In many places in India, conflicts associated with land use change have become the new norm

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Excerpt from “Midcourse Manoeuvres: Community strategies and remedies for natural resource conflicts in India” by Kanchi Kohli, Meenakshi Kapoor, Manju Menon and Vidya Viswanathan, CPR-Namati Environmental Justice Program, New Delhi (2018):

Land use change is a wicked problem for an aspirational economy like India. In the last three decades, the government has expanded the network of domestic companies and invited international players to invest in industrial and infrastructure projects. This has created a vast footprint of social and environmental impacts that are yet to be remedied. Policy ideas such as environmental impact assessments, public hearings, Free Prior Informed Consent (FPIC), and compensatory measures like afforestation have been experimented with to ensure that economic growth can be pursued with least environmental damage and through inclusive decision-making. However, if the rising levels of conflicts, as discussed in the study, are anything to go by, then these mechanisms have fallen short of achieving what they set out to do.

As of October 2017, 14,498 industrial, mining, power and infrastructure- related projects have been granted environmental approvals from the central government. This number would be much more if sectors such as railways and approvals by state-level impact assessment agencies were to be taken into account. Ironically, no ministry or department in the government maintains a consolidated record of how much land use change has been affected due to these approvals. Any assessment of what the numbers could be is only estimation.

In order to understand what could be the scale of land use change in India, we attempted to assess a total of 4,553 projects that were granted environment clearance between 2005 and 2016. These were from four sectors: mining, thermal power, river valley projects, as well as infrastructure and CRZ, based on how the MoEFCC has categorized the approval-granting committees. However, data on land use change was not readily available for these. It required a primary analysis of approval letters available on the ministry’s website to determine the scale of land use change.

Based on the information, in 2,962 environment clearance letters for these four sectors, a total land use change of 12,44,736 hectares was officially approved over ten years. This averages to a minimum of 1,24,473 hectares per year for four sectors only. What this data also shows is that a large percentage of land use change that is being approved is on non-forest land, which includes designated revenue grazing land, agricultural land or common use areas such as fishing harbours or river beds. During 2013-2016, 205,195 hectares of land was approved for 1,881 mining projects. 80% of this is non-forest land.

The focus of several environmental groups has been on calculating the forestland diverted for industrial, energy and mining uses. At the same time, land acquisition struggles have concentrated on advocating against the policy-driven grab of private agricultural land. What is left out of the calculation are common use areas, which are in seasonal use like fishing, or grazing where ownership might be the least clarified.

It can be argued that not all these projects have initiated construction activity or started operations. This could be due to a variety of factors including financing, delay in land transfers, or on-ground resistance to land use change. But once a project is approved, a project proponent more often than not seeks to secure the land as its property. This is either through acquisition, forest diversion or purchase. Irrespective of a project taking off, the intent towards land use change is in the official records.

namatiSo, farmers might continue to grow crops for a decade, only to be issued a notice for eviction indicating that the land use is no longer legally valid, or the property rights have lapsed in the light of land acquisition. The same is valid for fishing communities using common grounds for berthing, drying, and sale of fish catch, or for pastoral communities whose migratory routes might be blocked due to fencing.

Land use change results in a range of conflict which can amplify into conflicts. These impacts relate to displacement and dispossession, livelihood loss and environmental pollution. Affected communities, social movements, and civil society actors have, together or individually, engaged in a variety of strategies to resist land use change or manage the conflicts arising out of land use change. The quantitative assessment of 75 instances of conflicts and the narratives in the four case studies clearly point out that groups have almost always used a combination of strategies to secure the remedies. This includes compensations, restoration, mitigating pollution or cancellation of an upcoming project.

The point at which a conflict comes to a head also determines these strategies. At a time when land use change is proposed, communities either negotiate the cancellation of a project or higher compensations. Post-approval, the strategies could shift to either on-ground resistance to delay possession or a continued demand for unfulfilled promises such as jobs, welfare services or rehabilitation.

India has many places that have seen industrial or mining activity for decades. Desired remedies in such places require governments and corporations to address decades of social injustices and harms. Conflicts are an everyday reality. People take to carving out economic opportunities, negotiating solutions or engage in direct action demanding accountability and redress. Experiments such as registering companies or cooperatives to official contracts, or securing mining leases are innovative methods through which a few affected people are addressing the conflicts. The success or failure of these strategies is yet to be seen, but they are creative forms of engaging both the state and the project authorities.

Given the demand, the push for land use change is unlikely to reduce in the coming decades. The Indian government has launched flagship schemes inviting both international and domestic companies to invest in real estate, port development, mining, rail, and roadways. Even as this study comes to a close, thousands of farmers are protesting against the acquisition of agricultural land for the purpose of the flagship Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train project or staking claim on land by customary practices like Pathalgadhi (Anon, 2018 , Sundar, 2018). At the same time, several rights-based clauses and safeguards within the existing legal system are being reorganised to create space for such investments (Kohli and Gupta, 2017; Sinha, Neha, 2017).

The government has not been able to restrict ongoing impacts, restore rights and remedy past environmental damage. Affected people are using innovative strategies and time-tested techniques to mediate solutions and demand accountability. However, they have not been able to conclusively reverse the trend of conflict, or restrain the pace of land use change, as yet. As a result, in many places across the country, conflicts associated with land use change have become the new normal.

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