Monday 4 May 2020

Nature of Land Conflicts in India

Review of the Report ‘Locating the Breach: Land Conflicts in India’ 
Laura Begu

Land is central to India’s development trajectory, and conflicts over land have critical social, economic, cultural and political impacts, that jeopardize the well-being and the very identity of often already marginalized communities. 

Conflicts over land in India account for the largest set of cases, in absolute number and in judicial pendency. 25% of all Supreme Court cases involve land disputes, and  66% of all civil cases in India are related to land conflicts[1].

These conflicts are linked to multiple factors. First, different historical and political narratives about property rights coexist: as a legacy of the colonial rule, common land is seen by the authorities as the property of the State, whereas the people, and notably the farmers and forest dwellers, have claimed social, economic and cultural rights to land. Another factor is the complexity of the legal framework and the related administrative failure to implement laws related to land rights. Recent laws such as the Forest Rights Act, 2006 and the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement, 2013, protect the rights of the people over land. Nevertheless, those laws are not implemented and officials at different levels of governance keep on applying the provisions of previous, conflicting laws such as the Land Acquisition Act, 1894 or the Forest Act, 1927. Barriers equally exist within the judicial system, that prevent the courts from efficiently and timely settling the land disputes. 

In February 2020 Land Conflicts Watch (LCW) released a report entitled “Locating the Breach: Mapping the Nature of Land Conflicts in India”[2]. This report relates the findings of a 3-year study that analyzed 703 ongoing land conflicts in the country. The data is available publicly on LCW website[3]. The main findings of the report are summarized below. 

The land conflicts studied affected 6.5 million (65 lakh people, with an average of 10,688 people affected per conflict) and caused 2.1 million (21 lakhs) of land to be locked. Rs. 13.7 trillion (13.7 lakh crore) worth investments have been embroiled in 335 out of these 703 conflicts. This represents 7.2% of the revised estimate of the country’s GDP for 2018-19.  In 95% of the cases, the state comprised the second party in the conflict (70% of conflicts involved the state as the main second party and 25% involved the state and private actors). 

Land conflicts per sector 

Infrastructure development (townships, real estate, roads, irrigation) has caused the most conflicts, accounting for 43% of the total disputes, affecting 3.1 million (31 lakh) people and causing Rs. 7 trillion (7 lakh crore) to be embroiled.                              

The state’s conservation and forestry initiatives, notably under the compensatory afforestation plantation and wildlife conservation schemes, was the second most important sector, responsible for 15 % of the conflicts, but representing less investments locked than any other sectors (Rs. 2.01 billion). Land-use related conflicts (non-developmental, linked to natural disasters, inter-caste and communal conflicts, creation of land banks) then accounted for 14% of the conflicts, but only represented Rs. 165.3 billion embroiled. 

Industry was responsible for 12% of the conflicts, yet accounted for Rs. 2.7 trillion investments, followed by power (10% of the conflicts, 2.8 trillion) and mining (6%, 10.8 trillion). Mining related conflicts, even though accounting for the least cases, were the most intense conflicts after land use, as they affected a total of around 852,488 people (8.5 lakh) and around 21,312 people per conflict. 

Land conflicts, tenurial systems and related laws

68% of all the conflicts and 79% of the people affected were related to common lands. In most of the cases, the citizens did not own individual private titles to these lands, which had been defined by the state as ‘wastelands’.  Nevertheless, these communities were found to often have state-recognized and/or traditional rights over these commons (under the Forest Rights Act, 2006 and the Panchayats Extensions to Scheduled Areas Act, 1996). The majority of the conflicts involving common lands were around non-forested commons (38%) as opposed to forest land (25%). It has been found that the levels of legal protection available for traditional rights in non-forested commons tend to be lower than those available in forest lands. 

18.6 % of all documented cases, including 75% of all conservation and forestry related conflicts and 51.4% of mining-related conflicts implied violation or non-implementation of the Forests Rights Act, 2006. Nevertheless, in 52% of conflicts related to forest lands, there was no mention of FRA. 

