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Land, Law and the Left: The Saga of Disempowerment of the Peasantry in the Era of Globalization (2007) pp. 259 + xxviii (index, glossary and references)


ISBN- 13:978-81-8069-398-4 ISBN-10: 81-8069-398-8 Price: Rs.550/- Author: Dr. Abhijit Guha, Reader, Department of Anthropology, Vidyasagar University, Medinipur, West Bengal, India.

Foreword: Professor Michael M. Cernea, George Washington University, USA, formerly Senior Social Policy and Sociology Advisor World Bank.

Publisher: Concept Publishing Company A/15-16, Commercial Block, Mohan Garden New Delhi - 110 059. (India) Phones: (011) 25351460, 25351794 Fax: (+91-11) 25357103 E-mail to:

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“Look babu, we poor people always have to ride on some animal almost blindfolded. After the ride for some time we start to realize whether it is a tiger or a bullock. But very often we have to twist its tail in order to keep it in proper direction” --- A poor peasant’s remark to the author in April 1999.

This book is about development caused displacement of peasants in West Bengal during the regime of the Left Front Government, which champions the empowerment of the small and marginal cultivators as well as sharecroppers through land reforms and decentralized planning. Distinct from the typical ethnographic village case studies of India, the author has combined anthropology with political economy, law, and political science to examine an acute social process: the dispossession of peasants and their separation from land through forced displacement and resettlement, yet without economic rehabilitation. Serving this research objective, Guha made an innovative investigative attempt to tie up the factual materials obtained from anthropological participant observation with various archival sources that he explored to construct a short contemporary history of the development policy of the LFG. Guha’s findings reveal the combination of land reforms and colonial land acquisition law, accelerated by globalization impacts in West Bengal. But unlike other researches in the field of development caused displacement the author has also presented and analyzed the discourse of the elected peoples’ representatives in the West Bengal State Legislative Assembly, an area that previously remained little examined in writing by scholars and activists. In his illuminating Foreword to Guha’s book, a recognized world expert on resettlement, Professor Michael Cernea, writes: In-depth analysis of these political aspects is rarely done, and represents a distinct contribution to the knowledge about resettlement. The author has not only carried out interviews with all categories of relevant people, done sample surveys and case histories, etc., he also reached deeply into a generally unstudied source of information: the detailed debates of West Bengal’s State Legislative Assembly Proceedings, for and against the enactment in law of decisions regarding expropriations. The window thus opened up proves very illuminating.

The book brings forth the results of minute social research, revealing first-hand primary data on land acquisition process in India. Nothing similar is available on land acquisition and its relationship with land reform as well as local self-government in any other work done by researchers in this area, which are right now a central issue in India’s industrialization in the era of globalization. No less important is the author’s short but significant ethnographic account of the resistance against land acquisition in the study area, which was organized by the affected peasants virtually without any support from civil society and political parties.

The book is of direct interest not only to academics and students but also to the administrators, lawyers, policy makers and activists working for a pro-people resettlement and rehabilitation policy in India

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Write the second section of your page here. The Knowledge Benefits of Digging Deeply: Politics and Economics in Land Expropriation and Displacement


by Michael M. Cernea

The book on involuntary population displacement written by Dr. Abhijit Guha covers only one out of India’s many hundreds of administrative districts: Medinipur in the West Bengal state. This is however a microcosm of the vast ocean of India’s ubiquitous forced displacement processes. I would therefore like to use this Foreword as the opportunity to put Medinipur’s displacements, and the book about them, within the broader national context of India’s displacements, and within the international context of development-caused displacement in the developing world. I am doing so because, indeed, the analysis and findings reported in this book about land acquisition much surpass in significance the borders of the Medinipur district.

During the last 15-20 years, India’s massive population displacements have caused extraordinary internal and international concerns. They have gained an unfortunate reputation, far worse than comparable processes in many other countries. Why is there such heightened public opinion concern? At least three answers to this question, three factors explain this concern:

First: -- impoverishment. Although involuntary population displacements are entailed by development-oriented projects -- projects usually justified on grounds of reducing poverty, creating employment, and bringing economic growth -- forced displacement themselves result in precisely the opposite effect for many people: displacements end up making many poor people poorer, instead of lifting them from poverty. It destroys employment and income generating assets, and causes social disorganization, marginalization and downward mobility. This is contrary to sound social development, and obviously doesn’t bring growth for the population involved. In short, these processes embody a paradoxical situation, in which the development discourse is falsified by the development practice.

Second: --policy vacuum. Despite enormous domestic and international demand, India’s government has declined, year after year and decade after decade, to institute a national resettlement policy. Such a policy would compel more adequate resettlement practice, prevent abuse and require the earmarking of project financial resources to preempt impoverishment and improve, rather than worsen, the livelihood of those displaced and resettled. Yet deliberately maintaining an absence of policy and wiggle-room for arbitrariness is a policy in itself. The policy vacuum has betrayed a lack of political will at the highest level for radically improving the practice of resettlement. It has led to growing dissatisfaction and intensifying pressures against both lack of policy as well as unacceptable practices.

Third: --resistance. In India, more than in any other developing country, local resistance to expropriation, unfair compensation and forced displacement has gradually swelled into organized large-scale movements. The nature of the protests changed as well. What usually started as discreet demands for better economic reparation from local authorities, gradually coalesced into a broad anti-government targeted struggle, with socio-political and not just economic objectives.

