Paying The price for someone else’s Displacement

Rough estimates point to 60 million displaced persons and project-affected persons in India. That’s four times the estimated 15 million refugees exchanged between India and the two wings of Pakistan at the time of Partition. The majority of the development-displaced are tribals and landless dalits who live on or off common property resources. And scarcely 20% have been rehabilitated.

By Walter Fernandes

“It’s progress,” says the economist. “The country’s GNP is growing and more land is required for industrial development.” On the other side, a mother in Assam who is asked why she pulled her child out of school and put him to work says bitterly: “What else did you expect me to do?”

These are the two faces of the “temples of modern India”. One, the glorification of development; the other the fact that like monuments of the past, these present-day temples too are built on the blood and sweat of millions of people. Whilst slaves and prisoners built the former, today’s farmers and others who live off the land, forests and other resources are being impoverished in the name of ‘development’.

How many have suffered? Not even the Planning Commission knows their number. Studies point to 50-60 million displaced persons (DP) or people deprived of a livelihood without physical relocation (project-affected persons [PAP]) (1947-2000). This figure includes around 3 million displaced in Jharkhand, 3 million in Orissa, 5 million in Andhra Pradesh, 1 million in Kerala, 100,000 in Goa, 2 million in Assam, 4.2 millions in Gujarat and 7.5 million in West Bengal. Thus, without including the high displacement states of Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, which have not been studied, the total comes to 26 million DP/PAP. These figures, together with ongoing studies in three more states — Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura — and case studies from some other states, point to an all-India figure of 60 million DP/PAP (1947-2004) from 25 million hectares of land, including 7 million hectares of forest and 6 million hectares of other common revenue and forestlands (common property resources [CPR])(1).

This number is four times the estimated 15 million refugees exchanged between India and the two wings of Pakistan at the time of Partition; all three countries involved are continuing to pay a heavy price for that disaster.

Displaced persons and project-affected persons arising out of what is called ‘national development’ continue to be ignored. Fewer than 20% have been rehabilitated even partially. The rest are left to fend for themselves. Not surprisingly, 40% of the 60 million DP/PAP are tribals, who constitute just 8.08% of India’s population, 20% are dalits and another 20% are from other rural poor communities like fisherfolk and quarry workers. The selfish middle class that reaps the benefits of development can afford to ignore them because 80% of them are voiceless.

The situation has worsened with the onset of globalisation. Every sector has been told that it has to produce more consumer products like small cars and electronic goods to enhance the comfort of the middle class and the investors’ profits. Around 400 Special Economic Zones (SEZs) are being planned all over India. The coal sector has been told to triple its production from 400 million tonnes today to around 1,200 million tonnes in a few years. Inaugurating the 50,000 MW Northeast Initiative on May 23, 2003, former Prime Minister A B Vajpayee told the northeast that it should become the powerhouse of India and of Southeast Asia. That involves building 48 massive dams in the seven states of the region within the next 10 years. A hundred more are being planned in the not-too-distant future. And the list goes on…

The bottom line is more land and more displacement.

Who gains, who loses?

Initiatives like these affect a large number of people, especially the rural poor. Around 25% of India’s tribals have become DP or PAP at least once, because their regions are rich in natural resources. Many tribals have been displaced more than once. For example, some Mizo tribal families were displaced thrice in the 1990s, first for the Lengpui airport in Aizwal, then for an approach road to the airport, and finally for its staff quarters (2). Over 80% of coal and 40-50% of other minerals are found in these habitats. Areas inhabited by tribals are chosen for projects because much of the land is community-owned (3). According to the colonial laws that continue to be in force in India, what belongs to the community is considered State property. So the inhabitants of this land are encroachers even though they have lived on it for centuries before the law came into force. They can therefore be displaced from the land without being compensated. Very often they are not even counted among the DP/PAP, as, according to the law they have been evicted, not displaced (4).

The proportion of CPR is high in states where the proportion of tribals among DP/PAP is high. For example, in Orissa where tribals constitute 22% of the population, and 42% of DP/PAP (1951-1995), CPR amount to 56% of the 1 million hectares (25 lakh acres) used for all projects in that period. In Andhra Pradesh, tribals constitute 28% of DP/PAP, and CPR amount to 50% of the 1.1 million hectares used (1951-1995).

