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The Empire, Its Law and the Bankruptcy of Anthropologists

Abhijit Guha (abhijitguhavuanthro@ taught at the Department of Anthropology, Vidyasagar University, Midnapore, West Bengal. 

Anthropologists in India are ill-equipped to engage in a fruitful dialogue with the government as regards the acquisition of land effected under the Land Acquisition Act of 1894, even after 70 years of independence. With land being one of the most vital life support systems of the poor populations, anthropologists should generate a solid database on the biocultural impacts of land acquisition. Ironically, the Anthropological Survey of India has not yet been able to produce scientific data on the biocultural impact of land takeover, particularly on food insecurity and its consequent impact on health and nutrition.

I am indebted to the villagers who, despite all the adverse situations they faced, helped me and my PhD student Arup Majumder to continue our fieldwork over the years.

India is a land of diversity in terms of geology, geography, flora, fauna and her people. The anthropologists of the British Empire, particularly the census officials in India, meticulously recorded the biological and cultural diversities of the Indian populations. British Census Commissioner of India H H Risley (1851–1911), for example, not only counted the people, but also took anthropometric measurements of the populations and made the first racial classification (Risley 1915).

British lawmakers in colonial India, on the other hand, enacted a uniform and common law, the Land Acquisition Act in 1894, based on the principle of eminent domain by which the government could acquire any private land for public purpose in lieu of monetary compensation calculated on the basis of the past market price of the land in an area (MoLJ 1986). Despite all kinds of humane criticisms (including anthropological), this law remained almost intact for more than 65 years after the independence of India in 1947.

One of the anthropological critiques was that the “value of land” should not be measured solely in terms of money, since one-time monetary compensation could not provide food security through generations for the land losers like the fertile land they owned could. Finally, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government led by the Congress party by following the democratic processes of the country enacted a revised land acquisition law named, Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013 (MoLJ 2013).

New Law and the Impasse

This new law has two important provisions having immense anthropological implications: (i) socio-economic impact assessment (SEIA) study before land acquisition, and (ii) getting the consent of a majority of the people who would be affected by the governmental acquisition. Who could better do these jobs for the government other than field anthropologists? First, the study of socio-economic conditions of the people at the micro-level still remains the job of anthropologists. Second, apart from the socio-economic impact, anthropologists also study the effects of any external input on the bio­logy of human populations in terms of health, nutrition and demography. Third, knowing the insider’s view is another holy task of the anthropologists, which could have been very useful for the administration to get the consent of the people in the cases of unavoidable acquisitions for the development of the country. International experts hailed these two provisions in the new law as “progressive,” and it seemed that the draconian piece of legislation created by the Empire had gone forever (Cernea 2013).

That this dream was not to be reality soon became clear. Ominous signals hovered above the heads of the farmers as well as the anthropologists of India when the new rightist National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, under the leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), came to power in 2014.

The new government passed successive ordinances (MoLJ 2014) to withhold the application of the two aforementioned provisions of the newly enacted law, although the BJP as the major opposition party participated in the two parliamentary standing committees that, after public hearings, recommended a new law to the Lok Sabha. The BJP also supported the law in the upper and lower houses of Parliament. The landmark law, therefore, has not come into application since the NDA government restrained the application of the new law by amendments on the consent clause and the provision of the SEIA through the promulgation of an ordinance, a move which had been viewed by experts as the “weakening of the democratic and constitutional institutions” (Ramesh and Khan 2015: 124–30; Iyer 2015).

So, at present, there is an impasse. Now, the Indian government cannot implement the old law created by the Empire, because it is no more in existence. It cannot also acquire land via SEIA and the consent clause by employing field anthropologists since the ordinance passed in 2014 will not allow the government to do so.

