Winners & Losers in the Development Game

Winners and Losers in the Development Game


Describing the Bhakra Dam as “A New Temple of Resurgent India,” the country’s first Prime Minister (PM), Jawarharlal Nehru in the year 1963 dedicated it to the nation. In August 2016, the country’s incumbent PM Mr Modi, referred to by his supporters as the vikas purush,[1] dedicated the Kudankulam nuclear Plant jointly with a foreign head of State, Mr Putin and Chief Minister (CM) Ms Jayalalitha to the nation.[2] He stated unequivocally that nuclear energy is clean and much needed for development of the country. His party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), won a landslide electoral victory in 2014 on the plank of development.  Opponents of development projects say that these projects do more harm than good to the people and to the natural environment. Their clarion call is summed up in their slogan, “vikas chahiye, vinash nahin” (we need development, not destruction).[3]

‘Development’ is the name of the game of high stakes and involves several players. In ‘Kudankulam’, President Putin of Russia, Russian companies, PM Modi and his government, CM of Tamil Nadu where the Plant is located, are all involved in a nuclear energy development project. The media is itself an influential player.  Other players like the Intellectuals and grassroots workers joined the local people in protesting against the project. The locals risked arrests and threats to their lives and took their protest to the sea to draw attention of the world to their cause. The police attacked men, women and children. Sedition charges were filed against some people and their leader and anti-nuclear activist Udaykumar. The central government froze the bank accounts of local church NGOs and there were threats to stop their foreign funds. BJP leaders denounced priests and nuns for participating in the protests.

Winners and Losers

Politicians and big business promise a win-win situation. They tell the people that ‘development’ would be seen and actualized through mega projects, which would contribute to the development of the whole country. There would be more production and exports, many jobs and more wealth. All these processes, the people are told, are part of nation- building. There would be no losers, only winners because wealth would ‘trickle down’ and those who lose land and/or jobs would be adequately compensated. Hence, at the end of the day, there would actually be only winners.

There are indeed several winners. When large dams and big industries were launched, several people benefitted especially big farmers and industrialists. As the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) rose, particularly after liberalization with impressive growth rate of the economy, the Indian State benefitted although these benefits were cornered by big business and landed farmers, the elites and those in power. For instance, it is well known that politicians, who want to gain influence and want to win election, wrest projects from the ruling government and bring them to their constituency. The ‘public interest/benefit component of the project is subservient to the main goal of the politician, which is to become more powerful by projecting herself as the messiah of development. Then there are other players, such as the companies which actually build the massive structures such as dams.[4]      

The dam-builders have nexus with an array of contractors who sub-contract and outsource their jobs. All these networks gain financially in the process of construction of mega projects. Large transnational corporations and big Indian corporate houses which manage to get cheap land and other facilities such as water and electricity from the government, rake in a huge amount of profits which is shared with its shareholders. At the international level, there are other players, such as the World Bank for instance, which wants to be known as a Bank interested not in profits but in development. Although on paper the Bank insists on certain basic requirements such as fair policies of compensation and R&R, in practice it is known to honour its own commitments in breach. Who then are the losers; what do they lose?

There are several actual and potential losers. Their losses may not only be hard to quantify but they are also difficult to identify and understand. To begin with, there are the losers of the Law – the Land Acquisition Act, 1894 (LAA), which is at the heart of land acquisition – displacement – compensation/R&R regime. Projects launched under its ‘public purpose’ clause are the cause of the direct and indirect displacement of millions of people since its enactment.[5] When the State wants to take land for ‘development’, it uses the LAA’s ‘public purpose’ clause. A legislation of British vintage, it is based on the archaic doctrine of eminent domain, which empowers the State to acquire any private land compulsorily for a ‘public purpose’, after paying ‘just compensation’.[6] The Courts have also been categorical in ruling that there cannot be legal acquisition of land without a genuine public purpose.

