“If you are to suffer, you should suffer in the interest of the country.” – Jawaharlal Nehru, speaking to villagers who were to be displaced by the Hirakud Dam, 1948.
India started out with a strong property rights regime in 1950 and the right to property was a Fundamental Right guaranteed by the constitution. Over time, however, there were successive assaults on the right to property; and it now enjoys a far weaker protection.
Property rights posed a challenge to the government as it tried to initiate its program of land reforms to dismantle the zamindari system—a structure of agriculture that resembled feudalism and had resulted in an massive amounts of land being vested in a few hands. Our politicians were right in so far as they were trying to dismantle an exploitative institutional set-up. But they thought is just to undermine the property rights of all citizens to achieve this end, and this is where they went wrong.
This resulted in a tussle between the judiciary and the parliament which stretched out for a few decades. The parliament sought to bring in amendments that would have weakened property rights and undermined the power of the judiciary in reviewing the parliament’s decisions. At the same time, the judiciary constantly frustrated the efforts of our politicians as it tried to protect property rights. This tussle culminated in 1978 with the 44th Amendment to the constitution, which deleted the fundamental right to property from the constitution and gave it a far weaker protection as a mere statutory right. Article 300A was inserted in the constitution, which said that ‘no person would be deprived of their property save by authority of law.’
With the weakening of property rights, the scope of forcible land acquisition was increased. The property of the poor was forcibly acquired by the state to build dams, infrastructure or industrial projects.
We see in India, thus, a strange narrative at work. The state first took property from the rich landlords and gave it to the poor in the name of ‘social justice.’ The state then took property from the poor and gave it to the rich in the name of ‘economic development.’
It comes as no surprise then that the past few decades have seen many grass roots movements emerge with people protesting against the state’s arbitrary acquisition of their land and property. From protests against the construction of Narmada dam, to more recent protests in Singhur and Orissa; people are rallying together to demand their rights. The weakening of property rights has not merely had economic consequences; it has led to a widespread discontent among the people.
There have been some positive developments in the last few years. For one, the state has come to recognize that it cannot ignore the widespread discontent that is growing among the people. Another important development has been the Forest Rights Act, which seeks to give forest-dwellers the land rights of forest dwellers and other poor communities.