Dispossession and displacement from land has become a central conflict in the contemporary period, taking on a particularly sharp form in countries of the Global South. The Global South, or in an alternate nomenclature, the ‘developing’ world is broadly made up of post-colonial countries where it is precisely the question of ‘development’ that continues to weigh in significantly in determining these countries’ futures. However, as we come to see, this question of development is closely intertwined with the dynamic of capital and its forceful pulls and pushes in a global political economy. In this article we draw on a range of cases of dispossession in India and Mexico in order to draw out certain broad patterns in the form, shape and mechanisms of dispossession as we see them play out.
History and Context
The historical roots of dispossession as a systematic and systemic phenomenon can be found in the colonial period, when land was transformed into an absolute form of property and a valuable and key resource in the colonial economy. This transformation was followed by a process of accumulation and concentration of lands in a hitherto unprecedented manner. While these histories are varied in the contexts of Mexico and India, land proprietary systems continue to be marked by this colonial history, mediated by the post-colonial state. If the colonial histories of India and Mexico are varied, their post-colonial histories are all the more distinct. The two countries have a vast difference of almost a century and a half in the time they gained independence from colonial rule. The post-revolutionary regime in Mexico, particularly the term of President Lazaro Cardenas (1934-40), marks an important shift in the official agrarian and land regime in the country, institutionalising a regime of peasant and indigenous communal landholdings in the form of the ejido and bienes comunales respectively. In India, on the other hand, while the post-colonial state instituted land reforms, ending the feudal zamindari system, and introducing land ceiling, the country did not witness any such significant break from the colonial agrarian structure it inherited. Collectively-held property was only recognised for the first time under the Forest Rights Act 2006.
This history is relevant in our context to highlight the different trajectories through which two key principles of land acquisition and dispossession took their roots in the two countries – that of eminent domain and public purpose. The principle of eminent domain refers to the right of the state, in the last instance, to all landed property under its domain. This principle finds its roots in colonial state structures granting it the right to appropriate or ‘acquire’ land forcibly if it so considers necessary. In the case of Mexico, this principle has a more complex history mediated by the post-revolutionary regime which was key in instating ‘protective’ measures, preventing the parasitic control of foreign hands on national resources and instead placing this control in the hands of the Mexican nation-state. In both cases, however, control was wrested from the hands of those who worked, owned or lived on the lands to be placed in the hands of the state. Similarly, the particular contours of the phrase ‘public purpose’ were to be defined by the same state, maintaining a monopoly over how this phrase was to be constituted or what was signified by it.
The post-revolutionary state in Mexico and the post-colonial state in India were shaped by the dominant welfare state model during the large part of the latter half of the twentieth century. This implied that sectors that were central to the ‘development’ project such as electricity, mining, key industries such as steel, were regulated and restricted to the public sector under the control of the state. This period saw some of the largest development projects inaugurated in India, particularly during the 1960s and 1970s, displacing large numbers of people from their lands and access to livelihood. The then-prevalent Land Acquisition Act 1894 was a significant instrument in the hands of the state that facilitated this transfer of land ‘for the good of the nation’. Walter Fernandes (2008) has estimated that 60 million people were displaced from 25 million hectares of land between 1947 and 2004. The scale of displacement has sharply increased in the post-1991 liberalization period, accounting for more than half the displaced in a span of fifteen years (ibid.).
We are faced today with a new “regime of dispossession” (Levien 2013) marked by neoliberal capitalism, the collapse of the welfare state, the rise of corporations and finance capital and an increasingly naked coercive state that has shed its façade of populism and exposed its close nexus to corporate capital. The pressure on land and natural resources has increased manifold be it due to mining, construction, tourism projects, agribusiness, energy production, National Parks or Wildlife Sanctuaries, roads, highways and expressways, real estate projects or gated communities, ports and airports, amongst others, leading to severe socio-environmental conflicts, including access to and use of natural resources, privatization of collective use of resources, forcible displacement from lands, pollution of the soil, air and water, etc. A special mention may be made of agribusiness owing to the new and significant form of dispossession it often entails. Without physically dislocating agrarian communities, these projects encompass their dispossession through a loss of control over productive resources and their means of production, now in the hands of agribusiness giants. As Navarro (2015) points out, such forms of dispossession further entail a ‘dispossession from the political’, referring to the expropriation by the State of the ability of people to determine for themselves their future course, that is to say, a dispossession from autonomy. Together these forms of dispossession produce groups, people, and populations as ‘surplus’, of little use to capital, and therefore, as simply expendable or dispensable.
Patterns of Dispossession
In this renewed neoliberal context, the central most significant player in propelling the process of dispossession is big private capital. Moving away from state-led projects, we see a proliferation of private industrial or business projects that have occupied the arena of land acquisition and dispossession. Even where government projects exist, in almost each case the project is contracted out to private players, leading to the blurring of public-private distinctions. The state is required to provide the institutional framework and facilitate easy access of capital to the requisite land and resources through laws, official orders creating exemptions, bending rules for smooth transfer of resources, and, if required, state armed forces. While there is discussion of the withering away of the state in the neoliberal era, in the context of land acquisition and resource grab the presence of the state is key to the process. Further, as private corporations depend critically on states for this reason, they simultaneously retain their advantage as private players through a complete lack of accountability.
