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Fair and transparent exchange

Parliament is debating a bill to amend the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013. Rarely have the noble words, fairness and transparency, sounded so hollow than in the context of this legislation that, if passed, will give a licence to the government acting on behalf of its corporate allies to loot the smallholdings of peasants and farmers belonging mostly to the Dalit and adivasi communities. The laws of our land are meant to protect our citizenry. The ordinance that preceded this bill was nothing short of a declaration of war by the super-rich on the property of the poor, on jan dhan, which in our country mostly takes the form of small parcels of land. This government is proud of having created a large number of mostly zero balance bank accounts. It feels no shame in launching an onslaught on the most tangible asset possessed by the toiling masses in our vast agrarian and forested hinterlands.

My opposition to this bill is not based on 1970s-style populism, which has been on display in the course of this debate, in opposition to the neo-liberal dogma of the government. I take my stand on the need for a balanced and harmonious 21st-century economy that guarantees a fair deal for the underprivileged in our quest for rapid growth and development. I recognize the need to acquire land for industry and infrastructure. However, there is absolutely no justification for the government to be so brazenly rapacious in going about it. Land acquisition in our great democracy must be based on consent, not coercion, on compensation, not expropriation, and it must be for public purpose, not private profit. I have never seen the concept of eminent domain so blatantly abused as in the proposed legislation. The government is offering its services as real estate agent for all manner of private entities in their designs to grab even the fertile, multi-cropped land belonging to India's peasantry.

The roots of this lawless law lie in the pernicious Land Acquisition Act of 1894 enacted by our colonial masters. The decade following the passage of the act was perhaps the darkest one in the annals of British rule in India. Colonial land, revenue and financial policies combined to contribute to a spate of famines in the late 1890s and early 1900s in which tens of millions of Indians perished. In 1897, the British celebrated the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria's reign. "The shadows darkened and deepened in their horrors as the year advanced," Mahadev Govind Ranade grimly recorded in 1897, "and it almost seemed as if the seven plagues which afflicted the land of the Pharaohs in old time were let loose upon us, for there is not a single province which had not its ghastly record of death and ruin to mark this period as the most calamitous year of the century within the memory of many generations past."

We won political independence in 1947 but failed to free ourselves from anachronistic colonial laws, including the one on land acquisition, for decades. According to the best estimates cited by the now abolished Planning Commission, 60 million people were displaced between 1947 and 2004 and 25 million hectares of land acquired. Not surprisingly, adivasis constituted 40 per cent and Dalits 20 per cent of the displaced persons. In the state of Gujarat alone 25 lakh people were displaced and 3.2 million hectares of land taken over in that period. As for the last decade, the less said about Gujarat the better. The Gujarat model did not have an industrial policy. It merely had a land policy that stood in for an industrial policy. The state simply prostrated itself before the voracious demands for land made by favoured industrialists.

The 2013 act, flawed and inadequate though it was, at least introduced three safeguards - prior informed consent, social impact assessment and a time limit on the utilization of acquired land. Bill no 20 of 2015 strips away all of these safeguards. A long list of exemptions including national security, industrial corridors, and rural infrastructure makes a mockery of the consent clause. Why would landholders withhold consent if they are assured proper compensation and can see real benefits accruing to their local community through the building of housing, hospitals and schools? They are rational actors who can see what is good for them. It is only if public purpose is being used as a camouflage for private gain through the setting up of commercial housing estates, medical businesses and money-making educational facilities that there is likely to be resistance to land acquisition. Unbridled land acquisition has undermined food security and biodiversity the world over, especially in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa. Many Latin American countries, including Brazil, have been recently enacting laws to prevent foreign investors from acquiring land. Yet the Indian government wants to move in the opposite direction. Social impact assessment is a must if the Indian countryside is to be saved from neo-liberal depredations. All that needs to be done is to ensure that such assessment is carried out in a time-bound manner. By contrast, the government's bill gives itself and private entities practically unlimited time for setting up projects on acquired land. Section 101 of the 2013 Act sensibly made it mandatory to return land to the original owners if it remained unutilized for five years. A legal sleight of hand amends that requirement to "a period specified for setting up any project or five years, whichever is later". This is an open invitation to speculators to squat on acquired land without time-bound value-addition to it. Through yet another amendment the government wishes to give itself until 2018 to issue orders under the removal of difficulties clause. The bill further dilutes the accountability provisions for errant government servants and increases the time limit for providing relief and rehabilitation.

After introducing such a destructive piece of legislation to replace an undemocratic ordinance, the government has sought constructive suggestions from its critics. Well, here are a few. In addition to restoring consent of at least 70 per cent of land losers, social impact assessment and the time limit for utilization of acquired land, independent commissions should be set up in each state to arbitrate disputes and determine levels of compensation. There is an inherent conflict of interest if the government as acquirer of land arrogates to itself these vital functions. In addition to immediate cash compensation, the government should ensure for the displaced persons a steady flow of income for the next 20 years by giving them ownership shares in whatever project comes up on the acquired land. This should work in the interest of the government and public-private partnerships as well, since any new project requires a number of years to generate a steady stream of income and surplus. Such an approach will also ensure good relations between the project managers and the local communities in years to come. It is incumbent on the government to provide equity in both senses of the term - equity in the form of fairness and justice as well as equity in the form of an ownership stake in the projects on acquired land.

Peasants, agricultural labourers and a range of service providers in rural areas must be made partners in India's development. It is imperative to stop the government from handing over jan dhan in the form of agricultural land to corporate houses on the false pretext of public purpose. Genuine fairness and transparency demand nothing less.


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