Challenge before Anthropologists

The scenario has posed a real challenge for anthropologists in India, which they must face beyond the academy, and probably at the frontiers of their discipline. At this juncture, I raise two questions. What should be the task of anthropologists in India in the current situation? Are the anthropologists of independent India, like their British predecessors, equipped with the data needed to convince the government that the SEIA and consent of the people are necessary to acquire land for development? I will try to answer the second question first.

The first thing that came to my notice while doing my research on land acquisition in India for the last two decades was that neither the government, nor the anthropologists in India had been able to generate a baseline micro-level database on the impact of land acquisition on the various tribal and non-tribal communities of the country. It has been observed globally that the first and foremost impact of land acquisition is landlessness and food insecurity at the household level, which, in turn, may cause undernutrition and vulnerability to disease. The effects of land takeover have been characterised as impoverishment risks (Cernea 2008).

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food in a 2009 report emphasised putting in place proper institutional arrangements to ensure land rights, food security, pre-investment impact assessments, and transparency for the local populations prior to all kinds of large-scale land acquisitions by developing countries that are attracting international business investments under the impact of globalisation (De Schutter 2009: 12–15). An Oxfam discussion paper entitled “Sleeping Lions,” on international investment treaties and access to food, land, and water also pointed out succinctly that, in the developing countries, natural resources like land and water have “cultural and communitarian significance” that “exceeds their mere use and exchange value” (Perez et al 2011: 5).

In the case of India, there is no governmental or non-governmental source of data on the nature, extent and degree of food shortage and its consequent impact on the biology of the different population groups that has been caused by land acquisition for any period. The government and the anthropologists have not collected and published any data on how people in different places have been adapting biologically and culturally under the stress caused by the acquisition of their land, which is one of the vital life support systems of a majority of the tribal population in the country.

The largest and only governmental organisation, the Anthropological Survey of India (AnSI), collected a large amount of data on the tribes and castes of India in the fashion of the anthropologists of the Empire. Not a single piece of information was collected on any tribe or caste of India as regards the biocultural impacts of land acquisition, which took place all around the country, and the endangerment of food security and its after-effects by the application of the land acquisition law. It was only in November 2010 that the AnSI prepared a module for conducting a SEIA in the country. The document is a 40-page text which deals with the social impact assessment in detail, mainly as a “timely academic and research-oriented exercise needed by the country” (AnSI 2010).

As of today, no data have yet been published by the AnSI on the various bio-cultural impacts of land acquisition on the tribal and other populations of India. The SEIA by the organisation remained a purely academic pursuit. The Indian anthropologists, while following the trail of the British census commissioners, have produced a mass of anthropological information that could not be of any applied or practical value for dealing with the vital governmental decision of going with or without the SEIA and consent clauses of the post-independence land acquisition law.

A glaring example of postcolonial governmental anthropology is the People of India Project undertaken by the AnSI in 1985 and the results of this project, which were published throughout the 1990s. There were 600 anthropologists who participated in the study of 4,693 “communities” in all of the states and union territories in India. The reports contain data on the biological and cultural aspects of the populations of India. But, there is no data on the impact of various development projects for which land was being acquired from these people. The reports were no more than traditional ethnographic accounts of the tribes and castes of India, almost in the fashion done by H H Risley about a hundred years ago (Jenkins 2003). In contrast, the earlier surveys of the British census commissioners were of great value for the colonial administration in running the Empire in India.


The anthropological study on which this article is based has recorded how land acquisition affected the food security of the farmers in a village in West Bengal. This study also reveals the value of micro-level information in contrast to the macro-level data collected by the economists of the country. In the wake of land acquisition, while an economist finds no food insecurity for West Bengal as a whole, we have found how food insecurity creeping in at the household level brought misery to the lives of poor farmers. From our field observations and interviews, we learnt that almost all farmers of the study village used to consume the paddy they grew in their lands. We did not come across any farmer who sold his paddy in the market. We came across many farmers who consider that purchasing rice for household consumption is a derogatory and dishonourable act for a farmer. Owning cultivable land is viewed as a socially prestigious matter. A “good farmer” in this area was one who could feed his family throughout the year with the paddy grown in his own field.

