Development and Resistance

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.

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2 comments
  1. wendy said:

    Nithya,

    this is wendy from harvard. we met only once… i wanted to tell you that when i was alone in India, i very much appreciated your blog… especially finding resonance with your writing after the Mumbai attacks. i was working in Bhopal at the time.

    i know very little regarding urban planning or economics. (i was a child psych major.) you describe economic development as a positive phenomenon, and how can we argue with improved standards of living (though unevenly distributed as you say)?

    but what sort of industry will arise on the SEZ’s? will they be Indian projects only, though focused on export?

    i have such a confused moral relationship with development, when it happens in such a haphazard and at times unethical way (note union carbide and 1984). it may create jobs, but what might be the long term complications (environmental, health)? sometimes i even wonder if what the “developing” world is developing towards is much to be desired.

    do you personally experience moral confusion regarding these issues? maybe you can help me understand my own confusion.

    you’re a beautiful writer and i look forward to future entries. now it’s off to sleep. i’m back in the States and enjoying the half dream world of jet lag.

    take care.

  2. nraman said:

    Hi Wendy, On re-reading this post, I realize that my blog persona is a little more centrist than I am in real life. In real life, I would never make the statement “economic development is a positive phenomenon” without twenty caveats about the inevitable attendant environmental destruction, the collapse of society tied together by bonds of community into one tied together purely by the mutual pursuit of personal gain, etc. etc. I think economic development brings with it a lot of problems, and we have to grapple with those.

    However, after working in India for four years (incidentally, some small part of it at the Sambhavna Clinic — did Rachna tell you she knows me? My friend Vijay and I wrote the Amnesty report on Bhopal in 2004.), I think that being anti-development is naive.

    Firstly, when you’re anti-development, what are you for? Am I for preserving traditional village life in India? Definitely not. Traditional village society, indeed, much of the history of India, is characterized by systematic caste violence and oppression, and not something I want to preserve in any form.

    Secondly, when I was working in a slum in Chennai that was facing eviction, I realized that the residents of the slum were really happy with Chennai’s recent growth. They liked having more consumer goods, they liked making more money, they liked that the city looked cleaner and more modern. What they didn’t like was when they couldn’t share in the prosperity.

    So do I experience moral confusion regarding these issues? Not really, because it’s not my decision to make. And it’s happening regardless of whether I like it or not. All I can say is that the government needs to do its job better of redistributing wealth from the winners to the losers of development. Does this make sense? I’m not editing myself much right now.

    Thanks so much for reading and commenting, and I really hope that you’ll continue to do both! Also my cousin has promised a comment on this post on similar questions. His perspective may clarify mine further…

    –Nithya

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