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The meaning of zameen

September 07, 2011

“Buy land; they’ve stopped making it.” – Mark Twain.

If you ignore the phenomenon of reclaimed land – which, for instance, makes Singapore an appreciably larger country each passing decade – Mark Twain’s words ring truer than ever. The human race seems determined to use primal instincts – sex and the desire to belong to a large, strong clan – to breach the carrying capacity of our planet; in fact, the only reason we won’t be standing on top of each other in the future is that we’re likely to run out of potable water long before we run out of land. (I see here the makings of an apocalyptic 3D movie, but it’s also an angst-ridden topic for social thinkers and activists.)

Anyway, the point is that we’re running out of land. Visionaries like Ashoka, Alexander, Caesar, Babur, and Genghis Khan, to name just a few, somehow realised this despite the low population density of their times. And being such sharp dudes, they figured out that blood was cheaper than land. Following in their wake and wisdom, imperial powers rushed to occupy lands belonging to every decadent civilization they could find. It then took the likes of Napoleon, Hitler and Stalin for narcissistic land-grabbers to make a strong comeback. History, it appears, is replete with glorified landlords.

At the village level, the landlords themselves had been mimicking their rulers for at least 4000 years. For them, more land equalled more sloth, which led one to the cute observation that rich landlords and the children of landless farmers exhibited distended tummies for exactly the opposite reasons. Having said that, the powerful village landlord became an endangered species when agriculture lost its sheen. Now that small- and medium-scale agriculture have become almost unviable, the landlord has mutated into a variation called absentee landlord, an organism that lives in urban areas and practises skills other than lashing the proverbial whip and usurping land.

As the great urban migration of the twentieth century held its course, we became increasingly disconnected from the agricultural process, even though the fortunate amongst us learnt to consume more food than ever before in human history. In this process, the meaning of land was redefined:

  • In some ways, we learned to value it more – one didn’t need four acres to feel secure; a claustrophobic two-bedroom in a metropolis sufficed. Subtext: shelter, not food, became the primary need that one most associated with land.
  • We also accepted that land shall willy-nilly host modern infrastructure – rail and road networks, power stations, dams, recreational centres, housing projects and the like.
Land became a more communal commodity, and the rulers – elected governments, if one lived in a democracy – retained the right to be called the biggest landlords. But in the recent past, this right has been challenged by a more invincible entity: corporates. While governments still allocate land and oftentimes champion its usage, the responsibility of creating demand for it has shifted primarily to corporates.

Most of us accept this transition as inevitable, almost desirable. We applaud the corporate’s ability to tell us how best to monetize land. In this context, land becomes a raw material that fosters economic prosperity. We might swear by this limited definition of land until, say, a new project demands the knocking down of our own compound wall.

It’s then that we realize that land is, first and foremost, an extremely local commodity. A commodity that has deep personal overtones. All of us develop an intimate relationship with the ecosystem we grew up in and/or live in. And if an external force wants to intrude upon it, we claim the right to be offended, even fight back. We might want to argue that a local commodity cannot be consumed from afar, which is what usually happens. This argument seldom works against the combined strength of the government and the corporates.

Having worked with NGOs in India for many years, I’ve come across various instances of land-grabbing, sanctioned and otherwise, and studied the impact it has on local communities. I’ve had the misfortune to chronicle the manner in which:

  • Five-star hotels have robbed fishermen of their seashore in a tourist hub like Goa. Without an identity or a source of livelihood, many of these fishermen chose to whore their sons and daughters to paedophilic tourists.
  • Large-scale aquaculture farms have depleted natural water bodies in the coastal districts of Andhra Pradesh, leading to the disappearance of entire fishing villages.
  • Indiscriminate mining – like in the district of Bellary – has reshaped entire landscapes and rendered the air as foul as the greed of the entrepreneur-politicians who run this racket.
  • Special Economic Zones are deemed to be adrenalin shots for the local economy, contrary to available evidence. Entire local communities are displaced in the process without sufficient compensation.
Of course, the most prominent case of displacement remains the celebrated Sardar Sarovar Dam project, which inundated expansive valleys in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, and rendered hundreds of thousands of underprivileged people homeless and jobless. In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that the long-term benefits of the project outweighed the immediate human costs, thereby reigniting the question: who are the primary stakeholders of a given piece of land?

The reason I bring up the meaning of zameen is that the Union Cabinet in New Delhi cleared the Land Acquisition Bill, which is likely to be introduced in Parliament immediately. The merits and demerits of the Bill are pithily covered here and FAQs related to land acquisition in India are available here.

While better qualified people discuss the technical aspects of the Bill, I’ve limited myself to exploring the fundamental definition of land itself. The looming question at the end of my exploration is: is it alright for us to distance land from our primary needs and make it subservient to our evolving greed?

Eshwar Sundaresan is a Bangalore-based writer, freelance journalist, ideator and entrepreneur. His works are Googlable.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.