Why the Land Acquisition Bill won’t stop a million mutinies

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Not far away from the Parliament house where a three-hour-long debate led to the passing of the Land Acquisition, Resettlement and Rehabilitation Bill, former Planning Commission member NC Saxena looked on with disapproval. “The way the bill stands right now,” he told TEHELKA, “is actually anti-growth and anti-farmers and will not sort things out for the economy either.”

For one thing, Saxena pointed out, the number of clearances and officials any land acquisition has to go through with the new proposed bill will delay an average project by as much as two years. That will be terrible for the economy. On the other hand, there is no provision in the bill that makes it mandatory to tell the farmer exactly what compensation is being offered so that he can make an informed choice of whether or not he wants his land to be acquired.

Some of the biggest problems with the bill are in its clauses, and we look at them here one by one.

Unclear definition of ‘public purpose’ – Public purpose. as listed in the act right now, encompasses everything from building railway lines to PPP projects, to institutions for “government administered educational, health and research schemes” and for the “provision of land in public interest to private companies for the production of goods for the public.”

None of this explains what will happen if Tata Motors, for instance, wanted to acquire land for the production of cars – an issue that led to one of the biggest land wars in recent times in Singur in West Bengal that brought the CPI-M government down after a continuous 30-year rule in 2011.  Is the production of cars included in public purpose? With the way things are specified in this act, any state government could argue that it does.

Activists that have come together under the broad umbrella of the NAPM (National Alliance of People’s Movement) raise another important question: Why is agriculture as an activity not included in the definition of public purpose?

The right to say no –  In theory, this act says that the consent of at least 70% of the landowners’ consent is essential for land to be acquired. However, activists, who have for long been fighting battles along with tribals and farmers – from people displaced by the Narmada dam to those in the Niyamgiri hills  of Orissa – say that the caveats within this act leave the door wide open for business as usual.

It does not lay down with precision the circumstances in which land can be acquired under an emergency clause, but does say that in those particular cases, the need for a social impact assessment by an expert group can be overlooked by the state government.  Not too long ago, land wars that erupted across the state of Uttar Pradesh were mired in exactly this kind of controversy: the government acquired land under the emergency clause, sat on it and then finally changed the ‘land use’ specification and sold it to corporate real estate companies. Activists say that there is nothing in this act to prevent such a case from happening again.

Indeed, the definition of who can acquire land fits in with the overall language of the act – that can stretch either way to suit various competing interests, without protecting those who are most vulnerable to its misuse.

It says in the act: ‘Requiring Body’ means a company, a body corporate, an institution, or any other organisation for whom land is to be acquired by the appropriate government, and includes the Appropriate Government, if the acquisition of land is for such Government either for its own use or for subsequent transfer of such land in public interest to a company, body corporate, an institution, or any other organisation, as the case may be, under lease, licence or through any other mode of transfer of land. (Emphasis mine)

This last clause is crucial because it does not say that a government can be penalised for acquiring land, transferring it to a land bank and then selling it as it sees fit.

The current war the state government of Orissa is engaged in with tribals from the Niyamgiri hills is in fact one where the tribals have repeatedly said NO to acquisition of any part of the land, no matter what the compensation offered.

The experience of disadvantaged groups has been one where price X is offered for acquiring land. But then the project for which it is acquired takes the overall price in the region up to 10X or a 100 X, which almost immediately devalues the compensation X, rendering a marginal or even middling farmer into an immediate state of penury.

This complicated algorithm is the crux of land wars in the country, but there isn’t much farmers can turn to in the current act to say: Can the immediate escalation of prices be determined in advance and can the purpose of the project remain fixed so we can know right away whether the compensation figure offered makes sense or not?

Many permissions and no clarity –  Returning to the point N C Saxena made at the beginning of this piece, corporates may find themselves in a space where acquiring land gets much more complicated, making it even less clear if the backlog of projects sitting with various ministries and state governments will actually go through or not.

In short, the way the act stands now, it pleases neither the impoverished, vulnerable farmer nor an industry anxious to get pending projects off the ground.

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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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