How to End a Million Mutinies

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The Indian growth story has been written with the blood of tribals and farmers. The new land Bill can bring prosperity to all, reports Revati Laul

Photo: Soumik Mukherjee

IF YOU walked down the streets of Jantar Mantar in New Delhi between 3-5 August, you would see what TV cameras aren’t putting out on primetime news. Thousands of farmers from Jhabua in Madhya Pradesh to Rohtak in Haryana. On protest. Against the systematic grabbing of their land by various state governments across the political spectrum. On one side of the road, on large green carpets, are about 3,000 farmers, brought in by farmers’ unions affiliated to the BJP.

Turn the corner, and you will see activists led by the National Alliance of People’s Movements also leading farmers’ protests. A much smaller number. Just about a few hundred people. But whichever place you stop and listen, whatever your political persuasion, farmers have the same thing to say: We have been had. Our land has been forcibly acquired, and we haven’t got our due. And we want this to stop.

Away from the protest site, the government, hemmed in from all sides, by the outcry in Noida in Uttar Pradesh to Odisha and West Bengal, has got an answer ready. You can read it. If you log on to the Internet and type rural.nic.in, you will find, in small type, a very large idea. The draft of a Bill that hasn’t been hotly debated on the streets of Delhi. It arrived quietly, on a drizzly afternoon, the weekend before the stormy monsoon session of Parliament began. With a gentle ping, it was there on a screen near you. A piece of law that has the potential to transform the way land is bought and sold across India. Whether it’s from farmers or tribals. For industry, mining or middle-class homes with fancy American names. It’s the new Land Acquisition and Resettlement and Rehabilitation Bill 2011.

The old Act dates back to 1894 and has been prone to rampant misuse and exploitation, a new draft has been long overdue. And so, two weeks ago, when Jairam Ramesh took over as Minister of Rural Development, finalising a new draft topped his agenda. In its 70-odd pages lie a great possibility. That will allow India’s villages to develop and prosper alongside its cities, instead of the rural population being strangled to serve the urban.

Can this really happen? To that, even Ramesh can have only one answer: It depends on how it’s used. But at least, for the first time in more than 100 years, on paper, the twain can, and have, really met. City and country. Farmer and developer. Multinational and NGO.

The draft has many firsts. It clubs land acquisition with resettlement and rehabilitation. Which means no one, whether the government or a private party, can take away land from farmers and not compensate them properly for it. It also defines for the first time, the rights of people who work on land but do not own it, such as sharecroppers, cattle farmers and fishermen. Another first — no irrigated multicrop land can be bought or sold for any reason whatsoever. And crucially, the draft makes a political point in correcting the misuse of land acquisition in UP. It clearly says that land cannot be acquired by governments using the urgency clause unless in the rarest of rare cases — defence, national security and calamities.

But this list of firsts will only make sense if you look at the fissures across India over land, now exploding in cities and villages. Close to Delhi, along the highway leading to Greater Noida, a bizarre skyline rolls out, a colossus of multi-storey flats blot out the blue sky in the background. And in the foreground of these acropolises of cement and granite are farms, dented and emasculated by large earthmovers, cranes and cement mixers. Land that many villages in the area claim, was theirs, until the UP government slapped an urgency clause, saying it was needed for the greater common good or ‘public purpose’.

However, when farmers in Shahberi village found this public purpose was actually a series of private deals where their land was sold to builders, they were rich and resourceful enough to go knocking on the doors of the Supreme Court. And so in June, the court agreed with them, and ordered that the land be given back.

If the new Act had been in place, then 62-year-old Ummed Ali wouldn’t have fainted or had to see one of his relatives being beaten with police batons last year, when a government representative turned up on his fields of wheat, onions, tomatoes and oranges to inform him that this land was no longer his. The new Act says that consultations must happen at the village level and an oversight committee formed before land can be acquired. Equally, it would have spared 35-year-old Vikas Pujara the sleepless nights and fights with his wife, over the flat he’s paid up for in Noida’s Kensington Boulevard. Now he’s not clear if his money is sunk or safe. Both sides could use a clear set of rules to sort out an unravelling situation.

BUT WE are still in the realm of those who can reach out to lawyers and the media and threaten to stop work at project sites. The new draft is, however, intended to correct the imbalance that exists most often, between the big fat developer on one side and the poor farmer or tribal landowner on the other. Acknowledging this, Ramesh writes, “This draft Bill seeks to balance the need for facilitating land acquisition for various public purposes… while at the same time meaningfully addressing the concerns of farmers and those whose livelihoods are dependent on the land being acquired.”

So at the outset, the Bill lists the three ways in which land can be acquired and the conditions for each.

