The Horror of Nandigram

This is the 40th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Reading the newspaper has been a depressing experience over the last few days. The headlines are dominated by events at Nandigram, where bombs are going off, land mines are exploding, the police is powerless and lawlessness reigns. West Bengal’s governor, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, has described it as a war zone. To many of us far from there, it must seem like a remote insurgency that does not affect us all. But it does—and we cannot truly be a free society if we turn our back upon it.

The problem at Nandigram began with eminent domain. Eminent domain is an instrument used by governments to take land from private citizens for public use. For example, if a road needs to be built, and the proposed route goes through private property, the government acquires the land at whatever price it determines. It does not need the buyer’s consent for this, which many would say is surely wrong—but when it involves public infrastructure, most people shrug it away as a necessary evil.

In the American constitution, eminent domain is allowed only for projects of “public use”. When the Indian Constitution was written, this was changed to “public purpose”, which is more open to interpretation. But the right to property was a fundamental right, which meant that owners of private property had legal recourse if they were being gypped. Our early governments and legislatures, socialist and fond of redistribution, chipped away at it, but the courts defended it. Then, with the 44th Amendment in 1978, it was changed from a fundamental right to a mere legal right. That’s a euphemism—effectively, it had been abolished.

The West Bengal government then carried out a programme of land reforms known as Operation Barga. But instead of transferring property rights from landowners to tillers, itself a dubious act, it left the property title with the landowner, and gave the tillers permanent tenancy rights and a revenue share of the proceeds from the land, as well as first right of refusal if the landowner wished to sell. Some did deals with landowners, getting ownership over a portion of the land in return for their tenancy rights over the rest. Others remained bargadars, as they are called.

Cut to the 21st century. The government decided to set up special economic zones (SEZs) across India, where companies would get benefits that would attract investment, such as exemption from some of the foolish restrictions on business that exist in the rest of the country. That sounds worthy, but the governments involved set about acquiring this land through eminent domain laws. Obviously the farmers whose land was acquired were upset. Firstly, many of them did not want to sell. Secondly, it was not even for a project of public use, like a road or a power project, which at least have a weak rationalization. It was for rich private corporations.

Eminent domain was not the only issue here. Many of the affected farmers in Nandigram and Singur, the sites of two such proposed SEZs, were bargadars, who were facing a breach of contract by the government on the promises made to them. All in all, there was enough justified fury in Nandigram for opportunistic political forces to move in and stoke the fires, on which the CPM threw kerosene with its barbarism.

It is shocking that defenders of such theft try to justify it by invoking free markets and capitalism. True free markets depend on the sanctity of property rights. What Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s government has been up to is cronyism of the worst kind, colluding with big companies at the expense of the common man. Ignorant journalists describe him as free-market-friendly, which is ludicrous. His disregard for property rights makes him as totalitarian as the orthodox Communists who criticize him for moving away from their faith.

India’s politicians down the years have been no better. The farmers thrust into the fire now have been in the frying pan for 60 years. They are not allowed to sell their land for non-agricultural purposes, which has prevented industrial development in rural areas. (The companies operating in these SEZs could then have negotiated for the land on their own.) The restrictions placed on private enterprise have prevented the manufacturing boom that would have given our farmers more choices. They are trapped in their profession—60% of India lives off the agriculture sector, compared with around 5% for developed countries. This is unsustainable, as farmer suicides across India demonstrate.

With Nandigram, things have gone too far. For 60 years we have denied our farmers alternative sources of employment. Now, we have tried to take their farms away. When they have protested, we have reacted with brutality. The British, when they ruled us, were accused of nothing worse. What is the value of our independence then?

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My thanks to Shruti Rajagopalan and Ravikiran Rao for their useful inputs. To read in more detail about how the right to property was eroded in India, check out Shruti’s Op-Ed for the Wall Street Journal Asia, Indian Property Wrongs.

You can browse through all my columns for Mint in my Thinking it Through archives.