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The many lives of land in India

by Nikita Sud | Oxford University
Tuesday, 22 January 2019 16:36 GMT

Labourers stand in a queue to load sacks of garlic and grocery items onto a supply truck at a wholesale market in Kolkata, India on January 21, 2019. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In a multi-dimensional perspective, land moves in and out of commodity status, and is far from just a marketable product

Nikita Sud is an Associate Professor of development studies at the University of Oxford.

Over the period of economic liberalisation, more than 5 million hectares of India’s land has transitioned from agriculture, pasture, ‘waste’ and other common property uses to industry, infrastructure, mining and real estate for servicing the new economy.

Industrial corridors, Special Economic Zones, massive infrastructure projects like highways and power stations, huge townships within and outside our burgeoning cities are all testament to this massive urge to expand.

However, this urge must be grounded in land. 

Land is the base of our development model. Transitions in land that are needed for development can be voluntary and on the market, and/or they can involve the might of the state and political actors that facilitate the market.

Yet, the vision of land as a base to be developed, captured, built over, and viewed through the prism of utilitarian value, is hardly the only perspective of land.

Movements against land transition have arisen in different parts of India, demanding better terms of exchange, more equity and transparency in land deals or the preservation of existing ways of life. These movements, representing more popular and varied perspectives on land, are pointing to land not as a uni-dimensional base or value, but as multi-dimensional.

They are telling us that land has many lives, many meanings.

Land is home, history, memory and ancestry; land may be considered sacred; land is territory to be contested, demarcated, secured; land is politics; land is property over which we have state-adjudicated rights; land is the power of access and exclusion; land is also materially dynamic, with the boundaries between water, air and land being geomorphologically fluid. Above all, land is nature.

Viewed from this wide-angle, land has many dimensions, many lives, and many trajectories. As humans, we engage with land multi-dimensionally all the time. We relate to it through economic, but also social, political, territorial, historical and environmental registers.

In a multi-dimensional perspective, land moves in and out of commodity status, and is far from just a marketable product. That we have collapsed multi-dimensional land into the uni-dimensionality of property and commodity is down to our urge to capture and own the earth in neatly defined, governmentally-sanctioned, appropriately bureaucratised, titled, and taxed pieces.

Our utilitarian, extractive relationship with land, and with the earth, has brought us to the brink of destruction. Profound climate change, triggered by human action, compels us to rethink our relationship with nature. It is at this point of crisis that we must revisit our fundamentals, including the simple question of what is land, what does it mean to us, and how do we relate to it?

By emphasising the rather obvious but overlooked ideas of multi-dimensionality of land, we may be able to contribute to more inclusive and sustainable policy frameworks, as well.

Such frameworks should be asking: if land moves in and out of commodity status, then why do we try to fix its value at one time? Instead of thinking of land in terms of built-up area, value and price, can we think of land multi-dimensionally, as a continuity? Can multi-dimensional land be shared among a range of stakeholders who are invested in its immediate use, but also in its long-term preservation? Why can multi-dimensional land not have multiple users and claimants?

After all, this is how land was governed in India before colonial revenue systems tried to fix its status and value via single, identifiable owners. That brand of colonial governmentality, or the relationship between land, state and people, now dates to a couple of centuries ago. Given the crisis of our environment, it is time to move on.

Emphasising land’s multi-dimensionality is a step in this direction.