Use of CPR reduces a project’s costs. An ongoing study reveals that project costs would rise by around 8.7% if compensation for CPR were given (5).

Even when compensation is paid in these areas, costs are lower here because they are calculated according to the market price, which means the average registered price in that area for three preceding years. It is no secret that what is registered is never more than 40% of the actual price paid. Hence, a person who loses his land does not get the full price for it even in “advanced” districts where prices are high. In so-called “backward” areas, where prices are anyway lower, the situation is much worse. For example as little as Rs 450 was paid per hectare of land for a minor irrigation project in Assam’s Dhemaji district, in the 1970s (6).

Besides, land sale is uncommon in tribal areas where the law bans the alienation of tribal land to non-tribals. It is therefore difficult to fix a price for it and, as a result, prices are arbitrarily fixed and are kept extremely low. For example, 88% of land acquired for the National Aluminium Corporation at Angul in Orissa in the mid-1980s was private. Its owners were paid Rs 62,000 per hectare. At Damanjodi in Koraput district, 60% of the land acquired for the company’s second unit that same year was tribal CPR. No compensation was paid for it. For the little private land they owned, tribal families were paid an average of Rs 6,700 per hectare (7). A totallyinadequate sum to start a new life.

Dalits are another community that pays a high price. Many are landless agricultural labourers cultivating land owned by someone else. Though it is their sustenance, the State often does not count them among DP/PAP since they do not own the land, according to the present colonial laws. This is also the case with other CPR dependants like fisherfolk and quarry workers who do not own their means of sustenance according to the present laws but are impoverished when they are deprived of them.

Because project costs on CPR or land in backward areas are low, many allege that these areas are intentionally chosen for projects (8). It is not easy to substantiate this allegation; the only indications are statements made by some irrigation officials in Orissa and Assam that it would be difficult to make projects financially viable if higher compensation were paid and if people were rehabilitated.

What all this means is that the poor simply do not count. They have to pay the price for someone else’s development.

Projects are sanctioned by the Planning Commission on the basis of 1:1.5 — every rupee invested should bring in a Rs 1.50 benefit. In reality, many projects involve huge cost and time overruns. For example, an assessment of 32 major dams by the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament showed that not one of them had been built without at least a 500% cost overrun and a five-year time overrun (9). This extra cost is sanctioned without too many problems, but the poor are not compensated or rehabilitated because that would raise project costs. As one trade unionist put it, if 10,000 head of cattle die because of pollution the loss incurred can be quantified in financial terms. If 20,000 people are affected, they can be ignored because the loss cannot be quantified. That appears to be the line of thinking behind national development too.

Impoverishment of DP/PAP

The consequence of this so-called development is the impoverishment of DP/PAP. Here, impoverishment does not refer to the state of poverty in which many DP/PAP lived before their subsistence was taken away. It refers to what results from land acquisition for the project. To give one example, 49% of the families of displaced and deprived people studied in West Bengal, and 56% in Assam, pulled their children out of school and turned them into child labourers to earn an income for the family.

Impoverishment that leads to such drastic decisions begins with landlessness. In Assam, the proportion of landless increased among DP/PAP from 15.56% to 24.38% and in Andhra Pradesh from 10.9% to 36.5%. The average area cultivated declined from 3.04 acres to 1.45 acres. Small and marginal farmers became landless and medium farmers joined the ranks of small and marginal farmers. Support mechanisms such as ponds, wells, poultry, cattle and draft animals that supplement incomes also declined (10). Landlessness was aggravated by the shift in occupational patterns and downward occupational mobility. For example, in Andhra Pradesh, 45% of people who were cultivators before displacement became landless agricultural labourers and other daily wage earners after it. Access to work dropped from 83.72% before deprivation to 41.61% after it (11). In Assam, before loss of land to various projects, 72.58% of the respondents were cultivators; their proportion came down to 40.24% after it. The number of daily wage earners, domestic and other unskilled workers increased proportionately. Access to work dropped from 77.27% to 56.41% (12). In other words, unemployment is high among them and those who gain access to work experience downward occupational mobility.

