IN THE SHADOWS OF DEVELOPMENT-Dispossession and Resistance in Odisha

By Pankaj K. Naik

Sonal Ann D’souza

The total domination of nature inevitably entails a domination of people by the techniques of domination. ~Andre Gorz

Dispossession of land is not uncommon to ‘development’ of any industrial society. In India too, one can trace the vicissitudes of dispossession conditioned by various political regimes. The British Raj had dispossessed land for the extraction of natural resources to benefit the metropolitan capital. The post-colonial development discourse of the country was largely based on the Nehruvian development premise: “If you are to suffer, you should suffer in the interest of the country.” That is to say, if the suffering of some can bring the ‘greater good’, then the dispossession could be vindicated , at least for the sake of development of the country. Reiterating the dogma, Indira Gandhi had to say “…sometime there is no alternative to [dispossession] and we have to go ahead in the larger interest.” Accordingly, we see the erection of large dams, establishing industries and large-scale mining that took place under the auspices of the state warranted dispossession in large number. It is, however, never mentioned by the political elite that on whose flesh and blood these ‘temples of modern India’ would have to be erected.

The current spell of neo liberal paradigm no longer upholds the development plank that reads ‘in the name of the country’ rather it firmly believes in all forms of private accumulation through systemic dispossession. The ongoing process represents the emergence of a new regime of wealth redistribution that favours the caste-class elites in the country. The neo-liberal dispossession, as Michael Levien (2015) argues, is “demonstrably less ‘developmental’ than its Nehruvian predecessor – and certainly more politically tenuous.” Whatever may be the development paradigm, it shows the inevitability of dispossession of masses for the benefit of the capitalist class. With hindsight, it appears that the burden of sacrifice for modernising the country was disproportionately shouldered by the historically marginalised communities, mostly Dalits and Adivasis. Walter Fernandes (2004) shows that the development projects between 1947 and 2000 must have displaced around 50 to 60 million people, of which the majority were tribal. In all likelihood, this number would be a gross underestimation.


Historically, Odisha has remained a major  provider  of raw materials to the Indian state. The British Raj extensively extracted raw materials from Odisha to augur its development drive. In a way, the state’s importance was also understood by Hitler as one of his mineral experts commented: “you can rule the whole world if you control the iron ore in Keonjhar.” However, the irony is that it was not until the beginning of the post-colonial era that the en masse dispossession had begun. The mineral-rich state of Odisha, which currently produces more or less half of India’s iron ore, bauxite, coal and chromite, witnessed one of the largest development-induced-dispossessions in the country. What made this possible? Did this inevitability of dispossession serve its purpose of bringing larger development to the state? What is the cost of such dispossession? Who got dispossessed? There could be many such intriguing questions one could  pose to the political elites of the state.    

Jayant Sengupta, in his book, At the Margins: Discourse of Development, Democracy and Regionalism in Orissa, shows that how the caste elites from the coast successfully negotiated with the colonial state to carve out an independent linguistic state of Odisha in British India. He further argues that how these markers of state identity got replaced by the dominant development paradigm in the post-colonial discourse of the state. The post-colonial development in the state is marked by building of big dams, heavy steel industries, and lately massive growth in the extractive industries. The over-representation of coastal elites in politics and administration, and industrialisation through ruthless mineral exploitation as an only ‘development’ narrative undermined the very development of ‘inland’ regions, overwhelmingly dominated by indigenous folks. The political elites’ penchant for industrialisation – one could hardly forget to  mention the desperate slogan of JB Patnaik in the mid-1980s, 1000 industries in 1000 days by investing Rs 1000 crore; this at the cost of agriculture has resulted in the ‘pauperisation of agriculture’ in the state.

It has been widely acknowledged that enduring economic backwardness of Odisha is a direct consequence of the recurring development-driven displacement. Since the early 1950s, the state has attracted different development projects related to heavy capital and mining industries and, large and small-scale water reservoirs meant for irrigation and power generation; this has resulted in massive displacement of people. According to  official records, it is estimated that 81,176 households from 1,446 villages have been displaced to acquire 14,82,626 acres of land for different development projects from 1950 to 1993. An estimate by Walter Fernandes shows that between 1951 and 1995, as many as 16 lakh people were displaced in Odisha alone. The tribal constituted 42 per cent of the total of the displaced population as against their population proportion of 22 per cent in the state. The latest figure shows that around three to five million people, of which the majority are Adivasis, have been displaced on account of various development projects. This figure indicates that it is the tribal and Dalits facing the brunt of such predatory development.


