A Journey Into Archives

Peasant Movement Around Land Acquisition in Kharagpur

Abhijit Guha

[‘The anthropologist is not supposed to look beyond the field’ so goes the disciplinary folklore. Because, going outside the so-called field to search for data in Government offices, record rooms and Legislative Assembly proceedings is not regarded as the job of the anthropologist. It is to be done by the political scientists or contemporary historians.
But what happens when the anthropologist moves out from the typical village site and tries to reach the different levels of policy formulation and implementation? In this study this is what
exactly has been done and as a result of this one could combine the numbers with narratives within the overall framework of policy formulation.]

The protests launched by the landowning peasants of the Kharagpur region against land acquisition took many forms, even though these did not last long maintaining the same intensity. The movement reached its peak from the later part of 1995 up to April 1996 during which the farmers even went to the extent of violent means. The fieldwork for this study also began during the period. The entry of the anthropologist in the field during this time of turmoil was quite significant in terms of the type of data collected as well as the nature of participation of the researcher. The active participants of the movement provided field workers with the list of affected peasant households in different villages and discussed about the rationale behind their demand and one could also observe their nature of protest in the field. All these gave an opportunity to collect data on the (i) chronology of the movement; (ii) caste tribe affiliation of the participants of the peasant agitation, (iii) peasant perception towards administration, (iv) government’s land acquisition policy and (v) the political dynamics of the movement. Action oriented and participatory type of field research helped field surveyors to build up a new kind of relationship with the leaders of the movement wherein the peasants were also looking into the research outputs as they were being published in the local and national level newspapers in the form of news items, popular articles and letters.

The household surveys and case studies of the families (194) who have lost all or most of their agricultural land owing to the establishment of industries revealed the disempowerment of the peasantry by the CPM-led Left Front Government in West Bengal. Interestingly, the Left Government championed the cause of the poorest section of the peasantry through a pro-people land reform policy. Both land reforms, which involve giving land to the landless and land acquisition, which dispossesses the peasants have to be executed by the district level Land and Land Reforms Department. This Department and its Land Acquisition section have to keep records of all documents related to land acquisition. The typical anthropological definition of ‘field’ did not include this kind of arena within it. The village studies in India rarely take into account the Land and Land Records Dept. of the District Collectorate in order to understand the relationship between administration and the people at the grassroots. When the study of the displacement of the peasants in Kharagpur villages was taken up, it was found that the phenomena of displacement cannot be viewed in isolation from land acquisition. The displacement of peasants (not from their homes but from their agricultural land) took place through the acquisition of land which is basically a legal and administrative process that forms and interfaces between the people and the government. The documents of the Land Acquisition Department and the officers who executed the acquisition provided a rich source of data on the government-people interface. From the Land Acquisition Department five kinds of data viz. (1) Gazette notifications, (2) letters and Departmental notes, (3) Departmental reports, (4) written protests and objections of the land losers and (5) opinions and attitudes of the officials of the Department to the various problems of land acquisition, emerged. These five kinds of data sources again yielded a variety of qualitative and quantitative information which were combined in this study and suffice it to say, that this kind of combination helped us to generate certain specific policy recommendations on displacement by land acquisition. Here are the five data sources in some detail:

1. Gazette notification: This is the most important official and legal apparatus of land acquisition by which the Govt. informs a private landowner that his/her land would be acquired. The published notification contains three types of quantitative data, viz. (i) location of the piece of land, (ii) amount of land in acres, and (iii) the date of notification. There is also a piece of qualitative information in the notification viz., the purpose for which the land is being acquired. Both the qualitative and quantitative information in the gazette notifications over a period of time enabled us to understand the trends of land acquisition in terms of the type of development projects (e.g. dams, industries, urban settlements, roads, power stations etc.) as well as the rate of which the Govt. wants them to come up. In this way, data from gazette notifications can be used as very good development policy indicator of a Govt. in India. In our study of erstwhile Medinipur district, it was observed that over a period of 7 years since economic liberalisation land acquired for industrial showed a quantum jump since 1995 (49.66%). Analysis of Gazette notification in Medinipur also showed certain other interesting points in terms of social development. Acquisition of land for rehabilitation of project affected persons constituted 2.41 per cent of the total land acquired in erstwhile Medinipur district during 1991-97.


2. Letters and departmental notes: The execution of the Land Acquisition Act is an administrative process that involves keeping of records, making clarifications, giving instructions, and asking for necessary actions. All these take place through written communications within the different sections of the bureaucracy and outside agencies (e.g. private companies in case of acquisition for industries). The files in the Land Acquisition Department contain a wealth of materials from which one can study the day to day activities of the administration regarding specific cases of land acquisition. From the letters and note sheets one can also arrange chronologically the various events of land acquisition over a period of time. From these materials in case of land acquisition for a private company in Kharagpur, it was possible to describe in detail the chronology of events which ultimately led to the failure on the part of the State Government to utilise a huge piece of agricultural land acquired for an industry. The letters and notes provided the archival source for the study of the recently adopted policy of industrialisation of the Left Front Government in West Bengal.

