Our peasants, our anthropologists and a forgotten chapter

Abhijit Guha

Everybody in our country has suddenly become super conscious about the peasants! Just less than a decade ago our leaders (left, right and centrist) were viewing industrialisation as the only panacea for the future development of the country. They were viewing agriculture as an uneconomic pursuit.  During the Singur crisis The Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen in an interview declared that transition from agriculture to industry was the historical necessity (Interview of Amartya Sen in The Telegraph, 23 July 2008). The common pro-land acquisition argument was since agriculture already became non-viable and unattractive to the succeeding generation of peasant families as an occupation, so let us convert the land to industrial estates. The Bengal left, however twisted it   by saying that their successful land reforms had improved the economic conditions of the peasantry and created the ground for industrialisation.  Nobody questioned why monocrop lands remained in the same condition for decades; what the irrigation departments were doing? The business chambers were also very much dissatisfied with the new land acquisition law (LARR) for having incorporated the Social Impact Assessment (SIA) and Consent clauses in LARR. For them the provisions of LARR will unnecessarily delay the process of land acquisition. The newly elected NDA government also quickly responded to the demands of the captains of the industrial lobby and weakened the LARR through ordinances (Ramesh & Khan 2015). Many state governments also followed suit. The farmers on the other hand organised rallies in the capital to press their demands but the governments did not appreciate them. But then Corona came, and hey presto! Everything changed as if by the Aladin's lamp! What happened? Anthropologists however, remained cool before and during the Corona! Nonchalant and unmoved. Of course they are now studying or at least planning to study COVID-19. Everybody has now become action anthropologists, participating in the fight against the virus through webinars and virtual meetings. After the Corona they will find another topic but never land acquisition in all likelihood. More Singur, more Nandigram, more Jagatsingpur, come what may, the anthropologists will remain cool, calm and unmoved as they were before.

Let us go back through the pages of history. A noted anthropologist D.K. Bhattacharya, who was known as a prehistorian rather bravely observed the ‘silence’ of the anthropologists in India over the sanction of Sardar Sarovar dam by the government in his scathing editorial in Indian Anthropologist. Let me quote Bhattacharya

The recent sanction of the Government of India for the implementation of the mammoth dams to be built across the Narmada, has been a calculated strategy adopted by the Developmentalists and not objected to, in fact silently approved of  by the Anthropologists wedded to what I have called the 'planning Commissionist’ way of thinking. Here we are bartering away thousands of acres of forest teeming with a fantastically rich faunal and floral wealth and at least three tribal groups constituting thousands. Depriving so many of so much for the sake of a paltry couple of thousands of Megawatts of electricity. Even this electricity is certainly going to be used to produce consumerist goods! Not a single anthropologist has either been consulted or has raised his voice against this form of development (Bhattacharya1991: 2).

Another exceptional and internationally renowned anthropologist, late Amithabha Basu of the Indian Statistical Institute was bold enough to conclude in one of his articles

If the people of Singur, Nandigram, elsewhere in India and the world take up arms, to protect their land, life and livelihood, the Anthropologist must stand by them although not without objectively assessing the causes of their fight and suggesting remedial measures( Basu 2009: 304-305).

Alas, Bhataacharya and Basu were exceptions which proved the rule!

In India, there is no governmental or non-governmental source of data on the nature, extent and degree of food shortage and its consequent impact on the biology of the different population groups that has been caused by land acquisition for any period. The government and the anthropologists have not collected and published any data on how people in different place have been adapting biologically and culturally under the stress caused by the acquisition of their land, which is one of the vital life support systems of a majority of the tribal population in the country. The largest and only governmental organisation, the Anthropological Survey of India (AnSI), collected a large amount of data on the tribes and castes of India in the fashion of the anthropologists of the Empire. Not a single piece of information was collected on any tribe or caste of India as regards the bio-cultural impacts of land acquisition, which took place all around the country, and the endangerment of food security and its after-effects by the application of the land acquisition law(Guha 2017). It was only in November 2010 that the AnSI prepared a module for conducting a SEIA in the country. The document is a 40-page text which deals with the social impact assessment in detail, mainly as a “timely academic and research-oriented exercise needed by the country” (AnSI 2010).

As of today, no data have yet been published by the AnSI on the various bio-cultural impacts of land acquisition on the tribal and other populations of India. The SEIA by the organisation remained a purely academic pursuit. The Indian anthropologists, while following the trail of the British census commissioners, have produced a mass of anthropological information that could not be of any applied or practical value for dealing with the vital governmental decision of going with or without the SEIA and consent clauses of the post-independence land acquisition law.

A glaring example of postcolonial governmental anthropology is the People of India Project undertaken by the AnSI in 1985 and the results of this project, which were published throughout the 1990s.There were 600 anthropologists who participated in the study of 4,693 “communities” in all of the states and union territories in India. The reports contain data on the biological and cultural aspects of the populations of India. But, there is no data on the impact of various development projects for which land was being acquired from these people. The reports were no more than traditional ethnographic accounts of the tribes and castes of India, almost in the fashion done by H. H. Risley about a hundred years ago (Jenkins 2003). In contrast, the earlier surveys of the British census commissioners were of great value for the colonial administration in running the Empire in India.

So, after the Corona goes sympathy for the peasants will also decline, industrialists will again make desperate attempts to compensate their losses, land will be acquired without following socio-economic impact assessments, the same arguments in favour of displacing the peasants in the name of recovering the economy and development will gain momentum and the anthropologists will go back to their old shell to study the cultural curiosities. I will be happy if this does not take place!

AnSI (2010). Social Impact Assessment (A Module). Unpublished draft, Anthropological Survey of India, 12 November, Kolkata.
Basu, A. (2009). An Anthropologist looks at Anthropology in the contemporary social scenario. In The World of Dr. B.M. Das: A Tribute. Edited by B.Chaudhury & P.J.Mahanta. Guwahati:Assam Academy for Cultural Relations.
Bhattacharya, D.K. (1991). From The Editor's Desk.  Indian Anthropologist. 21( 1) : 1-4.
Guha, A. (2017). The Empire, Its Law and the Bankruptcy of Anthropologists. Economic and Political Weekly.52(36):23-25.
Jenkins, L D (2003): Another ‘People of India’ Project: Colonial and National Anthropology. Journal of Asian Studies. 62(4):1143–70.
Ramesh, J and M A Khan (2015): Legislating for Justice: The Making of the 2013 Land Acquisition Law, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

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May 3, 2020

Abhijit Guha

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