“Those Backward People” – Arun Jaitley and a Long Ugly History

Two days ago, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley sought to make a special mention of “poor, dalits, tribals, backwards, those who are landless.” The occasion was the the Land Acquisition Bill, which,

“we are bringing, as per that the industrial corridors which would be set up in the country, those backward people, the 300 million landless people would get employment opportunities,”

First, Mr Jaitley, what exactly is the mechanism your government proposes by which the “backwards” released from the land will be absorbed into industry? Is there a guarantee by the industry owners? Is there a provision for skill training in the same industrial corridors? Are there ITI institutes being set up? Forget these, is even primary or secondary education going to be expanded so that farmers’ children, at some point in the distant future can take advantage of the supposed industrial boom?

The doublespeakers and market worshippers will protest – you can’t hold the government responsible for ensuring full employment – that is the area of industry. In which case, the government should not use their names – the “poor, dalits, tribals, backwards (sic) and landless” for acquiring land at all. What is the purpose of a government-led land acquisition bill in a free market economy? Wait, this is not a free market economy? We are still a developing economy? How come then no further expansion of public infrastructure, public sector jobs or subsidies is allowed by the discourse-makers, while the corporate sector is fattened on more subsidies, disguised as incentives and tax benefits? Oh sorry I forgot, the corporate sector will boost jobs. Again, remind me, exactly how? And where will these jobs appear? In the same regions where land has been acquired, for the same people, or will they “naturally” have to look for jobs elsewhere? If they have to migrate for jobs, where will they acquire an education and set up homes? In our cities, which have such an excellent record of public housing, education and transport? Or would they benefit from the same corporate sector which is busy setting up large scale affordable educational and housing infrastructure in the country?

So basically, the government can safely guarantee removal of farmers from a home and livelihood but not future education, employment or housing. That is to be left to the market. And if a bulk of the land meant for industrial corridors is used by non-employment generating industry or by non-industrial commercial and real estate development, then that is just…economics. The biggest irony in all of this is the grand storm and noise made by the current BJP government about these schemes – like they were chalked out by the geniuses inside the government at a meeting yesterday. An examination of all major Parliamentary debates on the question of the development of Delhi in the first decade after independence shows that the exact same logic was at play then – acquiring land in the name of development of the poor and the landless (even if Nehru or his ministers didn’t explicitly use the ugly term “backwards”), while explicitly denying the poor any guarantees on how the land would be eventually disposed of and used.

Here is an extract from the Lok Sabha debate on setting up the Municipal Corporation of Delhi in 1957 – the issue was exactly the same as it is today – compensation for farmers for land acquired in and around urban Delhi, and guarantee of jobs for them. Radha Raman, MP from Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi is seen in this debate reminding the House that there was once a suggestion that all places in Delhi which had katras (traditional quarters), jhonpris (hutments) should be replaced with five-storey buildings and the occupants should be rehabilitated inside these – like in Bombay – and the answer given by the government was that this would cause a fall in the standards (“standard gir jayega”); it would not be appropriate for the biggest city in the world. Raman then highlights the differential effects of land acquisition on different constituencies within urban and rural Delhi,

“I would like to say something about acquisition. Acquire land by all means, but when you acquire ancestral land of 500-550 gaj and pay some compensation, that owner becomes unemployed so you give him some government job, and then of course you also handsomely profit. But what of those poor farmers who have very little land which has been acquired?” (RS 1957: 4951-3; in Hindi; translation mine).

Not only is the land acquired without guarantee of jobs for the landless or displaced, but as then MP Subhadra Joshi from Ambala noted, land acquisition by a public authority had given birth to a web of corruption that affected everybody. Joshi is seen in these Lok Sabha Debates speaking of the irony of what she calls a “mixed economy” in which the government preferred to pay private contractors market prices to develop residential and commercial properties rather than pay market prices as compensation to landowners and property-owners. Joshi correctly points out that individual property-owners would prefer to sell directly to the private developers, as Joshi points out; and thus public development authorities’ work would progressively become disincentivised. Highlighting the crucial role of private contractors in a so-called nationalized economy, she sarcastically remarks,