3. Departmental reports: The unpublished reports of the Land Acquisition Department provided many important quantitative as well as qualitative data on the various problems of Land Acquisition in Medinipur district. Interestingly, these reports also revealed the attitude of the bureaucracy towards land acquisition and also the severe financial and legal constraints for the completion of the acquisition cases which in turn delayed the payment of compensation to the project affected persons. In short, the departmental reports provided the “insider’s account” of the executors of the Government’s decision to establish industries on agricultural land.


4. Written protests and objections of the land losers: If the Departmental reports provided the “insider’s view” of the bureaucracy then the various protest letters and objections filed by the land losers revealed the reactions and demands of the people on the ground. Qualitative materials on the nature and dynamics of peasant protest in Kharagpur were collected through participatory fieldwork in the earlier phase of the work. The most interesting aspect about written objections lies in the way they have been ruled out by the administration. In fact, the objections by the people and the way they have been dealt with by the bureaucracy can be viewed as a kind of dialogue between the people and the government. For example, it was learnt from a memorandum signed by 342 peasants that the acquisition of their land for a company would throw them out of their only source of livelihood, that is agriculture. A short Departmental report dealt with this objection which, however before ruling it out recognised that acquisition would seriously affect a large number of farmers. But this is the only sentence in the report which upheld the interests of the peasants. The rest of the report was devoted to justify the acquisition by citing the locational advantage and low fertility of this land.


5. Opinions and attitudes of the officials of the department: The district land acquisition departmental was not only an archive of records but also a living arena where officials, clerks, surveyors and company representatives interacted with the researcher on the different dimensions of land acquisition. This enabled field workers to collect interesting data on the views and attitudes of the persons who executed acquisition. For example, as regards the power and functioning of screening committees at the district level on the approval of project proposals from private companies, experienced land acquisition officials said that when Calcutta level of administration agrees, the district has to abide by although theoretically, the district level screening committee (constituted by elected people’s, representatives) can reject any proposal for land acquisition. During research in the collectorate, the land acquisition officials constantly pointed out that the rules for giving compensation to sharecroppers by acquisition is unjustified and should be changed. The point motivated the researchers to look more closely into the details of compensation payment of sharecroppers and this helped field workers to think in terms of policy recommendations rather than the construction of a simple descriptive account of the various bureaucratic aspects of compensation payment. The interactions of the researcher with the officials of the Land Acquisition Department yielded mainly qualitative data which led to in-depth probing at the level of policy.

Published records of Assembly proceedings were consulted on the specific subject of land acquisition since Independence in West Bengal. The Assembly Proceedings contain rich data in the form of debates and questions on land acquisition, displacement and rehabilitation conducted and raised by Ministers and elected members belonging to various political parties. These narratives also contained qualitative and quantitative information on displacement in various districts of West Bengal since Independence up to mid-1990s.

The Assembly Proceedings also gave an idea about the common themes that dominated the attitudes and actions of the policymakers towards land acquisition by Govt. for Development projects. The radical and class oriented approach of the elected members belonging to the left parties towards land acquisition whenever they were in the opposition was one of the main themes that revealed from this narrative. The questions and replies on various aspects of land acquisition in West Bengal Assembly followed a pattern that did not change much over the years. The questions revolved around compensation and rehabilitation. The elected members seemed to be more concerned with the deprivation of the land losers owing to the non-payment of compensation. With only one notable exception, there was no occasion when the policy makers raised questions on the justification of acquiring agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes. There is also a virtual absence of discussion in the Assembly on the adverse effects of land acquisition on land reforms. In a state, which claims to have made remarkable progress in the distribution of land to the landless, it was really surprising not to find any member of any political party saying something on it (Guha 2007). The Assembly Proceedings helped to identify the gaps and shortcomings of the policymakers to adopt a pro-peasant land policy in the context of liberalisation. It also helped to develop a wider policy perspective on land acquisition displacement and rehabilitation, in the state of West Bengal.

[Acknowledgements: The author owes his debts to the villagers of Kalaikunda gram panchayat, staff of the land acquisition department of the erstwhile Medinipur district and the West Bengal Assembly Library. He is also indebted to his students and faculties of the department of Anthropology, Vidyasagar University without whom this research-based write-up could not have been done.]

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Vol. 54, No. 14-17, Oct 3 - 30, 2021