CPR Faculty Speak: Namita Wahi

10 December 2021
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Namita Wahi is a Senior Fellow at CPR, where she leads the Land Rights Initiative. Her research interests are broadly in the areas of property rights, social and economic rights, and eminent domain or expropriation law. She has written extensively on these issues in various academic journals and edited volumes, as well as newspapers and magazines. She has taught courses in these areas at Harvard University, both at the Law School and the Department of Government, and at the National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata.

Wahi was recently awarded the New India Fellowship for her forthcoming book on the history of the Fundamental Right to Property in the Indian Constitution. She is an alumna of the Harvard Law School and the National Law School of India University, Bangalore. In this edition of CPR Faculty Speak, she talks about her work and interests at CPR, why they matter, what impact she hopes to achieve and more.

Tell us about your research work and interests at CPR.

My work lies at the intersection of property rights and social and economic rights. I founded and currently lead the Land Rights Initiative, a pioneering initiative in the land policy space. At the Land Rights Initiative, we have generated a tremendous body of knowledge, and intervened in key legislative, policy, and courtroom debates in the areas of land acquisition, land rights of Scheduled Tribes or Adivasi communities, demonetisation and online dispute resolution. Importantly, we have made a major contribution in reorienting the policy discourse on land, from the “utilitarian” development discourse, which is premised on the greatest good of the greatest number, to the “dignitarian” rights discourse, which is premised on empowering each individual and ensuring the realisation of a dignified life by all. 

I also work in the area of social and economic rights, especially health and water rights. I am part of the International Social and Economic Rights project, an international network of lawyers, judges and activists, who seek to enforce and realise social and economic rights nationally and internationally. 

Why do these issues interest you?

75 years after independence, 60% of all Indians are dependent upon land for their livelihood. Land provides a measure of security that is simply not experienced with labour or capital. We have witnessed this during the recent COVID-19 pandemic when millions of migrant workers have walked thousands of miles to return to the security of their lands in the villages. And yet, land is not merely an economic resource, it is central to individual and community identity, history and culture. Displacement of people from their lands for development projects like dams, mines, and infrastructure development, not only impoverishes them, it also uproots them culturally and socially with devastating psychosocial consequences. Such psychosocial consequences are exacerbated in the context of Scheduled Tribes or Adivasi communities that constitute only 8.6% of the population of India, but constitute 40% of all people displaced since independence – some more than once in one lifetime. And yet, we know very little about the labyrinth of land laws and land administration in India. Today, an estimated 7.7 million people are affected by conflict over 2.5 million hectares of land, threatening investments worth 200 billion USD. Land disputes clog all levels of courts, accounting for the largest set of cases in absolute numbers and judicial pendency. Conflicts between laws, and individual and government failure to comply with the rule of law, create legal disputes. Yet the number and extent of land laws is anyone’s guess because there is no existing publicly available comprehensive database of land laws. Moreover, administrative manuals in many states have not been updated since British times, which leads to administrative noncompliance with the rule of law. So, the need of the hour is to actually create knowledge on the legislative, administrative and judicial failures that contribute to legal and extra-legal disputes over land. Once we understand land conflict better, we can design policies to solve it, thereby ensuring greater economic, political, and social stability for the Indian republic.

How have these issues evolved in the country and globally over the years?

Land is a state subject under the Indian Constitution. At the state government level, the post-colonial Indian bureaucracy still follows the administration model of the British government, which divides the administration of land between the revenue and forest departments. At the central government level, the Department of Land Resources at the Ministry of Rural Development is charged with the coordination of land policy. However, as the largest owners of government land, the Ministries of Forests, Railways and Defence manage a lot of land resources. So, while there is a plethora of laws and delegated legislation governing land at the central and state levels across India, it is highly dispersed and fragmented. Moreover, there are hundreds of grassroots organisations all over the country that have historically advocated for the recognition of land rights of different communities, and have played a key role in the policy changes that have led to the enactment of the Forest Rights Act, 2006, and the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013. Globally as well, there is a recognition of the limits of the present development model, and a recognition of the need to ensure land tenure security in order to achieve the Sustainable Development goals of Zero Hunger and No Poverty.

What impact do you aim to achieve through your research?

I hope to create an informed citizenry through our research. I believe that systemic and long-term policy change cannot occur without substantial buy in from the people on the ground. We spend as much time designing and working on massive research projects, as we do in simplifying our outputs so that they are not only comprehensible to informed stakeholders like policy makers, legislators, civil society organisations, and judges, but can be directly accessed by the people. For instance, our research report on Land Acquisition in India: A Review of Supreme Court Cases from 1950 to 2016, has been read by hundreds of ordinary litigants defending their lands against acquisition proceedings by the government. Hardly a day goes by without me getting a call from someone who is seeking legal advice for their particular legal dispute.

There was a time when land reforms and social redistribution of land were on the topmost agenda of the government. That had completely disappeared around the time I founded the Land Rights Initiative. Given that land is the source of sustenance for 60% of Indians, it needs to come back to the policy agenda of the government in a big way, and that’s the impact I am hoping to achieve.

What does a typical day look like for you in your initiative at CPR? 

Pretty varied but usually buzzing with activity! We are a small core team of five interdisciplinary researchers with backgrounds in law, social sciences, technology, and public policy, with a number of student interns who join us for short periods of time throughout the year. Each one of our projects takes about 3 to 5 years to complete and involves extensive archival data collection and field research, followed by rigorous analysis of the data and writing of research reports. So, there are days when we are glued to our computer screens and Zoom, as we work individually and collectively to analyse and refine the data. But there are also days, especially in the pre-pandemic time, when we are on the road for 8 to 10 days, when we go to particular states to conduct key informant interviews and focus group discussions with multiple stakeholders. There are also days when I am pulled into meetings with the government or when I have to go to the Supreme Court. 

And then there are those few quiet days when I can return to my book manuscript!

What are you currently working on and why is it important?

We are now gearing up to launch the first ever, comprehensive online interactive architecture of land laws in India, as part of our One Thousand Land Laws: Mapping Indian Land Laws project. As part of this ambitious project that was undertaken over a period of five years, the Land Rights Initiative team travelled the length and breadth of the country to create a database of over one thousand colonial and post-colonial central and state laws. The LRI team has painstakingly collected officially authenticated copies of all originally enacted central and state laws from a geographically representative sample of eight states, namely, Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Meghalaya, Punjab, and Telangana, numbering five hundred. These five hundred laws include laws pertaining to land reforms and land acquisition, revenue and taxation and land use; forest and mining laws and laws applicable to the Scheduled Areas; laws promoting and regulating urban and infrastructure development; and finally, laws dealing with evacuee, enemy, ancestral and religious property. Further, the LRI team has meticulously analysed these laws according to thirty-one parameters of classification, and also summarised these laws so that they may be comprehended by a lay audience. Both the laws and the summaries run into thousands of pages of text that will now be freely accessible to anyone who wants to know the laws of the land.

To know more about Namita Wahi’s work and research, click here.

The views shared belong to individual faculty and researchers and do not represent an institutional stance on the issue.