The Growing Revolt
By Aseem Shrivastava
04 May, 2007
"It's a terrible thing to be a worker exploited in the capitalist system.The only worse thing is to be a worker unable to find anyone to exploit you."
- Joan Robinson
A May Day disruption
We were visiting Badli, a village of some 11,000 people, in the district of Jhajjar, Haryana, about 30 kms west of New Delhi’s International Airport. We were there to begin our research on the impact of the 25,000-acre Special Economic Zone (SEZ) planned in the area by Reliance Industries. Like in so many other parts of India where resistance to corporate plans is building up, farmers in the area have organized themselves into a Kisan Jagrukta Samiti (Farmers Awareness Committee) to battle Reliance.
It was May Day. The sun was harsh. Thus, the big meeting had been organized in the main Chaupal of the village. It was housed in a large quadrangle, the size of half a hockey field. The meeting was being held in the covered area which occupied half the courtyard. At least a few hundred farmers from about 20 villages were present. Dressed in white kurtas, and sporting turbans of the same shade, they looked at us with eyes wizened by the years. Being representatives of their respective panchayats, they were all elderly, their noble faces all bearing the stamp of long years of labor under the sun. This being patriarchal Haryana, there were no women present, apart from three of us, visitors from Delhi.
An army Captain from the area (who had taken early retirement in order to organize the villagers) had invited us to witness the May Day commemoration. Farmers were also expected to deliberate on the matter of the expected displacement in the wake of the acquisition of land by Reliance.
However, there was more than an understandable level of tension in the air. The Captain informed us that we could expect some trouble from local henchmen who had been bribed and instructed in advance to disrupt the meeting.
The meeting began and the pradhan of a neighboring village began proceedings with a five-minute denunciation of the SEZ policy of the government. In particular, he expressed regret and anger that the government was acting as the bichaula (land broker) for a private corporation, tempting farmers here, scaring them elsewhere, to sell their land for industrial development.
Barely had the pradhan finished his speech when a group of about 20 young men from the area, dressed very differently from their elders (in colorful shirts and trousers), suddenly appeared next to us and began telling us that most farmers were happily willing to part with their lands, that the men who had organized the meeting had already sold theirs and were now wanting Reliance to pay a higher compensation. As the next speaker on the podium began to make his speech they started heckling from the side, ultimately succeeding in shouting him down. They tried to provoke a fist-fight. Fortunately, they did not get the desired response.
The Captain and the elders decided wisely to suspend the meeting instead of beginning what would surely have turned into an ugly brawl. When we inquired into the identities of the thugs, it turned out that they were boys from the local area, many of them from Badli itself. Reliance had turned young and restless villagers into commission agents. It seems they had been given some petty sum of money and liquor the previous night to disrupt the meeting of the elders.
Who had paid them off? Local agents of Reliance, it turned out. They had also been promised “jobs” with the company once the SEZ came up. No interviews, no consideration of merit, skill or qualifications. It seemed that promises, backed with some small change, was enough to buy out the restless youth, eager for urban excitement.
After the meeting was adjourned, a much truncated number of farmers met a few kilometers away at the house of one of the local leaders. We were also invited to this small conclave. From what we heard there, this is the preliminary picture of the situation that appears to be emerging.
“Hamari matribhumi” (Our mother earth)
There is resentment amongst the farmers, even among those who have large holdings. Some of them are very angry. “Why don’t they find barren land far from here? What business does the government have to play broker?”
Many of the farmers who have sold their land are regretful, especially since land values are rising sharply in the area and they feel that they got a raw deal. “What are Rs.15 or 20 lakhs an acre when in nearby Gurgaon the price has shot up to Rs. 2 crores an acre?”, Mani Ram, a local peasant asked. Reliance wishes to take over 22 villages in Jhajjar and 18 in Gurgaon.
