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The Impossibility of Just Land Acquisition

If the State holds on to the market logic and sees the challenge in land acquisition as a problem of individual will of the "affected families" whose consent has to be taken (even when it is of a high order, i e, 80%), then it can be expected that the State and its apparatus will create political conditions (read repress people, as has been the experience in the Fifth Schedule Areas) to receive the consent of individual families.


The Impossibility of Just Land Acquisition

Swagato Sarkar

capitalism is produced by the urge for accumulation.

In other words, capitalism requires land (and raw materials), labour and technology to be available in the market as (exchangeable) commodities. The historical precondition and presupposition of this market exchange process – the very emer-

If the State holds on to the market logic and sees the challenge in land acquisition as a problem of individual will of the “affected families” whose consent has to be taken (even when it is of a high order, i e, 80%), then it can be expected that the State and its apparatus will create political conditions (read repress people, as has been the experience in the Fifth Schedule Areas) to receive the consent of individual families.

The author would like to thank Shilpi Bhattacharya, Aseem Prakash and Vaiji Raghunathan for their comments on this essay.


Economic & Political Weekly

october 8, 2011

he Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill, 2 11 (h

, 2

11 (h

forth, the Bill) has been introduced in Lok Sabha, which will replace the much criticised Land Acquisition Act, 1894. The new Bill aims to “ensure a humane, participatory, informed consultative and transparent process for land acquisition for industrialisation, development of essential infrastructural facilities and urbanisation”

(italics in original). It tries to comprehen

sively define “public purpose” and outlines

various kinds of compensation which will

be provided to the displaced landowners

and the people dependent on the acquired

land. It proposes that consent from 80%

of the affected families needs to be ob

tained (similar to the “free, prior and in

formed consent” policy ideology) and “a

Social Impact Assessment of proposals

leading to displacement of people” to be

conducted before the acquisition. The Bill

wants private companies to buy land

directly through “private negotiations on

a ‘willing seller-willing buyer’ basis” for

their private use. It is quite evident that

the Bill is an attempt to gain control over

the conflict and violence associated with

land acquisition and respond to the resis

tance movements against land acquisi

tion across India.

This article examines the tropes of “hu

mane process of land acquisition”, “just

and fair compensation”, “public purpose”,

“voluntary/involuntary acquisition”, “will

ing/unwilling seller” which frame the nor

mative argument of this Bill (and also the

debate around land acquisition in India)

vis-à-vis the demand of land/natural re

sources for the expansion of private capi

tal and the demands of the people oppos

ing such acquisitions.

Logic of Market

Capitalist transformation is impossible without the reorganisation of property relationships. The central dynamic of

vol xlvi no 41

gence and existence of modern market – is “divorc[ing] the worker from the ownership of the conditions of his [/her] own labour; it is a process which operates two transformations, whereby the social means of subsistence and production are turned into capital, and the immediate producers are turned into wage-labourers” (Marx 1976 (1867): 874). In a predominantly agrarian country, this clearance leads to the release of land and natural resources to capital and the creation of a workforce out of peasantry and the destruction of the existing modes of exchanges.

However, in contemporary India, the further addition of people to the existing large reserve army of wage-labourers by displacing them from land may not be a significant strategic outcome from capital’s point of view as was the case in the development of European capitalism – i e, the consequentialist critique and the historicist argument in the framework of primitive accumulation may therefore be abandoned. In the present context, the land question of capital has gained prominence over its labour question within this framework. Land can be required for expanding the area of production and operation of a firm, or simply for hoarding and speculating on land-price. Whatever may be the case, this process of transfer of land cannot be a smooth one, as the existing owners and possessors of land, or the people dependent on that land can object to and resist the transfer. Therefore force needs to be applied to overcome such objections and resistances and to make the transfer possible. Hence, displacement and dislocation and the attendant violence are the internal moments of capitalism.

