Development is a funny word — it’s a word that you can’t argue against. How could anybody rationally be against such a positive concept? But resistance to development can be seen all over India, perhaps most visibly in the protests against the acquisition of land for building what are known as special economic zones, clusters of export oriented industry for which the government provides infrastructure services and tax incentives.
Last week, I attended a meeting about the process of land acquisition for special economic zones in Tamil Nadu. Dozens of these zones have been approved for the state, and the Tamil Nadu government claims that the process of land acquisition in the state has been completely without dissent. However, the experience of villagers has actually been very mixed. Many people have faced problems with the process of land acquisition: they have been forcibly evicted from their lands, they are arrested and harrassed for protesting against unfair treatment by the authorities, they receive far less than the value of their land from the government. They also lose their job security: after they sell their farmland, people find that they do not have the skills to actually work in the factories that are built there.
The more I listened to the stories of these villagers, in which the state appeared to be a villain that used the Land Acquisition Act as a weapon, the more I wondered — why were so few people at the meeting? Only about 200 to 300 people came from the villages, surprising at a meeting which was supposed to address land issues for a wide range of SEZ projects all over Tamil Nadu, from Ennore port to Sriperumbudur. If the state had been iron fisted in acquiring land, why was there so little resistance in Tamil Nadu?
After talking to some attendees, I think I found the beginnings of an answer to this question.
Firstly, the pattern of urbanization in Tamil Nadu is such that the state is both highly urbanized relative to India as a whole (40% versus 27%) and that urban centers are spread out throughout the state. This means that most villages are within a one or two hour bus-ride of a major metropolis. As a result, even most farming families have one foot in urban economies — they own a roadside stall which benefits from traffic to and from urban areas or they have one or two family members working in urban areas. So that means that there are few villages, or even few families, that end up as clear losers as a result of losing valuable agricultural land. — There are no clear sites of resistance to land acquisition.
Secondly, this meeting was also entirely attended by landOWNERS. But apparently Tamil Nadu has the largest percentage of landless rural people in the country. These landless rural poor may not have any clear gains from agricultural land being converted to SEZ‘s, but they certainly also have nothing to lose.
These two factors are unique to Tamil Nadu, and may help to explain why the process of land acquisition for SEZ‘s here has been relatively smooth. Economic development is a positive phenomenon, but its benefits are highly unequally distributed in India. The meeting made clear, however, that the government still has not found a way to redistribute the benefits of development so that everyone wins.