Championing poor farmers

Then and now

Both the ugliest dog in Karnataka’s manger and those protesting against building a dam on the river Narmada claim to be acting in the interests of poor farmers. Both are taken with varying degrees of belief, scepticism and most of all, resignation. In democratic India, the politics of land, it appears, stands in the way of the politics over development. (Ignoring of course, that H D Deve Gowda and his clan are about as democratic as the Pakistani military establishment when it comes to their use of political power to corner land).

Since this is about protecting the interests of the poor and the downtrodden, let’s compare the today’s champions — the saintly and the political — with those of another era.

The execution of (the Hirakud dam project in Orissa) necessarily involved the immersion of large tracts of land. The Government of Orissa started acquiring these lands on terms very favourable to the tenants. Land acquisition has a way of creating resentment among the peasantry and the (ruling princes) of Orissa began to exploit the situation. The anti-Hirakud agitation was started and sustained at a high pitch…Even Gandhiji’s appeal to the rulers not to support such an obviously anti-national movement fell on deaf ears. [V P Menon/Integration of Indian States (Orient Longman)]

The three-man committee that approved the Hirakud Dam project included Dr B R Ambedkar, who was Member for Public Works in the Governor-General’s council at that time.

The Hirakud was another case where Nehru faced concerted and determined resistance, as early as 1946, to the construction of a large dam on the Mahanadi River at Hirakud, Orissa. In fact, local Congress leaders even organized workshops to debate its social and economic benefits, costs and rehabilitation for those who were going to get displaced by the project. Nehru admonished the people by crudely saying that they would have to suffer so that the country could move ahead and inaugurated the dam in April 1948.

…Two decades earlier Mahatma Gandhi had urged those being displaced by the Mulshi Peth dam being constructed by the Tata Power Company to negotiate the best deal they could get…Nehru was not an anti-thesis to Gandhi.[IIC Delhi]

Today’s agitators — the cinematic, the theatrical, the political and especially the ‘saintly’ — have only ended up projecting the interests of ‘poor farmers’ as antithetical to the larger interests of the nation.

18 thoughts on “Championing poor farmers”

  1. Nitin,

    While I agree with the gist of post, I remain somewhat reluctanct.
    The basic reason is that of eminent domain, shouldn’t one have an irrevocable claim on his property ? I think Amit Varma has written on it.

    Even if eminent domain is not a guiding (and here I admit I am confused about eminent domain as guiding principle too, where does it leave IP rights for example) I think the displaced should be given the equivalent amount of aerable land.

    Ofcourse concerns about enviromental impact and bureaucratic redtape remain.

    Regards

  2. Gaurav,

    The political tussle is over fair compensation. Indeed, the best compensation is cash. This gives the maximum freedom to the recipient — he can purchase arable land, a motorcyle, invest the money or fritter it away as he sees fit.

    The right to property used to be a fundamental right, but was repealed by parliament in 1978. An ‘authority of law’ can deprive a citizen of his property, without even having to pay compensation. That’s the law. But paying fair compensation is usually good public policy.

  3. Nitin,

    How does one decide “fair compensation” when government is the sole buyer ?

    (Not for purpose of rhetoric, I have thought about it and couldnt find the solution)

    Regards

  4. Gaurav,

    There’s a ‘market price’ for everything. Valuation of land and property is not a major technical difficulty. For example, banks do it when farmers take out loans secured against their lands. Farmers themselves do it when they buy and sell land.

  5. It tells on H D Deve Gowda’s claims of representing the poor that not once, since the flooding in Bangalore last September has he visited the affected areas – most folks did not even get adequate relief much less compensation.

    As for the BMIC project, there was an exemplary fine imposed on the Karnataka govt, and it was castigated by the Supreme Court for “frivolous arguments”. Had a on it a while back

  6. The fact is that compensation decided by the goverment is very often one-sided and inaccurate. Classic example — the Delhi Development Authority used to buy land from farmers at agricultural land prices, redesignate the land as residential and commercial and resell it for much higher prices.

    Even if the Government decides to pay a fair price (and very often thats not the case, and these things can be tied up in courts for years), what about any sentimental value or attachment to the house where you grew up ? You might not want to leave in any case. Even more so, if its your farm — then its the source of your income and livelihood and the compensation may not make up for that.

    I also like the way Nitin says “paying fair compensation is usually good public policy.” ? Usually ? What is it otherwise if not legalized theft, no different from communist regimes ?

    I wonder if people like Nitin would seem to favor government acquisitions of property so much if the government decides to acquire his home at a rate which it decides.

    The urban elites like Nitin know their property is almost never going to be taken over by the Government. Its villages and farmers property that is normally being acquired, so Nitin can pontitificate about how its anti-national to want your property to be seized by force by the government.

    Now, the politicians supporting the farmers are indeed hypocrites. And indeed eminent domain is needed for major projects. Every democratic country in the world has some form of eminent domain. But to blithely dismiss the concerns of people whose homes and places of livelihood will be submerged by a dam by saying that they’ll get money (unclear if that represents full compensation) is utter elitist nonsense.

