The farm-land-for-industry controversy rolls on, with rivals ensconced in their trenches and firing fusillades. Neutrals can step aside and look at the principles that shape rival opinions. It should be an interesting exercise because an understanding of the principles could lead to a better appreciation of the differences between the two sides, paving the way for a consensus.
On one side are the opponents to land acquisition for industry. They see it as a violation not only of the right to hold property but also rights to livelihood and culture. On the other side are the supporters of acquisition who see this is as a cash transaction in which land is exchanged for money. There may be differences over the mode of payment but not over the need to buy land from farmers. They also argue that companies pledge jobs and other welfare measures such as hospitals and skill-training schools for the youth.
Of interest here is the principle of utility which buttresses the arguments of those who favour acquiring farm land for industry.The principle of utility was put forward by the Englishman, Jeremy Bentham, during the late 18th and early 19th century. It goes like this: any action by the government ultimately leads to pleasure and pain. Pleasure for some, pain for others. Now if the sum total of pleasures exceeds the total pain, the government should implement the plan.
One can raise objections to this approach. You can question whether pleasure or pain can be measured or whether they are identical. But the principle of utility does provide a platform to take decisions. Moreover, pleasure and pain are amenable to analytical treatment. In fact, in the case of acquiring farm land for industry, the land losers are getting compensated. Progress inevitably involves winners and losers, and there should be no complaints if the losers are compensated.
However, there are some gaps in the utility argument. A minority group does suffer in the utilitarian scheme of things. Let us say their human rights get eroded. In that case, there is not much the utilitarians can do because rights are sacrosanct and, hence, rights-holders’ interests must be protected. Utilitarians may argue that their approach leads to the greatest happiness of the greatest number but that also means that there are people who are denied happiness. There is another objection to the utility principle. To Bentham and his followers, pleasure and pain were an end in themselves. But are human beings mere repositories of pleasure and pain? The utilitarians seem to consider humans as sieves for their pleasure and pain calculations.
Human rights activists, on the other hand, advance the case for development which is also a right. It is the government’s duty to protect rights and dignity but they often clash. Take the case of foreign direct investment in retail in India. The rights to livelihood of small traders here lies in conflict with that of farmers. The human rights approach does not offer a solution. Moreover, resources will be stretched to the limit if the government goes about meeting every economic right. Hence, it makes sense for the government to protect such basic rights as the right to life, dignity, and freedom of expression.
Unlimited wants and limited resources are indeed a reality, meaning one cannot please all. One tends to believe there is no ultimate solution to this. This is because if there was one, governments would have adopted it. But practical considerations and the need to accelerate development mean policymakers have to make a choice. The scales could be tilted towards the utility principle because the approach is seen to work. The utility principle is almost like what a British prime minister said of democracy: it being the “worst form of government except all the others that have been tried”.