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Volume: II, Issue I, January-June 2011



This paper deals with the case of dispossession of peasants by a decision of the government to acquire fertile agricultural land for the establishment of big industrial projects in Paschim Medinipur district of West Bengal, India. The decision of the government within the wider context of a liberalised industrial policy made the peasants and sharecroppers vulnerable to impoverishment risks in the absence of any kind of safety net as visualised by Ravi Kanbur in his recent debate with Michael Cernea.In the case study we have narrated the behaviour of the governmental administration vis-à-vis the strategies innovated by the local peasant leadership to bargain for compensation outside the purview of the law. The findings reveal that it is not adequate to identify the impoverishment risks in development caused displacement situations as done by Cernea but it is necessary to prepare detailed ethnographic records of how people at the grassroot respond to governmental decision which causes dispossession.

Keywords Content

This is how forced displacement becomes cultural-economic equivalent of an earthquake that shatters production systems and social networks, undermines identity, and plunges those affected on a downward poverty spiral”.  (Michael Cernea 2002). 

Generalized Safety Net: Well And Good, But How To Bell The Cat? 

In an exchange, which took place about eight years ago at Cornell University, the economist Ravi Kanbur and the anthropologist Michael Cernea debated on the “compensation principle in resettlement” (Cernea and Kanbur 2002).In fact, Ravi Kanbur responded to the severe criticism of the compensation principle and practices formulated by Cernea in his book on resettlement economics (Cernea 1999) and to Cernea’s disappointment with the silence of development economics on the impoverishment caused by forced displacement. Kanbur recognized the unsatisfactory situation and undertook to review retrospectively the elaboration of the compensation principle along “the history of economic thought and practice on how to balance the assessment of gains and losses that accrue as the result of displacement and of development processes more generally” (Kanbur 2002: 15). He placed Michael Cernea’s Impoverishment Risks and Reconstruction (IRR) framework within the domain of economics and searched for “complementary mechanisms” that could strengthen the IRR model (Ibid). Kanbur eventually admitted Cernea’s critique, writing that that the compensation indeed does not “pan out” in the practice of forced displacement, and suggested to supplement compensation with some “generalized safety nets”. In the 2002 exchange, Cernea responded to Kanbur’s proposal of generalized safety net in situations of impoverishments caused by development projects by pointing out its vagueness and raising some policy and operational questions. Cernea also emphasized that the critique of compensation remains fully valid and is not dented by Kanbur’s retrospective review, because compensation alone is proven as insufficient for overcoming impoverishment risks and achieving reconstruction. As to safety nets, Cernea’s response allows that the proposal might be useful and worth pursuing further, but that Kanbur’s article did not answer the hard policy and feasibility questions: such questions are, to quote Cernea, … “how to design such safety mechanisms, whether they are politically feasible and practicable, and how can they be included in resettlement policies.” (Cernea 2002: 27).


Allowing for the need for generalised safety nets of Kanbur, Cernea doubted their feasibility and suggested a policy step further: pursuing “resettlement with development”, which would aim “to improve resettlers’ conditions above pre-project levels.” (Ibid) Unlike Kanbur, Cernea is very concerned with the ‘how to do it’ question and he placed his highest hopes on a much more substantial involvement of economic disciplines in examining the severe flaws of ongoing displacements caused by development projects, to complement with additional analyses and knowledge the “vast and growing store of research in anthropology and sociology on the economics of displacement, on risks, and on secondary effects”…’ (Ibid) The Kanbur-Cernea exchange finally ended with hopes, and with emphasis on the legal and structural changes that are necessary to reduce the risks of obvious impoverishment embedded in the forced displacement and dispossession caused by development projects.


In the later years, Cernea elaborated four levels of risk management and advocated several kinds of “counter-risk actions” that may be undertaken by the project managers and resettlement planners (Cernea 2005: P.3 and PP. 18-20). He also narrated how in India a policy vacuum on resettlement issues has not yet been filled by the several attempts by the Central and the State Governments, as the policy makers tried, but have not yet succeeded, to create a safety net for the project affected families. Cernea finally lamented over the “embarrassing absence of political will” which created a “legal vacuum” in a big country like India, and also in many others (Cernea 2005: 22). Two years later, Cernea published an article in the Economic and Political Weekly in which he developed the concept of ‘financing for development’ and elaborately cited many examples of benefit sharing from different countries of the world in which the displaced persons have shared the profits of development projects, thereby reducing the risks of vulnerability and political discontent. But he also admitted in the same article that financing for development strongly required political will and legislations (Cernea 2007: 1033-1046).Suffice it to say, that in a large and diverse country like India which has failed to enact a good rehabilitation and resettlement law after six decades of independence and is still running with the colonial 1894 Land Acquisition Law, Cernea-Kanbur exchange and the later conceptual refinements on it seems to be more academic than practical, unless peoples’ movements and vigorous pressure from the civil society forces our politicians and policy makers to develop the necessary ‘political will’ to make a pro-people resettlement law. 


