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Politics of Land

Sanjoy Chakravarty

Edited by Rob Jenkins , Loraine Kennedy, and Partha Mukhopadhyay
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2014, pp. 378, Rs. 1145.00


Nandigram in West Bengal, Maha Mumbai in Maharashtra, POSCO in Odisha, Reliance in Haryana, Mundra in Gujarat.  These are but a few of the Special Economic Zones (SEZs) that have made headlines in the last decade. In its very short existence, the term SEZ has come to be associated with corruption, crony capitalism, coercion, land grabs, displacement, abuse of power, and resistance and social movements.  It is possible that the actions and discourses generated by the SEZ Act, 2005 of the Central Government (distinct from the many State-level SEZ laws/policies) may have been the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back; the camel being the Land Acquisition Act of 1894 that had been used for over six decades in Independent India to convert millions of acres of agricultural land to non-agricultural use; that is, to transform the economic geography of the nation and turn a traditional, agricultural society into a semi-modern, semi-industrialized one.   There is a new law now, at least partly as a consequence of the implementation of the SEZ Act.  This new law—the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013—is likely to prove unworkable and seriously damaging to urbanization and the provision of public goods and may need to be amended very soon.  But such changes, when they happen, would provide strong support for one of the key arguments made in the book: that India’s SEZ policies (and by my extension, policy in India as a whole) is in a state of ‘permanent reform’.  In this condition, the key actors in the political economy (agents of the state, private, and social sectors) are in continuous discourse, using the increasingly varied institutions that enable discourse, as a result of which policies (and even laws) are continuously adapted. An evolutionary biologist might be enthused by the survival potential of such an adaptable system but I wonder whether the biological metaphor has relevance for the development arena. Before there was a new land acquisition act there was the SEZ Act that established ‘a legal framework for the creation of geographic areas governed by a distinct regulatory regime—where taxes and bureaucratic burdens on business activity, especially the development of export infrastructure, are substantially reduced’ (p. 3).  In other words, the Act allowed the creation of spaces that behaved like ‘a country within a country’, ostensibly to surmount the difficulties of doing business in ...

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