  7. Mangal,

    Where would you draw the line? Say if the government does pay the right market price (I know, I know, our government is corrupt and incompetent and probably won’t pay market rates – but assume it’s a normal functioning government), would you be okay to evict 10% of population that does not want to leave the site of the dam? 5%? One family?

    When would you consider a person who wants to ask questions on what is the right to think do a non-elitist and not spouting nonsense.

    Indian government has built/expanded a 4000-5000KM stretch of road in the past four to five years fairly successfully gobbling up farm lands and other property. Apparently it is capable of compensating and laying roads for those nonsensical urban elite to travel.


  8. When would you consider a person who wants to ask questions on what is the right to think do a non-elitist and not spouting nonsense.

    I have no idea what you’re saying here. But anyone who wants to ask questions is welcome, since there are no easy answers here. Anyone who thinks there are easy answers is the one spouting nonsense.


    Indian government has built/expanded a 4000-5000KM stretch of road in the past four to five years fairly successfully gobbling up farm lands and other property. Apparently it is capable of compensating and laying roads for those nonsensical urban elite to travel.

    Land acquisition for roads is different from land acquisition for dams. In most cases, the land acquired from a single farmer is a much smaller stretch and the farmers property overall probably increases dramatically in value as a result of the road. By contrast, a dam submerges tens of thousands of acres and entire farms.

    I am not opposed to eminent domain. Every single democratic government on Earth has it, and even the US has its abuses of Eminent Domain, despite a strict Constitutional requirement to provide compensation. All I ask is that compensation should be fair and some attention should be paid to the plight of the people displaced when massive projects like dams are carried out.

    My objection is not to eminent domain by itself, even in huge projects. My objection was to Nitin’s approvingly recyling quotes calling people who objected to having their land acquired “anti national”, saying that “cash” was a great compensation for people who had their land acquired (what about those who didnt’ want to move or were paid below market rates?).

    He also claims


    Today’s agitators — the cinematic, the theatrical, the political and especially the ’saintly’ — have only ended up projecting the interests of ‘poor farmers’ as antithetical to the larger interests of the nation.

    But in fact, for farmers who don’t want to move, who are getting inadequate comepnsation, their interests and personal desires are indeed antithetical to the larger interest of the nation. It may be necessary to acquire land via eminent domain, but people whose land is being taken have a full right to complain. Its THEIR property, not the governments. If you wouldn’t like your house taken because the government wants to build a new property there, you can know how they feel.

  9. Nitin,

    I had posted on the same topic a week or so ago, and it mysteriously didn’t appear on indianeconomy.org

    Here is the link

    But I will try to simplify and add some things.

    My Hypothesis: Huge dams are worthless in the long term, and lead to enormous cost overruns with horrendous environmental impacts.

    Facts
    1) A large body of floating water leads to a large amount of evaporation. Fully 20-40% of a dam is lost and is not recovered. It is uneconomical to have a huge sheet of plastic or other similar material shut off the sunlight to prevent evaporation. Not to mention the bacterial contamination of above ground water in absence of sunlight, if it happens.

    2) Again there are losses to seepage, I would estimate it conservatively at 10-30%.

    3) Build up of sediments reduces total volume available for water. Sediments have to be cleared manually, which means dredging of water. This often leads to a mixing of highly sedimented water till the dredging is done. Again, this would lead to a contribution for seepage and evaporation losses.

    Instead if you could create small reservoirs of water with the deliberate intention of channeling and storing the water beneath the surface (sub-surface ponds) that would take care of almost all losses. No loss to evaporation, no seepage because it will charge the surrounding water table of the area and raise the overall height of water, no sediment clearing.

    Observe, how large bodies of water usually have tree life which takes care of the sediments. If you have trees in or near the water, they have a thriving community of bacteria in the root system (rhizosphere) which just uptakes sediments and delivers it to the leaf and branches. Having trees just reduces sedimentation, and having rocks encourages phytoplankton and algae to grow.

    Dams are mostly a way to ensure the politicians can get a lot of money sanctioned and then subsequently drowned in a sea of water.

  10. And yes, before anybody thought of dams, our ancestors in India were using these very things to survive in even densely populated cities like Maghada. These are not new things.

    For fun, I would like to point out a ‘collecting water from fog’ idea.

    From this website


    An age-old practice

    In ancient times, fog water was often collected for domestic and agricultural use.