1. When the government acquires land for its own use

2. When it’s acquired by the government with the intention of transferring it to a private company for a public purpose or a public-private partnership (but it’s not yet clear which private company will do the public work on the land)

3. When land is acquired by the government directly for a private firm (like the aborted Singur deal where the West Bengal government tried to acquire land for the Tatas)

So what the draft really says is — for a private party to be handed over land, 80 percent of the owners must agree for the deal to become possible. Also, when private companies are acquiring land, they cannot change the land use.

Presuming that village meetings are held properly and 80 percent consent is got, then there are elaborately laid out rules for giving compensation to those who lose their land and also, those who work on the land and will lose their jobs.

The Collector will assess the market value of the land by checking the price of similar properties in at least half the area to be acquired. In a rural area, this figure will be multiplied by six times to arrive at the compensation that will be given to a landowner. In urban areas, it works out to three times the value.

Plus, affected families will get a rehabilitation and resettlement amount and a house if their house is taken as part of the land acquisition. Drinking water, a school,good roads, markets — the entire resettlement area in short, will have to be developed before people are relocated.

Nobody’s happy: Farmers displaced by the Taj Expressway on the warpath
Nobody’s happy: Farmers displaced by the Taj Expressway on the warpath
Photo: Amit Shivhare

The Bill also looks carefully at a category of the until-now invisible people. Men and women who actually work in the fields. In the drought-affected Bundelkhand areas of UP, these people earn Rs 150-200 a day. But in the villages of Jagatsinghpur in Odisha, where the South Korean steel giant POSCO is planning its mega project, the sharecroppers who pluck betel leaves could earn up to Rs 2,000 a day during harvest season. So far, displacement model in any state has overlooked this group. Or at best, awarded them replacement jobs in cities that pay them far less than they earn from land.

National Advisory Council (NAC) members Harsh Mander and NC Saxena, both responsible for drafting the current Bill, say this is perhaps the single most important contribution that they have been able to make: ensuring that the government finally acknowledges this group’s right to compensation. These newly visible people will get the same subsistence allowance that displaced land-owning families get: Rs 3,000 a month for the first year; Rs 2,000 a month in annuity for the next 20 years, a replacement for a house lost, a one-time resettlement allowance of Rs 50,000, another Rs 50,000 as transport cost and a job for one person from each affected family.

The draft is now open for debate and builder lobbies and farmers’ groups will now start looking closely at the various clauses to see if it’s fair play for all.

“It is best if developers deal directly with farmers for land acquisition and let the market forces decide the price of land. The role of the government agencies should be that of a facilitator and not that of a land broker,” says an official with Parsvnath Developers. Absolutely right, says Sunil Mantri, chairman of Mantri Realty, which has signed an MOU for a 1,000-acre plot in Noida Extension and then withdrew it after the spate of farmers’ agitations. “Farmers are giving a clear message that they do not want the government as a land broker. They are interested in negotiating the land price with the purchaser directly and sell if they like it.”

THE DRAFT Bill does take these views on board. But with some important qualifiers. Mander and Saxena explain that leaving farmers to deal with big corporate sharks is tantamount to saying, “Go ahead, get swallowed whole, it’s not our business any more.” And so there are rules for land acquired for private purposes as well.

Can there be an India where the building of SEZs happens alongside rice cultivation?

Which is to say, when private industry wants land that isn’t for “the greater common good”, it is free to go in and deal directly with farmers. But even in such deals, the resettlement and rehabilitation policy will still apply. This means, the two sides can work out whatever compensation they want against the land, but they will still have to give a Rs 2,000 monthly stipend to the affected families for the next 20 years, and replace the house they lose with a new one.

But before we get carried away with the letter and spirit of the draft, it’s crucial to take it down to the long years of experience in our fissured land. To the people who have been battling state governments, building and mining mafias, the police, hunger and starvation, just to be able to hold on to their land. And the right to firmly and repeatedly say “No thank you, but we don’t want your compensation. We want to keep our land.”

Nobody’s happy: Noida flat 0wners are feeling shortchanged and a protest against the POSCO project
Nobody’s happy: Noida flat 0wners are feeling shortchanged and a protest against the POSCO project
Photo:Shailendra Pandey

This world of agitating farmers, of Narmada Bachao Andolan activists, and of state governments taking over thousands of hectares has also undergone a metamorphosis over time. Now, there’s a spectrum of voices from across time and space that can speak to us and inform this debate.

In the 1980s, Mander was a civil servant posted in Madhya Pradesh, one of the sites of the Sardar Sarovar dam. It’s that experience and his activist avatar that he now brings to the table when he discusses displacement of people from land. “The world has changed very much from 20 years ago when a majority of the acquisition was by the government for public projects. Now, most deals are for the private sector or public-private partnerships,” he says.

