Posted by: John Elliott | November 1, 2007

The plight of India’s landless is overlooked

 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.


  1. Hi John,

    I think you’ve made a good point by showing what really does get importance in India – it’s finally only The Money doing the Talking! Every Indian knows this!

    I do see that it’s political and financial clout that has ever gotten anything done in this country – I feel bad about that – there are many whose contributions may never be received thanks to the lack of both!

    Let’s see,Agriculture plays (rather used to is what im beginning to think) an important role in the INdian Economy – used to be around 60-70%. Now it only contributes a mere 47%. Ofcourse we have companies taking over land (forcefully and without compensation to the petty owners) to promote factories and industries which obviously add to the Govt’s kitty!
    Now assuming that there is sooooo much money flowing in to the economy – who is benefitting? It’s definitely not used for the upliftment of the downtrodden, landless laborers or the poor farmers whose property has been snatched away – we only see that the politicians end up spending a great amount on their travel and luxurious lifestyle! (It’s been written about in papers)

    Some other things that do strike ironical in the face of the dilemma of these farmers( they don’t want something for nothing (as Nimesh put it – they are asking for what is due to them! Also they are the ones who are suffering – eating maybe just a meal a day so that we may go and gorge on 5 star meals!). Recently an Indian newspaper carried a write up on how the Govt wants to build an airport (a project worth Rs. 400 crore) at Amravati so that our newly appointed Prez may land there instead of simply making a 3 hr a/c-ed ride from the neares airport! This money, as was rightly pointed, could have waived off the debts of the Vidharbha farmers – where more than 1500 farmers have committed suicide.
    People in metros are building mansions with 27 floors to house a family of 6 members – worth Rs. 4000 crores … i mean is that really necessary? Do you know the kind of money you’re talking about?? This could have help put all the children int he country through Primary and Secondary education – this would eliminate “RESERVATION QUOTAS” in PG programs and truly make India a better economy.

    Think about it!!

  2. John, don’t forget, all of the landless peasants want something for nothing. They believe that the have the numbers and hence votes and thus they can pressure the government for money, aid, benefits, etc… Those with a little bit of land can hold others hostage for more money. India will NEVER become a modern/developed country because it is ruled by about 700 million uneducated illiterates.

  3. “America is exporting its formula for “Supercapitalism” (thank you Atal for introducing this subject). China now has an economic ruling class profiting off the subjugation of its massive population, essentially a form of global labor pool used as currency in lieu of exported slaves. India is following down the same path, as is Mexico.” – Posted By Jim, San Francisco, CA

    This is a necessary evil.

    I do not mean to sound crazy but the world depends on the subjugation of one group of people to benefit another group of people. I do see the correlation between former slaves and present day explioted laborers. But most nations would not be prosperous without the use of cheap labor. It is difficult to maintain a prosperous nation where everyone gets paid a fair wage and is treated equally. It goes against human nature.

    At some point, most people are taught that this world is about “survival of the fittest” and “only the strong survive”. If this is true, then there has to be unfit and weak people to bear the burdens of the hard, cold world. Humans rely on one another to live better lives. But at some point, people will use others more than they should, helping them to live a better lives. There can be no economic boom without there being an equal or greater bust somewhere else. There has always been, there presently is, and there will always be harder times than good times. There will always be more poor than rich. There will always be more pain than pleasure.

    India is no different.

  4. Excellent article! What a refreshing change from the Kool Aid that is dished out by all the other local Indian media about the great Indian economy. Anybody can see that the gap between the haves and have nots is growing much much wider than before. A small minority of the economic elite have captured wealth (whether real estate, government contracts, licenses or whatever).The next in pecking order small businessmen are also doing well, thanks to the consumerist mentality of the Call Center/BPO/IT guys, who are spending like it will go out of fashion. What then of the rest of India, who live in utter poverty? Well they can take comfort in the fact that now India is an economic superpower in waiting, the Sensex will soon climb to 50,000 and an small apartment in dirty smelly Mumbai, is much more valuable than one in Manhattan. These facts should drown out the hunger pangs.

  5. what about the fact that a “untouchable” lady is the Chief Minister of the most populous state of India and what about the fact that “upper-caste” people voted for her?

    Your article is one-sided, it highlights problems and overlooks the progress.

    Not sure of News papers but the News channels had ample coverage about the landless farmers who marched to Delhi.