Generalised vulnerability net cast over a leftist state in India 

While both Kanbur and Cernea hope to meet the challenges of displacement by various kinds of generalised safety nets, a kind of generalised vulnerability net has begun to spread over the countries which move towards a liberalised economy. One of the outcomes of the generalised vulnerability net in situations of displacement is the pushing back of all pro-poor empowering institutions and activities of the democratic government as well as civil societies. One recent example of this comes from the left ruled state of West Bengal in India. In this state, the pro-peasant policies of the Left Front Government (LFG) (e.g. land reforms) are being pushed back by its own recently adopted industrial policy (Guha 2005a). The current industrial policy of the LFG is rationalised by its protagonists by the success of its land reform measures, which as the argument runs has improved the conditions of the peasantry so that the rural areas of this state can now afford to have medium and large industries (WBIDC 1999). Some of these industries, ironically are being installed on fertile agricultural land in land scarce monocrop areas where small and marginal farmers predominate. Furthermore, the land for those industries was acquired by the colonial Land Acquisition Act of 1894 which only has provision for monetary compensation at prevalent market rate. The net effect of this kind of development effort has not only been impoverishment at the social and economic level but also disempowerment of the peasantry at the political level. The all-powerful, Land Acquisition Act which bypasses the democratically elected local self-government has no provision for rehabilitation nor the LFG has shown interest to create any kind of safety net for these group of small and reform benefited peasantry which included sharecroppers and tribal land losers. This is the broader context of risks, safety nets and vulnerability of a group of peasants who tried to create a greater space for compensation for the land taken over by the government. In the following sections we would describe in some detail how the peasants of Paschim Medinipur district of West Bengal made attempts to manage the risks created by the acquisition of agricultural land for the industries through various kinds of legal and extra-legal means. But before we enter into the detailed description of the peasant ways of risk management let us contextualise land acquisition in West Bengal.


The safety net tears apart 

In situations of rural poverty one of the best safety net is empowerment of the poor through land reforms which is done through the distribution of illegally held land by the rich farmers to the landless and poor households. In the Indian context the colonial Land Acquisition Law and the post-Independence Land Reform Act stand in a dialectical relationship. While the later empowers the peasantry the former does exactly the opposite function; it disempowers the peasants. And quite frustratingly, land acquisition takes place at a faster pace than land reforms (Guha 2001).


The new era of industrial development in West Bengal or for that matter, in any other state in India is bound to be accompanied by dispossession of the peasantry from their major means of production, that is land. Dispossession from one’s own means of production is one kind of displacement in which the dispossessed family not only loses its economic security but also social status and empowerment achieved through political movements and land reforms. The international funding agencies like World Bank and the various national Governments have also started to pay serious attention to the problem of development induced displacement. Most of the studies on displacement so far have quite justifiably given more emphasis on “forced migration” and involuntary resettlement of human groups (Cernea 1999; Fernandes et. al. 1989). But there are situations when people are forced to give up their rights over one of the most valued capitals possessed by them. In an agricultural society this precious capital is land which embodies not only an economic value but also manifests various social and cultural dimensions. Michael Cernea’s pioneering study on displacement has shown that impoverishment has several ‘dimensions’ and the primary among them is landlessness. According to Cernea, landlessness is one of the most vital components of displacement which should be given a major importance in devising rehabilitation resettlement and plans. To quote Cernea: “Expropriation of land removes the main foundation upon which people’s productive systems, commercial activities and livelihoods are constructed. This is the principal form of decapitalisation and pauperisation for most rural and many urban displaces, who lose this way both natural and manmade capital” (Cernea 1999: 17). So, dispossession of the rural cultivators from their agricultural land is intimately interwoven with displacement even when they are not forced to leave their homes. This can also be viewed as a kind of displacement from one’s own existing mode of survival.


The second aspect of dispossession of the farmers from their major means of production, that is agricultural land, is the differential impact of land acquisition on the heterogeneous group of agriculturists in a region. This is precisely because of the fact that when any Government acquires agricultural land it does not take into consideration the pre-acquisition land holding pattern of a region.

Thirdly, dispossession also entails a political dimension. In a rural society where peasant movements had taken place in successive waves and the rights of sharecroppers as well as landless labourers have been ensured by a Government just a few years ago, the acquisition of fertile agricultural land for capital intensive heavy industries by the same Government not only dispossessed the farmers economically but it also created political disempowerment and despondency.


In this paper, we would briefly describe the consequences of land acquisition for the private industries in which all three aforementioned risks had been observed, viz. (i) landlessness, (ii) differential impact of land acquisition on the peasantry and (iii) their political disempowerment. Although all the three phenomena took place within a very short period of time, neither large scale forced migration nor any long standing peasant movement had taken place owing to this dispossession and the plight of the farmers in the study area remained a little known event in the development and displacement discourse in the academic as well as activist circles of West Bengal and India. In the following sections an attempt would be make to depict some of the consequences of land acquisition with the help of quantitative as well as qualitative data.


