INDIA: That Pesky Right to Property

Eric Linge, Pitt Law '09, files from Mumbai:

When the Indian Constitution was adopted in 1949, Indians had the fundamental right to property. Since then, this right has pestered the government. It was chipped away and chipped away until it was officially downgraded from a fundamental right to merely a statutory right in 1978. Primarily the right was chipped away because the government wanted to seize property and not compensate fairly for it. When the Indian Supreme Court would tell the government it could not do this, Parliament would amend the Constitution so that it could. Which brings us to the present day, where Article 300A of the Constitution reads, "no person's property shall be deprived of his property save by authority of law." And that's it — a person's property can be deprived him, with little or no compensation, so long as Parliament has passed a law allowing for the deprivation.

Yet even in this downgraded form the right to property still pesters the government. India's feisty democracy makes it difficult to just up and seize land owned by a private citizen. On television numerous times this year Indians have seen just how difficult it can be. Two weeks ago television newscasts included looped footage of riot-armed policemen chasing unarmed people across green fields in West Bengal. The people were protesting the taking of their land for a Tata Motors plant. The right to peaceably assemble, after all, is a fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution.

Central to the problems now being caused by Indians' pesky right to property are the new-to-India concept of Special Economic Zones (SEZ). India seeks to acquire and demarcate SEZs to encourage heavy industry. An SEZ offers tax breaks, relaxed labor rules and expedited business licenses for large industrial operations. Usually it is farmers' land being taken. The agriculture sector is already struggling, and the farmers are incredulous that selling their land for a song will really give them a better life. Things climaxed in West Bengal in March with fourteen being killed while protesting a new SEZ that was to harbor a chemical plant. These plans have since been halted.

China's SEZs, on the other hand, had an easier course toward industrial development. There is no personal right to property in China, and China was able to swiftly create entire SEZ cities, like Shenzhen.

Yet though Indians' right to property has been degraded, people still have a right to own land. Trouble is, the government can easily seize it, and there's no constitutional guarantee this seized land will be justly compensated.

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