    * The inhabitants of what is now Israel used to build small, low, circular honeycombed walls around their vines, so that the mist and dew could precipitate in the immediate vicinity of the plants.
    * Historically, in the Atacama, both dew and fog were collected by means of a pile of stones, arranged so that the condensation would drip to the inside of the base of the pile, where it was shielded from the day’s sunshine. The same technique was employed in Egypt, with the collected water stored underground in aqueducts.
    * In Gibraltar, a similar technique is used: a large area on the slope of the rock has been covered with cement blocks. Fog and rainwater runs downwards and is collected underground where evaporation is minimised.
    * On a smaller scale, rain, fog and dew are collected on enormous granite rocks at Cape Columbine lighthouse, on the West Coast. Low retaining walls have been cemented onto the sloping rock surface to channel the water into a reservoir at the base of the outcrop.
    * The first fog collection installation in South Africa – prior to the Chilean project – was at Mariepskop in Mpumalanga, in 1969/70. It was used as an interim measure to supply water to the South African Air Force personnel manning the Mariepskop radar station. Two large fog screens, constructed from plastic mesh and measuring about 28m x 3,5 m each, were erected at right angles to each other and to the fog and cloud-bearing winds. These yielded more than 11 l of water per square meter of collecting surface, per day. Unfortunately, the project was terminated once an alternative water source was found.

  11. Mangal,

    The worst thing about personalising arguments againt the arguer is that your own arguments may fall flat if the personalisation is wrong.

    I wonder if people like Nitin would seem to favor government acquisitions of property so much if the government decides to acquire his home at a rate which it decides.

    Well, here’s my answer – I would favour government acquisitions of property for the greater good of the nation even if the government acquires my home, with all the sentimentalities attached to it, without paying me a paisa in compensation. And just by the way, how do you know that the government has not already done so?

    The urban elites like Nitin know their property is almost never going to be taken over by the Government. Its villages and farmers property that is normally being acquired, so Nitin can pontitificate about how its anti-national to want your property to be seized by force by the government.

    Again, how do you know that I’m an urban elite, or that my family has not been affected by land acquisitions. More importantly, why do you suppose urban elites cannot understand the sentiments of the villagers and the farmers. That’s as fallacious as contending that men don’t make good gynaecologists because they can’t feel labour pains.

    As for the ‘pontification’, it came from Mahatma Gandhi. I’d think that he earned the right to pontificate, even if you argue that I can’t.

    Your arguments do not become any stronger by attacking me personally. That’s a good reason to avoid indulging in them.

  12. Mangal,

    Your second argument is a valid one. Everyone has right to protest and to seek just compensation. In India, socialism has defined down property rights long time ago – a renter can steal a house because he lived in a place for so long (even Supreme Court agrees to this dilution to property rights) and a squatter can claim someone else’s land.

    Upholding property rights and clearly legally defining which extreme cases merit eminent domain will help. But, clear rules are an anathema for our lawmakers and bureaucracy – clear rules remove their power for arbitrariness and political (and corrupt) gains.

    Your personal attacks in the first argument – urban elitist and utter elitist nonsense – were totally uncalled for. (My sentence on the other hand was confusing and nonsensical :). It should have read: “When would you consider a person, who wants to ask questions as to what is the right thing to do, a non-elitist and not spouting nonsense?”)

  13. How does one highlight any injustice done during the course of a project of national importance? Any protest against the injustice would be labeled as antithetical to the larger interests of the nation, even if the protestors have nothing against the project but only wants fair compensation.
    Wouldn’t people who expect to benefit from the project color the protestors as against national interest fearing that the protest might derail the project and there by reduce their expected benefit?


  14. Well, here’s my answer – I would favour government acquisitions of property for the greater good of the nation even if the government acquires my home, with all the sentimentalities attached to it, without paying me a paisa in compensation.

    Great, why don’t you write a letter to your local municipality inviting them to take over your house without compensation for the national interest ? I’m sure they can convert it into a school for blind children or maybe a home for the local party boss or something similar in the national interest. Go for it !!


    And just by the way, how do you know that the government has not already done so?

    I will eat all my words if that has indeed happened. In fact, I will do so immediatedly if you undertake the steps I described above.


    More importantly, why do you suppose urban elites cannot understand the sentiments of the villagers and the farmers. That’s as fallacious as contending that men don’t make good gynaecologists because they can’t feel labour pains.

    For the record, I have nothing against urban dwellers, or almost all member of the urban elite or the like. I do object to urban elites who seem to casually dismiss as anti-national the concerns of farmers whose property is being seized, and suggest that cash is a complete compensation. And I don’t are if Gandhi said, or Nehru said it, or Mao said it.

    How is acquiring land at a government set price any different from nationalization of industries ? It is an outmoded socialist believe that the government is always right and it can take your property if it wishes, and you are anti-national to oppose it.

  15. Mangal,

    I’ve communicated this to you already — this is not a forum for infantile personal attacks. You are welcome to participate in a discussion on this blog only if you can manage to do so in a civil manner.

  16. Nitin,

    Mangal has got a point, though he is rather heavy on the sarcasm.

    I read a story a few days ago that somebody who didn’t want electricity, sewage, or water was being forced to have them. Here is the story

    Isn’t it pretty obvious why the utility companies want to have him as a ‘customer’?

    And you still think that big dams are a necessity? Care to address how big dams help poor farmers? That is, as I understand your original post at Indianeconomy and here on your website. Instead we are slightly off and arguing about non-sequiturs on both blogs.

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