The situation is expected to deteriorate with liberalisation, which entails a greater degree of mechanisation. The International Labour Organisation estimates that 12 million jobs were lost in India during the first six years of liberalisation. The impact of mechanisation is visible, among others, in the coal mines. The average size of a mine rose from 150 acres in the 1970s to 800 in the 1990s, but the number of jobs created was much smaller. For example, Coal India gave a job each to 11,901 (36.34%) of the 32,751 families it displaced in 1981-1985. It then began to mechanise its mines in the mid-1980s, and to transfer workers to other mines instead of giving jobs to new DP. The impact was seen in the 25 mines in the upper Karanpura valley in Jharkhand where 100,000 people faced displacement. The first five gave a job each to only 638 (10.18%) of the 6,265 displaced families (13).

Moreover, most skilled jobs go to outsiders since very few people who lose their land have the required skills. For example, with traditional transport, the NALCO mines activated in the late-1980s in Orissa’s Koraput district would have created 10,000 jobs and rehabilitated 50,000 DP/PAP of the upper Kolab dam and 6,000 of the NALCO plant in the same district. Their income would have created more jobs in the informal sector. But the fully mechanised mines created only around 300 skilled and semi-skilled jobs that went to outsiders, as the tribals who were deprived of their livelihood lacked the necessary skills (14).

Mechanisation is integral to globalisation. This is apparent in the Special Economic Zones (SEZs) too, the first few of which are expected to create 500,000 jobs with an investment of Rs 100,000 crore on 162,000 hectares acquired for them. That amounts to a hefty Rs 20 lakh per job. In Indian agriculture, a hectare provides work to five people, or a total of 800,000 on 162,000 hectares of land. Three hundred thousand jobs therefore have immediately been lost. And most of the 500,000 new jobs will not go to those who have given up their land because they are not equipped to do the jobs.

Thus, even if they were to receive relatively high compensation for their land, displaced people face an uncertain future. At best they may improve their current lifestyle if the amount is high enough for them to begin life anew. But most of the people who lose their jobs and livelihood are landless agricultural labourers and, since compensation is given only to landowners, they get neither compensation nor jobs.

From impoverishment to marginalisation

Impoverishment leads the displaced into a state of economic insecurity. The next step is marginalisation, which goes far beyond impoverishment into social and cultural insecurity. Oppressed and reduced to penury, DP/PAP are thrown into a life without hope. The examples of children being pulled out of school and made to work show the state of hopelessness they are reduced to. In order to earn to survive in the present, they deprive their children of any possibility of improvement in the future. Displaced people become resigned to their fate.

Their attitude towards the resource base also changes. Ecosystem-based communities, like tribals, who are dependent on the forests, and fish workers who depend on water resources, have a tradition of treating these resources as renewable, as a means of livelihood to be used judiciously and preserved for posterity. Once deprived of their sustenance and with no viable alternatives they fall back on these resources as their only means of survival. For example, 80% of tribal DP/PAP in Assam have started cutting trees to sell as firewood since it is their only source of income. Likewise, fishing communities no longer observe seasonal restrictions on fishing because of declining stocks. Natural resources are no longer being treated as renewable resources.

This absence of hope is also acceptance of a new ideology. Children who were considered assets for the future, and natural resources a livelihood to be preserved for posterity, have come to be viewed only as sources of income for the present. This ideological transition is also visible on the gender front. Women enjoy a relatively high status in tribal societies although they may not be considered equal to men. The status of a woman depends on the land and other natural resources where she works and is an economic asset. Women’s growing alienation from the land and other natural resources causes them to lose their economic usefulness and social status, reducing them to the level of only a housewife. If there are jobs to be had in any project, they go to the man who is considered the head of the family. Slowly, both men and women accept the dominant ideology that the woman’s role is in the kitchen and that she is intellectually and physically incapable of doing any other work or acquiring a higher status (15).


This paper has highlighted a few features of development-induced displacement in India. We have seen how the numbers of DP/PAP, that have been high since Independence, are growing, thanks to globalisation. Land is constantly in demand for projects, including around 400 SEZs. That will mean massive displacement. Although a few families or individuals may receive some benefits, the economic status of a majority among them is bound to deteriorate. Today’s development paradigm is geared towards the comfort of the middle class and profits for the investor, at the expense of the poor. This approach needs to be challenged.

(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)

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