Exploring Conflicts in Development: A Socio-Economic Perspective to the Major Forms of Land Dispossession in Post-Colonial India

This article introduces the problems caused by development projects (the major forms include hydel power, extractive mining, industrial development, and, currently, the special economic zones) in India. It seeks to explore the process of land appropriation, dispossession, and displacement faced by the poor and marginalised groups (Dalits and Adivasis) of the Indian society. This article is an effort to explore the historical cycles of displacement caused by such projects since independence and the active role of the government in addressing these scenarios. It further provides an overview of the various scholarly literature actively involved in this subject and how these projects ultimately lead to further marginalisation of the marginalised in the name of development.

In the 20th century, large river valley projects (hydel power and dams) were the cornerstones of development efforts in India. They were the largest source of dispossession not only in post-independence India but also throughout the developing world (World Commission on Dams 2000). It has been highly researched and debated due to the political conflicts over the involuntary displacement due to state-led development projects since the 1980s (Nielsen 2009). While these large dams delivered the benefits of irrigation and electricity to the capitalist farmers of the plains and the urban consumers, it disproportionately displaced the population of the Dalits and Adivasis, the most marginalised groups of the Indian society (Levien 2013). The Indian government was reluctant in recognising the customary land rights and thousands of families were displaced without compensation. Even for the families with formal land rights, the compensation was kept extremely low and usually was not enough to buy alternative lands (Levien 2011). The project-affected families’ demand for “land for land” compensation was rarely forthcoming and there were no compensations for lost access to the common property resources. The resettlement and rehabilitation (R&R) policies were non-existent for the lost common property resources, and studies have unanimously shown that the dispossessed were excluded from the benefits of the project (Whitehead 2003; Kothari 1996). Situations worsened with increased aggregate poverty and health, with violence often inflicted by the state on the villagers (Mishra 2011). The worst affected by the loss of CPRs were women who were often primarily responsible for livestock rearing in rural households. They had a greater chance of controlling the income from it and were particularly hurt by the large-scale submergence and loss of grazing land for animals (Agarwal 1989, 1995; Shiva 1988).

While large dams during the Nehruvian era led to ‘development-induced displacement in India, the shift to a neo-liberal economic model over the past two decades has led to an increasingly privatised form of dispossession. In the 2000s, the special economic zones (SEZs) became the epicentre of the so-called “land wars,” and unlike the river valley projects, they could be developed by private companies and not just government agencies. Levien (2013) explains this as shifting “regimes of dispossession” where land expropriation during postcolonial development was the land for production having significant legitimacy among a broad Indian public. While SEZs represented a shift to a regime of dispossession with the state being a mere land broker for any private use that marked the regime of land for the market. Land was previously expropriated to produce goods for the public, but with the onset of liberalisation, it is being increasingly expropriated for its own market value. In between 2000 and 2005, a legal framework evolved that opened ways for the private companies to create “hyper-liberalized export enclaves” based on the Chinese model (Levien 2011). SEZs in India were started to be spatially delimited experiments with extreme levels of liberalisation. But, because of political constraints, it could not be applied to the whole country, and since 2005, the Indian government has approved 581 zones across the country ranging from 10 to 5,000 hectares in size (Levien 2011).

Theoretical Background to Development in India

Karl Marx’s analysis of the problem of British enclosures in the 18th century was defined as the Primitive Accumulation. It took place during the origin of capitalism in the West and transitioned to capitalism in the Southern countries of the globe. Marx saw primitive accumulation as having three aspects: the removal of peasants from the land by enclosures and abolition of customary rights; creation of a pool of landless laborers who become wage laborers under capitalism and flocked to towns where they emerge as industrial proletariat; concentration and centralisation of wealth as the means of production monopolised by fewer and fewer individuals (Foster and Clark 2004).

David Harvey reframes the concept of primitive accumulation as “accumulation by dispossession (ABD)” and tries to inculcate the diversity of dispossessions generated in recent times by fully industrial and financial capitalism. ABD opens an avenue to understand the escalations in the number of lands grabs in India in the name of development projects—building dams, roads, SEZs, mining, and slum destruction. These reflect the clear demands for land and natural resources by the developed capitalism (Levien 2011).

