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Book Review: Do Protests Against Dispossession Oppose 'Development'?

In his book 'Dispossession Without Development', Michel Levien argues with great nuance that protestors against SEZs should be seen as agents of development.

Since Independence in 1947, the postcolonial Indian state forced millions of peasants and forest-dwellers to give up their land for “development.” However, Michael Levien’s recent book, Dispossession without Development: Land Grabs in Neoliberal India shows how land dispossession has changed in neoliberal India.

Levien’s book – an instant classic of political economy – argues that we are in a new regime of dispossession, in which the state increasingly dispossesses land for private real estate and non-labour intensive growth rather than public sector infrastructure and industry. This neoliberal regime reached scale with the emergence of special economic zones (SEZ) in the 2000s, and has resulted in a proliferation of land struggles across rural India.

Levien’s book first tells the story of how state authorities quietly morphed into land brokers for private developers. Levien shows that the driving causes of land dispossession changed dramatically in the early 1990s, when India introduced new economic reforms.

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Having dispossessed land almost exclusively for large public-sector industrial, mining and infrastructure projects in the four decades after Independence, Indian states began to dispossess land on behalf of large private corporations for increasingly non-labor-intensive sectors such as upscale residential and commercial real estate and the “knowledge economy.” Capturing the difference between the price paid to farmers and the value of land as real estate became the overriding motivation.

The Mahindra World City

Moving from history to ethnography, Levien’s book then provides an in-depth look at the consequences of this new regime, using the case of Mahindra World City (MWC) near Jaipur. One of the first private SEZs established in North India, Levien’s book illuminates the political economy behind the MWC and its consequences for Rajpura, a village that lost most of its land to the project.

The MWC was marketed as the largest information technology SEZ in India and one of the largest private investments in Rajasthan’s history. Levien shows how the dispossession of Rajpura facilitated dramatic real estate profits for the SEZ developer, and created a tax haven for IT industries. On the flipside, it leads to the destruction of the pre-existing agricultural economy.

In 2005, Rajpura became one of nine villages to have its farmland and grazing commons dispossessed for the MWC. Located 25 km from Jaipur, Rajpura is a large multi-caste village having Sangat (sweeper, SC) and Regar on the one extreme of the hierarchy and Rajput, Brahmin (upper caste), and Jat on the other, with other OBCs and SC/STs in between.

Pre-SEZ Rajpura was highly unequal in land distribution between different caste groups, which had a large bearing on its post-SEZ life. While Rajpura was largely agricultural village with a relatively profitable livestock economy, Levien insists that we not romanticise it: in addition to stark inequalities, decreasing rains and generational subdivision of land had forced many to diversify. Farmers were looking for better opportunities, and some hoped that the SEZ would bring development. These hopes would, however, be frustrated for the majority of its residents, particularly the poor and lower caste.

The Mahindra World City in Jaipur. Credit: mahindraworldcity.com

Pattern of inequality

Observing the trajectories of Rajpura’s residents over almost seven years, Levien illuminates the process of socio-economic change and pattern of inequality that ensued. The loss of grazing land and village commons badly crippled the livestock economy and particularly hurt landless caste groups.

The SEZ’s main contribution to the local economy, on the other hand, was dramatic real estate speculation. However, Rajpura’s villagers fared very unequally at this game, amplifying inequalities and further dividing the village. Some of the upper caste families got a better deal, speculating on land and becoming neo-rentiers by buying land in other villages, starting businesses and lending money.

A majority of villagers, including the landless, were further marginalised and impoverished. While a group of upper and middle caste men became land brokers (dalals), a majority of young villagers found no employment in the IT-oriented SEZ.

While villagers also hoped for infrastructure provision, Levien shows how the state subsidised “world class” infrastructure in the MWC, leaving the village with toxic water, poor schools and health access, and irregular electricity. SEZs, Levien argues, mark the withdrawal of the state’s developmental ambitions into privileged elite enclaves only tenuously linked to their surroundings.

Ultimately, a vast majority of villagers in Rajpura reported feeling less financially secure after the construction of the SEZ. Levien nevertheless shows that organised resistance to the SEZ was minimal and did not include the participation of those people most negatively affected by the project. A group of wealthy brokers and sarpanches demanded higher compensation, but did not take up the issues of the village poor. While there was widespread anger at the government and SEZ developers, Rajpura’s villagers were too divided amongst themselves to engage in collective action.

Trajectory of social change

The story of Rajpura, Levien concludes, reveals neither the timeless march of development nor the uniform predation of a peasant community. It shows instead, a highly unequal trajectory of social change driven by real estate speculation rather than industrialisation. Dispossession without Development thus tells a story, unfolding with local variation across India, of an unequal and changing village dispossessed by a state that has abandoned the broad social ambitions of the developmentalist era.

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This picture of Rajpura has resonance with the wider scenario of exclusionary and jobless growth unfolding at the national level. Given meagre off-farm opportunities, Levien argues, it is perfectly rational for farmers to hold onto their land. And, despite minimal resistance in Rajpura, Levien argues that this is a major reason why land acquisition is so contentious across contemporary India. By relating micro-level changes with big structural transformations, Levien shows why this growing reality of jobless growth in neoliberal India helps us to understand growing farmer protests against land acquisition.

Levien hypothesises that “land wars” are likely to be a long-term feature of India’s political economy so long as dispossession without development remains a defining feature of Indian capitalism. With great nuance, Levien thus argues that farmer protests against dispossession are not opposing development, but dispossession without development.

Baiga adivasis march protesting displacement and denial of forest rights. Credit: File photo/Harshit Charles

Dispossession without development

In this respect, protestors against SEZs and similar projects should be seen as agents of development, not obstructions to it. Farmers protests have not only succeed at increasing compensation, but have prevented dispossession for projects with dubious public benefits.

Levien leaves open whether, with broader political coordination, they could spark a political project to reverse land dispossession in contemporary India: from distributing land upwards to distributing land downwards.

This book develops a sociological approach to dispossession and empirically examines how different forms of dispossession intersect with distinct agrarian contexts. Levien’s achievement is to use long-term ethnographic observation of microprocesses in a village to illuminate the macroforces of dispossession in contemporary India.

A combination of ethnography and historical research gives him an advantageous position to explain the emergence of a new regime of dispossession in post-liberalisation India, its politics, and its consequences for farmers.

This ground-breaking book is a must read for anyone interested in agrarian political economy, a critical sociology of postcolonial societies and the politics of land and development in contemporary global South.

Satendra Kumar is a sociologist, and is a fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study (IIAS), Shimla. His recent book Badalta Gaon Badalta Dehat: Nai Samajikata ka Uday is published by Oxford University Press, 2018, Delhi.