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Land as livelihood vs land as commodity

By Walter Fernandes

All over India, land is being acquired for commercial/industrial use, for realty and infrastructure development. But all over India, this acquisition of land is being bitterly opposed. The battle is between land as commodity and land as livelihood. What are the causes of land alienation? What are its consequences?



The 1994 rehabilitation policy draft of the Government of India begins by stating that, following the 1991 economic policy, Indian as well as foreign private investment would require more land than in the past and that much of it would be in the resource-rich tribal areas. This statement has not been repeated in the policies of 2004 and 2007 but it has been put into practice in most states. Acquisition of land for development aggravates the problem of alienation of and encroachment on tribal and other community land that the land laws declare as State property. Individually owned land is under threat of alienation, but common property resources (CPR) are the most threatened because of the legal anomaly that causes much insecurity of tenure. For example, most dams being planned in northeast India are in tribal areas where land is managed according to community-based customary law, but the law treats CPRs as State property. This anomaly also makes encroachment by immigrants possible. One of its impacts is ethnic conflict. This article will study some of the implications.

Land alienation and immigration

The first cause of land alienation is encroachment by immigrants. Though the focus is on the Bangladeshis, immigrants to the northeast, in particular, come from other parts of India too. For example, the 2001 census shows an excess of 40 lakh persons in Assam compared to 1971, around 18 lakh of them Muslims, presumably of Bangladeshi origin. The rest are of Bihari and Nepali origin (1). All of them encroach on land.

What matters therefore is not the origin and religion of the immigrants but the push and pull of migration. The feudal system is common to Bangladesh, Bihar and Nepal. Most immigrants are landless agricultural labourers pushed to migrate by poverty, low wages and lack of land reforms. The pull factor is the need for cheap labour and, more importantly, land and the legal system governing it, especially the CPRs on which tribal and other communities sustain themselves. In their tradition, the right to use land emanates from recognition by the community, since land and other natural resources are their sustenance. It is part of an ecosystem, with the local community at its centre. Its dependants build a culture, an economy and an identity based on its sustainable use (2). This is true even of individually owned land because in a village, land is not merely a place for cultivation or construction but constitutes the livelihood of its legal owner, the agricultural labourer, barbers and others who sustain themselves on it as a community.

However, the formal land laws of the country are individual-based and are founded on the principle of the State's eminent domain. In this formal legal system which is based on a worldview that is different from that of traditional communities, land is only a commodity and a place for cultivation and construction. But the formal law imposes its own outlook on the traditional community with no understanding of its culture and customary law. This view became prevalent when the colonial regime of the 19th century enacted land laws to suit its objective of exploiting the resources of South Asia for the benefit of the British Industrial Revolution and to change the economy of the colony in order to turn it into a supplier of capital and raw material for the Industrial Revolution and a captive market for its finished goods. Monopoly over land for coal mines, plantations, transport and other purposes was basic to this approach (3).

The eminent domain on which colonial laws are based is called terra nullius (nobody's land) in Australia. White colonisation of native land in Oceania and the Americas was based on the principle that land without individual title belonged to no one -- as such, anyone could occupy it. In 1992, the Australian judiciary declared this illegal (4), but Indian land laws continue to be based on the American version of eminent domain. Its first facet is that land without an individual patta is State property. The second is that the State alone has the right to decide a public purpose and deprive even individual owners of their assets. The pull factor emanates from this overriding State power. Immigrants, pushed off their land by poverty, the feudal system and low wages are attracted by fertile land in the tribal areas, especially in the northeast (5).

They can encroach on it with impunity because of the disjunction between the formal and traditional systems. Much of it is CPRs of the tribes that run their civil affairs according to their community-based customary law, but the colonial land laws that continue to be in force recognise only individual ownership and treat land without pattas as State property. Such imposition of an individual-based legal system on tribal communities creates a disjunction between the legal and social realities and makes it easy for immigrants to encroach on CPRs. Those who lose their land cannot take action against it because, according to the colonial laws, what is common is State property; the State alone can take action against it, and often it does not. So communities that have been sustained by their land for centuries are unable to claim it back.

Land laws and alienation

The same legal system also makes alienation of tribal land to non-tribals easy. The laws banning alienation of tribal land are limited to individually-owned land, which is around a third in tribal areas; the rest are CPRs which are easily encroached on. Even individual land can be occupied because of loopholes in the law or through corrupt practices. For example, studies show that because of changes made in Assam's land laws in 1948, the number of tribal blocks in which land could not be alienated dropped from 35 in 1947 to 25 in 2005 (6).

