Vantage point

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Teach Them To Fish

Be it P Sainath's book 'Everybody Loves a Good Drought' or the Narmada Bachao Andolan, the key problem is that the state has a constitution-given right to take away anyone's private property. The state has the power to fix the compensation. So everything is left to the state's judgement.

Narmada is one issue in India on which liberal and libertarians agree. Well, at least they agree in their opposition. How they reach their positions is completely different. From a libertarian perspective, the opposition to the SSP is based on the opposition to Eminent Domain and the sanctity of property rights. From the liberal perspective, the opposition is there because the relief and rehabilitation in this case is insufficient. There is another liberal viewpoint which says that any project which uproots villagers from their rural setting or adivasis from their ecosystem in equilibrium, is wrong.

It is interesting to note that the liberal perspective is after all based on what the libertarians are saying. respecting the sanctity of property rights means leaving the decision about the land to the owner, be it a villager or an adivasi. Now if the villager/adivasi thinks that the compensation he is being given is not up to the mark, he will refuse the deal. Similarly if the villager/adivasi feels that whatever he is being offered in return will not assure him of a lifestyle as good as, or better than the lifestyle he led, he will refuse. What we are saying is, give the villagers and tribals rights to negotiate on their own.

The final say in deciding whether the compensation is "fair" or not should not rest with the government, the World Bank, or any NGO. The land owners should have the final say. It is their land after all.

Sadly neither Sainath nor Medha Patkar seem to address the core issue. Sainath writes about project after project where villagers and tribals have been uprooted. Patkar goes on a hunger strike. But nowhere are the words "property rights" heard.

The analogy that comes to mind is that of feeding a man fish and teaching him to fish. What Patkar, whom I have great respect for by the way, is doing is feeding them, by fighting for their rights in courts. If she and her supporters demand reductions in the sweeping power of the Indian state, and greater empowerment of land owners, she will be teaching them to fish.