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Arab Spring, Indian Summer?

For sheer drama, the Arab Spring is a hard act to follow. But as an indicator of democracy's long-term prospects in the developing world, the coming Indian Summer will be just as profound.

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Many voices have emerged to complain about involving "extraconstitutional" actors in the law-drafting process. But involving civic leaders is hardly antidemocratic. It can be a useful counterweight to the influence of corporate lobbyists, who participate intensively in the drafting of much legislation. Others fear creating an institution that can subvert democracy by allowing the electorate's verdict to be overturned by an overzealous people's tribune. Yet, countries such as New Zealand have managed to create powerful, independent oversight institutions without disenfranchising citizens.

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A summer of mass protest is planned if the Jan Lokpal ombudsman bill is not to the activists' liking – which the initial draft almost certainly won't be. A hugely popular television yoga guru known as Baba Ramdev, whose rally against corruption was broken up by police in June, has promised another fast unto death if action is not taken to plug loopholes. Expect India's independence day – Aug. 15 – to be marked by civil disobedience.

The second element of regime change is even more explicitly targeted at colonial-era governance. For the first time in independent India, a government is serious about replacing the Land Acquisition Act of 1894, which allows the state to dispossess landowners for almost any "public purpose."

The act's few landowner protections are easily trumped by countervailing emergency provisions. Compensation for landowners is pitiful. The key official who engineers these transactions – the district collector – is an imperial relic of vast authority whose extractive function is unsubtly encoded in his job title.

Activists have long demanded reforms to the Land Acquisition Act. A protracted campaign against the World Bank-funded Narmada Dam in the 1980s and '90s highlighted the callousness with which the Indian state uproots entire communities in the name of development.

The current effort to replace (rather than just tidy up) the act has been set off by popular revulsion at the more recent state practice of gifting forcibly acquired land to corporations, both foreign and domestic, to establish export enclaves known as "special economic zones." Nearly 600 such zones, which often feature luxury housing and other high-end amenities, are in various stages of completion across India. Their alleged economic benefits are widely regarded as an insufficiently "public purpose" to justify such blatant land-grabbing.

The state's forcible acquisition of land for private industry has sparked protests across India. The brutality of the state government in West Bengal – more than 30 people died in clashes between protesters and police in 2007 – contributed to this May's defeat of the Communist-led government that had ruled the state since 1977. A violent standoff is taking place in neighboring Orissa State, where land has been acquired by the government on behalf of a South Korean steel conglomerate.


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