A big war is on for territory, and it looks like India is fighting Bharat on many fronts.
In Bengal, Orissa, Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh, governments are acquiring huge tracts of land for projects that, as the Supreme Court said yesterday, enrich a few at the expense of many.
Governments hand over cheaply and forcibly acquired land to private companies to develop expressways, housing colonies, mines, and factories. (In pre-liberalisation times, the government would have set up public sector units, but it now only talks of private-public partnerships, coming across to the deprived as a dalal acting on behalf of the moneybags).
The land-owners, mostly small farmers, aren't giving up so easily. They look at it this way: "The city-slickers have money, bulldozers, and a convenient land acquisition law to back them. But we still have one weapon: our vote."
Land wars exact a heavy toll. The CPM, for example, didn't take protesting Singur and Nandigram farmers seriously, and as a result, comprehensively lost Bengal, a state it had ruled for three decades. The land wars are spilling over into politics in many other states as well.
The moment Mamata Banerjee came to power in Bengal, she passed a law to take back land that the CPM government had handed over to Tata Motors. She has a promise to keep: returning land to farmers angered by the CPM's forcible acquisition. The Tatas, after suffering a setback in the High Court, are now approaching the Supreme Court. The battle has cost both parties dear. The protesters have lost lost their lives and property, the Tatas are losing a lot of money, and the CPM has suffered humiliation.
Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati faces assembly elections in a year, and is getting jittery about the land battle in her state. She has been rapped by the courts for taking fertile land away from Noida farmers to help real-estate developers. She has also faced widespread protests and demonstrations. Rahul Gandhi has been quick to seize the political opportunity; the Congress is celebrating hisbirthday as Farmers' Rights Day from this year.
Other leaders are uneasy, too. As Reuters reports about Posco, "The ... protests are another storm warning in an environment growing increasingly hostile to what many Indians see as a nexus of corrupt politicians and businessmen profiting from kickbacks and forced land acquisition as foreign firms vie for a place in the Indian market."
Over the last two days, people in Orissa have been stalling Posco employees from fencing off a huge area for their steel plant. The agitation against the steel plant is already six years old. Even those supporting the project are angry that Posco is giving out work to contractors from outside the region; they will allow work to progress only if their demand for work is met. The state government isunlikely to renew its contract with Posco by the end of this month, when it is due.
Orissa is saying children shouldn't be roped in for the agitations, but women and children have remained in the forefront of the movement to keep Posco away. Karnataka faces similar problems. Between Bangalore and Mysore, a private road builder has acquired thousands of acres, some of it allegedly by fraud, and is charging the highest toll in India. JD(S) leader H D Deve Gowda is rallying farmer against highway builder Ashok Kheni.
The government's failure to rehabilitate displaced people hardly makes news, but the rural-urban divide is starkly exposed every time a land agitation makes it to the headlines. One way out has been for the farmers to form co-operatives and negotiate with industrialists who want to buy their land. That way, they get the best deal, and are in control of their own lives. Another is to change the land acquisition law, and forcing governments to be more responsible to their people. The centre has beentalking of a new law that is favourable to farmers. The earlier that comes into force, the more conflicts we may be able to avert.