Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Struggle for Land is Struggle for Rights

By Subhendu Dasgupta (courtesy Dainik Statesman). Translated by Prithviraj Guha, Sanhati

The current struggle for land has given rise to a few issues which beg deeper analysis.

The foremost point posed by this land struggle is the question of cultivable land being taken and put to non-agricultural use. But there’s more to the issue than this. If we look deeper, then it can be understood that the issue is fundamentally about control over natural resources – by the State, and by capital. There is tremendous pressure to legitimize this hegemony - not just over land but also over all kinds of natural resources - water, river, sea, hills, minerals, forests, crops and then, define this as the process of development.

The current struggle is to contend this very idea.

This piece of writing is a form of taking part in that struggle.

The environmentalists’ movement about natural resources had forced the State to address the question of ecology, and it was forced to chalk out an environment policy in 2004. This gave rise to the notion of Public Trust Doctrine, which essentially implies that the State doesn’t hold monopoly rights over the natural resources, but is only a trustee of the same. For the first time, the notion, that anything not under private ownership had to be in the State domain, was challenged. The idea of public ownership was introduced for the first time, in the context of natural resources – the very connection that one would expect between the land and the tiller or the river and the fishermen.

The important point is that land just doesn’t grows crops – it has water resources below, it is the habitat of biodiversity.

Land preserves the environment. It sustains life.

This is the context to raise a more important point.

The fundamental rights that are given to Indian citizens, by the constitution, are rights to life. The right to life is often viewed from the negative perspective – what the State will not do or cannot do, in order to honour the right to life. The Supreme Court has often defined this right to life and interpreted it as right to livelihood. The right to livelihood is a positive concept – what the State will do to preserve the citizens’ right to livelihood e.g., the right to food, the right to work. We would like to connect the concept of public ownership of natural resources to this right to livelihood.

The Land Acquisition Act which gives the State right to take anybody’s land as and when it wants to, is an expression of the State’s monopoly over natural resources. If it is not changed, the public control of natural resources cannot be established, neither can the right to resources for livelihood be honoured.

We can look at the concept of community control over resources in different ways, through different events taking place and laws being made the world over. A common refrain is that down history and even now, regardless of actual practice, community control has often been equated with greater freedom.

For example, the connection between intellectual property rights and world trade policy - in the sphere of knowledge, the notions of community knowledge, societal knowledge, traditional knowledge are being recognized. The legal basis for communal intellectual property is being discussed as well. A community’s rights over knowledge and intellectual property are simply an extension of the larger struggle for land rights and resources.

The Australian Supreme Court has ruled that while establishing right over land resources, community’s interest has to be taken into consideration along with the State and the individuals’ rights. Currently, the nature of such rights is being given shape. The Indian government itself has recently recognized some community rights through the enactment of the Forest Rights Act. The right of the forest-dwellers to live in the forests and to use the forest resources has been recognized. It has been noted that those who subsist on the natural resources, also sustain them. The American Declaration of Independence of 1786 recognises man’s right to life, freedom and happiness and, this includes the happiness derived from the nature-man relationship. The International Human Rights Declaration of 1948 states that there cannot be any attack on the human civilisation and culture and this includes the nature-dependent communities’ cultural and civilisational rights. The 1986 Right to Development Declaration gives the public full control over the natural resources.

We need to connect the dots between the right to life of a community to its right to livelihood and the right to livelihood to the right to food, which is a State policy. The right to food can only be successfully realized if food crops are cultivated and therefore, we need to further connect the right to food to right to grow food crops. But, the right to grow food crops is, in the final analysis, intrinsically connected to a community’s control over land. So, the opposition to the land acquisition act has to be located exactly here.

The right to grow food crops gives the small farmer the right to continue with farming as a profession - because, cultivation of food crops gives him livelihood and therefore, life. This, in turn, gives the share-croppers and the landless labourers’ fight for right to till, the due legitimacy. Hence, we get the right for the elusive land reforms. The land reforms debate had asked for certain steps to be taken in the interests of the farmer and food crop development. Proposals for starting land development councils, cooperative agricultural committees, general utility cooperatives were floated. The right to all this was demanded to ensure the right to make the notion of development inclusive of farmers’ rights and food security.

In this all-inclusive perspective, the question of compensation doesn’t arise. There can never be sufficient compensation to make up for the loss of community control over land.