'We have to learn to see land with a more nuanced lens': Nikita Sud on her new book, farm laws

The continual making and re-making of land as history or identity, or its use as property, or its demarcation as territory or a contested entity — these happen in place, or in a particular location. Land is not made and re-made automatically. It is continually acted upon by institutions of the state, market and politics.

Manik Sharma January 28, 2021 09:55:44 IST
'We have to learn to see land with a more nuanced lens': Nikita Sud on her new book, farm laws

In her book The Making of Land and The Making of India, Professor Nikita Sud looks at land as an entity that is perpetually being made under the influence of social, political or personal factors. Sud spoke to Firstpost about the importance of looking at land as ‘in the making’, the many ways it is transacted and the consequences of undervaluing agrarian land and India’s farmers.

From the preface, the line 'nature is obviously intertwined with our accomplishments, [but we like to see them as] our accomplishments over nature’ stayed with me. Even though your research focuses on the more recent, historically speaking, how have we arrived at this worldview?

Humans have continually sought to order and control nature for their advancement. The history of settlement and agriculture for instance is the story of humans ordering plant and animal life to suit their needs of shelter, food, security and stability.

The human ordering of nature has accelerated in the modern era, spanning the last 250 years or so. The industrial revolution for instance allowed humans to mobilise fossil fuels for manufacturing and transport on an unprecedented scale. In fact, this is the period when modernity came to be defined via the human and institutional control of nature.

We aggressively extracted minerals to fuel our societies, bunded and dammed our rivers for irrigation and energy, and increasingly cleared grasslands and forests for making way for large-scale agriculture and habitation, as also to build ships and infrastructure for colonial conquest and war. The modern state was the nature-conquering state, with leaders making declarations about dams being modern temples, for instance. This urge to dominate nature is perfectly expressed in the 1990s American animation titled He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. We have sought mastery over nature, and the wider universe, instead of striving to co-exist with the universe.

You mention in the book your reasons to focus your gaze on India. How does India, its people included, view and transact land that is different from other countries you have observed?

My starting premise is that land is far from a fixed thing, or the solid and dry surface of the earth. Based on years of field-based research and wide-ranging multi- and inter-disciplinary study, I see land portrayed by people and institutions as: (a) enlivened in the form of history, memory and identity; (b) territory which is a device for ordering insiders and outsiders via borders, securitisation, governmental and extra-governmental regulation and more; (c) authority of the state and non-state actors, vested in the ability to rule over a territory, impose taxes, and decree the use of land within this territory via policy; (d) property, which is the state-adjudicated right to privatize land and its use in exchange for loyalty and revenue; (e) access and exclusion, which goes beyond the right to benefit from land as property, and is manifested in the ability to utilise land via powers of possession (or kabza), exclusion, coercion and control.

This conceptual unpacking of land as multi-dimensional is relevant to all societies. At the same time, place and context matter. The continual making and re-making of land as history or identity, or its use as property, or its demarcation as territory or a contested entity — these happen in place, or in a particular location. Moreover, land is not made and re-made automatically. It is continually acted upon by institutions of the state, market and politics. The latter institutions in turn are made and re-made through their actions on land, and nature more widely. As the tagline of the book says: we make the land, and the land makes us.

You mention in the book that in India, at least today, land used for agriculture is considered a waste — the ‘digging holes’ reference from a state official, for example. Given that we have a farmer's agitation brewing, what does this outlook suggest the future might hold for agrarian land, for farmers and their social roots?

The state, some policymakers, and some large corporations in the business of food procurement may see agriculture as an enterprise that needs to be made productive in terms of volumes, and efficient in terms of time, input and yield. In this worldview, land is an input-output machine, or a commodity on the market.

However, if you listen to the farmers who are agitating on the streets, neither agriculture, nor land, are an input-output, profit-making machine for them. Of course land is a provider of livelihood. But it is also a store of their memories and identity. It is their baap-dada ki zamin, for instance. They tell stories of how they have tilled it for generations, with their khoon-paseena. Their beings are entwined with the land. This land is their security in hard times, it is potentially their collateral for a loan, but it is also the subject of their festive songs, their stories and cultural mores. It is also their power, authority and voice. They control what happens in the precincts of that land. It is their land. They are its sons and daughters. When the government reduces this multi-dimensional engagement with land to land that is just a commodity to be bought and sold, or when it changes farming laws to supposedly make marketing more efficient, I am afraid it is taking a very narrow, uni-dimensional view of land, and of agriculture. The protesting farmers are opening the eyes of the government to a much more nuanced and dynamic view of the world.

I would go so far as to say that the worldview of the government on farm laws, and farmland is akin to that of the colonial state. Protesting farmers have also pointed this out. Why is this? The colonial state needed to put the property dimension of land at the forefront because it needed revenue to fund colonial expansion, and it needed a class of intermediaries who would collect this revenue and be loyal to the state in exchange for rights over land. But we are not in the colonial era anymore!