These changes facilitate tribal land alienation to non-tribals, and it has been massive all over India. For example, the AP Act 1 of 1970 is the best law in the country on prevention of tribal land alienation. But studies show that around 49% of all land in scheduled areas is in non-tribal hands (7); so is 60% in Orissa (8). It's a similar situation in Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan and Jharkhand. Corruption is one of the reasons. For example, the law bans tribal land alienation to non-tribals in the tribal-majority Karbi Anglong district of Assam, which comes under the Sixth Schedule. But a study shows that many Bihari immigrants have pattas in the Lanka sub-division of the neighbouring non-tribal Nagaon district although their land is in Karbi Anglong. This would not be possible without corruption in the bureaucracy (9).

Other legal changes have also facilitated the alienation of non-tribal land to immigrants and development projects. The Assam Waste Land Settlement Rules 1838 made acquisition, at a very low price, easy for British-owned tea gardens and turned most cultivators into landless workers or adhiars -- sharecroppers cultivating someone else's land and giving half the produce to the owner. Five decades later, the Assam Land and Land Revenue Act 1886 removed many restrictions on land alienation and turned more cultivators into adhiars. The Assam Adhiars Protection and Regulation Act 1948, enacted apparently to provide security to the adhiars, did not transfer ownership to them but only stipulated that they pay 20%-25% of their first crop to the zamindardepending on who paid for the seeds and provided bullocks. Even this law has for all practical purposes remained on paper (10).

Instead of repealing the 1886 Assam Act it was extended to Manipur and Tripura in 1960 as the Manipur Land and Land Revenue Act 1960 and Tripura Land and Land Revenue Act 1960. This makes tribal land alienation easy. For example, the Tripura Act recognises only registered land. Most tribals were illiterate and did not register their community-owned land. So the State alienated much of it from them and used it to resettle Bangladeshi (then East Pakistani) Hindu immigrants. The immigrants encroached upon the rest of it with impunity. As a result, the tribals have lost more than 60% of their land to immigrants and their proportion has declined from 58% in 1951 to 31% today (11). In Manipur, efforts are made to extend the Act to tribal areas that were hitherto exempt from it.

Development and land loss

The third major source of land loss is development projects. Land laws also facilitate acquisition for this purpose. For example, a study of development-induced displacement in Assam between 1947 and 2000 shows that, by official count, schemes like water resources, industries, defence, refugee rehabilitation, environment protection and transport used 391,772.9 acres and displaced 343,262 persons. Unofficial sources show that no less than 1,401,184.8 acres were used and 1,909,368 persons displaced from them. The 10,09,412 acres that are missing from the official files are CPRs. Officials told researchers that this is State property and no records need be maintained on this land or persons displaced from it since they are encroachers. That explains why 15.66 lakh CPR dependants are not counted (12).

The situation has deteriorated with liberalisation. The opening statement of the 1994 draft of the National Rehabilitation Policy reads: "It is expected that there will be large-scale investments, both on account of inter­nal generation of capital and increased inflow of foreign investments, thereby creating an enhanced demand for land to be provided within a shorter time-span in an increasingly competi­tive market-ruled economic structure. Majority of our mineral resources... are located in the remote and backward areas mostly inhabited by tribals. (13)"

The extent of land acquired or committed to various companies during the last decade shows that this statement was in reality a policy. For example, West Bengal, which used 2 million hectares between 1947 and 2000, has committed 93,995 hectares to industry alone (14). Orissa used 40,000 hectares for industry between 1951 and 1995 but planned to acquire 40,000 hectares more in the succeeding decade. Between 1996 and 2000, Andhra Pradesh acquired half as much land for industry as it did in the preceding 45 years. Goa acquired 3.5% of its landmass between 1965 and 1995. If all its plans go through, it will acquire 7.2% of its landmass in this decade. Gujarat has promised land for 27 SEZs (15), and around 200 SEZs are being planned all over India. That will result in massive land loss, food insecurity and unemployment. The private sector is eyeing mining land in Jharkhand, Orissa and Chhattisgarh. Thus, there will be even more displacement in the coming years than has been in the past 60 years, much of it of tribals, in order to facilitate mining in middle India and dams in the northeast (16).

Less than 20% of the 60 million persons displaced or otherwise deprived of livelihoods between 1947 and 2000 have been rehabilitated even partially. Even when a project resettles people, skewed land laws ensure that its benefits do not reach many of those affected. In West Bengal, for example, the system of sharecroppers, and elsewhere that of CPRs, goes against them. If sharecroppers are registered, they are entitled to 25% of the compensation paid to the zamindar. Around 250 of the sharecroppers cultivating some of the 997 acres acquired at Singur were not registered. So they, along with 1,000 landless agricultural labourers and other service groups like barbers whose sustenance depends on the land, were not entitled to compensation and rehabilitation. The Land Acquisition Act 1894 ignores the fact that in a rural economy, land is sustenance not merely for its owner but also for landless service groups. CPR dependants are the majority among the 14 lakh tribals and 21 lakh dalits deprived of livelihoods in the name of national development, over 1947 and 2000, but not rehabilitated.