The FRA states that no forest land can be converted without setting the rights of the forest dwellers and taking their consent. This provision has been violated by project developers and local authorities, which made false claims of settlement of rights and obtention of consent and acted to counter the dissent of village assemblies. The FRA provisions have also been violated in the context of the government’s efforts to increase forest cover under the Compensatory Afforestation Act. The plantation drives have been mismanaged, have had a low environmental impact and  have led to forced dispossession of forest land. For 80% of the cases studied, the state forest department did not obtain consent. Land conflicts have equally arose around protected areas, where the exclusionary model of wildlife conservation has led to mass relocations and evictions, further violating the law.

Acquisition of private lands was a reason for conflicts in 37.8% of cases. Such cases impact over three million (30 lakh) people and contribute to 71.4% of all investments locked in such conflicts. For private and revenue lands, in 62% of the cases, there was no reference to land acquisition laws, including the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act (RFCTLARR), 2013. 

Land banks have been used by different states as a bypass mechanism to deny such laws and the rights of the communities. As per the data available, 2.68 million (26 lakhs) ha of land are currently set aside in land banks in 8 states, and this constitutes an underestimation, as most states have land banks or intent to create them. States have been able to violate laws protecting private lands, by diverting land from opposed and cancelled projects into their land banks instead of giving it back to their previous holders.  Under RFCTLARR, if a land is not used for a period of 5 years, the states have the choice to either put it in their land bank or to give it back to their legal heirs. 

Land conflicts and marginalized populations

There were more instances of conflicts in districts officially declared as affected by Left-Wing Extremism (LWE) and in Fifth Schedule areas (the study doesn’t present findings for Sixth Schedule areas). Indeed, if 12% of India’s districts are said to be affected by LWE, the conflicts in these districts represented 17% of all conflicts and accounted for 31% of the land and 15% of the people affected. The study also pointed out that those districts accounted for 43 % of all conservation and forestry, 36% of mining conflicts and represented 41% of cases of violation of FRA.  Similarly, if Fifth Schedule districts represent 13,6% of India’s districts, they account for 26% of the total conflicts and most importantly, for 60% of mining-related conflicts. 

LCW further studied 31 ongoing conflicts involving at least 92,000 dalits over 39,400 ha of land. It appears that the disputes are linked to the poor implementation of land reforms, where the land was either not distributed to landless populations or where it was encroached by higher caste communities and farmers. Such conflicts have also been linked to instances of resistance, where  dalits decided to occupy common lands to break the cycle of landlessness. 

To conclude...

The conclusive part of the study consists in recommendations for future research. The authors allude to the fact that, even if a tremendous amount of research has been conducted on conflicts over land, it failed to give visibility to those affected to the conflicts. They also justify the creation of a land conflicts database by the need to have a national-level understanding of the impact of such conflicts. Finally, they allude to future questions that shall be analyzed in detail, such as dispute settlement practices, economic impacts, the impact of climate change on land and resource conflict, gender dimensions and the extent of the conflicts in urban areas. 

The report does not make policy recommendations, nevertheless some key points can be made from the analysis of the report and other work on land conflicts. First and foremost, the State is currently the main party to the quasi-totality of disputes, and it has been appropriating land under a development paradigm based on infrastructure and industrial development and environmental imperialism in the name of conservation. Several critics have been made to that paradigm, yet there is a need to keep on creating and reinforcing alternative narratives stating that land belongs to the people, through research and through giving visibility to the struggles of the people affected by land conflicts and especially forced displacement and its cultural, social, economic and political consequences.

These narratives can rely on the legal frameworks that grants rights to land to the people, and it is clear that there is a further need to strengthen the capacity and the willingness to implement such laws. In her report on land conflicts and suggestions for reforms[4], Namita Wahi stresses the fact that this can be achieved by greater coordination between government departments and ministries dealing with land and more transparency in land acquisition, along with concrete measures to update administrative manuals and train officials on the new legislative frameworks. This can go along with judicial reforms that would make the resolution of disputes easier and contribute to unclog the tribunals, as it has been attempted with the creation of land tribunals in Bihar.

[1] Wahi, Namita “Understanding Land Conflicts in India and Suggestions for Reform”, Center for Policy Research, June 2019, available at :
[2] Worsdell, T. and Shrivastava, K. (2020). Locating the Breach: Mapping the Nature of Land Resources in India, Land Conflicts Watch
[4] Wahi, Namita, op.cited


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