India’s Land Question
Michael Levien is an Assistant Professor at the Johns Hopkins University. His research focuses on India and seeks to advance a nascent sociology of dispossession. He teaches on international development, agrarian change, dispossession, and social theory.
This post is part of the Journal of Agrarian Change blog, hosted on the Development Studies at SOAS blog. It is a summary of the talk given by the author as part of the Agrarian Change Seminar Series, October 19, 2016.
While the Indian state dispossessed millions of farmers for dams and public sector infrastructure during the period of state-led development (c. 1947 to 1991), land dispossession has become unprecedentedly contentious during India’s neoliberal period. These new farmer protests, unlike the smaller number of anti-dam movements of the 1980s, have actually stopped major investments, made “land grabs” an electorally salient issue, and forced changes to India’s eminent domain law. At the centre of these protests have been privately developed Special Economic Zones (SEZs), for which India’s state governments began dispossessing rural land in the early 2000s. In this talk, based on my book-in-progress, I drew on nineteen months of ethnographic, archival and interview research focused on villages dispossessed for one of North India’s largest SEZs to address three major questions: what do SEZs tell us about how land dispossession has changed with the shift from state-led development to neoliberalism in India? What are the consequences of this change for dispossessed farmers? And what are the implications of this change for our understanding of India’s land wars?
In answering these questions, I challenged existing theories of the relationship between dispossession and capitalism. There are, I suggested, three such theories, which I call the modernisation, dialectical-redemptive, and predatory theories of dispossession. The first holds that dispossession is the necessary cost of development, the second believes it is a stage in the transition to capitalism and thereby socialism, and the third believes it is a form of predation specific to the neoliberal period. Each is based on unsubstantiated historical or normative assumptions and cannot capture variation in the character and consequences of dispossession across space and time.
Shorn of these assumptions, dispossession is simply a social relation of coercive redistribution and I argued that it is organised into socially and historically specific regimes. Regimes of dispossession are differentiated by the economic purposes and class interests that drive them, and by the related means at their disposal for producing compliance to dispossession. The key to a comparative sociology of dispossession is to examine how distinct regimes of dispossession interact with diverse agrarian milieux. This interaction generates very different political responses and qualitatively distinct trajectories of economic change and inequality.
I first argued that SEZs were the culmination of a decade-long shift from what I call a developmentalist regime of dispossession driven by public sector industry and infrastructure to a neoliberal one driven by private land speculation and non-industrial growth. I then used ethnographic and survey data to examine the consequences of India’s neoliberal regime of dispossession for different agrarian classes, castes and genders in a village I call Rajpura. I showed that the growth facilitated by this regime marginalises rural labour, concentrates investment in elite enclaves and has little to offer farmers—except higher land prices. While land speculation interacts with the legacy of failed land reforms to generate highly unequal and exclusionary growth, it can be politically effective at dividing farmers and diffusing “land wars”. The above helps to explain both the contentiousness of land dispossession in contemporary India—and why the future of India’s “land wars” rests on the ability of state governments to substitute one-time payouts for inclusive growth.