Most officials claim that compensation is rehabilitation. It is defined as the average of the registered price of land in an area for three years. It is a public secret, however, that not more than 40% of the price is registered. This makes things worse in "backward" areas, in particular, where the price of land is low. For example, in the 1980s, some land losers in Jalpaiguri district of West Bengal were paid an average of Rs 1,700 per acre. In Assam, the compensation was as little as Rs 48.37 per acre for some plots in Dhubri district, in the 1970s. People cannot begin life anew with this amount. CPR dependants are not even paid this paltry sum; many are not even counted. For example, the 1970 official records counted 2,553 patta-owning families as displaced by the Dumbur dam in Tripura, but excluded 5,500-6,500 families living on CPRs according to tribal customary law (17).

CPRs feature prominently in the land used for projects. Out of 1.1 million hectares documented as having been used in Andhra Pradesh between 1951 and 1995, 32% were CPRs. In Orissa, they formed 60% of the 1 million hectares used. We have already mentioned the situation in Assam (18). Because of the predominance of CPRs and the focus on backward areas, some think that the project authorities opt for "backward" areas and CPRs in order to keep costs down. One cannot substantiate this claim but irrigation officials in Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and Assam said off the record that projects would not be viable if they paid higher compensation or resettled the displaced.

Environmental degradation and commercialisation

Apart from direct land acquisition, environmental degradation caused by development projects damages the surrounding land. Fly ash from thermal and cement plants, water mixed with chemicals, blasts in coal mines and other activities result in land degradation and force people to move away from their habitat. However, since no physical coercion is used, they are considered voluntary migrants and are not even entitled to compensation (19).

Those who lose land to development projects and those whose land is alienated to immigrants or encroachers are impoverished. For their sheer survival needs, many begin to destroy the forests and other resources that they had so far preserved and treated as renewable. For example, in a sample of 272 families in Orissa, the number of people dependent on cutting trees for sale as firewood increased from 18 to 77 over two decades, 75% of them displaced by major dams and not rehabilitated. In Assam, 50% of tribal families displaced by development projects had made this transition from constructive to destructive dependence on the forests and other natural resources (20).

Equally important is the use of land purely as a commodity by real estate speculators. The 2005 inundation of Mumbai is an example. Under normal circumstances, 96 cm of rain in three days, caused by climate change, would have flooded the city but not caused a disaster. It became a disaster partly because Mumbai's drainage system is outdated, but mainly because of reclamation of the Mithi river and the Bandra and Mahim creeks through which rainwater used to flow out of the city to the sea. Real estate speculators had reclaimed these areas and built high-rise buildings that were sold at enormous profit. That prevented water from flowing out, causing the floods (21).

Land loss and conflict

A consequence of land shortage is conflict. Most recent conflicts in India are around land and jobs though other interpretations -- including communal ones -- may be given to them. At times they may take a class dimension. For example, many of those killed in the 2005 Mumbai floods were slumdwellers. The area where they had their slums earlier had become prime land that was eyed by real estate speculators. The slumdwellers were evicted to make place for high-rise buildings. They resettled near the hills that no one wanted. That is where the landslides occurred, killing many.

The northeast is a typical example of land shortage resulting in ethnic conflict. The Naga-Kuki conflict in Manipur and the Bodo-Santhal killings in the 1990s, the Dimasa-Hmar tension in Assam in 2003, the Karbi-Pnar conflict in Assam in 2004, and many others are around land. The Bihari-Assamese conflict of 2003 was for jobs. The insurgency in Tripura began after tribals lost 60% of their land to Bengali immigrants and more of their land was acquired for the Dumbur dam (22). Conflicts arise because, in the context of land shortages and the failure to create productive jobs, every group tries to get exclusive rights over the limited benefits that they are left with. Given its symbiotic relationship with land, each community views the resultant conflicts as a defence of its culture, identity and livelihood, thus legitimising to themselves what would be considered violence under different circumstances.