Rule by property, and rule by commodification and profit cannot be the only ways of seeing and administering land, or indeed agriculture. This is detrimental to the majority of the country's population, as indeed to Dharti Ma who we claim to care a lot about.

We have to learn to see land with a more nuanced lens Nikita Sud on her new book farm laws

Author Nikita Sud

What did economic liberalisation do for the way we thought of land in its many versions — a financial asset, a state possession, conflict etc? The good and the bad.

Economic liberalisation opened up the economy to a larger domestic and international market, and it also allowed for the opening up or liberalising of land markets. Since land is a State Subject in the Indian Constitution, different sub-national States took different paths to land liberalisation. My book focuses on some land liberalisation policies and practices in Gujarat, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu. Gujarat for instance, removed residency restrictions on the sale and purchase of land. You no longer had to be a son of the soil, resident in an eight-kilometre radius, to purchase land. Gujarat also made it easier to convert agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes.

West Bengal on the other hand was under Communist rule when liberalisation began in India. Some elements of the State's ruling coalition tried to open up the land market, but this proved difficult. Instead, they used vehicles like a joint venture Township Development Scheme to attract private capital for the building of urban and semi-urban infrastructure and real estate. Even in the case of Gujarat, though land was liberalised by different governments across political parties, when you look at projects on the ground — as I do in this book — cronyism is rife.

As I say throughout the book, land is and will remain more-than-a-commodity. It is, and remains, more-than-property, in also being a vector of power, authority, identity and much more. Liberalisation, once again, highlights that general point.

Special economic zones (SEZ) have their supporters and critics. Economic benefits aside, what will be the long-standing impacts of these satellite cities, on the way land is dealt with by both the state and individuals? Are there lessons we can learn?

If you talk to policymakers who were at the forefront of the SEZ discourse in the early- to mid-2000s, they tell you quite openly that SEZs are passé now. I interviewed such individuals for my book. They were clear that in bringing in the SEZ Act, India wanted to go the way of China and Zones like Shenzhen. We wanted to build world-class infrastructure in a concentrated space, and devote that to export-oriented manufacturing. The policy immediately ran into problems. The first was to do with land. The government thought it could facilitate the transfer of land from the primary sector: agriculture, and allied activities related to fishing, non-timber forest produce picking, grazing, etc. This land would be transferred to the "24/7", modern economy of the industrial and services sector — as a policymaker told me. What wasn't accounted for was the many meanings and uses of land in people's lives. Many were not ready to give up their land, even for compensation.

But the problem wasn't just with land. It was also with the envisioning of SEZs. The 2008 global financial crisis made that very clear. Export markets were badly hit, whereas India's large domestic market was still growing. In this context, a lot of SEZs started applying for de-notification. This meant they would in part, or in whole no longer be regulated under SEZ laws, and could manufacture for the domestic market. The scramble for de-notification also happened when the initial period of tax concessions for these Zones started to come to an end.

Land, tax concessions and public resources that had been channelled to SEZs for export-promotion, are now in many cases being used for running regular private businesses.

What is even more interesting is, our policy priorities have now shifted to an even more grand zonal development. This is in the form of vast industrial corridors and Special Investment Regions. These are likely to repeat the mistakes of the SEZs on a bigger scale. Already, we are seeing the promise of these industrial corridors beginning to weaken. Smart Cities that Investment Regions that were announced along these Industrial Corridors have not taken shape. Many are lying in limbo.

So much of conflict in India, be it personal (family) or political (with the State) revolves around land. Is it merely a cultural thing or does poverty, lack of trust in institutions like banks etc amplify it to an extent?

There can be many reasons for land-related conflict. Seeing land uni-dimensionally certainly doesn't help matters. We relate to land in multiple ways, as I have already mentioned. However, are our dispute management institutions equipped to think of, and engage with, land that is identity, memory, authority, power, a means of access and exclusion, and also property? If we are at cross-purposes in the way we see and relate to land, and in the way we govern it, then the disputes are bound to carry on, and get worse.

Does urbanisation, in some way, counter the land as an asset narrative? A lot of urban millennials, for example, would rather own a flat than a farm, a shop than a fertile piece of land. What is this indicative of, in this particular context?

If we don't see and relate to land only as a piece of property to be owned, and if we think of it as a mother and nurturer, as our identity and history, or as a bordered entity that we feel part of and protective about, or even as a source of power, authority and contestation — then whether we are living in a flat or on a farm — our many-sided relationship with land is going to continue.

We certainly don't have to own land in the form of property to have an affinity with it. We can, and do have affinity with our locality, our neighbourhood, places where we studied or spent leisure time, with the larger regional and national entity. It could be argued that these are all 'spaces', not land per se. But land, like space, is a container of life that is continually shaped by the social. Land anchors space, and is as dynamic and in-the-making as space more broadly. We just have to learn to see land with a more nuanced lens.

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