The universal consequence of this process is the establishment of hegemony of the market rationality (i e, (fair) exchange of commodities). The market exchange process becomes the “normal” mode of transaction. The market is posited as the main domain of mediating social relationships


and postulating the contractual agreements that bind these relationships as free, which are governed by the norms of fairness and equality. It is fair because equal is exchanged for equal and each sells (properties) which are at his or her disposal and without any coercion. The foundation of fair exchange is equality. Consent is the bedrock concept of the contractual relationships which govern the market economy. The parties involved in these transactions are considered as private individuals, equal before the law, who enter into such transactions willingly or voluntarily without succumbing to any coercion. The “contractual obligation [is] seen to arise from the will of the individual” and “[i]ndividuals [will] themselves into positions of obligation”, i e, there has been a “meeting of the minds” (Dalton 1985: 1012).

The Limits of the Bill

This logic of market and its normative propositions are imported in the Bill, and thereby it tries to argue for providing “just compensation” to, and obtaining “consent” of, the affected families whose land is acquired. It expects that the solution to the conflict over land acquisition can be found within the logic of market. There are three interrelated problems with this political/policy position:

One, the logic of market holds good as long as people are willing to sell their land at a desired price (or for an attractive compensation and rehabilitation package). But the specific context which has given rise to resistance to land acquisition is not

“imperfect land market” as the minister of rural development opines in his foreword to the draft Bill, but the non-existence of land market – i e, an absent market where there are no “willing sellers” for a particular land, though there are buyers. In other words, there is neither any existing relationship between the seller (landowners or possessors) and the buyer (the State or a private company), nor the former is willing to enter into such a relationship. The seller does not exist. This absent market is not analogous to the neoclassical understanding of imperfect or missing market which can be supplemented, created or ameliorated through positive interventions.

This absent market is not a given, rather a political achievement, something that emerges out of the resistance movements against land acquisition. This resistance to acquisition cannot be simply reduced to a problem of unattractive price/compensation or exploitation of farmers by offering lower price.

Two, a large section of policymakers, economists and NGOs have argued for

adequate, just and fair compensation for a long time. They propose that there should be an elaborate set of calculations to make compensation fair both in terms of the amount of compensation to be provided and the recognition of a wide range of claimants,e g, to compensate monetarily, to provide alternative assets (e g, land-forland), or equity in the company, not only to the landowners, but all other people

directly dependent on the land in question – landless labourers, sharecroppers, shepherds, and so on. In other words, an expanded social costing is proposed to be conducted. The Bill argues for such an exercise of expanded social costing, “scientific method for calculation of the market


value of the land” and the recognition of various claimants and “livelihood losers”.

An expanded social costing does not necessarily make compensation just and fair. In the contractual domain of the market, prices make transactions in commodities fair and equal. Prices reflect the measure of a quantity. Here, equality is quantitative. In the absence of a market, compensation replaces prices, but compensation does not find a quantitative standard or reference to measure against. The calculation of compensation has to be speculative and arbitrary and no scientific calculation of value is possible. It has to ultimately depend on the voluntary acceptance by the displaced people. Thus in the case of compensation, the liberal idea of equality (apart from being equally reasonable and equal before the god) based on a quantifiable parameter and its correspondence to a reference and the calculative logic that it follows reaches its limit. The emphasis on culture in the articulations of the resistance movements has further jeopardised this idea of equality.

Involuntary land acquisition by the State and the offer of compensation cannot be a case of quasi-contract. Quasi-contracts come into being where the private will or intent is absent, “rather than inequivalence of exchange” (Dalton 1985: 1001), and the public obligation overshadows the private concerns. This “exceptional imposition of obligation by the state” is conducted “in order to prevent unjust private [i e, private parties] enrichment” (ibid: 1011). The “absence of private will or intent” in case of resistance to land acquisition is exactly opposite to the ground of quasi-contract: it is not a negative, but a positive moment

– the resistance itself wants to “prevent unjust private enrichment”.

