of the upper class in the name of social justice, and later the violation of the property rights of the peasant class in order to support industrialization. But with the courts largely accepting the need for the expropriation of land for public purposes, the battle between the judiciary and the executive was mostly around adequate compensation for the affected landowners.
What is clear from this history is the inconsistent defence of property rights on both ends of the political spectrum. A strong belief amongst India’s socialist founding fathers was that property holdings of the rich were not worthy of protection unless they served the larger ends of society. Today, when land distribution is much more equitable, the belief of an overwhelming majority of policymakers is in favour of government action transgressing the rights of landowners unless we want to bury hopes of growth.
That uncompromising defence of property rights is not antithetical to economic growth is missed often by the latter group. The intent of the current government to go ahead with the land acquisition Bill explains this well. It is also the reason grabbing land from the poor is seen as essential to achieving economic growth. As far as the former group goes, it is the historic error that property rights and the resultant inequality in wealth distribution are against the poor that continues to remain. After all, property ownership is determined by productive economic specialization in any market economy. Today, the opponents of land acquisition, cloaked as defenders of property rights, fit into this group.
Meanwhile, absolute defence of private property rights, irrespective of the economic status of the property owner, remains alien to the Indian setup. In this regard, the historical account that the book provides proves that muddled thinking on the subject of property rights is no recent folly.
Prashanth Perumal is Assistant Editor (Views) at Mint.