Land questions in the 21st Century Postcolony



Labour may have become less relevant to capital accumulation in the 21st century as scholars like Sanyal, Li and Ferguson suggest. The recent spate of literature on ‘land grabs’ has, however, made the role of land in capital accumulation much more visible now than it was in the latter half of the last century. Unlike in classical political economy, this visibility has less to do with its role in agricultural productivity or a source of rent within agriculture but increasingly because of its incorporation into circuits of speculative and financial capital. Whereas land use change away from agriculture in the past has been associated with the creation of productive infrastructure, it is at present being drawn more into speculative circuits, often global in scale. Such possibilities of gaining financial rents through land grabs also question teleological assumptions about capitalist development, particularly in the global South. Here, land grabs are also closely tied to processes of labour being dispossessed of their means of production within agriculture. Significantly, such dispossession is happening during a phase of capitalist development when dispossessed labour seldom find their way into the capitalist labour market on terms that ensure ‘decent’ lives.

  Recognizing that the labour and land questions are closely intertwined for ‘most parts of the world’, the three books under review (Michael Levien’s Dispossession without Development, Kenneth Bo Nielsen’s Land Dispossession and Everyday Politics in Rural Eastern India, Anthony D’Costa and Achin Chakraborty’s (edited) The Land Question in India) examine the implications of the recent phase of land acquisition for ‘development’ and resistance to such acquisition by multiple actors, social movements and political parties in India. In doing so, they offer novel interpretations of the land question and how contemporary politics around it links to larger questions of social and economic justice. Two of them are based on micro‐level studies of sites where dispossession for ‘development’ has already happened or is in the process of happening. Whereas Levien examines the implications of land acquisition for agrarian relations, rural hierarchies and future livelihoods in rural Rajasthan, Nielsen looks at the politics of resistance to land acquisition for setting up an automobile plant as it unfolded in rural West Bengal. Reading them together gives us a rich comparative perspective on how subnational political regimes combine with regional and village level agrarian relations to shape divergent responses to dispossession. The third book, by D’Costa and Chakraborty, is a collection of papers on the contemporary land question that include interpretations in light of its treatment in classical political economy, role of legal infrastructure in facilitating dispossession and subnational variations rooted in regional histories and geographies. Together, they draw our attention to the overlaps across processes of land grabs in the global South just as they simultaneously alert us to the acute ways in which the regional and the local constitute the processes of dispossession and politics of resistance to them.

Marxist scholars like David Harvey have sought to explain the new demand for land in terms of a crisis within the global capitalist system due to ‘overaccumulated capital’. This forces capital to draw land into non‐productive circuits and financializes it in the process. Without discounting the importance of such factors associated with shifts in circuits of global capital driven by a crisis in accumulation, the three books directly or indirectly emphasize the need to embed imperatives of capital and state to dispossess in smaller spatio‐political scales such as the nation and the region to recover the heterogeneity and contingency of capital accumulation. In doing so, they also point out how accumulation dynamics at the global scale are shaped and constituted simultaneously by relatively autonomous and localized circuits of capital and acts of nation‐states. Attention to processes unfolding along such scales and to national and regional level actors/institutions facilitating and resisting dispossession also allows for unsettling the power invested in ‘global capital’. All the books under review emphasize regional and national institutions and processes shaping dispossession and the politics around it.

Levien and some of the authors in the volume edited by D’Costa and Chakraborty adopt a diachronic perspective on dispossession in the Indian context. Development‐induced displacement has a longer history that goes back to the colonial period. There is, however, a shift in how the state mediates and capital appropriates land since the neoliberal turn in the 1990s. This shift is linked to changes in governance of accumulation that invests private capital with primary agency within a neoliberal framework with implications not only for labour but also for state‐capital relationship and the larger developmental trajectory. What has also changed is the nature of collective action against such dispossession given the expansion of terrain of electoral democracy and popular politics. Unlike in the past when narratives of ‘national development’ ensured a higher degree of consent for dispossession, protests against compulsory land acquisition have come to assume centre stage in contemporary regional politics. In some cases, farmers’ agitations have even managed to stop land acquisition for special economic zones (SEZs), enclaves of regulatory exception that were meant to generate globally competitive production capabilities through various incentives. Such widespread resistance also led to the union government passing a relatively just Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013 (LARRA hereafter) that assures better compensation not only for the propertied but also for others whose livelihoods are undermined by loss of lands.

The significant contributions that the three books make to the land question and its politics in India are relevant to not only the global South but also to understanding the dynamics of global capitalist development more broadly. I would like to flag a few related issues in this regard. Following the widespread resistance to compulsory land acquisition by the state and the passing of the LARRA, private firms have resorted to market mechanisms for acquiring land rather than calling upon the state for this purpose. This has led to the emergence of a network of private intermediaries ranging from firms with connections to national level political elites all the way down to brokering at the village level that Levien describes. How do we then conceptualize dispossession and/or reimagine the politics around land in a context where agrarian distress is often generative of a ‘willing seller’? Such everyday dispossession by neglect and through market mechanisms is likely to escape the radar of political mobilization. This necessitates some reworking of understandings of dispossession. Levien’s distinction between market‐induced processes of dispossession and dispossession through coercive acquisition of land by the state requires some nuancing in a context where the state encourages private actors to resort to market mechanisms to acquire land to avoid resistance.

Another issue pertains to the relationship between land and the labour question. Whereas Nielsen and Levien establish the importance of land as a source of livelihood however marginal, D’Costa and Chakraborty point to the limits of structural transformation within a ‘late capitalist’ order. Politics against dispossession has however not transformed into politics for a larger equitable developmental order. Differences in income between the rural and the urban are widening and so are differences in income between those within agriculture and those outside of it. It is in this context that we are witness to another mode of rural unrest that manifests in the series of agitations by castes with continued stakes in agriculture such as the Jats in Haryana and Punjab, Marathas in Maharashtra and Patels in Gujarat. They demand, among other things, reservation for members of their castes in higher education and jobs in the modern formal sector that continue to be the preserve of upper castes with a more long‐term presence in the urban. How do we conceptualize such politics particularly in relation to anti‐dispossession movements? Further, in a context where human capabilities constitute better resources to attain dignified livelihoods, demand for equitable access to quality education and health care may constitute more important axes of redistributive politics than land. This raises questions about the potential for anti‐dispossession movements to foster a movement for more substantive economic justice.

[This is an abridged version. Read the full review here.]

M Vijayabaskar is Professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai, India.