Contemporary India is among the top seven countries in the world witnessing the rise of mega urban regions, infrastructural expansion by government and private entities, and acceleration of special economic zones; the fallout of these trends has been the loss of cropland, and massive resistance coupled with political destabilization. Since the 1990s India’s political economy has increasingly been defined by land dispossession. Indeed, some politicians and big industrialists argue that the developmental agenda of India remains an unfulfilled dream because of land scarcity. On the other hand, strong grass-roots protest movements against land grab have toppled reigning governments and, in some cases, managed to thwart the outward march of land capitalization, dispossession, and ecological degradation. Land ownership remains a protean issue for Indian politics and its social matrix. Yet, it is not a recent phenomenon.
Land acquisition and dispossession have a long genealogy in India and have gone through successive stages, engendering new political modalities within different economic regimes. Although not a settler colony, the East India Company grabbed land from the 18th century onward, dispossessing and uprooting people in the process, while alienating and disembedding land from its social matrix. Beginning with the Permanent Settlement of agricultural lands in eastern India in 1793, the Company sought legal authority to justify taking land, thus initiating a regime of quasi-eminent domain claims upon land for a wide range of practices, among them salt manufacturing, urbanization, infrastructure, and railways. The political authority and dubious legitimacy of the joint-stock company acting as a trustee of land was written into the various laws on land acquisition, ultimately culminating in the colonial Land Acquisition Act (LAA) of 1894. While independent India envisioned distributive justice through land redistribution, land acquisition and dispossession continued unabated, and postcolonial India’s land acquisition law merely offered procedural legitimacy to the act of taking land from people against their will for the greater “public,” and thereafter for public–private partnership. From 1947 state-led development resulted in the expropriation of land for industrialization, dams, and mega-infrastructural projects resulting in massive development-induced displacement across the country. India’s economic liberalization from the 1990s began a transnational movement of capital on an unprecedented scale, which manifested itself as an emerging configuration of real-estate-as-development. The government of India created new legal entitlements for private companies by enacting the Special Economic Zone (SEZ) Act in 2005 for export industries, IT companies, mining companies, and supporting real-estate development, resulting in dispossession, resistance, land speculation, and the emergence of land mafias.
The Parsi community enjoyed a special status in western India as enterprising traders, who were quick to appreciate the advantages of the British connection especially in driving a huge trade in the Indian Ocean and specifically with China from roughly the latter half of the 18th century. Arriving in India as asylum seekers, the community quickly adapted to the host society by adopting the local language (Gujarati) and by deploying their commercial and manufacturing skills in consolidating their social location in the region. They were mindful of the ruling powers and developed over time important strategies of working closely with local interests, so much so that they acquired a foothold in landed and commercial society. It was in the late 17th and 18th centuries that they forged important links with European traders and trading companies, working as brokers for procurement of textiles and in the process acquiring a very close understanding of foreign markets. This was an important resource that enabled the community to play a major role on the emerging proto-colonial trade of western India, largely channeled through Bombay. The late 18th and 19th centuries saw the community produce major players and merchants of renown who amassed considerable wealth from the trade in raw cotton and opium with China and invested that wealth in philanthropy and subsequently in entrepreneurship. The community was primarily located in Bombay and western India, although their ventures took them as far as Calcutta and Canton. More recently there has been a considerable volume of scholarship on the community, emphasizing its origins, its histories and self-representation, and its use of the English colonial law in defining its own status and streamlining its customs.
Various forms of labor obligation, coercion, and oppression existed in colonial India, but the supposed dichotomy between “free” and “unfree” labor was rarely absolute. European slave-trafficking, internal trades in women and children, domestic slavery, caste-based obligations for agricultural and other labor, and capitalist systems such as indenture represented distinct but overlapping forms of “unfree” labor in the South Asian context. Enslaved Indians were exported to various European colonial possessions in the 17th and 18th century or provided domestic services within the homes of both the European and Indian elites. Meanwhile, various preexisting local labor relationships such as begar, caste-based obligation, and debt bondage involved elements of coercion, control, and ownership that mirrored some of the characteristics of slavery. These underwent significant changes in the colonial period, as the colonial state both tapped into and sought to reshape the Indian labor market to suit the needs of the imperial capitalist economy.