 However, ‘public purpose’, with an open-ended definition, makes it vulnerable to any interpretation by the government which has the final say in deciding what constitutes ‘public purpose’. The Judiciary generally does not intervene in the eminent domain actions of the government which are ostensibly based on ‘public policy’. This has made land acquisition very easy for the governments. There was no law for rehabilitation, except for some states where laws were passed but by and large there were project-specific R&R policies, which were unsatisfactory. There were procedural lapses in the implementation of this stringent law. For instance, even its limited protective provisions such as giving adequate notice to the people before their eviction, were almost routinely ignored. Although the sheer number of the displaced is staggering[7], the record of rehabilitation has been dismal.[8] 

When land is acquired forcibly, a lot of persons lose. Their loss is not only homestead and cultivable land but also the Commons which provide them with material and tangible livelihood resources, safety and security and a sense of well-being. Furthermore, the losers are also those who are dependent on other people’s land and the Commons. All these losers, the ‘displaced’, are known as the ‘Project Affected Persons/Families’ (PAPs/PAFs). When not adequately compensated they continue to be losers till such time as they are ‘rehabilitated’. In the case of tribals[9] who are not used to a cash economy, money disappears and soon they have neither land nor livelihood. There is yet another class of losers and these are the ‘excluded ones’, those not recognized either by law or by R&R policies. Their names are not found in the list although they qualify for compensation due to their inability to provide proof of ownership of land. They are often termed ‘encroachers’. In a non-literate economy documents such as title deeds are either not complete or are not available. Other losers are the landless dependent on landowners and these may include labourers and/or sharecroppers.[10] Women lose when families are displaced. Compensation and R&R policies focus more on men; women are routinely ignored. Another distinct category of losers is future generations who will inherit the present stressed and deteriorating environment. Apart from humans, another loser is the natural environment, the flora and fauna which continue to be damaged, often irreversibly, due to unrestrained developmental activities. 

Understanding Losses and their Consequences

Development projects studied over decades reveal that the millions displaced suffer following recurrent losses whose consequence is impoverishment[11]:  Landlessness is the primary and comprehensive loss because land is the foundation upon which the productive system, commercial activities and livelihoods are constructed. Land is not just an economic entity but an emotion for those who inherit it from their ancestors; a food security; a status symbol that provides guarantee for easy access to loan and helps in getting better marriage alliances in the family and represents self-sufficiency and independence. It causes a cultural marginalization, which has psychological implications like loss of self-confidence. Landlessness not only affects the owner of land but also his family, children, as well as future generations because land provides hidden employment for every member of the family.

Joblessness, for those whose existence depends on jobs, displacement’s effects are destabilizing and debilitating. It results in helplessness.  Homelessness is a loss that occurs when R&R policies and laws do not provide improvement in housing conditions, or if compensation for demolished shelters is paid at assessed market value rather than replacement values. A home provides a psychological, even spiritual attachment with ancestors; it provides familiar environment for living and meeting the social and cultural demands. Food Insecurity happens because forced uprooting makes people fall into chronic food insecurity, caused by loss of land, livelihood and access to non-timber produce. These losses affect food production, availability of food and also the patterns of food consumption. Loss of Common Property Resources (CPRs) for the asset-less means loss of fruits, other edible forest products, firewood and deadwood for use and sale, common grazing areas, use of public quarries, and so on account for a significant share of poor households’ income and sustenance.

 Morbidity happens due to stress and unhygienic conditions and when projects do not incorporate preventative epidemiological measures the situation can get worse. They become easy victims to diseases of poor hygiene, such as diarrhea and dysentery, to outbreaks of parasitic and vector-borne diseases such as malaria and schistosomiasis caused by unsafe, insufficient water supplies and inadequate sanitary waste systems. Social Disarticulation takes place when the disintegration of social support networks compounds individual losses with a loss of social capital. Dismantled patterns of social organization, which enable to mobilize people for actions of common interests and for meeting pressing immediate needs, are hard to rebuild. Such loss is higher when people are resettled in a dispersed manner. Such disarticulation processes undermine livelihoods and form part of the complex causes of impoverishment.

Distress migration when the displaced have no means of survival, they migrate, either permanently or seasonally to cities where they are exposed to a number of risks. Women’s loss happens when compensation money is usually paid to the head of the family, generally a male, who spends it on alcohol and/or gambling. If access to the commons is not available, women suffer because they lose additional sources of income and also their influence within the family. Schools in the new location are either non-existent or are far away and so children’s education suffers. Marginalization finally occurs when families cannot fully restore lost economic strength. Middle-income farm households do not become landless, but become small holders and families previously in precarious balance above the poverty line may fall below it and never recover, even without becoming landless. Marginalization is the cumulative effects of the preceding losses.

