Shalini Randeria

Shalini Randeria

Rector of the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) in Vienna and Research Director and Professor of Social Anthropology and Sociology at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva

Social and Cultural Anthropologist Shalini Randeria addresses the dynamics of accumulation by dispossession in India with an extensive documentation of ethnographic case studies from various regions of the country. From the expropriation of farmers, fishing communities and slum-dwellers, to the destruction of hill villages, the curtailment of rights of nomadic pastoralists, the erosion of traditional collective rights through the new intellectual property regime to biogenetic resources: stories of everyday abuse where the state sacrifices social, political, legal, and environmental justice for a rapid economic growth. Currently member of the Senate of the German Research Foundation DFG and a member of the scientific board of the new University Priority Research Program “Asia and Europe”, Randeria's research seeks to understand the limits and the ambivalence of protests against dispossession by social movements, NGOs and the citizens concerned, who are redrawing the boundary between law and politics in a quest for social justice.

Breaking the Wall of Privatisation of the Commons. How Anthropology Can Help Understand Global Entanglements


In November 1989, I was living in Berlin. I rushed off immediately to the city centre. Everyone was out on the street celebrating.

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for having stayed so long to listen to a talk about why some walls are good things. I am going to argue that although some walls, which we are going to look at in a moment are crumbling, others are being built- were non-existent earlier. Local and global commons of both tangible and intangible property are being increasingly fenced in. Despite the differences, I am going to argue that it is fruitful to consider these twin processes together: processes of the enclosures of land, forests, tangible common property resources, together with the new enclosures of intellectual property. We are in the midst of these intertwined processes of enclosures, which are not as some people make them out to be- historical in a chronological sequence: first the enclosures of land, and today the enclosures of intellectual commons; but are taking placing in countries outside of Euro-America, both at the same time.

I am going to argue that there is a tension. There is a tension between the removal of some legal barriers and the creation of new ones in order to facilitate the privatisation of commons for private benefit. This is the reason why I think that there is good reason to argue for the desirability of some walls: walls, which protect the commons from commodification. Let me turn to two examples from my own empirical research on India: first on special economic zones, and then on patents on biogenetic substances.

Special economic zones: with economic liberalisation, there has been a dramatic increase in the demand for land in India, driven by mainly four sources: setting up of industry, natural resource extraction, infrastructure development, and real estate development, which in practice are often impossible to disentangle. Infrastructure projects ambivalently straddle space between public goods and private commodities. Because under private public partnerships they begin to, not only attract foreign direct investment, but they also contain real estate components.

Industrial and power plants being established in special economic zones in India are justified on grounds of infrastructure development also contain extensive residential apartments. The Indian status has established these zones all over the country to facilitate flows of both foreign and domestic investment into such industrial and infrastructural development. Today there are 574 such zones, which have been approved. They are of varying sizes. All of them legally define as deemed foreign territories, to which no tax laws apply, no environment regulations apply, administrative clearance procedures have been simplified, and labour laws are held in abeyance.

Environmental pollution and unregulated labour are secondary problems. The primary problem I am concerned with this evening is that of displacement. For special economic zones are politically charged state projects of economic import, which are central to the imaginary of modern India as it rushes to catch up and compete with China. As the state rapidly turns over land, pastures, forests, vast tracks of the Indian coast to private corporations for setting up these zones, communities are deprived of the enjoyment of rights of access to and use of common property resources. So (? 1:04:01) are producing degraded ecologies. As man groves are dredged up, fish breeding grounds are destroyed, pastures are cornered off, fences delimit grazing grounds, narrow corridors permit limited access at best: walls, walls, and more walls of the privatisation of what was once a commons.

Security measures terrorise former users of these commons as factories, mines, ports, airports; you face the claims of the original owners. This kind and extent of ruination is carefully planned and carried out using both laws of colonial origin. In this particular case: the Colonial Land Act Position Act introduced by the British in 1894 into India, which the postcolonial state had used to expropriate and to dislocate millions of its citizens, but also by enacting new economic policies.

This process of expropriation, of course, has a historical forerunner in Europe. Between the 15th and the 19th centuries in England, Ireland, and Scotland, vast tracks of the countryside were fenced in, converting common land to private property of single large landowners. That is now enclosures were justified in economic terms, as preventing the waste of commonly held land that could be utilised for maximum economic returns, and is providing incentives for large-scale investments. Then, as now, this enclosure movement caused force displacement, social dislocation, disruptive livelihoods, increased disparities, and an enormous concentration of wealth and power.

(? 1:05:55 name) famously termed British enclosures as a revolution of the rich against the poor. The scale of this revolution, of the rich against the poor, has been gigantic in post-independent India. Mining alone has displaced 2.6 million people between 1950 and 1991, of whom about half are indigenous people. By a highly conservative official estimate, more than 30 million Indians have been forcefully evicted to make room for damns, roads, railways, power plants, public purpose projects in short, over the past 50 years.

