My colleague Jo Johnson, the Financial Times’ south Asia correspondent, writes this morning that the “chief executives cocooned in the sandalwood-scented splendor” of Fortune’s Global Forum for the past three days would have learned more if they had left the grand old Imperial Hotel, where the Forum was being held, and met 25,000 landless workers “from the bottom of Indian society” who marched 320 kms to Delhi to highlight their plight.
“From the stunted and wasted frames of the landless, they would have observed how malnutrition rates, already higher than in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, are rising in many places, as wages lag behind soaring food prices. They would have learnt how the 120m families who depend on the land for subsistence agriculture, generating no marketable surplus from one season to the next, live in terror of expropriation by state governments operating land scams in the name of development,” Johnson says in his on-line column.
He has a point, a serious one, even though people at the Forum did learn a lot about India. But, with the Indian stock market zooming past 20,000 on Mumbai’s Sensex, this march of “indigenous tribes people and ‘untouchables’ from the bottom of Indian society,” who are excluded from the booming economy, aroused little interest when it arrived in Delhi on Sunday.
Newspaper front pages gave more space the next day to a local marathon run, and then focused on the stock market and iconic (India loves icons) visitors to Delhi – Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, Henry Paulson, US Treasury secretary, and Henry Kissinger, former US secretary of state. Kissinger became involved in lobbying for America’s proposed nuclear deal with India, but he was primarily in town for a convention organized by JP Morgan (JPM), the US investment bank, which took over the Global Forum’s elegant conference facilities in the Imperial Hotel today. That conference is also unlikely to focus on the plight of those sad disillusioned marchers.
Yet many of the executives attending both conferences are at least partially involved in the growing problem of the landless. Their finance and property companies are piling money into Special Economic Zones (SEZs) and other development projects that deprive the poor of their land and livelihood, once land use regulations have been changed (foreign investment is not allowed in agricultural land).
Low prices are paid for land whose values then rise rapidly, benefiting developers, politicians and bureaucrats who are often involved in land scams, while the poor are swept aside. Such people have little chance from birth of being anything but losers and, while disputes over land grabs do sometimes hit Indian newspaper headlines, the stories rarely leave much of an imprint.
The main issue is the plight of farmers and landless laborers, plus tribal people who live in remote areas, many of whom have had their land for generations. The authorities frequently claim that they will be fully compensated – last April it was announced that SEZs should provide one job for every family displaced. But, as I wrote then, that scarcely begins to tackle the scale of the problem, especially for the landless, those without ownership rights, and millions who have never had proper legal ownership documents. Even those with some paperwork fear, as frequently happens in such situations, that they will be cheated by local government and bank officials and their henchmen.
This is growing into a crisis. Land looks like it is becoming India’s most explosive social issue in the future, as those who benefit from land grabs become more greedy and those who lose out feel even further left behind. Industrial companies are also hit. Posco, the Korean company, has been having problems in Orissa on a planned $12 billion steel project that has become caught up in local protests, fermented by local activists and led by one of India’s Communist parties. Four Posco officials were kidnapped recently.
On Sunday, as the march came into Delhi, there was unrest in West Bengal at Nandigram where a 10,000-acre chemicals SEZ planned by Indonesia’s Salim group ran into trouble earlier this year. Four people were killed in a bomb blast on Sunday, that was believed to be connected to the dispute, and a political leader’s convoy of cars was fired on.
One could dismiss these as isolated incidents, but they reflect growing anger and unrest that could explode. The government this week responded to the march by announcing the creation of a National Land Reform Committee to develop a new policy, but it is unlikely to achieve much – such committees rarely do.