Projects worth tens of billions of dollars have been held up as farmers, backed by local politicians and empowered by India’s vibrant television news channels, have found their voice — and said no.
“A large process of industrialization is underway in India, second only to China in the world,” said historian and political commentator Mahesh Rangarajan. “But here, the people who are having their land taken from them also happen to be voters.’’
Industrialization on this scale, in an intensely competitive democracy and in the information age, is unprecedented globally — a country of 1.1 billion people racing to maintain a rapid rate of economic growth, running at more than 8 percent.
But the mix has been made more explosive by the fact that much of the best land for industry and infrastructure is fertile and densely populated, close to cities, roads and water supplies — just the kind of land farmers do not want to part with.
In eastern India, South Korea’s Posco started buying land this week — after a tense five-year standoff with farmers — for a $12 billion steel plant. Nevertheless, activists have not given up hope of derailing the project, claiming criminal collusion between the company and the government, and excessive use of force by the police.
Other projects have been even less fortunate. Tata Motors’ plans to build the world’s cheapest car at Singur in West Bengal ran aground in 2008 when farmers complained that they had been bullied and cheated out of their land. Indonesia’s Salim Group had to abandon plans to set up a chemical hub in Nandigram, also in West Bengal, after 14 people were killed in clashes between farmers and police in 2007.
Those two incidents sent shock waves through Indian politics. The Communist Party had ruled West Bengal for 34 years, but the violence that accompanied efforts to seize land in Singur and Nandigram undercut its political support. This month, Mamata Banerjee, who had championed the farmers’ cause, swept the Communists from power to become West Bengal’s first female chief minister.
It was the first time land had been the deciding factor in a major Indian election.
“This is the biggest political signal to come to India in many years,” said Barun Mitra, director of the Liberty Institute and an expert on the land issue, adding that the West Bengal result would be felt throughout the country. “For the first time, people are beginning to look at land as a right.”
The 1894 Land Acquisition Act put the government at the center of the land acquisition process, giving it the right to take land for public or company use. That left it effectively as referee in a contest between industry and agriculture — a referee who often took a slice of the profits when farmland was seized.