Calcutta, Jan. 9: Land acquisition by governments for development and other projects has emerged as a detonator for internal conflicts not only in India but also in other parts of the world, a gathering of researchers in the city said yesterday.
Participants in the discussion on “Development, Conflict and Displacement”, organised by the International Association for the Study of Forced Migration, reflected on “development-induced violence” from India to South Africa and Sri Lanka to Colombia.
Walter Fernandez, the director of the Guwahati-based North-Eastern Social Research Centre, echoed many others when he said the absence of a government policy on communities displaced by development projects had made the ground fertile for Maoists and ethnic insurgents.
Claiming there is hardly any official database on the total number of affected people, he put the figure at 60 million since Independence and said it was collated from available government and non-government studies. Of this, tribals make up 40-50 per cent and Dalits and Other Backward Classes about 20 per cent each, he said.
Children of 49 per cent of affected families become child labourers and a good number of women turn to prostitution, Fernandez said. “Unlike the general impoverishment which is mainly economic, these people’s marginalisation is social, cultural and psychological. With no hope for dignity and justice left, extremism becomes more attractive for them,” he argued.
Fernandez questioned the notion of the government’s “eminent domain” — its right to acquire private land for public good — on the grounds of loss of livelihood that affects people’s right to life.
But city-based activist Anuradha Talwar, who was by the side of Mamata Banerjee during the Singur and Nandigram agitations, criticised the Trinamul Congress government’s hands-off policy on land.
“Its hands-off policy hardly helps the poor farmer. It has only made more room for the land mafia who are purchasing land at a pittance and holding it illegally before selling at jacked-up prices to private companies. The government should act as a watchdog to protect farmers’ interests instead of leaving them to the land sharks,” Talwar said.
Popular expectations in both Singur and Nandigram have been belied, Talwar said, with residents left feeling they had been treated as “pawns in a political game”.
Sri Lankan researcher Jehan Perera spoke of the Colombo government’s refusal to vacate the Tamil people’s land it had taken over for military purposes.
“With the war-displaced Tamils left to fend for themselves… the land issue has been added to their demands for a political solution to ethnic issues,” Perera said.
In South Africa, land is one of the major hindrances to post-Apartheid racial reconciliation, said Loren B. Landau, director of the Johannesburg-based African Centre for Migration and Society.
Referring to demands for return of the land taken over by the Apartheid regimes for mining and other industries, mostly from blacks, he said the issue was “extraordinarily complicated and contested”.
“Only one per cent of the land has been returned. Most land was taken over generations earlier and now the ownerships are questioned,” Landau said.
Roberto Vidal, from the Jesuit University in Bogota, Colombia, said the success of peace initiatives between the government and leftist guerrillas would depend much on the resettlement of communities displaced during decades-long armed conflicts.
“We are closely following the Indian judicial interventions regarding the forcibly displaced people to fine-tune our policies on conflict resolution in Colombia,” Vidal said.
Chris Dolan, director of the Refugee Law project in Makerere University in Uganda, said “truth-telling by combatant sides alone would not bring reconciliation….”
“Fundamental guarantee for people’s life and livelihood, compensation for their losses and institutional reforms are crucial.… Given the sheer number of displaced people in India, it should be an immediate imperative,” he said.