Nature’s distress and losses of future generations:  Development projects devour forests and bio-diversity which are then lost to the present and future generations. Land, air and water pollution have crossed critical thresholds and have reached ‘tipping points’. Pressure on eco-systems is beyond their carrying capacity and hence compromises their power of self-regeneration. Harm done to nature is in most cases irreversible. This in turn harms humans who depend on nature not only as a livelihood base but also sites of well being and security, particularly tribal communities which live close to nature and who depend on it. Industries, dams, power plants and consumerism in India and all over the world have belched into the skies gases that have caused climate change which is harming the poorest of the poor since they do not have adaptive and coping mechanisms and resources. This is unsustainable development which harms the interests of not only the poor of the present generation but also future generations. Hence both, intra- and inter-generational justice stand compromised.[12]

Observation and Analysis

The process of development and its outcome have not been entirely sanguine. There is indeed no gainsaying the fact that there has been impressive economic growth manifest in rising incomes and wealth production, external display of which are visible in the form of goods and services, development of infrastructure such as expressways, airports, industrial estates and corridors and massive irrigation projects, all meant to fuel further economic growth. In its invisible form this wealth is hidden in tax havens. To entertain the business elites and the political class swanky hotels and resorts, golf courses and boating clubs are mushrooming. To house the growing middle class with a strong purchasing power, there are plush bungalows and elite housing societies. Alongside these, one cannot miss seeing with one’s naked eyes not only poverty but also destitution all around in the form of sprawling slums, squatters on pavements and on the open grounds; children, the aged and the invalid begging. Along with the rising class of the nouveau riche, there is evidence of a burgeoning category of the ‘new poor’, the project-affected persons and families (PAPs/PAFs) for whom very survival with human dignity is a daily struggle. Wealth has not trickled down. Inequality has increased and is posing a threat to human dignity and to society.

Across the country, acquisitions have triggered protests, some of them turning violent. In pre-independent India, there was fierce resistance to the building of Mulshi dam.[13] Other protests continued during the post-independence period and despite Nehru’s exhortations to the people to suffer willingly for the nation.[14] These protests became more violent as more land was acquired. In recent times, the wave of protests in Singur against the Tata’s Nano (small car) project and the reverberating sound of gunshots emanating from Nandigram in West Bengal that killed protesters shook the nation as big business began to be implicated in dubious deal-making with the government of the day, is still fresh in the minds of the people. The tribal heartland is seeing extremist Naxal violence which has shaken the establishment. The State says that Naxal violence is the single biggest threat to internal peace accuses the Naxals of unleashing terror; the latter say that they are countering State terror disguised as ‘development’.      

The response of the government to rising protests is to treat it as a law and order problem and to crack down on protesters instead of dealing with people’s genuine grievances concerning exploitation and development deficits. The response to extremist violence was to promote armies of tribals to fight tribals, effectively putting one oppressed group against another.[15] Finally, the State replaced the draconian LAA with a new one law. Enacted in 2013, the new law which as a Bill was known as “The Land Acquisition, Resettlement and Rehabilitation Act, 2013 (LARR) now has a long and interesting title, “The Right to Fair Compensation, Transparency in Land Acquisition and Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013.” Although this law’s focus is to acquire land quickly, it does provide for enhanced compensation and incorporates some other salutary provisions for land losers. Nonetheless, it also fails on many counts. The coercive eminent domain power continues to vest in the State and the definition of ‘public purpose’ continues to be open-ended.

The whole purpose of the new law is an attempt to circumvent the hurdles before acquisition, such as rehabilitation of land losers and other affected persons, without substantially increasing the cost of land.[16] Several attempts have been made to amend the new law to dilute some of its provisions. The amendment Bill is still pending in Parliament with no resolution in sight. There are ongoing protests by villagers against land acquisition under the new law in the new State of Telangana. State repression in the form of censorship and restrictions on the fundamental rights, have prompted villagers to say that they are being held “hostages in our own villages”.[17] With the present government’s push towards more foreign direct investment in industries and manufacturing, displacement and environmental degradation will continue unabated.

In the development-displacement discourse, it is said that next to killing a person the worst you can do is to displace her. ‘Displacement’ is a misnomer and hides the violence physical, verbal and psychological associated with coercive acquisition. It is actually deracination, which connotes violent uprooting. Coercive power of taking is used to uproot people from their habitat. Those considered ‘encroachers’, even when they have been residing for decades and evicted without just compensation is a form of violence and raises fundamental questions about ownership and/or control of land and the commons. It leads to questioning the existence and role of the State and its power of eminent domain. Those who are somewhat lucky are forcibly relocated, but those who are not are forced to join the swelling ranks of the landless, the laboring and toiling classes marginalized and impoverished.

Deprivation and the new Poor

The PAPs are the impoverished ‘new poor’, people who earlier generally led subsistence level dignified existence. Looked at from the perspective of the ‘Capability Approach’, their ‘poverty’ is a result of ‘deprivation’. There is not only income poverty, in the sense of lowness of income, but ‘capability deprivation’.[18] The new poor suffer from multiple deprivations. They were either landowner, or were employed on the lands of others[19] or were share-croppers. Public purpose projects deprived them of their ancestral land, their homes and livelihoods. Joblessness robbed them of self-reliance and confidence and produced a sense of hopelessness and loss of dignity. These projects also deprived them of their food security. They were deprived of their homes. Displacement and/or relocation to a new and unaccustomed place, facing shortages of necessities and hostility from host population,  produced stress of all kinds resulting in morbidity or deprivation of health. Distress migration brought in multiple risks especially when they settled in the slums with inadequate or no access to civic amenities. Those who were forced to migrate seasonally and were employed at various sites faced exploitation of many kinds, ranging from non-payment of wages to sexual harassment in case of young girls and women. Children who accompanied migrant parents dropped out of school and were deprived of even basic education.

Instead of building capabilities, expanding freedoms and enhancing dignity, these situations produced the opposite. They reduced the capabilities of the displaced to lead the lives they valued. Instead of producing more and stronger freedoms, these situations made them less free, even helpless. Not only was there no expansion of freedom, but whatever rights, freedom and dignity they possessed were taken away from them. “Beghar se,hameh behaal kar diya,” said one Bhil tribal to this writer (“They have made us helpless, after making us homeless”).  This is active deprivation caused by the state in the process of development. Furthermore, this process takes for granted that some people would have to make sacrifices for the ‘good of the nation’, for development. It is generally observed that it is the vulnerable sections of the public which is called upon to make the sacrifices; sometimes repeatedly by the same persons.[20] Often they are sacrificed at the altar of development. Those not lucky enough to receive compensation or resettlement face not only poverty but destitution, with starvation and death stalking them wherever they go or reside.         

These ‘new poor’ are those who have been ‘made poor’ by the State. This is not merely passive poverty but active impoverishment, signifying that an external agency interfered with the lives of those who lived peaceful and dignified lives at the subsistence level. In this sense, impoverishment is state caused. On the other hand, some sections of society, especially companies and their officials, contractors and politicians have gained at the expense of the losers. There has been ‘accumulation through dispossession’, which has increased inequality.[21] This is not only exploitation but an abuse of eminent domain[22]  which is unjust and contrary to the vision and values of the Constitution which promised to herald freedom and a social revolution based on democratic ideals.[23] The process of development has resulted in the transfer of resources to a few resulting in concentration of income and wealth in the hands of a miniscule minority.  From the perspective of the Constitution and the expansion of rights and freedoms by some judges, these are not only grave deprivations caused by the state, through its acts of omission and commission, but also violations of rights. This is denial of Justice guaranteed by the Constitution and eloquently articulated in its Preamble. It is not the Constitution that has failed us but it is we who have failed it.