Add to this since 1990, the millions who have been displaced as private industry has now been defined by Indian courts to constitute public purpose. The detrimental, environmental, and social effects of such disruption of lives and of livelihoods are felt by 700 million Indians dependent on the rural economy. There is no surprise that issues of environmental justice are inextricably linked to those of social justice, as the courts in India have been becoming increasingly embroiled in controversies about the legality of their position, about the right to compensation, and about the environmental sustainability and social impact of social economic zones.

David Harvey has described the current enclosures of the commons worldwide as a process of accumulation through dispossession, accumulation through dispossession in order to highlight the fact that capitalistic accumulation today is increasingly external to the process of production. Contrary to neo-liberal ideology, which emphasises the role of market competition, the Indian state and practice confers on various industrial houses, monopoly advantages of mineral resource extraction or rented generation, in key strategic chosen locations all over the country.

My research is focused on the everyday functioning of the law. So I have argued that these are not zones of exception, but zones in which state law functions, but functions in a very particular way. But my research is also functioned on the judicialisation of politics, on the challenges mounted by those expropriated using the law, using codes of law, not only to render the state accountable, but to press for justice against the multinational corporations and Indian corporations, primarily who are dispossessing them. The most fundamental constitutional challenge has been mounted by those critics who have challenged the constitutional viability of the special economic zones as violating Article 21 of the Indian constitution as violating the right to life and to livelihood.

Let me turn to my second example. The second movement of enclosures today, concerns those created by the granting of patents on biogenetic resources: patents, which blurred the boundary between material and immaterial, between tangible and intangible property. These are patents held, for example, by powerful American corporations on the seeds of the Basmati rice, which most of you may be eating. No longer probably as Basmati, but often as Texamity rice, because it is being manufactured in Texas by an American corporation; or from oil from seeds of the name Tree: products and processes, which American corporations backed by the US department of Agriculture claim to be their own intellectual property.

A patent confers a sole legal right over an original invention or design, over its application, its replication, its dissemination, youth and sale, granted for a fixed period of time. There has been an enormous expansion of (? 1:10:19) in the domain of intellectual property. In spheres of knowledge over which patents may extend, in materials over which ownership may legitimately be claimed: can an American corporation, for example, claim to have invented the Basmati rice- has been a question exercising the courts, in the laws that governs the ownership of patents and in the benefits that have grown from them.

James (? 1:10:44) has called this process of new state-created property rights, the second enclosure movement: the enclosure of the intangible commons of the mind. By conflating the legal distinction between natural organisms and manmade artefacts, biotechnologies pose new challenges for law, just as they generate new objects for regulation. They also raise complex, legal, ethical, and philosophical questions that touch the very texture of life of other existence.

But patents have a long imperial genealogy that points to the longevity of structures of dominance as (? 1:11:22 name) has argued in her eloquent critic of both biopiracy and of intellectual colonialism. Critics have focused on the dangers to biodiversity when common heritage is converted into industrially produced commodities. There is an equal danger, they point out, to food sovereignty as primary producers of seeds are turned into consumers of multinational corporations products despite of farmer suicides in India has gone into hundreds and thousands of farmers committing suicide due to destitution.

The new patent regime, these critics point out, allows the West to pick away the very ladder, which it climbed on its own way to economic prosperity. These critics of intellectual property in India are actually in good German company. The (? 1:12:17 Kongress) Deutsche Volkswirte held in 1863 in Dresden adopted a resolution against the granting even of industrial patents. It said in the resolution, I quote: “Considering the patents hinder rather than further the propose of inventions, the congress resolves that patents on inventions are injurious to common welfare.”

The main arguments against patents historically, were framed in the language of free trade, objections against monopoly, which would create scarcity, inflate prices, and diminish quality. Then as now reservations were also expressed about the justice of granting exclusive rights and claims to ideas built upon incrementally. More specifically, patents and biogenetic resources allow the entry of the market into areas hither to outside its reach, but blurring the very distinction between what is nature given and what is manmade.

A wall is breached: the wall around life, in order to permit its patentability, but only in it order to erect a new wall of exclusion. But patents permit the monopolisation of value that accumulates around objects and ideas, processes and designs, which have been the collective traditional knowledge of agrarian communities. These kinds of patents dispossess doubly: the appropriate knowledge that was in the public domain, often using public funding, and commercialise it for private gain.

The kinds of processes that I have been looking at are processes of impoverishment; processes in which the state is an active agent, and active actor, in letting people’s lives waste in certain places and at certain times. Anthropology has had a role in studying this displacement and this dispossession by showing how connections matter, how other lives here are entangled with those in remote processes, remote places, in the hope that we can at least broaden a moral compass. Thank you very much.