The Piracy of Development – The 3-Ds: Dispossession, Displacement, Destitution

jal satyagraha narmada

Land, along with water, is essential for habitat, living, and survival of human and non-human species. It is not merely a source of food and livelihood for the food-producers, but also the socio-cultural basis of their lives.

Colonization for resources

In the 17th and 18th Centuries, industrializing European states captured territories in the Americas, Africa and Asia. They realised the business-trading potential of growing cash crops, and the need for land and labour.

Military and mercantile power struggles among the European states resulted in the British and French colonizing North America, and Spain and Portugal colonizing South America. The land was taken from indigenous peoples by force, guile, deception, or treaties later violated.

Vasco da Gama discovered the sea route to India’s west coast. Portugal, England, France, Holland, and Denmark, set up trading posts along India’s coast lines. There was avarice-driven intense rivalry and conflict among them, to capture land and trading rights to loot India’s immense wealth. Ultimately the English East India Company – a corporation covenanted and supported by the British Crown – prevailed, using military force to capture almost the whole subcontinent.

Following the 1857 War of Independence – “The Sepoy Mutiny”, for the British – the British Crown took control from the English East India Company, and politically unified India, by forming a Government of India.

Thus, the British brought central laws to India at a time when India was far wealthier than Britain. The laws were necessary to impose colonial rule and efficiently exploit India’s enormous resources to feed the money-generating industrial monster at home. Britain used contemporary technology – railways and post-and-telegraph – and a modern military, as the prime enablers of efficient industrial-scale exploitation of natural resources, and imposition of military-backed imperial rule.


With maritime military and mercantile superiority, the British made huge financial profits by global trade, supported by military force on land. Significant profits came from slave trade of African people – 50-million humans over 200-years, averaging nearly 700 per day – to work plantations in North America, on land taken from indigenous people.

Besides Britain, other European powers created business/commercial/trading companies (precursors of modern corporations), enacted company laws, and introduced systems of accountancy, and established financial and banking systems.

These companies, part of or covenanted by their respective governments, profited hugely from militarily-supported trade – tea, opium, indigo, textiles, spices, bananas, etc., and timber and minerals – to feed the industrializing consumer economies of Europe and America, by exploiting their overseas colonies. Britain despatched indentured Indian labour to work plantations in the West Indies and Pacific island territories under its control.

Economic and financial growth by piracy

Piracy is an act of theft, robbery or criminal violence by ship or boat-borne attackers upon another ship or a coastal area, typically with the goal of stealing cargo and other valuable goods. Extracting property from a victim without his/her knowledge or permission, is piracy.

Based upon the industrial need for exploitation of material and human resources, the British colonial rulers enacted laws to vest ultimate ownership of natural resources – especially land itself, and movable and immovable property on the land and underground – with the Crown.

The British invented the principle of “eminent domain” to administer land of all kinds in India. The British Government of India enacted the Land Acquisition Act of 1894 (LAA-1894), which self-empowered Government as the primary owner of land. Private ownership of land was at the pleasure of Government – it could expropriate private property for public use without the owner’s consent, for a “public purpose” to be defined by itself.

Acquiring land under LAA-1894 inevitably involved population displacement. The law was an attempt to give a false veneer of legality, to what was fundamentally piracy. Most other colonial powers did not bother with such legal window-dressing.

Thus, since the 15th Century, colonial powers pirated land, and material and human resources, for their economic and financial growth.

Development equity and justice

There is little doubt that “development” as generally understood, requires executive powers to be vested in governments, and these powers flow from laws which are enacted by legislative bodies elected by the people. There is also little doubt that perfect equality of development benefits in any society, is an impossibility.

Therefore, one of the constitutionally mandated primary tasks of governments at state or national scale, is to build social and economic equity and justice, in the complex social, economic and political processes of development. The guidelines for elected executives and legislatures are set out in the Directive Principles of State Policy, which successive governments have observed mostly in the breach.

Land acquisition

Elected governments have the legal authority for property expropriation for a “public purpose”, for the general good. It raises human and social questions and problems relating to involuntary, physical displacement of large numbers of social units of people, and their compensation, resettlement or rehabilitation. These “project-affected families” (PAFs) are people whose lives, habitats and livelihoods have a symbiotic and intimate connection with land.

Post 1950, British era laws were reviewed. Some were repealed, others amended. LAA-1894 was amended in 1962 and 1984, but remained essentially the same in effect.

The unwritten policy of successive central and state governments up to the present, is to encourage and enable corporate industrial/commercial and developmental projects (which are contracted out to large corporations), with little concern for their impact upon people and societies, or the environment.

Following sustained public demand and agitation against British-era LAA-1894, Government of India proposed a Resettlement and Rehabilitation Bill, 2007. This Bill was defective in multiple ways, and public objection and agitation resulted in another Bill proposed in 2011. Finally, driven by widespread public agitation concerning violation of the rights of people and societies by land acquisition under LAA-1894, Parliament enacted “Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013” (LARR-2013). LARR-2013 repealed and replaced LAA-1894 after 119 years.

