First Person | Link to the Land

Unless people are made stake-holders, they will not understand development

Ghazala WahabGhazala Wahab

Sometimes the villages sit right inside the cities, yet the distance between rural and urban India seems to be growing every day. While urban India is galloping ahead trying to keep pace with other cities worldwide, rural India struggles to keep its feet out of the marshy swamps of poverty, illiteracy, debt and backwardness.

Nowhere is this distance more evident than in the perception one has for the other. The GDP-chasing, development-hungry urban India simply cannot understand why rural India continues to look behind its back, clutching onto symbols which are nothing but impediments to growth. It is this lack of understanding which is causing so much of turmoil in the heart of India and distress in the farmlands. The city-dwellers have absolutely no idea what land means in the villages, what forests mean in the tribal areas. For most people, these are symbols of natural resources which feed the statistics. Which is why, when we talk of acquisition of land for setting up of industries or building of mines, people who inhabit those lands rarely figure in the discussion. They, at best have nuisance value, which should be got rid of by paying some compensation for the land, which eventually will bring about over all development and in the process will create jobs for those very people whose lands were acquired.

But acquisition of land is not such a simple process. If it was, the Maoist rank and files wouldn’t have swelled over the years. Villagers and tribal who resist the acquisition process don’t do so because they are pig-headed, they do so because they do not know what to do without their traditional way of living or their land. They are frightened of change. Money, even if we assume that the government pays compensation at the market rate (which is rarely the case), does not mean much for people who have always lived on a day to day basis. Besides, when even educated, city-dwellers need assistance in managing/investing their money, how would illiterate tribal or farmers manage theirs?

In most cases, when a farmer sells his land he actually invites dissolution of his family fabric and unemployment. Land, being more indivisible than cash, holds the family together and is a source of sustenance for everybody who lives off it. But once it is sold, the money is divided among the claimants, some of who may want to leave the village for city life. In most cases, money is squandered within a few years and former farmers are reduced to penury, often ending up either as petty criminals or daily wagers.

The case of the tribal is even worse. While unlike the farmers they don’t traditionally own land in the strict economic sense, they have a lot of symbolic values attached to their dwelling places. For instance, remains of their ancestors, religious totems, reverence for the forest and so on. All this collectively creates almost an umbilical link between them and the land which they inhabit. Moreover, their exposure to urbanisation is much less and hence the transition to a new life is more traumatic.

Yet, in a haste to exploit the natural resources in the mineral-rich but Maoist-infested central India, various state governments have been signing MoUs with industrial houses. In Jharkhand alone, the state government had signed over a 100 MoUs. Once the agreement is signed, there is impatience to acquire land so that money can start rolling; hence rough-shodding over the people becomes the easiest option. Pushed against the forests, the options for these people are very limited. They either join peaceful movements of Medha Patkar variety (which are also reviled as anti-development) or link their future with the violent forces like the Maoists who promise redressal as well as justice. Sure, violence has no justification. But when don’t justify it, don’t instigate it either.

Everyone wants development, yet we have no time for those who are expected to pay the biggest price for it. We reduce living, frightened, insecure people to nameless statistics because it is convenient; because statistics do not have the power to prick our conscience. However, convenience is neither good nor safe in the long run. Collective anger of millions can be quite dangerous for a country.

This is the reason the land for cash idea of the government of India is floundering and so many people are resisting it. We must strive for development, but we have to think of a more creative idea for acquiring land than forcing people to sell it for a pittance. We have to think how these people can be made stake-holders in the process rather than pushing them outside the fence and making them opponents of development. But a state in a hurry cannot do this, because this calls for understanding, patience and sensitivity.

Finally, people should remain people. They should not become a number on a form. Next time, when a MoU calls for acquisition of five villages, we must also think of those who live in those villages, who would be rendered homeless: the elderly, the young and the children. Each has his own link to the land.


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