The limited analysis given above raises some important issues around land. Firstly, under modern law or administration or development, communities living in a land- and natural resource-based culture and history are forced into another culture with no preparation for the changeover. They lose land to immigrants, development projects and others because the law treats land -- their livelihood and the centre of their identity and culture -- as a commodity to be sold or leased to the highest bidder. With it, the traditional sanctity attached to land is lost. They are forced into a new worldview that they are not familiar with. Impoverishment is one of its results, since land is central to their economy. Because of its close link with their culture and identity, the loss of land brings about a total crisis in their lives, particularly when CPRs are alienated from them.

This economic, cultural, social and identity crisis following alienation from the land is basic to conflicts. What leads to conflicts is not immigration or individual ownership as such, but land loss and other attacks on livelihoods. The legal system, based only on individual ownership and the approach of the administration, leads to land alienation and conflicts. But laws continue to be changed to make more land alienation possible. The Special Economic Zone Act and the Highways Act are examples from the last decade. The plan to build 48 major dams in the northeast within the next decade and the list of 168 dams that has been prepared for this region shows that the outdated Land Acquisition Act is being used more and more in favour of industry and against cultivators. This shows the need to rethink our approach to development and give priority to the ideology of land as people's livelihood, instead of land as a commodity alone.

(Walter Fernandes is Director of the North Eastern Social Research Centre, Guwahati, Assam. He was formerly Director of the Indian Social Institute, Delhi. He is well-known for his contribution to research in the socio-economic field)


  1. Saikia, A K. 1976. A Portrait of Population: Assam. Guwahati: Directorate of Census Operations, compared with 2001 census CDs of Assam
  2. Shimray, U A. 2006. Tribal Land Alienation in North East India: Laws and Land Relations. Guwahati: North Eastern Social Research Centre and Indigenous Women's Forum of Northeast India
  3. Sanjay Upadhyay and Bhavani Raman. 1998. Land Acquisition and Public Purpose. New Delhi: The Other Media
  4. Frank Brennan. 1995. 'Parliamentary Responses to the Mabo Decision', in Stephenson, M A (ed). Mabo: The Native Title Legislation: A Legislative Response to the High Court Decision. St Lucia: Queensland University Press, pp 4-5
  5. Anindiyo Majumdar J. 2002. 'Human Movement and the Nation State: Dimensions of an Indian Crisis in its North-Eastern Region', in Joshua Thomas (ed). Dimensions of Displaced People in Northeast India. New Delhi: Regency Publications, pp 93-94
  6. Shimray, U A, op cit pp 17-18
  7. Laya. 1998. Tribal Land Alienation in Andhra Pradesh. Laya and Indian Social Institute, New Delhi
  8. Manoj Pradhan and William Stanley. 1998. Tribal Land Alienation in Orissa. New Delhi: Indian Social Institute
  9. Walter Fernandes and Sanjay Barbora. 2002. The Socio-Economic Situation of Nagaon District: A Study of its Economy, Demography and Immigration. Guwahati: North Eastern Social Research Centre
  10. Ajit Kumar Bora. 1986. Pattern of Land Utilisation in Assam. Delhi: Manas Publications
  11. Subhir Bhaumik. 2003. 'Tripura's Gumti Dam Must Go', The Ecologist Asia 11 (n 1, January-March), pp 84-89
  12. Walter Fernandes and Gita Bharali. 2006. Development-Induced Displacement in Assam 1947-2000: A Quantitative and Qualitative Study of Its Extent and Nature. Guwahati: North Eastern Social Research Centre (mimeo), pp 77 and 102
  13. National Policy for Development-Induced Displacement and Rehabilitation of Persons Displaced as a Consequence of Acquisition of Land. 1994. New Delhi: Ministry of Rural Development, Government of India
  14. Bibekananda Ray. 2006. 'Thus Capital' I and II. The Statesman, December 17 and 18
  15. Walter Fernandes. 2007. 'Singur and the Displacement Scenario', Economic and Political Weekly, 42 (n 3, January 20-26), pp 203-206
  16. IWGIA. 2004. The Indigenous World 2004. Copenhagen: International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, p 314
  17. Subhir Bhaumik. op cit p 84
  18. Walter Fernandes 2007. op cit p 205
  19. Enakshi Ganguly Thukral. 1999. 'Bottoms Up', Humanscape, Volume 6, Issue 11, November, pp 10-12
  20. Gita Bharali. 2008. The Cost Benefit Analysis of People-Displacing Projects. Guwahati: North Eastern Social Research Centre
  21. Walter Fernandes. 2006. 'Environment: For Whose Development?' Jnanadeepa, 9 (n 1, January), pp 139-157
  22. For more on this issue, see the case studies in Jeyaseelan, L (ed). 2008. Conflict Mapping and Peace Processes in Northeast India. Guwahati: North Eastern Social Research Centre