“This is the way in which a mixed economy operates”, “Iss tarah ki mixed economy chalti hai. Now, when private individuals develop land it costs less, and when the government develops land it costs more. Because in theory we have nationalization, but in actual practice, the CPWD gets its work done through private contractors…this mixing of private enterprise and government work is so unethical…when government acquires land, people have to sell cheap and government spends a lot on contractors who develop it. But if private developers acquire land directly, they pay more to owners, and develop it at less cost. So people are always trying to hold on to their land by fair or foul means, and sell it to private developers later on, especially when they find their land is surrounded by government colonies and hence its value has gone up. In fact unless there is serious thought given to the housing problem, these absurdities will continue. (RS 1957: 4958-59; partly in Hindi, translation mine).

Here is Minister for Home Affairs in the Nehru government in 1957 speaking on the DDA Bill, refusing any legal or justiciable protection for the poor around Delhi whose land would be acquired, and making a long, dissembling speech in which the interests of poor housing are placed second to the “development of Delhi City”; the naturalness of land acquisition for this purpose is asserted; the impossibility of making a distinction between a rich owner and poor owner for the purposes of compensation is pleaded for; the introduction of “great uncertainties” by any attempt to ascertain whether an owner is a genuine agriculturist or not is warned against; and finally, a carte blanche in favour of urbanization and loss of rural livelihood issued by the belief that rural populations who live near a city only stand to gain by urban development. Datar,

Secondly, another point also should be understood while all of us have the fullest sympathy and regard for the poor agriculturists. So far as Delhi is concerned and the surroundings of Delhi are concerned, even the agriculturists now stand to gain by this development. That is a point which has to be understood very clearly. I can understand the condition of agriculturists far into the interior, but as far as villages round about Delhi are concerned, they have greater advantages, greater facilities and, to a certain extent, they are better off than the agriculturists other-wise, because here we have got a great city of about 20 lakh souls, they have got marketing facilities and employment opportunities and, therefore, these agriculturists stand to gain to a certain extent at least. This matter should not be forgotten. Therefore, I would submit that when the land has to be acquired, as it has got to be acquired, then it would be very difficult to make a distinction between one who depends on agriculture and one who does not depend upon agriculture. Lastly, in this connection, there are many families of agriculturists who do not necessarily depend upon agriculture. They have other sources also because of the advantages due to the proximity of Delhi City (LS 1957: 5034-5036).

Then, as now, it was left to the evil, foreign-funded, five-star leftists to question this model of development, in which acquisition is assured, but safeguarding the future of the displaced is a pious hope at best. Communist MP from Andhra Prasad Rao’s intervention into the DDA debate wonders how post facto legalisation of transfer of agricultural land for non-agricultural policies can be sanctioned by the government to benefit the private developers of posh housing colonies of Delhi,

“Under the guise of giving lands to poor agricultural labourers, who are only supposed to build huts, this exemption is being given. Are we to understand that only huts are built on these lands? We are not objecting to lands being given to Harijans or poor peasants…but the question is this: How many big buildings have been built on such lands? How many capitalists have invested in these lands by way of construction of big houses?…Under the guise of giving land to poor agricultural labourers for building huts, valuable building sites are being given to the big colonisers, to the big financiers who have invested lakhs and lakhs of rupees in laying out and building these colonies” (RS 1959: 2411)53.

This is how Delhi was built. This is how the future India will be built.

3 thoughts on ““Those Backward People” – Arun Jaitley and a Long Ugly History”

  1. Acquiring land without restrictions is definitely not good for future health of the country. Fertility of land, proximity to the water resource are like some important factors upon which restrictions are must. In the past it is observed near lakes, on river banks industries and townships are built by killing farms just because someone was able to manage municipalities. If we keep ignoring this in future farming will be impossible.
    For short term profits we are endangering our food security


  2. Current land grab has two main objectives:
    1. Reverse the land reform and create a new class of feudal gentry out of politico-business section of society. Grab the land in the name of development and then denotify it and hand it over to the prodigal. There are already such several cases.
    2. Create Islands of prosperity in the name of smart cities. They will benefit the people of proper class and caste that a certain political party refers to “Bharat”.


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