It was not until the advent of neo-liberal economic forces in the early 1990s that the unabated coercive dispossession began. The agriculture laden state proactively embraced the new economic fundamental that liberalisation and privatisation of economy could serve as a panacea for the state’s enduring underdevelopment. Hence, it was not surprising to see that Odisha became the foremost state to embrace privatisation. The real contestation over the jal, jangal, jameen (water, forest and land) began when the state increasingly started dispossessing people to satisfy its craving for development.

Kundan Kumar (2014) notes that “from 1995 to 2011, the state government allotted 50,276 acres of land to promoters of industrial projects, and almost two-thirds of this were private land acquired using the Land Acquisition Act of 1894. Additional land was diverted for subsidiary projects such as roads, railways, and other infrastructure required for industrial projects. This does not include the 2,50,000 acres or so allocated under mining leases, mainly in the tribal areas of the state.” The ruthless competition among national and state governments to woo foreign and domestic capital, a process that has often been labelled as “Provincial Darwinism”, has led to mass dispossession and involuntary depeasantisation. This development induced displacement in Odisha has thrown oot millions of peasants and cultivators that Felix Padel likens it to the British “enclosures” during  the 17th to 19th centuries, Scotland’s highland clearances and genocide by the European colonists of the Native Americans and Australians.

With the new economic reforms, the state has adopted three successive industrial and mining policies (1992, 1996 and 2001) to facilitate different displacement-driven-development projects. Odisha has abundant reserves of high-grade iron ore, bauxite, chromite and manganese ore, along with other minerals. The extractive industries contribute, according to the Economic Survey of Odisha (2017-18), around 10 per cent of the state gross value addition and nearly 30 per cent of the industrial output. However, it employs less than 0.5 per cent of the total workforce. By the end of 2017-18, only 55,940 workers were employed directly in major mineral activities. The Survey  mentions that the “[mining] sector has been increasingly employing labour-saving and capital-intensive production techniques and technology over the years.” This growing difference in capital-labour ratio shows the appropriation of profit by the capitalist class that has also rendered the dispossessed without a secure livelihood.

However, what is most disturbing to note is that the massive inflow of capital in to these extractive mining industries in recent past has propelled unabated large-scale dispossession and destruction of the environment. The enormous flow of investments in to the lucrative ‘extractive’ industries in the resource-rich regions of Odisha, which invariably are concentrated in the ‘inland’ regions, has ‘accentuated social differentiation and exclusion’ in the state. The primordial local rentier class has been the prime beneficiaries from the course of transition of the economy towards the neo-liberal order. The process has helped in the reproduction of existing social order and dominance in the state. The neo-patrimonial tendencies of Odisha’s political economy – where patrons use state resources to secure the loyalty of clients in the general population – lacks public purpose. This, coupled with reproduction of narrow class elites in the course of the extractive industries led growth process has given rise to a hegemonic ‘neo-rentier’ class. Contrary to the claim of ‘self-proclaimed modernising vocation of neoliberalism’ what  has persisted and strengthened is a neo-rentier class within the ‘new economic world order.’


The enduring underdevelopment of the agricultural sector with mere linkages with industry is said to have abetted the incidence of poverty (Planning Commission 2002). The urban elites’ ruthless policy and obsession with mining and industrialisation have “contributed to a neglect of agriculture and the interest of the rural population.” Albeit at times, the state has come up with different land acquisition and rehabilitation policies the implementation process has remained largely exclusionary. The report of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), the highest Constitutional body for auditing, shows that there have been systematic lapses, often by the state machinery, in implementing these policies. The recurring failure in the implementation of rehabilitation reflects the “exploitative social and economic processes” in the state.

However, the dispossession has not gone without resistance, whether in the post-colonial state or in the post-neoliberal state in the country. The people in the state have been very vocal in marking their protests against coercive redistribution of resources favouring the capitalist forces, within the democratic structure. At present, nearly 27 people’s movements are going on against the state brokered dispossession. These movements – a broad coalition of Dalits, Adivasis and other marginalised social groups – are raising critical questions against the dominant paradigm of development. Ranjana Padhi and N. Sadangi (2020) in their recently published book Resisting Dispossession: The Odisha Story, desperately note that: “Nurturing their dreams for future generation, people are resisting corporate greed with courage and tenacity. Their dreams are no ordinary dreams; they hearken better tomorrow even if the road is uphill today. And lest we forget, it is the same planet that we all inhabit as home.” One can only hope that our collective consciousness survives this planet against the ruthless ‘development’.


Pankaj K. Naik

Sonal Ann D’souza

Disclaimer: Views expressed in the blogs are that of the authors and no way represents the position of the Odisha Economic Association. For any copyright materials used by the authors, if any, the authors would solely be responsible


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