The preamble of LARR-2013 expresses pious and noble aims. The law is meant “to ensure, in consultation with institutions of local self-government and Gram Sabhas established under the Constitution, a humane, participative, informed and transparent process for land acquisition for industrialization, development of essential infrastructural facilities and urbanization, with the least disturbance to the owners of the land and other affected families, and provide just and fair compensation to the affected families, whose land has been acquired or proposed to be acquired or are affected by such acquisition, and make adequate provisions for such affected persons for their rehabilitation and resettlement, and for ensuring that the cumulative outcome of compulsory acquisition should be, that affected persons become partners in development, leading to an improvement in their post-acquisition social and economic status, and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto”. [Emphasis supplied to key phrases]

LARR-2013 Section 4 concerns determination of social impact and public purpose. It mandates that Government “shall consult the concerned Panchayat, Municipality or Municipal Corporation, as the case may be, at village level or ward level, in the affected area and carry out a Social Impact Assessment study in consultation with them”. Section 4 also mandates conduct of SIA, and spells out the details, which the Central, State or UT Government is to follow. Land acquisition without SIA can be done “only in cases of urgency, concerning the defence of India or national security, or for any emergencies arising out of natural calamities, or any other emergency”, however with the approval of Parliament.

Although LARR-2013 Section 4 makes elected governments responsible to demonstrate how and whether proposed land acquisition serves a public purpose, the principle of eminent domain remains intact.

Legislating piracy

Sadly, even following LARR-2013, large-scale population displacement continues, for the public purpose of development projects, for economic-financial growth. This is being done by questionably amending LARR-2013.

Attempting to side-step responsibility imposed by LARR-2013, some States – Gujarat (2016), Maharashtra (2018) and Karnataka (2019) – have enacted laws amending LARR-2013, to exempt developmental projects from the purview of SIA and public hearing.

Most recently, Government of Odisha has tabled a Bill, “The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Odisha Amendment) Bill 2023“, to attract private investments in mega-projects across sectors, and fast track the process of development, by doing away with the practice of holding SIAs.

LARR-2013 Section 107 empowers State Legislatures to enact any law more beneficial to affected families, and  Section 106 empowers the central government to amend Schedules “without in any way reducing the compensation or diluting the provisions of this Act relating to compensation or rehabilitation and resettlement”. These demonstrate the spirit of LARR-2013.

In the years before LARR-2013, on the strength of LAA-1894 and its implicit principle of eminent domain, development projects from 1950 to 2009, have caused displacement of about 50-million people – an average of 1,800 per day, shamefully exceeding slave trade! – with 33-million due to large dam-canal projects alone.

The most recent instance of people’s protest against such development is farmers, pastoralists, Dalits, backward classes and other communities, who have represented to Karnataka Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai, about their dispossession-displacement due to development by the Bangalore Development Authority of an urban layout by acquiring land covering 17 villages.

However today, notwithstanding the spirit of LARR-2013 being in favour of PAFs – recalling that LARR-2013 was the result of protracted public agitation – governments are enacting laws to dilute LARR-2013. States amending a Central law albeit with assent of President of India, is seriously questionable at Supreme Court level, as it disempowers People and amounts to piracy.

Circumstances surrounding compensation/rehabilitation/resettlement

Some important factors disadvantaging PAFs are:

# Governments’ non-adherence to the spirit of LARR-2013, and relaxation of regulations and conditionalities in favour of corporate project proponents, working against PAFs’ interest;

# SIA and EIA being initiated/conducted after project tendering and contract procedures;

# Government amends laws to set project type or cost, below which SIA and EIA are not required. For such projects – the land-livelihood-social costs borne by PAFs are neglected, alongwith with provision of compensation/rehabilitation/resettlement;

# Uninformed and limited or restricted participation of PAFs in public hearings, due to non-available of SIA and EIA Reports in local languages;

# Informed consent of PAFs not taken, making displacement involuntary, and Governments using coercion or force to evict people;

# Time gap between displacement and provision of compensation/rehabilitation/resettlement;

# Quantitative difference between PAFs’ real-time needs, entitlements, and the provision of compensation/rehabilitation/resettlement;

#  PAFs’ skill-sets and financial capacity being inadequate for decent life and livelihood.

Victims of development

The foregoing circumstances of displacement, and loss of land, livelihood and social cohesion, force PAFs into near-destitution in urban slums, with insecure or uncertain self-employment, or as exploited, unorganised labour. They live under the “hafta” regime of slum mafia and Police. Civic authorities and citizens consider them as encroachers into urban spaces and urban social structure. Such post-displacement conditions cause them to self-organize to press their claims, and this facilitates their use as vote-banks, and become recipients of empty promises and freebies by politicians, who are in nexus with slum mafia.

LARR-2013’s pious aims are undermined by governments, and PAFs and their progeny, are victims of development. They join the growing ranks of unemployed discontents, easy prey for unprincipled political manipulation, aggravating social unrest.

Piracy of development

The British used LAA-1894 to acquire land, and material and human resources, for their economic-financial growth. The resultant dispossession, displacement and destitution of subject populations, did not matter.

In present times, land acquisition by LARR-2013 for development projects, also results in dispossession, displacement and destitution of populations. Worse, governments are amending LARR-2013 to disempower People.

If the former is piracy by an imperial power, the latter is the piracy of “development” in our democratic Republic.

First published in Azad Maidan <>, 24 March 2023

References hyperlinked in text:

  1. Sujit Bisoyi; “Odisha introduces Bill to amend Central law, ease land acquisition; <>; The Indian Express; March 24, 2023.
  2. Debabrata Mohanty; “Odisha bill seeks to exempt land acquisition from social impact assessment”; <>; Hindustan Times; March 24, 2023.
  3. “2500 people urge Chief Minister of Karnataka to protect farmers, pastoralists and Dalits from Supreme injustice”; <>;; March 25, 2023.

Maj Gen S.G.Vombatkere can be contacted at <[email protected]>.


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