“Reliance agents are getting false affidavits made from farmers, saying that they need money for their children’s education, that their land is barren: banjar zameen. It’s interesting what they call banjar zameen: last year it produced 15-20 quintals of wheat! You can check the records at the revenue office”, Azad Singh of Badli told us.
Azad Singh was also skeptical of what people like him could do with the compensation money: “What we know best and have done all our lives for generations is farming. How do they expect us to change our occupation at this stage and run some sort of business? In any case, it should be our decision, not theirs. Why should we be condemned to disposability by people willing to shove some money into our pockets? If a hungry man is faced with a mound of cash and a plate of food, what will he pick?”
Most farmers are very reluctant to sell their land. Land is the only source of security and insurance in an agrarian context. While the company has targeted 25,000 acres – before the recent change in policy which has capped land acquisition for a single project at 5000 acres – accretion to the Reliance kitty has stalled for sometime at about 7000-8000 acres. There have been no sales of late.
Moreover, the land Reliance has acquired so far is in the form of far-flung plots. Reliance would clearly need the help of the Haryana government to achieve contiguity. In fact, today’s edition of The Times of India reports that business lobbies are already asking the government to reconsider its recently announced policy amendment of not facilitating land acquisition for corporations, arguing that the government needs to step in at least to acquire the last 10% of the land, assuming corporations have themselves purchased the rest.
A resistance movement like in West Bengal?
“And what will happen to those who do not own any land and work for daily wages on your fields?”, I asked Azad Singh. “Who can say? They are the most disposable of all”, he replied. There is an attempt by the farmers to draw the landless classes (30% of the population of the villages according to them) into their struggle. However, there did not seem to be enough of an effort to involve them. For instance, all the men present for the May Day meeting were farmers with land, some with a lot, others with little. There is a heroic attempt in the Samiti poster to accommodate the interests of the Scheduled Castes: it makes the demand that Reliance should give each of their families a plot of land in the SEZ! The Samiti poster also makes the demand that Reliance be leased the land by farmers rather than taking full possession of it.
It remains to be seen how/whether such disparate class-caste groupings jell together, even if the resistance is evidently building up. “There will be no SEZ construction here, we are not going to allow it”, the pradhan of Badli, Mahavir Singh said. “There are politicians who forget to wipe their faces after dipping them in malai (cream). Their days are numbered.”
A Haryana Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Samiti has been set up. One of its goals is khumbha ukkhado (pull out the electricity poles that Reliance has already begun putting in close to the KMP Expressway that is coming up close by). “Nandigram ki fasal taiyyar hai” (the crop of Nandigram is ready), Mahavir Singh told us.
The SEZ issue is at a crossroads. On the one hand, it is evident that the corporations cannot acquire all the land in most cases without governments coming to their rescue, taking recourse to the “public interest” clause in the Land Acquisition Act. Contiguity is a sine qua non for an SEZ and can’t be ensured without the help of the state, given the fragmentation of landholdings in the Indian countryside. On the other hand, following Nandigram the state has had to back off and say that it does not want to assist corporations in the process of acquiring land.
From the point of view of those becoming dispossessed, the issue is a vexed one too. On the one hand, the government’s role as a broker is very unpopular. On the other, if the government backs off, the land mafia takes over, as we saw happening in Badli. What should the government
do? It must obviously align its coercive apparatus with the protection of vulnerable farmers and their land. This is also the least likely thing to happen. Thus, conflict is inevitable.
In the larger perspective of corporate globalization, the experience of the Indian countryside is repeatedly bringing out the historical truth that the resistance to it is coming more from those who globalization (thanks to its labor-displacing technological armour) is making redundant, rather than from those who will have the opportunity of getting exploited by global capital. The numbers of those – peasants, sharecroppers, agricultural workers, tribals, Dalits and others outside the organized sector of the economy – exceed by orders of magnitude those industrial and high-skilled workers who can catch a tumbling crumb from the table of galloping growth. It is they who are more likely to challenge the corporate juggernaut that the globalized elites have unleashed.
Aseem Shrivastava is an independent writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.