This can be observed most significantly in the complete failure to substantively redress any of the grievances of displaced or dispossessed populations. While a similar claim may be made for public projects as well, the absence of an institutional mechanism to hold private companies accountable makes the same situation even more challenging for affected communities. Stories of broken promises relating to employment, just compensation, resettlement sites providing basic health and educational services and decent homes to live in, mark each instance of displacement. Broken or failed promises is the norm, not the exception, lending this element a structural character to the patterns of dispossession and its discontents.
While we note a move away from the welfarist orientation of the state to a naked capitalist one, a discourse of development, even as it is defined in new ways allowing for, at times, imaginative interpretations of the term to suit the needs of corporations, continues to hold sway as the moral basis for justifying large-scale displacement. The need for development is explained precisely in order to alleviate poverty, uplift marginalized communities and improve the lives of vulnerable populations. It is this same emphasis of taking development to marginalized communities that justifies the targeting of their resources within development projects, resources, of which, they are then dispossessed. It is for this reason that states continue to remain central to this project, providing legitimacy to such a development narrative and justifying the ‘public purpose’ of such initiatives. Such a discourse of development, then, serves as an ‘enclosure’ of the imagination, a medium of paralysing or co-opting the imagination of society around the notion of development such that megaprojects and the dispossession they entail appear to be inevitable, even desirable.
Mechanisms of Dispossession
Given these conditions the role of state takes on centrestage in providing institutional backing in the process of dispossession. The sphere of law constitutes a significant element, along with the role of civic and other official bodies. Owing to sustained resistance and opposition to displacement and dispossession by organized social movements across the world, certain mandated procedures and minimum requirements and responsibilities in processes of land acquisition have been set forth, including the requirement of environment and social impact assessment reports of a proposed project, consultations with affected populations, free, prior and informed consent of those to be displaced and a transparent and detailed exposition of the project and all that it is likely to entail. While governments as well as corporations have been compelled to comply with these requirements, a common strategy to bypass such procedures is by creating legal or official exemptions for a set of projects. These exemptions are often defined broadly so as to render the protections won through long struggles meaningless.
This is the case of the tussle over the latest Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act 2013 in India. The law, that is an important break away from the colonial Land Acquisition Act 1894, was framed after consultations with a range of actors including land rights movements in different parts of the country, and introduced significant changes in the law to include some of the measures mentioned above. However, a range of exceptions were simultaneously created for which Social Impact Assessment and informed consent would not be mandatory, which included projects relating to mining, railways, electricity, national highways and other such projects. The present government that came to power in 2014 has since been attempting to further broaden this category of exemptions. There exists, therefore, a conscious strategy to either legalise dispossession, or where such attempts fail, to bypass laws through the creation of often ad-hoc and arbitrary exemptions. The basis for granting exemptions is closely linked with the notion of ‘public purpose’ that is then invoked to justify the exemption in question.
However, when all such attempts at twisting, bending or bypassing the law fail, state armed forces are brought in in order to forcibly acquire lands. Similarly, where mandated procedure of public hearings or consultations are conducted, these are often conducted under the shadow of the gun and police forces, going against the spirit of a free, fair and transparent consultative process. Such a coercive atmosphere of fear and repression is further consolidated by the criminalization of resistance, where leaders or vocal participants of a movement are slapped with a range of often false cases and placed behind bars. A final strategy that is common to most cases of displacement is a more surreptitious technique of infiltrating village communities to create interest groups in favour of a proposed project, bribing certain members of the community, creating personal incentives and using agents from within the community to sell a project to other members. Creating distrust amongst people and building new axes of disharmony or sharpening old ones, this renders communities more vulnerable to an attack on their resources, breaking collective formations and solidarities and dividing communities, neighbours, and even families, based on their acceptance or resistance to a proposed project. This is amongst the most invisible and yet, damaging strategies of facilitating land acquisition and dispossession.
Dispossession of marginalized communities from their lands and access to resources in order to lead a life of dignity has a long history, particularly in the Global South. With its earliest roots in the colonial period, both the colonial as well as the post-colonial states have played a definitive role in the history of dispossession, even as this role has gone on changing with changing global conditions and the evolution of capitalism. In the most recent phase of this process we see the emergence of big private capital in the form of corporations as one of the biggest players in the process of resource grab. This takes place alongside the growth of an increasingly repressive and violent state, a trend that may be observed world over, that has few qualms about displaying its muscle power. The process of dispossession is currently taking place at a rapid pace, aided by brute force, state power, a culture of impunity, all in the name of development.
Fernandes, Walter. (2008). Sixty years of development-induced-displacement in India: Scale, impacts, and the search for alternatives. India Social Development Report 2008, 89-115.
Levien, Michael. (2013). Regimes of dispossession: From steel towns to Special Economic Zones. Development and Change 44(2): 381-407.
Navarro, Mina Lorena. (2015). Luchas por lo común: Antagonismo social contra el despojo capitalista de los bienes naturales en México. Puebla: BUAP & ICSYH.