The Promised Land is nowhere in sight; the promised win-win situation does not seem to exist. On the contrary, there is land and livelihood loss accompanying uneven growth. As a result, agrarian distress has deepened leading not only to unprecedented wave of suicides by farmers but also mass distress migration, with its concomitant risks and woes. Inequality is stark and stares us in our face. Only a few have won and a large majority of people, especially the poor and powerless among those displaced from lands and livelihoods and ways of living, have lost. This is unsustainable development.


 ‘Development’ or ‘Public Purpose’ should enhance the dignity of human persons and communities instead of depriving and impoverishing them. Poverty understood as deprivation, inequality, inequitable access to resources, unequal distribution of wealth and degradation of the environment lead to violence which threatens human dignity. People cannot be used as objects or as instruments to promote mere economic growth. Development should empower people by building capabilities and expanding their freedoms to lead the lives they value, both as individuals and as part of a community in which they can freely participate as equals and realize their full potential. Development should also not only not harm nature but it should be so undertaken that eco-systems are protected and promoted knowing full well that it is the livelihood base of the poor and that ecological balance is necessary for the well being of not only humans but also flora and fauna and the entire planet.  


The boundaries of nature go beyond those made by humans; so is the case with pollution and environmental degradation. Not only are humans inter-related but this relationship extends to other creatures and nature as a whole. It extends in space and time to future generations. We are one family living in one home, which is our ‘common home’ and we share a ‘common future’ that is at stake. The same is the case with Justice. “Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere.” Intra-generational injustice will extend and adversely affect inter-generational justice. Authentic development happens only if there is sustainable development as conceptualized and articulated by the Brundtland Commission in its influential report.[24].  For this to happen, there is a need to move away from the GDP-centric, top-down economic development model which privileges economics over other vital factors  – such as environmental promotion, human rights and rights of distinct vulnerable groups – to a People-centric model in which people’s free participation in their development is promoted through public hearings, devolution and decentralization of power, all of which recognize the wisdom of the local people to decide what is good for them, their environment and their nation.  

It is, therefore, incumbent upon us to interrogate the State and its takings power. We need to check eminent domain and make it accountable to the Constitution. To rethink ‘public purpose’ that forms the core or the basis for exercising the fearsome coercive power of taking in order to eliminate abuse of state power would be an imperative, an immediate task. ‘Public purpose’ should be re-defined in such a way that it serves genuine public interest by submitting to the basic demands of sustainable development – intra and inter-generational justice. The former requires that the rights and freedoms of the present generation guaranteed by the Constitution, and expanded by the Judiciary, are protected and promoted. It should be guided by the vision and values of the Directive Principles of State Policy (DPSPs) that “are fundamental in the governance of the country”[25], which fundamentally includes development planning and implementation.  This would include distributive justice that would be served when wealth is distributed in an equitable manner. The latter requires that the rights and freedoms of future generation be not compromised by the projects undertaken by us in the name of development.


Secondly, ‘public purpose’ should be linked to the requirements of ‘just compensation’. If any project is either not capable or deliberately excludes full compensation, it should not be considered as project that fosters sustainable development. Compensation should enable people to not only restore their former standards of living and the freedoms enjoyed by them, but it should help them better their lives through bringing in more socio-economic and cultural opportunities to realize their full potential. Hence, it should take into account a more meaningful cost-benefit analysis that will factor in all the costs, including the full human costs involved in complete rehabilitation, and environmental costs as well. It should also tackle the conundrum of valuation as expressed in the concept of ‘constitutive incommensurability’ through negotiations with unwilling sellers, such as indigenous people with strong ties to land and who find the whole idea of fixing a price on land, water and trees in order to sell them disturbing, if not revolting. This process should be made transparent and participative so that costs and benefits reflect present reality Local bodies and village gram sabhas will have a big role to play. There are instances of best practices and success in this.[26] Civil society, academia and grassroots movement have also to play their respective roles in terms of awareness raising, mobilization of people and collection of data to check abuse of State power and to protect the rights and freedoms of people and the environment.


 Anthony Dias

XISR, Nashik

 [1]          Such a person epitomizes development. The PM is known as the architect of the ‘Gujarat Model’ of development, which catapulted him to the PM’s chair.

[2] The Indian express, August 10, 2016

[3] This is the slogan of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), a people’s movement which critiques the existing model of development and proposes alternatives.

