There is an important debate simmering in the Indian Parliament on the national land acquisition law that will decide the fate of many of the country’s people. Despite its import, the debate has been reductive. It fails to fully appreciate that there is more to the land question than a single legislation or indeed a conflict between the interests of farmers and industry.

Land, arguably the most coveted and contested natural resource of our time, is in transition all over the world. By some estimates, multinational companies supported by governments from the global north and emerging economies have purportedly leased or purchased 47.68 million hectares of land in Africa, Latin America, Asia, Oceania and Eastern Europe. This is for producing biofuels, food, forest resources, industrial goods, tourism and livestock. The figure excludes areas below 200 hectares, the period before 2000, and land purchases by domestic capital. So, no doubt, the actual scale of transactions in land is much higher.

India is a participant in this global land trade on the demand as well as supply side.

In 2010, for instance, the promoters of Café Coffee Day leased 738,000 hectares of Amazonian forestland from the government of Guyana for 30 years to expand into the logging and furniture business. On the supply side, the Indian government continues to be a major procurer of large land parcels along with Indian and multinational companies. In 2008, Bharat Renewable Energy, a joint venture between the Shapoorji Pallonji Group, Nandan Cleantec and state-run Bharat Petroleum Corporation, undertook to cultivate the biofuel jatropha over 404,686 hectares in Uttar Pradesh. But by the year 2013, just 3,637 hectares had been planted.

A bigger shift underway

There is a mistaken tendency to see the land question in India solely through the lens of the transformation from agrarian to industrial uses. The takeover of land for biofuels, horticulture and other cash crops involves an agriculture to agriculture transition. Besides, it is not just about a shift from private agricultural land.

From the time liberalisation began in 1991, net sown area has declined in India by 1.42 million hectares. During this period, grazing land has fallen by 1.1 million hectares, barren land by 2.4 million hectares and wasteland by 2.34 million hectares. In many parts of India, land officially classified as barren and waste is under the control of the government, which can be – and is – privatised without a land acquisition law.

A drop in the amount of wasteland would seem good news but it often comes with a trace of peril. Lands that yield food, fodder, fuel such as charcoal and shelter are routinely classified by governments as waste and then privatised for more “productive” uses such as biofuel production (as in Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu) or infrastructure such as Special Economic Zones and private ports (as in Gujarat).

Like the narrative about private agricultural land, the account that the land ordinance affects only farmers is also uni-dimensional. When pastures, coastal land, forests, waste and barren land, and even ponds and other water bodies are privatised, land-owning farmers do not lose their livelihood. Instead, it is herders, fishworkers and other vulnerable populations without permanent assets who are worst affected. Essar’s proposed coal mines in Mahan in Madhya Pradesh, for instance, threaten harvesters of a non-timber forest product, mahua, which is used in medicinal products, oil pressing, food preparation, natural dyes, edible colours and alcohol.

Wishing for a compromise

The right to land has been debated periodically in independent India. On earlier occasions too, as we are witnessing now, the state has tended to side with those it perceives as more productive. A redistribution of land from large landowners to the landless was on the land reform agenda of the 1950s and ’60s but never saw the light of day. Even the seemingly successful cases of land reform – West Bengal and Kerala – involved a “redistribution of privilege” in the words of political economist Ron Herring. In these two states, cultivation rights were awarded to tenant tillers, with landless labour being either ignored or provided with homesteads.

Contemporary discussion of compensation and consent associated with various avatars of the land acquisition legislation needs to be seen within this basic, seamless framework of privileging growth and the apparent lodestones of growth over social justice.

The homogenising rhetoric around the rights of farmers is sidelining the voices that seek to return to the agenda of land rights for the landless. It ignores those who do not have the luxury of a stake in the land acquisition law, for they own no land at all. More is the pity that these alternative voices, when they are heard at all, are now primarily articulating a demand for homesteads – that is, up to 10 cents or 0.1 acres – per landless family. With the ground shifting under their feet, the compromise solution of an erstwhile land reform has regrettably become the best-case scenario for the landless today.

Nikita Sud is Associate Professor of Development Studies at the University of Oxford.