Integrated development, politics and social empowerment in India and beyond

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Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Steady 9-10 per cent growth over the next decade could eliminate stark poverty and underpin social and economic rights as the under-mass rapidly wins empowerment. Jairam Ramesh has fought the good fight and come to the right conclusion. Growth is not the enemy of the environment.

Beyond Do Bihga Zamin

Poverty is India’s greatest polluter and ecological enemy. To provide a rescue 10 percent growth over the next decade, land will be needed for development.

By B G Verghese

Deccan Herald, 30 May, 2011

Tolstoy’s famous question, “How much land does a man require?” was answered when the Count who had ruthlessly exploited his serfs was buried in a grave measuring 7 x 4 x 4 feet. And that, Tolstoy concluded, was all the land a man requires.

Is corporate and infrastructural greed in India today destroying the small, hapless farmer, the bedrock of traditional society and culture, for a pittance in the name of some  “public purpose” on behalf of the greater common good?  Are these “land wars” over land acquisition the apocalyptic end of everything or no more than a painful transition to a new stage of social equilibrium?

Land acquisition is part of the story of civilization. All traditional societies are land/farm based. But there comes a time when needs, population pressure, innovation and the desire to better their lives drive communities to foster industry. Land is acquired for habitation, infrastructure and manufacture and farmers find themselves able to feed growing numbers through increased productivity of land and water and/or trade. After a period of adjustment, all benefit. The trick is to smooth the transition, not fight it mindlessly as some neo-Luddites would do in India in the name of ecology, displacement, culture and habit. These are not empty values but they can be exaggerated beyond their true worth.

The other major problem is that critics tend to view these issues with tunnel-vision and in the here and now. They lack perspective and ignore the relevance of both time and space. Both these permit tradeoffs and compensation and must be factored into any calculus. A dynamic society in terms of numbers and rising expectations will be overwhelmed by mounting impatience and social pressures if it merely stands still wringing its hands, hoping that the flood will pass. Too many worry about what might happen to their ideology or caring missions for the disadvantaged should the poor begin to stand up. They fear intellectual and moral displacement.

Several fallacies coalesce to confuse thinking. Some believe that nature is unchanging and that all we see around us is pristine. On the contrary nature is fickle and some of it replicable. Others ignore population growth. India was 336 million in 1947, is 1.2bn today and could grow to 1.7bn by 2060. Yet our land area remains the same. Land acquisition is inevitable.

The notion that diversion of land for industry will jeopardize food security is fallacious. The overall area required is but a tiny fraction of available land, except in particular locations, whether it be for dams, mines, factories, communications or townships. Can we do without better infrastructure and connectivity? If SEZs are required to keep only 30 percent of land acquired for “production”, is the remainder necessarily grabbed by the land mafia? The rest is required for roads, services, schools, hospitals, banks, markets, parks and so forth and for housing the work force in what are green-field cities. These parameters must surely be regulated. But to exclude them from industrial planning would be to cast the entire burden of housing, transport, other infrastructure and urbanization on municipal authorities or hell-hole shanty towns.

It is often asked why developer of a public-private project like the Taj Expressway, currently in the public eye, should be given adjacent land at “throwaway prices” for real estate, golf courses and even a Formula One race track. The answer is that the developer, Jaypee, is to build the Rs11,000 crore expressway at its own cost. Since nobody has this kind of surplus money, Jaypee will generate the funds by developing and selling housing and other facilities that will provide the wherewithal to build the Expressway. Such packages need to be formulated within given guidelines and be subject to regulation. And this is what is being done.

Why the hurry? Because development has a multiplier in terms of income, employment, secondary activity and revenue to the state while delay entails loss for everybody. Again, with a national requirement to add 10m jobs net per annum, just to absorb new entrants to the labour force, let alone cater to the huge backlog of unemployed, underemployed and distress migrants, time matters. Disparities and neglect have spawned Naxalism, unrest and social violence. These could destabilise the state.

The land can no longer provide. Uneconomic holdings are resulting in farmers selling their land and becoming labourers or seeking non-farm occupations. Farmers do want to sell land – for education and to better their life chances. But they must get a fair deal and some share in incremental values that come with land use changes and economic growth. How this is done can be negotiated and there cannot be one rigid all-India formula. A consensus is being developed on the 1894 Land Acquisition and Relief and Rehabilitation amendments. Many states and some corporate houses have evolved innovative packages.

Industrialisation does not only mean large industries. The tiny and small sector must be assisted to grow. Agro-processing and by-product utilization offer huge employment and productive possibilities.

Tribal interests and forest rights must also be protected but tribal India does not want to be caged in living museums. Tribals aspire to a better life, developing at their own pace. Neglect of the 5th Schedule has been the primary reason for tribal distress. This is still nowhere on anybody’s radar screen, so hollow and uninformed is the debate.

Poverty is India’s greatest polluter and ecological enemy. Steady 9-10 per cent growth over the next decade could eliminate stark poverty and underpin social and economic rights as the under-mass rapidly wins empowerment. Jairam Ramesh has fought the good fight and come to the right conclusion. Growth is not the enemy of the environment. He has pleaded against techno-phobia and growth skepticism.

At the same time he has rightly posed limits to growth in the medium and long term. In doing so, he recalls Gandhi’s axiom that there is enough for everybody’s need in this world but not enough for everybody’s greed. That should be the bottom line.

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