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Gujarat's 'skewed' land liberalization

Nikita Sud
By Rajiv Shah
I have in my hand one of the latest books on Hindu nationalism and Gujarat, which on cursory glance would appear to be the examination of a subject, many would allege, has become quite hackneyed. I also thought so till I decided to scan it from page to page. Authored by Nikita Sud, a University of Oxford scholar, and titled "Liberalization, Hindu Nationalism and the State: A Biography of Gujarat", what impressed me particularly was the book's couple of chapters on how the state, over the years, has sought to consistently promote land liberalization, irrespective of the political class, and how this liberalization has become the cornerstone of the protagonists of market-based development, seeking to encourage entrepreneurs wanting to put up shop in Gujarat as a "preferred" destinations.
Sud came down to Gandhinagar from London, where she is based, about a couple of years ago, when she was in the process of preparing the book. Daughter of a retired IAS bureaucrat, Sunil Sud, whom I peripherally knew, Nikita Sud, I found, had an added advantage, which many others don't have - access to government officials and documents. This, as one can see in the chapters on land liberalization, appears to have added precision to her study. The subject has excited me ever since I landed in Gujarat in 1993, when land was not such a saleable commodity as it is today. As a rule, at that time, only a farmer living within the periphery of eight-kilometres of a farmland could buy or sell land. The rule continued till 1995, when the then chief minister Keshubhai Patel abrogated it without difficulty.
The result is there for all to see. Anyone on paper having a land title can buy or sell land anywhere in Gujarat, making land perhaps the most costly commodity. A new class of landowning speculators has emerged, who buys land cheap and sells it off high. These speculators have strong interests in other commercial activities, too. They are turning into capitalist farmers, builders and real estate agents. As farm income is accounted in cash, they have learnt the fine art of diverting black money earned from urban projects into white by offering fake farm bills. Ministers and MLAs are among those who have gained, even as small farmers who sell off their land have turned into landless workers. Ultimately, Sud suggests, it is the powerful corporate sector which will gain from the process.
Though farmland can be bought by a farmer living anywhere in Gujarat, Sud insists, the situation has come to such a point where the "pro-liberalization lobby" wants the removal of all restrictions - on leasing, on the conversion of agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes, on upward revision of ceilings, on incentives for the private sector for investing in rural infrastructure, on ease of entry for national and multinational companies in rural areas and peri-urban areas, on ability to lease or purchase land through direct interaction with farmers, and on the speeding up of the acquisition process by the government. She says, "While agricultural land has become the focus of the land liberalization debate, forest, coastal, pastoral, and other common property has also come within its range. Often passed off as 'wasteland', this resource is readily being made available for use in the new economy."
There are, of course, groups, both in the government and outside, which seek institutional safeguards for the urban and especially rural poor. To quote Sud, "They want a sincere implementation of land reform, particularly, the use of ceiling on ownership limits, and redistribution. Other demands include the ending of absentee landlordism, security of tenancy, protection of the land of adivasis and the return to them of alienated land, and the preservation of common land." Even a Planning Commission report has come out against "indiscriminate, large-scale, ecologically damaging, socially harmful transfers of agricultural land to non-agricultural users", even as identifying "non-implementation of land reforms and the alienation of tribal land and redistributive justice as the root cause of rural unrest." Even then, these lobbies have lost out almost completely. "The momentum for protesting land liberalization has just not been there in the Gujarat of 1990s and beyond", she says quoting members of civil society.
Elaborating how the principle of "land to the tiller", first splashed in 1950s in Saurashtra and revived for political end 1980s by the then chief minister Madhavsinh Solanki, was continuously sought to be undermined, Sud says, "Politics has aided, indeed made possible, the liberalization of land." Though there was some resistance, as seen in 1994, when the attempt to abolish the eight-kilometre limit to buy or sell farmland failed, the very next year, the BJP government "passed the relevant bill in the legislative assembly." The Congress, despite its verbal opposition, has supported the move. She quotes a Congress politician to say how "different parties in Gujarat have espoused the same land policies", as "ideologies have nothing to do with it." Things have come to such a pass that there is "hassle-free access to land" by international and national corporate firms. The access of over 1,000 acres of land to the Tatas' Nano car project, shifted from West Bengal, is cited as an example of this.



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