Since the mid-2000s, so-called “land wars” have proliferated across the Indian countryside. At the center of these protests have been privately developed Special Economic Zones (SEZs). In this talk, based on my forthcoming book, I draw on my ethnographic study of Rajasthani villages dispossessed for one of North India’s largest SEZs to address three major questions: how has land dispossession changed with the shift from state-led development to neoliberalism in India? What are the consequences of this change for dispossessed farmers? And what are the implications of this change for our understanding of India’s land wars? I argue, first, that SEZs were the culmination of a post-1991 shift from a developmentalist regime of dispossession driven by public sector industry and infrastructure to a neoliberal one driven by private land speculation and non-industrial growth. The growth facilitated by this regime, I argue, largely marginalizes rural labor, concentrates investment in elite enclaves and has little to offer farmers—except higher land prices. While land speculation interacts with the legacy of failed land reforms to generate highly unequal and exclusionary growth, it can nevertheless be politically effective at dividing farmers and diffusing “land wars.” This helps to explain both the contentiousness of land dispossession in contemporary India—and why the future of India’s “land wars” rests on the (questionable) ability of state governments to substitute one-time payouts for inclusive growth. Based on these findings, I offer a reconstruction of existing theories of the relationship between dispossession and capitalism.
Dr Michael Levien is assistant professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University. He received his PhD in sociology from the University of California, Berkeley in 2013. His research falls within the fields of development sociology, political sociology, agrarian political economy and social theory, with a geographic focus on India. His book Dispossession Without Development: Land Grabs in Neoliberal India is forthcoming from Oxford University Press. His articles on land acquisition and SEZs in India have appeared in World Development, Politics and Society, Economic and Political Weekly, Development and Change, Journal of Peasant Studies, and Journal of Agrarian Change. In 2014, he was a visiting professor at the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi.