India’s Dispossessed

A review of Michael Levien’s Dispossession Without Development: Land Grabs in Neoliberal India.

Book Cover, Dispossession Without Development by Michael Levien. Image:    OUP

Book Cover, Dispossession Without Development by Michael Levien. Image: OUP

Across the world, people are increasingly being dispossessed from their land. How can we understand the processes and the forces behind all this? How do existing theories of dispossession explain this phenomenon? As countries integrate into the global economy, or pursue economic development, is displacement and dispossession inevitable?

Michael Levien’s book, Dispossession without Development: Land Grabs in Neoliberal India, not only answers some of the questions above, it does so through a rich, grounded analysis of the mechanisms and outcomes of dispossession in rural India. Most importantly, it offers a conceptual lens to explore, compare, and understand the relationship between dispossession and capitalism. 

Levien suggests that there are three theories that attempt to explain this relationship: what he calls “the modernization theory of dispossession”, “the proletariat redemption theory of dispossession”, and “the predatory theory of dispossession”. Each, he argues, has its own shortcomings. The modernization theory of development broadly assumes that dispossession is an unavoidable cost of economic development and modernization, but fails to distinguish between different economic purposes of dispossession and variation in its consequences. The proletariat redemption theory explains dispossession of the peasantry as part of the transition to a capitalist society, yet does not account for the fact that land dispossession no longer takes place as part of the transition to capitalism, but within capitalism itself. And finally, the predatory theory of dispossession (by which Levien primarily means David Harvey’s theory of “accumulation by dispossession”) views dispossession as the result of predatory neoliberalism, but overlooks dispossession in previous phases of capitalism, fails to analyse geographic differences within the current phase, and does not always shed light on the material and social processes through which land dispossession takes place.  

Building on the predatory theory of dispossession, Levien argues that dispossession is not always the result of the global impulses of capital or over-accumulated capital, as frequently assumed, but is “a social relation of coercive redistribution that is organized into socially and historically specific regimes”. He suggests that the concept of “regimes of dispossession” is a more appropriate lens to understand how the relationship between dispossession and capitalism changes over time and across space.  

In doing so, Levien actively centres the question of power and politics in his conceptualization of dispossession. He argues that each regime that coercively redistributes land is based on “specific economic purposes and associated class interests”, with states retaining political authority to make people comply with orders through the direct or implicit use of coercion. 

Interestingly, while many other authors writing on similar processes have advocated for the use of the term “displacement” over “renewal”, “expulsion”, or “exclusion”, Levien explicitly opts to use the term “dispossession” over “displacement”. He argues that “dispossession” retains the centrality of the act of dispossession, of “coercion-wielding entities transferring land from one group of people to another”, rather than something that simply takes place. He also questions the use of “development-based-displacement” as it implies that displacement always occurs for the purpose of “development”. 

The book begins by pointing out a change in India’s dispossession politics. Shortly after independence, the Indian state began dispossessing millions for the construction of large dams and public-sector projects, successfully branding any resistance as “anti-development”, while largely remaining unperturbed by anti-dispossession movements. But by the mid-2000s, there appeared to be a shift in resistance and the state’s response. Farmer protests against land-grabbing, particularly for the creation of Special Economic Zones (SEZs), grew and the state found that it could no longer continue in the same way. In the years that followed, a number of mega-projects were stopped, mainstream political parties felt compelled to get involved, and debates on the Land Acquisition Act began to take place. Dispossession, to some degree, no longer appeared inevitable. 

To understand this change, and the relationship between land dispossession and capitalism in post-liberalisation India, Levien chooses to focus not on a case where opposition has been successful, but on one where the government has been successful in acquiring land, “fairly” compensating farmers, and setting up an SEZ (the best case scenario so to speak). Set in a Rajasthani village given the pseudonym Rajpura, where more than 400 families were dispossessed in 2005 for one of India’s first private and largest IT SEZs, Mahindra World City (MWC), the book examines how India’s neoliberal regime of dispossession intersected with the local “agrarian milieu” of the village.  

Levien’s findings are based on extensive ethnographic work, including random sample surveys of close to 100 households in Rajpura and three surrounding villages. To avoid focusing too closely just on “local particularity while missing broader social forces”, he also conducts 116 formal interviews with MWC and various business consultancy employees, government officials, real estate agents, and dispossessed farmers at 6 other SEZs. Like many researchers, Levien relies on more well-connected and well-to-do individuals as his entry-point to the village itself. As a reader, I wondered whether his findings would be different had his entry-point been different. However, just a few paragraphs later, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that he moved in with a lower-caste family a month later precisely for the same reasons. Such self-reflection can be seen throughout the book. 

March 2015 — Thousands from rural India marched to Delhi to protest a proposed amendment to the 2013 Land Acquisition Act. By removing a crucial consent clause, the amendment intended to further facilitate the acquisition of land for mega-projects and SEZs. Image:    Al Jazeera

March 2015 — Thousands from rural India marched to Delhi to protest a proposed amendment to the 2013 Land Acquisition Act. By removing a crucial consent clause, the amendment intended to further facilitate the acquisition of land for mega-projects and SEZs. Image: Al Jazeera

The structure of the book takes the reader through a chronological series of events, which provide supportive evidence for Levien’s primary argument: that a project cited as a success for the state, capitalists and farmers actually resulted in dispossession without development. Chapter 2 illustrates the distinction between the “Nehruvian regime of dispossession” and the post-1991 neoliberal regime of dispossession. In the former, dispossession took place primarily for public sector industrial and infrastructural projects – and was not, as Harvey may lead you to believe, driven by a crisis of capital over-accumulation. The latter regime, on the other hand, entailed deregulation, private-sector led growth, and encouraged state governments to compete for private investment, with cheap land being offered to investors as one of the incentives. Titled “genesis of the land broker state”, the chapter outlines the actors, incentives, institutions and processes through which the Rajasthani state succeeded in bringing in investment for the Mahindra World City SEZ.  

Chapter 3 describes Rajpura’s social relations prior to the SEZ, and focuses on three key features of the village: (1) the population’s dependence on agriculture, which at the same time was eroding with falling levels of rain; (2) the sharp class, caste and gender inequalities in the village; and (3) the absence of collective action or prior peasant resistance in the village. The chapter offers an incredibly rich historical perspective of the village, its caste relations, post-independence events, and their impact on social relations and inequality.  

Chapter 4 outlines the process through which farmers were dispossessed in Rajpura, especially the way in which “compliance” was created for dispossession. For me as a reader, this chapter beautifully captures just how exclusionary the decision-making around dispossession is. Levien writes: 

Although Rajpura’s farmers were unaware of it, the Rajasthan government was in negotiations with the then $7 billion Mahindra and Mahindra Company to make their village ground zero for one of the largest Special Economic Zones in North India.

What followed was a campaign of misinformation and the entry of land brokers who, anticipating the coming of MWC, purchased land at bargain rates. While farmers were not included in decision-making or given a choice when it came to land acquisition, the government did attempt to “soften opposition” by offering plots of developed land (a quarter the size of the farmer’s original land) or fixed cash compensation. Levien argues that this “transformed dispossession from a collective relation to the state into an individualized relation with the market”. In this chapter, he also calculates the “rate of accumulation by dispossession” or the difference between the cost of land and its eventual value as residential/commercial real estate, and illustrates the extent to which private capitalists benefit from such endeavours, with the rate as high as 1,700% in some instances. 

Chapters 5,6, and 7 highlight three key consequences of land dispossession in Rajpura. First, chapter 5 shows that the state’s policy to include farmers by giving them plots as compensation did not benefit all farmers equally. Levien argues that pre-existing inequalities, and a “radically unequal distribution of economic, cultural and social capital” impacted people’s ability to benefit from real-estate speculation. He differentiates between 4 categories of farmers created through the process of dispossession: neo-rentiers, the semi-proletariat who were further proletarianized, petty asset managers, and excluded landless lower castes. This is a critical insight, as the impact of dispossession is frequently seen in black and white terms – with all those affected perceived to be suffering the same way, or all benefitting the same way. The reality is much more complex, and Levien successfully uncovers and shares that complexity through narratives of those affected. 

Second, regardless of the “differentiation by speculation”, chapter 6 illustrates that the SEZ, as an knowledge-intensive IT SEZ, barred almost all villagers from employment there, even those with college degrees. In MWC, only some employees were hired from the village as security guards, janitors, gardeners, and drivers. None could squarely be absorbed into the SEZ’s knowledge economy, creating unemployment, which was further compounded by the loss of agricultural assets. Levien shows that people were hopeful for “naukri” [salaried employment] but were left with “mazduri” [wage-labour] instead. 

Third, despite significant investment by the state, the local population remained on the margins of any new development. Public infrastructure investments catered primarily to the corporate city. Compensation plots lacked services. There was no investment in health and education facilities. And a high percentage of households, particularly those belonging to lower castes, became worse off and were no longer able to enjoy the food security they once did. 

Chapter 8 further elaborates on the conditions in the village after dispossession, highlighting the unlikelihood of collective action in the future as land dispossession introduced new types of inequalities within the village – between residents but also within families and castes. In this chapter, Levien points to the harsh reality of contemporary Indian capitalism. He acknowledges that, while many residents will continue to “aspire for inclusion into development”, such aspirations will largely remain unmet given the nature of India’s neoliberal regime of dispossession. Unmet aspirations, he predicts, will however influence future politics in Rajpura. 

The book makes an excellent and critical contribution to existing literature on displacement and dispossession. By arguing that “different countries, and regions within countries, have integrated to different degrees, at different times, and in different ways to global capitalism”, Levien forces the reader to question common assumptions, understand local specificities in conjunction with broader social forces, and draw out the causes and consequences of dispossession.  

While he makes it explicit that the book’s focus is on state-led rural land dispossession, leaving rural-urban comparisons to future research, as a researcher working on urban displacement and dispossession, I could not help but notice the similarities across the rural and urban. The methods described for creating compliance, the threat and use of violence, the impact of pre-existing inequalities within communities, the romanticization of the poor, the role of institutions and politicians, the undemocratic nature of development authorities, the scope for illicit rents, and the impact of dispossession on kinship and family relations: all this resonated closely with my investigations into the processes and consequences of dispossession in the cities of the global South. Perhaps more comparative work that also draws out similarities across urban and rural areas is required to further uncover the mechanisms through which dispossession takes place. 

All in all, Levien’s book is a highly recommended read for anyone interested in the topic, and one of the most comprehensive and insightful works that I have read on contemporary forms of dispossession in the global South. 


Fizzah Sajjad is an urban planner based in Lahore, Pakistan. She works as a researcher on cities and infrastructure, focusing on gender equity in transport planning, affordable housing, and issues of displacement and resettlement.