Ongoing land conflicts affecting lives, livelihoods of over 6.5 mn people

Under the LARR Act, the land acquisition has definitely become more expensive and tedious for the industry
Independent researcher Kumar Sambhav, who has co-founded Land Conflict Watch - the first and largest database of ongoing land conflicts in India - tells Aditi Phadnis that while India has enacted laws to protect the rights of marginalised communities, these are either not implemented, or violated and bypassed. Edited excerpts: 

You have just come out with a study on land conflicts in India. Tell us about its findings.

Land Conflict Watch undertook a 3-year intensive research on 703 ongoing land conflicts across India. Over 40 researchers, spread across the country, collected granular data on the different economic sectors involved, social factors at play, laws involved, and land types involved in these conflicts.We distilled data based on regional political-economic realities, such as the existence of Left-wing extremism (LWE) -- the violence caused by armed rebellious groups claiming adherence to extreme-Left ideologies -- in some regions of India and the tribal population-dominated ‘Scheduled Areas’ which have special constitutional provisions for protection of tribal rights.

The resultant study, which my colleague Thomas Worsdell and I co-authored, reveals where and why land conflicts are occurring in India and presents fresh evidence of how these land conflicts are affecting different sections of the society and several segments of business and economy.

We found that ongoing land conflicts affect lives and livelihoods of over 6.5 million people and over 2.1 million ha of land is locked in the conflicts. Rs 13.7 trillion (US $190 billion) of committed, earmarked, and potential investments were found embroiled in 335 of the 703 land conflicts. This constitutes 7.2% of the revised estimate of the country’s GDP for 2018–19. These are very conservative estimates recorded at the time of the documentation of the conflicts. The total quantum of investment locked in all the documented conflicts at the current prices is likely to be substantially higher.

We found that on one hand, the need for infrastructural enhancement has become the leading reason for new land conflicts; on the other, conflicts have emerged from unexpected economic activities, such as the state’s conservation and forestry initiatives. Against the popular discourse of disputes related to private lands, the study shows that majority of land conflicts (68%) involve common lands. A large number of these conflicts are caused due to violation or non-implementation of the Forest Rights Act, 2006.  

This research also provides, arguably for the first time, granular and highly representative data set to corroborate what researchers had previously inferred about the nature of land conflicts in India. Marginalised communities – such as tribes and those living in resource-rich but violence-afflicted areas – are disproportionately impacted by land and resource conflicts.

Among the conflicts analysed in the study, in 104 cases, the conflicts have been going on for at least two decades, and in another 149 conflicts, cases have remained unresolved for at least a decade. The destruction of livelihood opportunities, capital, and investment caused by these prolonged cases has had a debilitating impact on the lives of the citizens caught in the conflict as well ason the economy at large.

Land is a state subject. But land acquisition is in the concurrent list. How much does this definitional anomaly contribute to conflict?

Land is a state subject, but both the Centre and the states can legislate on land acquisition. For long most of the central and the state land acquisition laws were aligned, even though they were tilted heavily in the favour of the government and against the interests of the land owners. But the definitional anomaly, as you pointed out, has become much stark after the Centre replaced the colonial-era land acquisition act of 1894 with the more progressive Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (LARR) Act in 2013.

The new law has increased compensation for landowners and made it mandatory to seek landowners’ consent before their land is acquired. It also requires that projects first study the social impact of land acquisition. The states are expected to align their laws along the lines of the central law. However, many state governments do not want to implement these provisions. As a result they have enacted their own versions of the LARR Act and the rules that bypass or dilute these progressive provisions. Some states like Karnataka, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu have kept using the colonial land acquisition laws even after the enactment of the LARR Act. In many cases of land acquisition under these old laws or the new diluted state versions of the LARR Act, landowners have approached the courts against the acquisition of land. The state governments are failing to realise that farmers and landowners are much more aware of the actual market value of their land and about the legal provisions related to consent and rehabilitation etc. They are ready to pose legal challenge to any acquisition that they feel is unfair to them.  

What impact have changes in land acquisition laws had on conflict? Is it easier now for industry to acquire land or more difficult?

Under the LARR Act, the land acquisition has definitely become more expensive and tedious for the industry. It doesn’t want to follow the lengthy and the tedious process laid out in the new law. It often complains about the cost escalations due to the delays and seeks shortcuts to bypass the process. Many state governments have tried to enact their own versions of land acquisition law or new rules and policies to allow the industry to bypass the provisions of LARR Act. But as I mentioned earlier, many times projects pushed through such short-cuts face legal challenges in courts and/or protests on the ground. This bodes ill for both communities and the businesses.

One interesting thing that has happened due to change in land laws is that now the industry and government bodies are going for direct and consensual purchase of land from the landowners outside the purview of the land acquisition law. This helps landowners realise the market value of their land in most cases and helps the developers avoid the lengthy land acquisition process. The biggest problem in this arrangement is that the landless workers, who depend on the land for livelihood are denied compensation or rehabilitation, which is compulsory under the LARR Act. Nobody is talking about this uncomfortable truth.

Your study says in 95 per cent of the cases of land conflict, it is the state versus the people. How do you explain this?

The study considers only those conflicts in which public, either as a group of individuals, or as communities, comprises at least one party involved in the conflict. Out of these 703 cases, in which communities are one party, 70% conflicts are arising due to state activities. These could be either the infrastructure or the development projects promoted by the government agencies including the PSUs or land-intensive forestry or conservation schemesof the forest departments. In another 25% cases, where the landowners are in conflict with the industry, the state agencies are parties as the mediator or regulator. In about 3% cases, the conflicts are between two or more communities. As the state is the regulator of the land use, it is natural that it would be a party in most land conflicts.

One of the commonest causes of conflict is land rights in forested areas, especially in districts that have a high level of LeftWing Extremism (LWE). What is the solution.

India’s forestlands are rich in minerals and other natural resources. Much of these lands overlap with Fifth Schedule Areas, which have a preponderance of tribal populations with relatively higher levels of economic backwardness. Large parts of these regions are also hit by the LWE violence. Our study shows the intensity of land conflicts in these regions is much higher than rest of the country.

Twelve per cent of India’s districts are officially affected by Left-wing extremism (LWE). But these districts account for 17% of the total conflicts, constitute 31% of the conflict affected area, and 15% of the people impacted by conflicts. Fifth Scheduled Areas overlap with just 13.6% of India’s districts , but 26% of the country’s land conflicts occur in these districts. These cases impact 28.5% of the 6.5 million people affected, and account for 41% of the total area impacted by land conflicts.

Sixty per cent of all mining related conflicts were found in Fifth Schedule districts. Seventy-five per cent of all conservation and forestry related conflicts, and 51.4% of mining related conflicts, involved the violation or non-implementation of the Forest Rights Act, 2006.

These findings point to only one thing. India has enacted laws such as the Panchayat’s Extension to Schedule Areas Act and the Forest Rights Act to protect the land rights of marginalised communities in resource rich regions, but these laws are either not implemented or are being violated and bypassed. Proper implementation of these laws, and other progressive land reforms such as the LARR Act can help in recognising land and resource rights of the marginalised population, resolving disputes over access and ownership, and facilitating more equitable negotiations for transferring rights and access between different parties. This study shows the cost of the not implementing these laws is much higher than previously imagined.

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