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.