[4] For a detailed discussion on the various interests that benefit from development projects, see Patrick McCully, The Silenced Rivers – The Ecology and Politics of Large Dams, (New Delhi, Orient Longman), 2001, 243-254

[5]       Smitu Kothari, “Whose Nation? The Displaced as Victim”, Economic and Political Weekly, 31(24), (1996): 1476-85.

[6]  For a detailed discussion on this doctrine see Anthony Dias, Development and Its Human Cost – Land Acquisition, Displacement and Rehabilitation of Tribals in India, (Jaipur, Rawat Publications, 2012), 53-78

[7]  Walter Fernandez and Vijay Paranjpye (eds), Rehabilitation Policy and Law in India: A Right to Livelihood, (New Delhi/Pune, Indian Social Institute/Econet, 1998, 149-168.

[8]  Only 25 percent of the displaced have been rehabilitated; Walter Fernandes and Vijay Paranjpye, Ibid. In Odisha those displaced by the Hirakud Dam built in the 1950 have still not received their compensation; see Rajat Kujur, ‘Underdevelopment and Naxal Movement”, Economic and Political Weekly, 47/07, (2006): 557 – 559.

[9]     Tribals constitute 40 percent of all displaced and bear the brunt of displacement; see Patrick McCully, Op cit, 9

[10]  Interestingly, in a recent protest the protesters were not the losers of land but the landless who worked on these lands; see Sreenivas Janyala, “Telangana Police clampdown on village opposing water project”, The Indian Express, Sept. 14, 2016.

[11]   Michael Cernea, “Development’s Painful Social Costs – Introductory Study by Michael Cernea” in S Parasuraman, The Development Dilemma: Displacement in India, (London, Macmillan Press, 1999), 3 – 15.


[12] ‘        The Brundtland Report defines ‘Sustainable Development’ as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The definition includes intra- and inter-generational justice.

[13]      The Mulshi dam protests in Maharashtra against land acquisition are considered the first anti-dam movement in the pre-independent India and are a precursor to later anti-mega projects resistance all over the country.

[14] Nehru spoke to the people affected by the Hirakud dam in 1948 thus, “If you are to suffer, you should suffer in the interest of the country.”

[15]  The Salwa Judum militia that fought alleged Naxals was supported by the State, which also launched its own campaign Green Hunt to hunt them down.

[16] For a detailed discussion on the Act, see T K Rajalakshmi, “A Law and its Losers”, Frontline, January 2013

[17]   Swati Vadlamudi, Op cit.


[18]  Economist-Philosopher Amartya Sen views poverty as ‘capability deprivation’. For a detailed discussion on the subject, see Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom, (Mumbai, OUP), 2000, 87 – 110. See also, Amartya Sen, The Idea of Justice, ((London, Pensuin), 2009, 225 – 252

[19] Interestingly, in a recent protest widely reported in the press, the main protesters were not the losers of land but those who worked on the land of others – the landless labourers. Swati Vadlamudi, “Landless, they fought land acquisition”, The Hindu, August 6, 2016.

[20]  The phenomenon of ‘multiple displacement’ happens, where those displaced and resettled are again displaced for another project.

[21]    C P Chadnrasekhar, “The Myth of Growth”, Frontline, August 5, 2016, 4 – 8; also see S Subramanian, “Growth of Inequality” Frontline, August 5, 2016, 53-55.

[22]       In the Singur case verdict, the Judges admonished the previous Left Front government for abuse of this power. One of the judges said that there was no ‘public purpose’ in the acquisition, which makes the acquisition void ab initio.

[23]   Granville Austin, “Preface” in The Indian Constitution: Cornerstone of a nation’ (OUP, New Delhi), 1966, x

[24]   For a fuller understanding of ‘Sustainable Development’, see Our Common Future,, par 27 – 30.

[25]   Art. 37 of the Indian Constitution states that the Directive Principles are not enforceable but they are nevertheless fundamental in the governance of the country; the article further adds that it shall be the duty of the State to apply these (principles) in the making of laws.

[26]   In Odisha, the Gram Sabhas were successful in rejecting the Korean company’s multi-crore POSCO project.