The creation of public infrastructure in contemporary India not only involves private parties through public-private partnerships, but it is a condition for capitalist expansion and therefore can actually be seen as a case of indirect private enrichment as it ultimately promotes private interests. Thus, even when land is acquired for public infrastructure and urbanisation, not directly for any private party, the normative ground of quasi-contract is not obtained. The concept of public receives its meaning or definition within the given context of

Economic & Political Weekly

october 8, 2011

economic change and the related develop

mentalism, as was articulated by Rural

Development Minister Jairam Ramesh

(2011: 1) in this case, “Infrastructure across

the country must expand rapidly. Industri

alisation, especially based on manufactur

ing has also to accelerate. Urbanisation is


Thus the State either has to accept the

will of the people, or displace that with a

utilitarian justification for the greater

common good of the public or nation:

“benefits largely accru[ing] to the general

public” (Sec 3 za (vi A)). While the ideo

logical masking of private enrichment as

public purpose is possible, where the State

and the argument for land acquisition fal

ter is the democratic condition, i e, the

question of will and consent of the people,

the popular sovereignty. This concept of

consent needs to be expanded.

Third, consent cannot be understood

solely from a liberal perspective, as an ex

pression of uncoerced individual will, as

in the case of contracts in the market.

Consent has political significance beyond

liberalism. The concept of consent is

linked to the concept of citizenship and

the normative ground of sovereignty, i e,

the consent giving subject is the basis of

popular sovereignty. This subject is not

necessarily an individual, but the subject

of the discourse of political modernity, an

abstract category. It is singular, autono

mous and sovereign. The resistance move

ments might appear contradictory as they

make their claim on the modernist ground

of sovereignty and autonomy, yet make an

argument for preserving communal ties

and culture. But it is not a contradiction

because in the given context community

does not refer to common ancestry and

custom or t

or t

e ce c
ion of bion of b
g prg pr
tied (like the liberal understanding of community). The movements articulate a concept of community which refers to the consciousness of our being in the world, an attention to the ontological background which gives meaning to our existence. They critique the transformation of the meaning of being human and the modes of social recognition and power relationships. The demand for the preservation of culture is not informed by (strategic) essentialism. Therefore, the consent giving subject in the context of resistance

vol xlvi no 41

movements cannot be equated with the individual contractual subject of the market with whom the State/private companies can negotiate about the amount of compensation. Rather, this subject is the locus of a political movement, which puts forward a critique of capitalist change, but holds on to a vision of “development” (i e, better availability of food, water, communication, education, etc). It is singular-yetcommunal in that sense.

A truly democratic polity recognises this singular-yet-communal subject and negotiates with its articulations. The recognition and negotiation will not be possible when a policy or law is framed rigidly within a particular developmentalism, as is the case with the present Bill, which forecloses the possibility of ideological reworking and compromises. Therefore consent is not about whether someone agrees to sell or part away with their individual or family land, but that by disagreeing to sell, they are not giving consent to the proposed model of development. Thus it is important to couple consent with disagreement to tease out the meaning of consent in the present context of resistance movements against land acquisition.


If the State holds on to the market logic and sees the challenge in land acquisition as a problem of individual will of the affected families whose consent has to be taken (even when it is of a high order, i e, 80%), then it can be expected that the State and its apparatus will create political conditions (read repress people, as has been the experience in the Fifth Schedule Areas) to receive the consent of individual families. But if the State accepts the limits of law and policy in resolving certain contentious and intractable issues, then it will learn to withdraw from prior commitment to any particular rationality and ideology. Rather it remains open to contingency, by conferring priority to the democratic values of disagreement, dissent and plurality of modes of existence. It offers people the right to object to the State’s developmentalism. It recognises that the concept of community is not simply an aggregation of families or individuals, but an articulation of a shared life-form encompassing culture, economy, norms


Marx, Karl (1976 (1867)): Capital Vol 1 (London: Penguin Books).

The Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill, 2011, introduced in Lok Sabha on 5 September 2011, downloaded on 10 September 2011 (from

Ramesh, Jairam (2011): “Foreword” (to The Draft National Land Acquisition and Rehabilitation & Resettlement Bill 2011), downloaded on 2 August (








-and ethics – even when such articulations are made in a retroactive manner, in the event of dislocation. This concept of community broadens the normative understanding of citizenship from its affiliation to possessive individualism. The art of democratic policymaking recognises this expanded notion of citizenship and abandons the utilitarian bias, and creates a less repressive society.


Dalton, Clare (1985): “An Essay in the Deconstruction of Contract Doctrine”, Yale Law Journal, 94: 997-1113.






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