So Mander says, he put most of his energy into making sure the draft protects farmers and sharecroppers from private land sharks, builders and multinationals, who he says, account for 90 percent of land deals today. Hence, the clause that ensures that private parties get consent of 80 percent of the landowners, and they cannot change the land use.

But all of this still leaves a large, gaping hole uncovered. The government. What happens when it acquires land for itself? Is it okay for it to get less than 80 percent consent? Is it okay for it to change the land use? The draft Bill is silent on this issue.

MANDER SAYS there’s little cause for concern because few deals are now completely in the public domain. Governments are outsourcing practically every aspect of governance. From road building, to flyovers, power projects and mining.

Not entirely true, says land rights activist Laxmi Chauhan, who lives and works in the district that supplies nearly 10 percent of the entire country’s coal: Korba in Chhattisgarh. “The government acquires land through agencies and then has it transferred to its name,” he says. Korba is a tribal belt and comes under what’s called ‘Schedule 5 territory’ or tribal area, where even according to the present law, land cannot be acquired by the State without the gram sabha’s nod. But there is no accounting for ingenuity to bypass the law.

Chauhan cites an instance where people are fighting the takeover of their land by a fellow tribal, allegedly made to buy their land in his own name and then hand it over to a private firm for a power project. Even if one were to err on the side of caution and say it’s not possible to figure out in an individual case like this, who was right and who was wrong, the story provides a sketch of what can and has repeatedly happened, despite stringent laws that already exist to protect the land rights of tribals.

Whatever the truth, it forces us back to the question: What if the government acquires land without the 80 percent consent, and also change the land use?

For the first time, the draft Bill clubs land acquisition with resettlement and rehabilitation

There are other questions thrown up by people agitating against POSCO in Odisha. Prashant Paikary, the secretary of the POSCO Pratirodh Sangram Samiti, questions the manner in which committees meant to regulate land acquisitions operate.

In May, the Ministry of Environment and Forests, under the same man who is now Minister of Rural Development, Jairam Ramesh, sanctioned the transfer or 1,253 hectares to POSCO. For this transfer, claims Paikary, the state government ignored the writ of the majority of the people at two consecutive village councils, and made out a report to the Centre claiming that no tribals are affected by this land transfer. (Whose Steel? Who’s Stealing? by Tusha Mittal, 11 December 2010). And so follows the disturbing question — what will happen if the Collector manipulates the paperwork to make a land-grab look like a democratic, participatory transfer?

The Indian countryside is littered with grizzly anecdotes of the utter helplessness of people outside the circles of power, money and influence, forced to leave their land and convert from landowners, to destitute, wandering construction labourers at the bottom of the economic pile, at the mercy of urban metropolises and squalor.

It’s cruel, punishing displacement like this that has made activists like Ulka Mahajan of the National Alliance of People’s Movements ask an obvious question: Why should land transfers happen at all? Why not allow farmers to retain the titles to their land and let them lease it out to industries, at least in cases where flyovers or roads or dams aren’t being built?

Nobody’s happy: Noida flat 0wners are feeling shortchanged and a protest against the POSCO project
Nobody’s happy: Noida flat 0wners are feeling shortchanged and a protest against the POSCO project
Photo:Reuters

Her experience of fighting in Raigad, Maharashtra, for farmers protesting against a Reliance special economic zone (SEZ) says that they are no longer okay with getting compensation for land acquisition.

“You look at all these struggles happening across the country where people are fighting for their land. And the militancy of those struggles. Then you get the feeling that people are not ready to give up their land. Because they don’t trust the government. And promises made to them were not fulfilled.”

She and activists like Madhuresh Kumar suggested to the government that instead of a new land acquisition policy, a new development policy should be enacted. Where planning happens and priorities are set at the village level, and then taken to the top.

For now, they have critiqued Ramesh’s draft, saying it looks at the whole issue from the wrong end of the spectrum. “Your planning is based on 9 percent growth,” says Kumar. “The situation we are faced with is that in 20 years of reforms, inequities have only widened for the common man. So everyone is saying, ‘Please save me from the god of development.’ We have had more than 60 years of top-down planning. Look at the Narmada river valley development plan. From one river and its tributaries, the amount of things we have planned is: 30 big dams, 135 medium-sized dams and 3,000 small dams. Now Sardar Sarovar alone needs nearly 40,000 hectares of land in submergence. We go on planning mindlessly as if there is endless growth (to be had). Where will we go from here? This Bill is not trying to address that.”

And so we are back to the drawing board. To the place of possibilities. Can there be an India where the building of roads, SEZs, highways, mines and housing complexes happens alongside the cultivation of wheat, rice, vegetables and fisheries and the grazing of cattle?