Marx’s analysis of primitive accumulation includes “conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder, in short, force, played the greatest part,” while Harvey’s ABD claims that the means of accumulation is “primarily economic rather than extra-economic” and that it “is most importantly exercised through credit system and financial power” (Harvey 2006: 159). Though Harvey sets out a list of examples to define ABD, he fails to provide a clear definition and only provides a few categories of processes (Levien 2011). What accumulation by dispossession does is release a set of assets (including labour-power) at very low (and in some instances zero) cost. Over-accumulated capital can seize hold of such assets and immediately turn them to profitable use. (Harvey, 2003, 149)

Levien (2011), on the contrary, defines “accumulation by dispossession as the use of extra-economic coercion to expropriate means of subsistence, production, or common social wealth for capital accumulation.” He elaborates that it is the extra-economic character of ABD that differentiates it from the primitive accumulation and tries to show that in the case of rural India, ABD is a decision the political process through which the state employs its coercive powers. This in turn makes land available for capital, making it a “land broker state” whose chief responsibility remains the forcible transfer of agrarian land to capital for industrial and commercial development. He goes on to define another class of “capitalist rentiers,” also termed as corporate developers, who commodify land for industrial and urban growth with the motive to capture the windfall profits from the cheap land acquired by the state (Levien 2011).

The accumulation of land into the SEZ has an amplified effect on its rural surroundings by land commodification that broadens the existing inequalities in the rural class and caste structure. This agrarian transformation in the neo-liberal regime leads to the expansion of pre-capitalist forms of production in which the labour power of the dispossessed peasantry becomes irrelevant, thus giving rise to a marginalised pool of unemployed labour. An SEZ developer is a capitalist rentier who commodifies the rural lands for urban uses and infrastructure and captures the huge margins of profit between the artificially low prices of the dispossessed agricultural lands, captured with the help of the state, and the commercial value of the lands minus the development costs. The ratio of the cost of state-acquired land to its ultimate price is often termed as the “rate of accumulation of dispossession” (Levien 2011). Since land remains more than just a financial asset in rural India, this land acquisition faces increased resistance. The SEZ producers imitate a role of a capitalist employing cheap labour from the neighbouring rural states, lower land prices, and infrastructure for capitalist production with the help of the “land broker” state (Levien 2011). Since liberalisation in India, the central government has increasingly withdrawn in the role of setting the macroeconomic policy frameworks within which capital operates and the state governments negotiate directly with capitalists to compete against one another in order to attract their investment (Rudolph and Rudolph 2001).

In India, the land grab is facilitated by the toxic mixture of the colonial Land Acquisition Act of 1894 (the now amended act of 1984); the deregulation of investments and commerce through neo-liberal policies coupled with the rule of uncontrolled greed and exploitation. It is facilitated by the creation of a police state and the use of colonial sedition laws that define defence of the public and national interest as anti-national (Shiva 2011). Since times before independence, the land has been considered the most important asset of rural India. It is now increasingly demanded by the domestic and international capital based on public–private partnership (PPP) looking for spaces to create factories, offices, residential townships, and various infrastructure (Levien 2011). The World Bank has worked for many years to commodify land and its structural adjustment program of 1991 reversed land reform, deregulated mining, roads, and ports. The problem seems to be much bigger with the issues of land acquisition, dispossession, denial of rights, and livelihood loss. These development projects pose a threat to the property rights distribution and access to common property resources along the lines of class, caste, and gender. The dispossession due to state-led development programmes does not provide an alternative livelihood for the evicted marginalised nor provides appropriate rehabilitation packages. This could be reformulated into more concrete forms that I would like to explore through empirical evidence.

We will overview a few development projects that have taken place in India over the past century. These are literary evidence of land acquisition and appropriation caused by the development initiatives, both by the state and international capital. The case studies represent the social movements that gained big momentum during different times to protect the land rights of the rural and tribal communities. The three regimes of dispossession, that is, river valley project, industries, and SEZs, created displacement, dispossession, and livelihood loss across the Indian sub-continent (Levien 2013).

Historical Cycles of Dispossession in India

There is much evidence of land acquisition for the different development initiatives (of hydel power generation, mining, industries and SEZs) throughout India, which created a series of social movements and resistances from across the country. This gained larger momentum during the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) on the Narmada River during the 1980s, leading to worldwide support. These projects differed in terms of aim, state engagement, the role of World Bank in providing funds or compensation, or the involvement of foreign capital; but these programs showed similar outcomes in terms of displacement of the rural communities, unsatisfactory or no compensations, and long periods of distress (Levien 2006, 2013).