In almost all our conversations, the members of the land-loser families blamed the acquisition of land by the government as the “root cause” of food shortage. They also expressed hopelessness whenever they talked about the number of months during which they purchased rice from the market for domestic consumption. We found that, in the pre-acquisition period, 56% of the total number of cultivator families was self-sufficient in terms of domestic paddy consumption, whereas this percentage declined to 45.45% in the post-acquisition period. Furthermore, in the pre-acquisition period, no family purchased rice for more than five months in a year. However, in the post-acquisition period, we found that 43.43% of the families had to purchase rice for 5–12 months in a year.

This showed that the expropriation of rain-fed monocrop land acted as one of the major causes of domestic food insecurity among the majority of land-loser families in this village after the land acquisition for the industries (Guha 2013: 797–814). A typical case of a peasant who was affected by the governmental land grab is reproduced in Box 1.

Had there been micro-level data on the food shortage all over the country as narrated in Box 1, the anthropologists in India would have been in a much better position to engage themselves in a fruitful dialogue with the government on the current impasse created at the level of the implementation of the new land acquisition law.


Under these circumstances, the prime task of the anthropologists in India today should be to generate a scientific and reliable database through fieldwork of the impact of large- and small-scale land acquisitions from the tribal and non-tribal populations of India on food security, landlessness and other maladies. Instead of collecting data on tribes and castes as cultural curiosities, the anthropologists in India should embark on this mighty task of recording the sufferings of the people, whom they have been studying so far as “cultural others” either for the interest of the empire, or for the fulfilment of their own academic purposes.


AnSI (2010): “Social Impact Assessment (A Module),” unpublished draft, Anthropological Survey of India, 12 November, Kolkata.

Cernea, M (2008): “Compensation and Investment in Resettlement: Theory, Practice, Pitfalls, and Needed Policy Reform,” Can Compensation Prevent Impoverishment? Reforming Resettlement through Investments and Benefit-sharing, M M Cernea and H M Mathur (eds), New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

— (2013): “Progress in India: New Legislation to Protect Persons Internally Displaced by Development Projects,” Brookings, 21 October,

De Schutter, O (2009): “Large-scale Land Acquisitions and Leases: A Set of Core Principles and Measures to Address the Human Rights Challenge,” Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, United Nations, Geneva.

Guha, A (2013): “The Macro-Costs of Forced Displacement of the Farmers in India: A Micro-Level Study,” European Journal of Development Research, Vol 25, No 5, pp 797–814.

Iyer, Ramaswamy R (2015): “When Amendment Amounts to Nullification,” Hindu, 15 January,

Jenkins, L D (2003): “Another ‘People of India’ Project: Colonial and National Anthropology,” Journal of Asian Studies, Vol 62, No 4, pp 1143–70.

Majumder, A and A Guha(2008): “A Decade after Land Acquisition in Paschim Medinipur, West Bengal,” Journal of the Indian Anthropological Society, Vol 43, pp 121–33.

MoLJ (1986): The Land Acquisition Act, 1894 (as modified up to 1 September 1985), Ministry of Law and Justice, Government of India, New Delhi.

— (2013): Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013, Ministry of Law and Justice, Government of India, New Delhi.

— (2014): Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Amendment) Ordinance, 2014, Ministry of Law and Justice, Government of India, New Delhi.

Perez, J, M Gistelinek and D Karbala (2011): “Sleeping Lions: International Investment Treaties, State–investor Disputes and Access to Food, Land and Water,” discussion paper, Oxfam, viewed on 2 March 2016,

Ramesh, J and M A Khan (2015): Legislating for Justice: The Making of the 2013 Land Acquisition Law, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Risley, H H (1915): The People of India, Calcutta, Simla, and London: Thacker and Spink.


 Social Media Image For Representation: wikimediacommons CC:2.0

Updated On : 13th Sep, 2017


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