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The Political Construction of Wasteland: Governmentality, Land Acquisition and Social Inequality in South India


  • Jennifer Baka

  • The author would like to thank the Fulbright IIE Program, the Yale Program in Agrarian Studies, the Yale South Asian Studies Council and the Yale Center for Industrial Ecology for research funding, and the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University for sponsoring my Fulbright award. Assistance is gratefully acknowledged from the journal's anonymous reviewers, and from Rob Bailis, Carol Carpenter, Marian Chertow, Mathew Decker, K.T. Gandhirajan, Stefan Lewellen, Ajit Menon, M. Paramathma, K. Sivaramakrishnan, M. Vijayabaskar, the editors of this special issue, and from the Land Deal Politics Initiative for invaluable research guidance and support.


Through a micro-level study of a biofuel-related land acquisition in rural Tamil Nadu, India, this article reveals how state–subject relations are shaping modern land deal politics. Through its political construction of the concept of ‘wasteland’ and its associated wasteland development programme, the Indian state has facilitated a series of questionable land acquisitions, reshaping agrarian livelihoods in the process. A class of land brokers has emerged to help carry out the state's project of converting ‘wastelands’ to more ‘productive’, state-defined uses such as biofuel cultivation and industrial expansion. Those whose lands have been acquired as part of these programmes have undergone a transition to wage labour, increasing the prolitarianization of agrarian communities. By documenting the mechanics of this ‘wasteland governmentality’, this study contributes to a political sociology of the state by unpacking the linkages between the state and agrarian subjects in the context of the ‘global land grab’.