The protests around hydel power projects gained its biggest momentum during the Narmada Valley Project, which constituted of 30 large-, 133 medium-, and 3,000 small-sized dams along with 75,000 km of canal network to direct the waters of Narmada to different states. Approximately 245 villages were planned to be ousted by the project without any information on flood levels (Arvinda 2000). Over the 250 thousand people displaced by the SSP funded by the World Bank, almost 70% belonged to Scheduled Tribes whose primary livelihood was pastoralism, subsistence-oriented slash and burn agriculture, along with hunting and gathering (Whitehead 2003). Thousands of villagers questioned the holistic issue of livelihood, ecology, human rights, and the thousands of acres lost to submergence and waterlogging. The cost of irrigation was up to 10 times the cost of local watershed development. The SSP raised waves of resistance against the centralisation of knowledge and other natural resources—a fight against globalisation. This led to the World Bank devising a new institutional mechanism of Inspection Panel to examine the human right violations for the bank funded projects. But they failed to include the environmental (and social) impact assessment (EIA), restoration of common property resources (CPRs), and ‘land for land’ compensations leading to an eventual withdrawal from the project (SSP being the first case). There are attempts to incorporate these components in the World Bank-funded projects, however, their executions are usually disappointing (Cullet, 2001).

The conflicts between the Dongria Kondh tribe and the British-mining company Vedanta Resources (2011) lay in the humanistic geographical concepts of place and space. The three important factors in this conflict were the relationship between inequality, development, and economic growth. The concept of development and economic growth is connected to an agenda that favours western liberal capitalism posing a threat to the use of natural resources. The unanimous vote by 12-gram sabhas (village councils) of indigenous Dongria Kondh communities in Odisha's Rayagada and Kalahandi districts rejected Vedanta Aluminium and the Odisha Mining Corporation's plan to extract bauxite from the Niyamgiri hills (Stenius, 2012). It is the historic and significant precedent that determined to some extent the course of similar developments in other tribal areas in India. It brought forth the religious and cultural rights over their habitat and habitation, recognized by the Supreme Court under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act – better known as the Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006. The Dongrias had a do-or-die attitude towards vacating their home for mining. The mining operations would affect some 8,000 Dongria, Kutia, and Jharania Kondh in 112 tribal and Dalit villages in Kalahandi and Rayagada districts (Stenius, 2012; Mahapatra, 2013).

Bandyopadhyay and Shiva (1988) proposes that the “appropriate metaphor of understanding development process is that of polarization” and not linear progression within the materialist perspective of development. She elaborates that this polarisation model leads to an unequal social structure and the “development plans,” which are created by the dominant power structure, only enhance the material and financial returns to that group while depriving most of the rural communities means to survival and subsistence. The concepts of “economic development” and “economic growth” are class-based, and when operated within a society, it leads to improved well-being for a minority and simultaneously denies the majority access to basic resources, thus contributing to the underdevelopment. She cites the case of Doon Valley of Himachal Pradesh to show the effects of limestone quarrying as a major economic activity that led to the destruction of water sources, livelihood loss, sharp declines of cattle population due to loss of grazing lands, and the downfall of the tourist industry. This has created some discontent among the villagers and residents that has been suppressed by the people in power, but the inhabitants of the valley did not seem to accept the denial of their basic resources of survival in the name of “progress” and national development (Bandyopadhyay and Shiva 1984).

Levien (2017) studies the displacement caused by the Mahindra World City (MWC), one of the first largest private SEZs that was established in India in 2009. It was to be established outside Jaipur, Rajasthan, dispossessing 2,000 acres of private farmlands and 1,000 acres of public grazing land from nine villages. He observes that these mixed-caste villages had a Hindu majority highly dependent on rain-fed agriculture and livestock rearing supplemented by wage labour in Jaipur and the neighbouring towns. Under Rajasthan’s government compensation package, families were given small commercial–residential plots adjacent to the SEZ, which were one-fourth the size of their previous holdings. The compensation policy did not elicit consent but divided farmers by absorbing them into a speculative land market on an individual basis. This resulted in the Rajasthan government acquiring land for the MWC without a “land war.” Land dispossession deprived the villagers of private farmlands and common grazing land, destroying agricultural income and food security. The SEZ also failed to generate significant employment for local people—providing jobs to only 18% of the dispossessed families (to only one member). The jobs had low wages and provided temporary positions like gardeners, janitors, and security guards. While the government promised piped water to the SEZ, the villagers lost their wells and were forced to purchase water from tankers (Levien 2017).

Putting this in a broader context, John Bellamy Foster has provided historical evidence of the ecological degradation at the universal level related to the divisions of the world capitalist system. He focuses on the fact of a single world economy divided into various nation states competing, also hierarchically into centre and periphery, and the world system of dependency and dominance. He takes the classic case of Britain to explain the concept of “metabolic rift” between human beings and the Earth, as Marx saw it (Foster and Clark 2004). His concept of “metabolic rift” was about the loss of soil nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen through the export of food and fibre to the cities. The essential nutrients that were being shipped a thousand miles away ended up as wastes in the cities rather than returning to the soil as seen in the traditional agricultural production. “The treasures captured outside Europe by undisguised looting, enslavement, and murder flowed back to the mother country and were turned into capital there” (Marx 1976).


In the light of recent events, virtually the whole of Odisha, including Kashipur in Rayagada, Lanjigarh in Kalahandi, Lower Suktel area in Balangir, Kotagarh in Phulbani, the mining-industrial belt in Jharsuguda, Kalinganagar, and now Rourkela, has been a battleground on the issue of development and displacement (Mishra 2011). With liberalisation and the rise of SEZs, POSCO, a South Korean steel company, signed a memorandum of understanding with the Odisha government in 2005 to set up a 12 million tonne-capacity steel project in Jagatsinghpur district (Mahapatra 2020). The project faced opposition due to the acquisition of fertile strips of land on the coast of the Bay of Bengal near Paradip, which is famous for betel vines. The betel industry-supported 20 thousand people, and about 3,000 acres of the 4,004 acres of the land for the steel plant were forestlands and its landscape supported 5,000 betel vines. The farmers had to forgo an average income of ₹20,000 per month. The project also fractured the village community into pro- and anti- POSCO activists, and police cases were also lodged against the anti-POSCO activists, including women who lost their livelihoods in attempts to avoid arrest. However, in January 2015, an amendment of the Mine and Mineral (Development and Regulation) Act put an end to POSCO’s plan. The act was created in the wake of the allegations of mining scams across India and provided a mandate for the company to go through the auction route to get its captive iron ore mine. Nonetheless, the ecology had been damaged and livelihood lost where the betel farmers are now making a living as daily-wage laborers in different vineyards. They also suffer from depleted forest covers, creating a shortage of firewood (Mahapatra 2020).

Historically, Odisha has been the most backward state of India in terms of economic development, not only due to socio-political factors but also natural factors like famines in the past centuries. As per the National Human Development, 2001, Odisha is ranked amongst the lowest. Odisha’s record in poverty eradication has been one of the worst in the country (National Human Development Report, 2002). The regions of northern and southern Odisha have been the home of several tribal groups, which were gradually brought under the direct and indirect political control of British colonialism. During the colonial period, there were a series of tribal rebellions in these princely states, which protested against encroachments by the state and outsiders upon what the tribal thought as their traditional sources of livelihoods (Mishra, 2011).

Pre-independence, the construction of Hirakud Dam on the Mahanadi River in Odisha came as a part of the post-war reorganization program (the second world war ending in 1945) and an anti-flood measure for coastal districts. Even though the dam construction employed local workers, the project caused a loss in terms of revenue of submerged land, its output, forest products, grasslands (Baboo, 1991a). There was a clear under-estimation of the recurring value of forest products with the overestimation of benefits of the construction of the dam. There had been cost escalations for several years since the 1948 displacement without proper information of rehabilitation and were stigmatized as ‘budi anchalar loka’ (reservoir outsees) forever. Only, the rich, Brahmins, and artisan class migrated to towns with the skills and resources to prosper (Baboo, 1991a, b).

The forest lands are still targeted by the state forest department to promote commercial tree plantation by supplanting forests nurtured by the tribal communities who grow diverse food products and collect minor forest products for household consumption and also to sell in the local haats (markets), which ensure their major source of income (Mohanty 2020).

The development initiatives with the wave of liberalisation have worsened the conditions of the tribal populations in India. They have resulted in an increasing amount of involuntary migration and political turmoil in various parts of India. The Environmental Justice Atlas lists almost 346 reported cases of conflicts in India—the largest number of environmental justice movements in the world. More than 57% of the reported environmental justice movements from India have Adivasi communities mobilizing (Roy 2019). The role of the government, both union and state, in helping the private companies acquire lands in rural spaces have been influential. This is an active process but seldom makes it to the headlines of the local news. In most cases, the local population lacks the resources to organise against these projects and mostly lacks the support of organisations that have the technical and legal knowledge to fight back against these systems. This article tries to overview the various issues of acquisition, eviction, dispossession, displacement, and the role of the agents (the state, the funding agencies, and private multinational companies) in further marginalising the marginalised.

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