In contrast to the relentless expansion of capital-intensive developments in China over the past decades, many similar projects in India have been stalled by peasant resistance. As Michael Levien writes in an important new study, attempts by India’s state governments to transfer large tracts of rural land to private developers for hundreds of sezs, following China’s model, have detonated militant protests across the country, making land dispossession a central political issue. Sustained local protests forced Reliance Industries to abandon two mega-sez projects in Maharashtra and Haryana. Farmers took up arms against a real-estate project in western Uttar Pradesh. In coastal Odisha, villagers blocked a massive Pohang Steel development. sezs have faced stiff resistance in West Bengal, Telangana, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Debates about these land struggles, Levien argues, have been trapped in a binary framework: modernization versus peasant romanticism—the defiance of rural communities against the predations of capital and state. Yet there has been little research in India into the actual development outcomes produced by ‘successful’ sezs, cordoned-off zones where labour laws do not apply.

Dispossession without Development focuses on the case of the Mahindra World City (mwc), one of the first and largest private sezs in North India, situated in Rajasthan, not far from Jaipur. Marketed as the biggest Informational Technology sez in India, the mwc consists of an assortment of businesses, including campuses for Infosys and Deutsche Bank, as well as a salubrious residential colony for a well-to-do urban clientele. However, the focus of Levien’s story is not the mwc itself, but the process of expropriating the huge amount of land that now comprises it, and the impact this large-scale expropriation has had on the affected villages and their dispossessed inhabitants. The book is an account of the experience of the residents of one village in particular, ‘Rajpura’, where Levien, a graduate of the sociology department at Berkeley who now teaches at Johns Hopkins, lived for thirteen months beginning in January 2010, by which time the mwc, the development of which began in 2005, was already operational. Levien’s book is the result of the fieldwork he conducted during his time living in Rajpura, plus shorter revisits spanning seven years.

Levien frames his detailed and excellent case study with a discussion of the prevailing theoretical understandings of land dispossession, which, he suggests, view the expropriation of the holdings of agrarian populations as either uniformly progressive and developmental (whether capitalist or socialist), or uniformly predatory. Against these alternative schools of thought, Levien advances the hypothesis of different ‘regimes of dispossession’—a concept designed to better account for the different purposes and variegated consequences of expropriation, particularly depending on how it collides and interacts with specific agrarian milieux. Levien’s principal contention is that India’s shift from state-controlled capitalism to free-market neoliberalism in the early 1990s ushered in a new and dramatically different regime of dispossession. Broadly speaking, from Independence to the final decade of the twentieth century, the major projects driving dispossession in India took the shape of infrastructural works, all of them managed and funded by the public sector, and involving a commitment to labour-intensive growth and balanced regional development. Large amounts of arable land were routinely expropriated for constructing roads or railways, building dams in river valleys, modernizing agriculture, mining minerals, and expanding heavy industry. Following economic liberalization, these developmentalist priorities were replaced by the willingness of states to confiscate farmers’ land on behalf of big corporations for any private purpose whatsoever alleged to contribute to economic growth, including for real-estate development. Though this coercive redistribution continued to be promoted as an intervention to generate employment by upgrading the value and productivity of the land, the projects were increasingly speculative, rent-heavy and non-labour absorbing.

Mediating in these land transfers was India’s state machinery, which, acting in tandem with corporate capital, assumed the role of land broker. Why were states willing to mobilize coercion in aid of private developers? The abolition of industrial licensing that followed economic liberalization, Levien explains, meant that whereas previously states lobbied central government for licenses, they now had to compete for the capital of private developers who were free to decide where to invest. As this competition to attract investment intensified, the ability of state governments to dispossess farmers of their land for private developments became ‘a key criterion of their economic competitiveness’. This inter-state contest also created incentives to requisition land cheaply—which was mostly achieved by compensating farmers poorly. But there were individual motivations at work as well, since it was not just the local landowners who found ways to profit from sez developments: there were plenty of lucrative opportunities for office-holders in the state, too. As Levien discovered from his interviews with dozens of government officials—conducted not only in Rajasthan but in six other states involved in land acquisition—what passes for public authority and agency dissolves on closer scrutiny into a multi-level array of bureaucrats and politicians using their offices to serve their private interests. With advance access to information about the location of future sez developments, and thus able to predict where and when land-price surges would occur, government officials as well as politicians of the ruling party would cash in on this knowledge either by buying land in the area themselves—often registering their purchases under relatives’ names or benami (‘no-name’) companies—or by passing the information on to others in exchange for favours. As Levien heard on one of his first days in Rajpura, ‘everyone from the peon to the head of the Jaipur Development Agency is getting commission’. And, later: ‘the jda is a moneymaking machine for government and bureaucracy’. The cuts creamed from deals varied by rank, within a state hierarchy corrupt from top to bottom. Media reports of scams, fraud, graft, speed money, et cetera, reflect an all-encompassing regime of informality, with brokers on both sides of the ‘public/private’ fence teaming up in mafiosi practices. This state of the art malfeasance is abetted and promoted by neoliberal capitalism.

In striking contrast to the fights waged against forced land transfers on behalf of sez developers elsewhere in India—the ‘land wars’ Levien describes in one of his chapters—the Rajasthan government managed to avoid concerted opposition to the dispossessions it carried out during the development of the mwc. Indeed, this is one of the reasons Levien takes Rajpura—one of nine villages dispossessed for the mwc—as his case study. Home to roughly four hundred families, Rajpura was a multi-caste village whose semi-arid, monsoon-dependent agrarian economy was largely based on rain-fed cultivation and livestock rearing. Yet Rajpura was a far cry from the enamoured image of an egalitarian peasant community. As the result of a series of post-Independence land-reform laws enacted in the 1950s and 60s, the distribution of property in Rajpura was extremely unequal. Generally favouring the large cultivating castes—Jats, Kumavats and Brahmins—the reforms left the lower castes, who were less able to defend their tenancies at the time of settlement, with the least land. Rajpura is in many ways a best-case scenario for the modernization theory of dispossession, since the precarity of its agriculture—rain-dependent in a drought-prone region—meant that dispossessed farmers looked more likely than in most other cases to gain from the non-agricultural growth promised by the coming of an sez. But though income from agriculture fell short of meeting livelihood requirements due to water scarcity, and many households had already partially diversified to other employment, farming remained a vital means of subsistence for many of the village’s families—particularly for the lower-caste semiproletariat, whose sole other income source was irregular and badly paid manual work.