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.