Golden promises of charred alms

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Even as common people rise to defend their rights, the government is busy drafting Bills to smite them

Sandeep Pandey Magsaysay Award Winner

Are you listening? An activist protests the Sardar Sarovar dam construction
Are you listening? An activist protests the Sardar Sarovar dam construction
Photo: AP

IT’S AS if the Land Acquisition Act (LAA), 1894, of the British wasn’t bad enough. The Government has come up with an amendment to this Act which it wants to push through as a new law, making it even more antipeople. The Government has used the LAA all over the place to displace people at will, sometimes using repressive measures, and with no or meagre compensation. The history of land acquisition in this country is one of barbarism. People whose livelihoods used to depend on land from which they were displaced were pauperised in the process. Proud landowners and people who, even if they didn’t possess land, were able to cultivate enough food to feed their families and even others’ – all became landless labourers, sometimes ending up in very miserable situations of extreme poverty and hunger. The cash compensation, if they got any, was good only till it lasted, which it didn’t for very long.

Since the Narmada Bachao Andolan forcefully raised the issue of displacement for the first time in this country 20 years ago, now every single project involving displacement is facing resistance from local people who are affected by the project. Before this phase it was considered normal that some people would have to make sacrifices in pursuance of the larger national interest. The common people rose in protest as it became clear that national interest essentially meant the benefit of the already well-off section of society — for example, the electricity from a dam would be siphoned off to cities and industries whose interests were championed by a nexus of contractors-politicians-bureaucrats-mafia and it was the poor being asked to make the sacrifice every time.

To deal with the peoples’ resistance to land takeover by the State on behalf of primarily the private interests, the government has proposed the Land Acquisition (Amendment) Bill and the Resettlement and Rehabilitation (R&R) Bill. In addition, it has also enacted the infamous Special Economic Zone Act.

A 500ft statue of Gautam Buddha to be built at a cost of $250 million in UP will displace 2,990 families

The main objections with the LAA Bill and the R&R Bill are:  The amendment talks about “public purpose” to include projects for “any other purpose useful to the general public”, to be carried out by a “person”, the definition of which includes private corporations, organisations and individuals.

• Private companies will be free to acquire 70 percent land on their own and the government will help them acquire the remainder. Past experience indicates that undue pressure will be exerted on farmers to part with their land.

• The “emergency” clause, which is against constitutional rights, continues to exist.

 Social impact studies will be conducted but the decision to acquire land will not be dependent on them.

 The R&R Act will apply after land acquisition. Moreover, R&R will be implemented only if more than 200 tribal or 400 non-tribal families are displaced.

 There is no guarantee of alternative employment as part of R&R. Land-for-land compensation will be made available to the extent possible, but it’s not mandatory.

 Even though the Bill says that the principle of minimal displacement will be followed, it is not certain that it would be.

The objective, quite clearly, is to make it more favourable for private corporations to acquire land. The R&R Bill neither gives a timeline for rehabilitation nor does it specify any standards for benefits to be provided as a part of the package. The Bill doesn’t see right to view R&R as a human rights issue.

That has been the basic problem. Displacement has been viewed as an inherent part of development. Bureaucracy implements it in a mechanical and insensitive manner. They consider their success not in ensuring a satisfactory rehabilitation from the point of view of people but in displacing them with least resistance. Unless this mindset changes, there is no hope of humane rehabilitation as a result of displacement from a project.

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