Firebrand leader Medha Patkar leads a farmers’ protest at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi
Firebrand leader Medha Patkar leads a farmers’ protest at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi
Photo: Vijay Pandey

One roadmap is out now. A draft for discussion.The Ministry of Rural Development has invited the country to read the draft and comment on it by the end of August. Upon this reading and paring down of the questions, may lie a place of convergence. Not utopia certainly. But a tool. That for the first time in 117 years can change the way this country looks at land. Who prospers on it. And whose blood, angst and rebellion the next mall around the corner is made from. If only the people of India don’t let the unanswered questions the draft has currently thrown up, stare back at them silently, from a computer screen, and then vanish from popular consciousness like the invisible people whose land apparently does not matter.

If only a firmament of opinion, discussion and concern is raised from now on, until the draft Bill slowly makes its way through Parliament, the standing committee and eventually, into a new Act. If the original law was draconian, it was designed to be. This time around, there is an opportunity to change that. To make way for a kind of development that doesn’t take away the right of two-thirds of India to exist. Even if that means the remaining third doesn’t grow at 9 percent.

An epitaph from the battleground

Kisan Sangarsh Samiti convenor Capt Deep Singh Shekhawat, from Jhunjhunu district in Rajasthan, says: “Farmers in my area have been protesting repeatedly that their fertile 72,000 bighas have been acquired by three cement companies. The acquisition began four years ago. People protested, they didn’t want to give their land. But nobody listened. I’ve been in the army for 32 years. I’ve fought insurgency in Kashmir. I never thought that I’d have to fight to keep my own piece of land. The land has been sold at a ridiculous rate of Rs 1.8 lakh per bigha. We don’t have any faith in what the government and politicians say. The new Act seems good. We were hopeful when we heard Rahul Gandhi talk to UP farmers about their problems. We thought, good, in Rajasthan there is a Congress government so we are bound to be heard. But that didn’t happen and makes me wonder whether what Rahul was saying was merely to score a political point in UP.”

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On paper, it looks good

Haryana was the first state to adopt a policy balancing the interests of farmers and industrialists, writes Kunal Majumder

Upscale Gurgaon bears no resemblance to its original name
Upscale Gurgaon bears no resemblance to its original name
Photo: Shailendra Pandey

The innovative concept of annuity has been a notable contribution to changing land acquisition law, says Harsh Mander, who heads the NAC study group on land acquisition. “The idea of paying the displaced people a fixed amount over a time period ensures steady income and financial stability in their lives,” he points out. Prior to this, the compensation would be spent quickly, reducing families to penury. The Bhupinder Singh Hooda government pays landowners, apart from the lump sum compensation, Rs 21,000 per acre per annum for 33 years, with an increment of Rs 750 every year. The Centre’s draft bill, inspired by this innovation, would give even landless labourers and share-croppers Rs 2,000 per month for 20 years and a house if they had one earlier. The landowner would also get back 20 percent of the acquired land once developed.

Also, bodies like Haryana Urban Development Authority (HUDA) and Haryana State Industrial and Infrastructure Development Council (HSIIDC) are to set aside 1 percent of the compensation paid to create skill sets among the displaced. But Madhuresh Kumar of the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) says, “This doesn’t really happen on the ground. All state policies are on paper”.

The most controversial provision of the Haryana policy is the additional 20 percent paid to landowners who promise not to challenge the acquisition in court. Many are appalled at closing of legal doors. “This provision is a way to buy away the rights of the poor,” says former revenue secretary EAS Sarma. “Ready cash is like opium. I also doubt if this provision would stand in a court of law”.

Another clause being challenged is the fixing of rates for acquiring land in different parts of the state instead of going by market price. No wonder, Hanumat Singh Chillar from Barai village in Rohtak district ended up at Jantar Mantar in the Capital demanding a better price for his land, due to be acquired by the government. “The Chief Minister’s people have acquired land from the adjoining village and we are now not allowed to sell our land to a private party,” he says. He thinks the price of his land is around Rs 1.5 crore whereas the government has so far only paid Rs 16-18 lakh.

Sitting at the protest with him is Prakash Jalal of Mandoti village from Jhajjar district. Jalal approached the court against acquisition of his land by the state government five years ago. “My land was acquired for building a road and I got compensation at the rate of 16 lakh per acre. That was way below the market price,” he says.

Haryana’s land acquisition law might have been a pioneer in suggesting many farmer-friendly initiatives, but some farmers seem to have been strangled by the loopholes.

Kunal Majumder is a Senior Correspondent with Tehelka.
[email protected]

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With inputs from Prakhar Jain

Revati Laul is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.
[email protected]

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