Socio-economic Consequences Of Land Acquisition For Tata Metaliks

 Before describing the socio-economic consequences of land acquisition for Tata Metaliks, a brief outline of the area from where the sample households have been selected from the affected villages are provided along with the methodology adopted for this particular fieldwork.


The Area 

The area lies on the bank of the river Kasai which is the largest river of Paschim Medinipur district. Cultivation of paddy (staple of the district) in the villages under study depends primarily upon rainfall and no systematic irrigation facilities have yet been developed by the Government. The villagers residing on the south eastern bank of the river cultivate a variety of vegetables on the land adjoining their homesteads owing to a very good supply of groundwater tapped through traditional dug wells. But just west of the South Eastern Railway track the groundwater level is not very congenial for cultivation of vegetables. The main agricultural activity on this side of the railway track is rain fed paddy cultivation for about four to six months of the year. Land for the two big private industries has been acquired by the Government on this side during 1991-96 in the wake of liberalisation in India.


Selection Of Households 

The selection procedure of the households for this study followed a combination of purposive and opportunity sampling. At the outset, the main aim of the researcher was to locate the households whose farmlands have been acquired for the establishment of the Tata Metaliks. Instead of searching through the records of land ownership kept in the Land and Land Records department of the district, this investigation depended directly upon fieldwork by following the traditional anthropological method of intensive interviews of the project affected people. Apart from knowing the current status of land ownership, (which are not promptly made up-to-date in the Land Records Office) micro-ecological variations and local level political movement centering round land acquisition within the first few weeks of fieldwork, it became also possible to know from the active members of the political movement the names of the villages whose inhabitants have been affected by the acquisition of agricultural lands for the industries. Later, at the time of conducting the household survey, snowball sampling was taken recourse to, wherein the affected households gave the names of other such household heads whose land have also been acquired. Household survey had to be completed within a period of three months owing to time constraints and as a result not all the affected households could be covered. A rough estimate about the total number of households affected by the acquisition of land was made available for us by the leaders of the peasant movement who took the help of the Congress party. They estimated that about 200 families have been affected by the acquisition. Within the stipulated time, a total of 144 households (72 per cent of the estimated total) belonging to different landholding categories, caste and community affiliation as well as families residing in the two micro-ecological niches on both sides of the South Eastern Railway track have been covered by the survey. The sample households included Hindu caste groups, Muslims, tribals, owner cultivators, sharecroppers on both sides of the railway track which provide interesting ecological variations in terms of groundwater level and cultivation of non-cereal food crops. In the following section, the findings of enquiry on some consequences of the said act of acquisition have been described.


Spreading the risk of landlessness 

The first and foremost consequence conforms to the observation of Michael Cernea which he mentioned in his publications on the “eight major risks” involved in involuntary displacement caused by development projects all over the world. Industrialization in the liberalization decade in Medinipur has led to dispossession of the small and marginal farmers from their principal means of production.

                                                                             Table 1

Distribution of Households in Five Villages Affected by Land Acquisition for TML.

Name of the village

Number of households



















Figures in parentheses represent percentages in the tables.

From table I it is found that the villages situated on the eastern side of the railway track (Ajabpur, Gokulpur and Liluakala) have been affected more in terms of the number of families who have lost their farmlands. The people of these villages are excellent farmers who keep themselves engaged throughout the year in agriculture. Besides paddy, they also grow almost all kinds of summer and winter vegetables like green chili, lady'’ finger, mustard, water gourd, pumpkin, bitter gourd, brinzal, potato, cabbage, cauliflower, radish and others.

These vegetables are grown in lands adjoining their homesteads which have not been acquired by the Government. The villagers mainly sell these vegetables in the local markets which fetch them some ready cash. On the other hand, the families who live in the village Paschim Amba, lying on the western side of the railway track, belong to the Kora tribe. Many of the Kora women and men now work as temporary unskilled labourers in the coke oven industry.

                                                                                   Table 2

Distribution of Households of Different Castes and Communities Affected by Land Acquisition for TML.

Name of the Caste/ Community

Number of households






















Scheduled Castes



Kora (Tribe)












Table 2 shows that the households belonging to Sadgops, who are one of the most enterprising peasant caste of western Bengal, have been affected most, while the scheduled tribe and scheduled caste families comprise almost a quarter of the total number of affected households. Despite the presence of various constitutional safeguards and job reservation for the scheduled communities, there is no special provision for rehabilitation of these marginalised groups in India. In this region too, these communities have become further marginalised due to the establishment of industries on their farmland and no step has yet been taken either by the State or the Central Government to rehabilitate these groups properly.