Land Wars: Tehelka Coverage


How To End A Million Mutinies

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, 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.

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Land Wars: Tehelka Coverage

First the necessary clarities: The war over land in India is not an argument over development. It is an argument about justice. The spectacle of a “unified opposition” baying for Mayawati is misleading because the story of the dead farmers in Greater Noida last week is not a unique one. It is a tragic facsimile of the story of the dead farmers in Congress-ruled Andhra Pradesh. Or BJD-ruled Odisha. Or BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Or NCP-Congress ruled Maharashtra.

In fact, back in 2007, both media and metropolitan India had denounced the eruptions at Singur and Nandigram as the cynical machinations of Mamata Banerjee playing spoiler. But those events not only helped bring 30 years of CPM rule to a close, they made visible everything that is chronically wrong with land acquisition in India. First, there are the insupportable Acts. The colonial Land Acquisition Act, 1894, forces citizens — if necessary, at gunpoint — to hand over land for undefined “public interest” without consensus, consultation or the right to negotiate highest prices. The SEZ Act allowed industry to get thousands of acres at rock-bottom prices but stipulated that only 30 percent of that had to be used for manufacture, while 70 percent could be deployed for real estate speculation. And “compensation” and “employment” are glib terms trotted out in defence of the colossal land grab underway in the country, but the truth is, until the people of Bengal revolted, there was not even a Relief and Rehabilitation Bill in India.

Desperate fights on the ground have forced these ill-thought out laws back into Parliament for redrafting, but getting a fair price is not the only issue. Forcible land acquisition is a deeply disruptive process. It is pushing people off from a land economy to a money one. Trouble is, land can sustain generations: money disappears in days. Buy a small house, buy a small car, and you are left with no money, no food and no skill set.

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Land Wars II: So what’s the political consensus?

The farmers of Bhatta-Parsaul in Greater Noida have done this country a huge service by erupting against the Yamuna Expressway project. For too long, the injustices around land acquisition have been read through pointless binaries: agriculture versus industry; livelihood versus development.

Now the farmers’ protest on the fringes of Delhi itself have helped clarify the real nature of these issues and challenged middle-class conscience. Hearteningly, both political and media debates have begun to shift completely left of centre and the talk is now all about farmer’ rights and fair price and democratic consent.

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Land Wars III: UPA-II finally heeds the NAC on fixing an archaic law

Long before two farmers were shot dead in Bhatta-Parsaul, long before Rahul Gandhi sneaked into Greater Noida villages on a motorcycle, long before the media went on a wild goose chase for “74 mounds of ash”, long before the Centre promised to change the archaic Land Acquisition Act, members of the National Advisory Council (NAC) under Sonia Gandhi had suggested key changes to this Act.

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