‘Democratic space is being shrunk’


AT LEAST one-third of India’s conflicts in this decade have been over land rights. From farmers standing in neck-deep water in Madhya Pradesh to tribals’ battles over land being acquired for mining in Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, Goa, etc. In many of the battles, the State has leaned on the Land Acquisition Act, drafted in 1894. The latest round of amendments was cleared this week by a Group of Ministers (GOM) and will be presented in Parliament. It’s a piece of legislation that could either strengthen the hands of millions of people struggling against the State. Or it could strengthen the hands of the corporates demanding easier, faster systems for clearing their projects. A crucial radar in reading this new Bill is provided by people struggling for land rights. At the very heart of that struggle is Ulka Mahajan, a long-time warrior in the battle against land sharks in Maharashtra. She has taken on everyone from Reliance, which tried and failed to acquire land in Raigad to build an SEZ, to the Maharashtra government. She had made several suggestions to the Ministry for Rural Development when the Land Bill was being amended and has watched the progress of the Bill from the ministry to Parliament, to a Standing Committee and then to a GOM, from where the new draft has emerged. She tells Revati Laul why the amended version of the Bill still has major loopholes.


Ulka Mahajan, Land Rights Activist
Ulka Mahajan, Land Rights Activist
Photo: Bachchan Kumar/ Hindustan Times

Do you think the new draft of the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (LARR) Bill that the government has just put out factors in the demands from grassroots movements like yours?
Firstly, the Standing Committee that was entrusted with examining the Bill is like a mini-Parliament. For the government to then take the draft and send it to a GOM is itself irresponsible. Secondly, the amended draft says that instead of the consent of 80 percent of the owners for acquiring land, only 66 percent consent is required. This means the government is not confident that it is working for the benefit of farmers, otherwise it wouldn’t need to whittle down the consent. Thirdly, there is no clarity on whether all the Central Acts that were earlier exempt from the Land Acquisition Act or the LARR Act will be brought under it, which was one of our demands.

Isn’t there a provision in the new draft that all Central Acts must now be amended so that they can come under the Act within the next two years?
In two years’ time, the land sharks would have made use of the loopholes to eat up whatever land they want.

There were also demands that the approval of gram panchayats be made mandatory before land is acquired, and that multi-crop land should not be acquired under any circumstances. Have these been met?
We have said that not just multi-crop land, but given the food security crisis prevailing in India, even single-crop land should not be acquired for non-agricultural purposes, except under special and extenuating circumstances. As far as possible, agricultural land should be left alone. In Maharashtra, there are 17 lakh hectares of non-cultivable land. Why can’t the government acquire this land for SEZs?

The government argues that if a road or a railway line needs to be built, it is not always possible to acquire a continuous stretch of land that is all non-agricultural.
If the government is acquiring land for a bona fide public purpose, then it is always possible to convince the people. But that’s not what’s happening. Land is being robbed, water from villages is being diverted to cities. Maharashtra is reeling under a huge irrigation scam. The way the government is surreptitiously acquiring land, and not for any public good, is where the problem lies.

In the new draft, are there provisions that strengthen the hands of farmers against land sharks? For instance, is ‘public purpose’ defined properly so that it’s not misused anymore?
No, it’s not well-defined at all. As I understand, the present draft says the process of acquisition should be completed within six months. The earlier Act had a time-frame of three years. That at least gave people like us time to deal with the different levels of problems that arise in acquiring land. And to raise those objections in court. So, the democratic space is being shrunk. Public purpose to my mind doesn’t include things like SEZs, which never benefit the common man.

Is it also true that most of today’s land wars aren’t over how much farmers are being compensated, but over the fact that farmers and tribals no longer wish to give their land up for acquisition at all?
You are right, most conflicts are indeed over the fact that people don’t want to give up their land. And there is no provision for recognising the owners’ right to refuse to sell, because we are still operating under the principle of “eminent domain”. The property of citizens is under the “eminent domain of the State” and people are expected to give up land if the State needs it for a public purpose.

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Special Correspondent

Revati Laul has been a television journalist and documentary film maker for most of her 16 year career. Ten of those were spent in NDTV where her reports included everything from the aftermath of the Gujarat riots to following truck drivers into ULFA infested Assam. Then about a year and a half ago, she decided to tell her stories in indelible ink instead. Most people said she made an upside down decision but she firmly believes she’s found food for the soul. She was hired by Tehelka to write on politics. For her this does not mean tracking the big fish but looking closely at how the tiny fish are getting swallowed and by whom. On most days though, she can be found conversing on her other two favourite subjects – fornication and food. Fiction is another friend of hers. A short story she wrote called `Drool’ was published in an anthology of young fiction by Zubaan. She is also founder member of the NGO ‘Tara’ that looks after underpriviledged children.


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