Seen against this triple-featured background, Guha’s research takes on particular significance, as it contributes in various degrees to knowledge and debate along all the three factors mentioned: impoverishment, local abuse within the vacuum of central policy, and people’s responses to displacement.

To undertake his research, the author decided to deconstruct step by step the process of displacement and to zero in on one of its key segments: the expropriation and acquisition of private lands by the state, and the mechanisms for compensation. The reader is entitled to ask: What is new in this research choice?

Certainly, every serious study of displacement and resettlement addresses land acquisition. Yet, because land expropriation is a common denominator in all displacements and is touched upon by almost every author, an inaccurate impression has taken hold among many resettlement researchers that there is nothing new to say new about this process. Abhijit Guha has NOT embraced this common – but erroneous – view. On the contrary, his book digs deeply into this dimension and exploits it as a strategic research site. He meticulously explores the politics and economics of acquisition, and the legal set of provisions put in place that make expropriation not just possible, but also hardly assailable by its victims. The most interesting part of the research is the analysis of the political processes that underpin and accompany land acquisition and make room for introducing both the economic and legal regulations for expropriations.

In-depth analysis of these political aspects is rarely done, and represents a distinct contribution to the knowledge about resettlement. The author has not only carried out interviews with all categories of relevant people, done sample surveys and case histories, etc., he also reached deeply into a generally unstudied source of information: the detailed debates of West Bengal’s State Legislative Assembly Proceedings, for and against the enactment in law of decisions regarding expropriations. The window thus opened up proves very illuminating.

The relevance of this information is enhanced by the fact that the State to which Medinipur District belongs, West Bengal, has been ruled for many years by a left-of-center government, and maintained in power through popular election after election. This State government has pushed a land reform generally favorable to small and landless farmers, one that was more radical than those of many other State governments in India. Nonetheless, parts of those same lands are now being taken away through expropriations of the new owners, to give right of way to industrial projects. Taking away the land is not only an inflicted economic loss, but is also political dis-empowerment of the peasants. This, of course, raises major questions and gives the author room to analyze the political and economic premises of the new industrial projects, why they are undertaken, and the socio-economic effects of the displacements.

The politics of land acquisition in West Bengal, as in India at large, takes new twists when the State’s power of “eminent domain” is used circuitously to expropriate land not just for public interest projects, but also for private-sector for-profit projects, such as the two pig-iron industrial enterprises researched in the study. Amendments to the Land Acquision Act made such use of the State’s power legally possible, but socially very damaging, as it frees the private sector projects from negotiating until a “willing buyer-willing seller” agreement is reached.

Thus, the meticulous empirical analysis reported by Guha in this book provides fresh “grist to the mill” for a fundamental argument now gathering in the international resettlement literature: the argument about the flaws and fallacies of the current economics of displacement and resettlement. I myself articulated this argument elsewhere , and am pleased to find new evidence for it in the present volume. This evidence demonstrates, once again, that compensation for land expropriation is not in itself a remedy for the de-capitalization and asset-lessness inflicted on those forcibly displaced. Sure enough, asset compensation at replacement cost level is mandatory, and important, and should of course be paid in full for the assets and opportunities taken away from those displaced. But compensation alone, even if correct, is insufficient to reconstruct the productive system of the displaced “land-losers” and to restore and improve their livelihoods. This is why, in my view, compensation proceeds must be supplemented with investment financing by the sponsors/owners of the projects that cause displacement. This investment financing should be placed into the reconstruction and improvement of resettlers’ living standards and capacities. Financial resources may often be scarce, but that does not obviate the objective, indispensable need for such financing. Scarcity can be overcome through specially tailored strategies: among others, for instance, by instituting arrangements to renable those displaced to share in the forthcoming revenues from the project they helped make possible.

The principal contribution of Guha’s book is the increased understanding he produces to highlight the impoverishment risks embedded in land expropriation, when the State imposes land expropriation without adequate safeguards and counter-risks measures to protect those affected.

Unfair compensation and absent development financing investments for welfare reconstruction transform the impoverishment risks of displacement into dire realities of aggravated impoverishment. The author’s tool of choice for analyzing the unfolding of such impoverishment risks in West Bengal is the “Impoverishment Risks and Reconstruction” (IRR) model. He employs this methodological and conceptual framework very well, revealing pauperization risks inflicted on resettlers that project planners most often fully ignore or paper over. With the empirical findings generated and organized along this conceptual framework, Guha builds a forceful factual and intellectual argument. As a corollary, he advances also practical recommendations for changing the ways in which the economics and the politics of development-caused involuntary displacement are now handled. These recommendations appear valid not only for West-Bengal, but may help many other states in India.

While the present Foreword is being written, colleagues in India and news agencies brought me the unexpected information that the Government of India, after declining for decades to issue an all-India policy framework for development-caused resettlement, has finally acceded to civil society demands and is about to adopt such a framework in February 2004. The actual formal adoption is yet to happen –I’m also told that surprises to the contrary are not excluded- and the content of the policy is still to be made known publicly in detail. Whether or not the implementation of the new policy will address and better resolve the profound issues highlighted in the present book is still to be seen. I think, therefore, that the timing for the publication of this solid monograph could not have been better. It offers additional research-based hard data which can further fuel the debate around involuntary resettlement; it offers added knowledge to better measure the adequacy, implementation, and effectiveness of India’s forthcoming resettlement policy.

March-April 2004 Washington DC