Justifying hunger and greed for land

Six decades ago, Jammu and Kashmir made a history of sorts with its landmark land reforms that gave land ownership to the tiller, making this the only state in the country where such massive reforms had taken place with long-term repercussions – giving the beneficiaries of the move a sense of dignity, economic empowerment and Jammu and Kashmir, a rare distinction of being a state where hunger and starvation have remained largely unknown even among the very poor. Possession and ownership of land not only provided a sense of belonging but also economic empowerment and the responsibility of protecting land to individuals. Years of a corrupt polity and complacency resulting in massive usurpation of land through illegal and legitmised encroachments ever since, however, have diluted the gains of this splendid piece of legislation. Latest reports reveal that the forest land has been massively vandalised and encroached upon with scant regard to providing for compensatory forest cover and that the scale of encroachment has gone up by 88 percent. 

It is shockingly bizarre that the justification and legitimisation of such ecological vandalism has come from the government, not individuals or land mafia. This is not the first time that the right to usurp land and plunder green gold or occupy vast agricultural lands for unproductive use have been lent legitimacy. The Roshni scheme that the Jammu and Kashmir government launched under the Farooq Abdullah regime in late 90s has also allowed encroachers and land mafia to occupy forest land, state land and agricultural spaces. The policy served no other purpose than generate a bit of revenue. What it encouraged was plunder and loot of land and inject massive corruption in the state administration. Vast chunks of land have been occupied by the army in Jammu and Kashmir often without paying adequate compensation, turning agricultural fields and orchards barren, landmined and wasted or forest areas completely denuded. Successive governments find a way to justify all means of encroachments even at the cost of protecting and patronising land mafia and deprivation of the common masses of their individual or collective ownership of land or resources. 

The story is not unique to this state alone. Across the country, development has been the catch word that has been so heroised and glamourised that dispossessing poor individuals of their land in its name is considered an act driven by pure nationalism and goodwill. The official narrative of the exaggerated benefits of industrial corridors hides the ugly story of barren lands, denuded forests and robbed poor driven to starvation and suicides. The land acquisition bill, that is at present caught in the midst of a controversy, is the most shocking example of the state becoming a collaborator in vandalism and encroachment of land in its bid to serve the interests of the greedy corporate and the land mafia, not of the poor and ordinary lesser mortals.

However, much before the land bill came into being, development resulted in deprivation and dispossession of many, particularly the marginalized sections of the society. Thousands of families displaced by the Hirakund dam in Orissa continue to live in acute penury with no compensation paid, decades after this micro hydel project was set up and became a symbol of ‘nation’s pride’. Noted writer and journalist P. Sainath in his book, ‘Everyone Loves a Good Drought’ narrates the story of the people of a village called Chikpaar. The village was firstacquired in 1968 for the MiG jet fighter project for Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). The 500 families were evicted and they moved to another location, on the land they owned themselves and resettled there, nostalgically naming the new village as Chikpaar. Two decades later, the families were evicted again for another multi- purpose project. The villagers again resettled at another place. However, they received eviction notices for the third time for another development project. Of course, the displaced persons were paid a pittance as compensation that too after several years. Such robbery and predatory nature of the government is projected as beneficial, good and pragmatic both from governance and economic point of view. 

The phenomenon is reminiscent of the Gray Seal which is known for its misconceived image of a nice, cuddly, friendly animal that eats fish. Recent zoological researches have shown their killer predatory instincts; and they are believed to consume anything bigger than the size of a duck, including their own companions. In 2013, a grey seal in German waters was seen whirling a helpless harbor seal around by the neck; a half-eaten harbor seal carcass washed ashore the next day, according to a report in the National Geographic. The animal world rules are replicated in human lives in much the same way. The predators may often look friendly, benign and pretend to do something good for mankind but have vicious killer instincts that destroy peoples’ lives mostly by occupation and conquering of lands. 

Right from ancient historic periods, powerful lobbies have tried to vest power by grabbing lands and exploiting their resources. Violent take-over of land was the very basis of colonization in the last few centuries and much pride was associated with such display of might. In modern times, the influential business lobbies of the world, backed by political rulers in their respective countries, is re-colonising free lands to serve the interests of few. These are cases of virtual land grab, inspired by hunger for investments and profits from investments and is propelled by uncontrolled greed and exploitation. They lead to overall high growth rate but perpetuate powerlessness and poverty among teeming millions, despite promises of generating employment. 500 top companies of the world contribute to one-third of economic growth across and the benefits of that growth is enjoyed by one a minute percentage of the people. 75 percent people of the world who are dependent on land for their needs and livelihood are the ones who bear the brunt, pushed to extreme poverty and starvation. 

Nothing’s changed from the days of those ruthless empires in ancient history.