    You also failed to write about the tussle between the land holders and govt in west bengal? How can you write about the land less farmers and not mention then Singur, West bengal tussle?

  6. I’m glad to see this story was included along with the glowing reports on India’s economic rise in status. Especially important following on the heels of the revelations regarding the GAP’s use of India’s child laborers. The child labor, essentially slaves, issue is another problem that needs more attention by America’s press.

    It is unfortunate that Maoist Naxalite rebels are taking advantage of the situation, as any extremist group could, instead of a Ghandi or Martin Luther King.

    Globalization is becoming synonymous with a repeat of the Colonial politics that characterized the 19th Century. Instead of foreign armies invading a country and establishing a token local government Corporations are invading and making deals with an established de facto aristocracy. The concentration of power and wealth is now going to Global Cartels and Alliances. What has been done is to eliminate the military aspect of an invasion with a form of corporate hostile takeover and mergers and acquisitions.

    America is exporting its formula for “Supercapitalism” (thank you Atal for introducing this subject). China now has an economic ruling class profiting off the subjugation of its massive population, essentially a form of global labor pool used as currency in lieu of exported slaves. India is following down the same path, as is Mexico.

    In America we still have racial problems and bigotry, a growing class of landless outcasts that we refer to as “The Homeless”. We are becoming no different from China, Mexico and India in the way political power is used as a hired mercenary of a economic aristocracy. I believe America has become no different than the English system we revolted against. The Tories have won, once again our Government is functioning as a mid-level property management/security firm hired by an economic aristocracy. Now we are out to colonize the world and form alliances with overpopulated countries ruled by like-minded governments.

    I believe in a Global economy for countries that can sustain a significant level of self-sufficiency through a democratic society. “Democratic Economics” is the only hope we have for our civilization that is crumbling under the weight of overpopulation.

  7. I know that I am only concentrating on one aspect of the article, but I think it is widely recognised that the caste system is very much entrenched in Indian society. Is the fact that the people marching on Delhi are from the lower castes, part of the reason they were ignored or given very little attention? Equally that it is they, that are losing out on the land deals?

  8. John,

    Nice article, good to see a relatively “social” one in this your wonderful series of articles on India and the emerging economy here. It’s not often that non-Indians display a sound understanding and perspective on India’s social issues, but I think you come quite close.

    Criticisms first: I wonder if you borrowed the phrase “indigenous tribes people and ‘untouchables’ from the bottom of Indian society” from some other source, but if not, it betrays a fundamental problem of most Western peoples’ (outdated) views on the subcontinent — that somehow all of India’s social and economic troubles trace their history back to the (in)famous “Hindu caste system”. Admittedly, ‘untouchability’ (or just plain old discrimination) is still an issue in some parts (especially rural), but to even (slantingly) imply a “caste connection” to the problem of India’s landless is just about as (in)accurate and (un)funny as me saying that racial bigotry and discrimination is (still) a problem in America! No, in most parts of this country, whether a person belongs to an “indigenous tribe or untouchable caste” has absolutely no bearing on his or her economic prospects (no more than a person from the coloured minority would have in America). A high percentage of the so-called “upper caste” Brahmins are also destitute (a large percentage of the cycle-rickshaw pullers in the capital are Brahmins!).

    However, that does not take away anything from the fact that I fully agree with the “unstated” bottomline of the article — the sheer inequality of growth and prosperity emerging here (landlessness is just one aspect of that).

    I believe most of India’s continuing social and economic troubles (unsurprisingly) trace back to just 60 years back — the preference of India’s post-independence political leadership (read: Nehru) for economic socialism and central planning rather than capitalism and free markets. We just got off on the wrong foot.

    I think Robert Reich’s “Supercapitalism: The Transformation of Business, Democracy, and Everyday Life” provides some clues as to what’s happening. It argues that the “flavour” of free markets that the world are seeing post-1974 is one of “supercapitalism” where economic prosperity is concentrated in the top sections of society rather than in all sections, as was the case with the “democratic capitalism” period before that. Sadly, India began economic reforms only in 1991 which leads me to suspect that we went straight from central planning (read: disaster) to “supercapitalism” (read: not-so-good-either) with no “democratic capitalism” in between.

    So much for the possible roots of the problem — as for the solution, I’m just as clueless.


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