Sham of a Bill

The government claims that land acquisition is necessary to maintain the pace of development. Many a project is hanging in the balance due to the thorny issue of land acquisition and an early solution to these problems does not seem to be in sight. The two sides pitched against each other are the government which wants to give land to private companies in the name of development and the farmers who do not want to be alienated from their traditional livelihood; the farmer is being torn from his land. Mamata Bannerjee captured the Chief Minister’s birth riding on the back of the issue of land acquisition in Singur but the plight of common people remains the same – deplorable. Singur saw the victory of the farmers though owing mostly to political reasons but the rest of the places in the country where public protests against land acquisition is raging show that the government iss not able to take a clear cut view of the problem as well as the solution. People are protesting against land acquisition for projects ranging from the nuclear power project in Fatehabad in Haryana to the new Indian Institute of Management (IIM) campus in Jharkhand.
The government claims that land acquisition is necessary to maintain the pace of development. Many a project is  hanging in the balance due to the thorny issue of land acquisition and an early solution to these problems does not seem to be in sight. The two sides pitched against each other are the government which wants to give land to private companies in the name of development and the farmers who do not want to be alienated from their traditional livelihood; the farmer is being torn from his land. Mamata Bannerjee captured the Chief Minister’s berth riding on the back of the issue of land acquisition in Singur but the plight of the common people remains the same – deplorable. Singur saw the victory of the farmers mainly because of political reasons but the rest of the places in the country where public protests against land acquisition are raging show that the government is not able to take a clear-cut view of the problem as well as the solution. People are protesting against land acquisition for projects ranging from the nuclear power project in Fatehabad in Haryana to the new Indian Institute of Management (IIM) campus in Jharkhand.
To tackle the problem, the government has come up with a Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill 2012. The Bill is long awaited. The government is claiming that the Bill will ensure legal rights to the people who are affected by land acquisition and will rehabilitate and resettle such people while providing more transparency. It is also being claimed that this Bill will ensure that land is acquired under a participatory and humanitarian model that will include the will of the local bodies and the village panchayats.
For eliciting public opinion the Bill was laid before the public for suggestions for 30 days via the website of the Rural Development Ministry. This ensured that the affected people who are also technically challenged were not able to participate in this exercise and thus were not able to register their reservations. The Rural Development Ministry did not consult regional institutions and the state governments for this purpose, as had been advised by various institutions. The Standing Committee gave its report over the Bill which along with the suggestions of the Rural Development Ministry has been presented before the people. But peoples’ movements have taken serious cognisance of the fact that the strong position taken by the Standing Committee on certain critical issues have been either diluted or rejected by the Rural Development Ministry. This attitude of the Ministry is nothing short of shocking.

Big business houses have become the legatees of industries instituted over lands rich in mineral wealth and rich in agricultural output while the generations old inhabitants of these lands have been displaced. The State in India has chosen to become the devourer instead of the protector.

Issues over which the Ministry has rejected the suggestions of the Standing Committee are food security and land acquisition. The Standing Committee opined that agricultural land must not be acquired forcibly and this includes both kinds of lands – those that yield a single crop and those that yield more than one crop a year. The Rural Development Ministry is of the view that only land that yields more than one crop a year must be excluded from acquisition. This stand of the Ministry is not at all justified, as is  dependent on rain in India. Such lands are able to give single yields per year due to the absence of artificial irrigation. Moreover, such lands belong mostly to the Dalits and the marginalised. It must be kept in mind that food security is achieved by production in agricultural lands not by acquiring them for other purposes.
The Standing Committee also  presented its view regarding the acquisition of land for private and Public-Private Parternership (PPP) initiatives. The Committee said that any such private or PPP initiative which has not been marked as public in nature must not be given land under compulsory acquisition. This suggestion was rejected outright by the Ministry. The Ministry said that land could be compulsorily acquired if any private project has the consent of 80 per cent of the affected people. In this era of neo-liberalism, big business houses have become the legatees of industries instituted over lands rich in mineral wealth and rich in agricultural output while the generations old inhabitants of these lands have been displaced. This will have to stop and the surest way to do so is to ensure that the governments do not work as middlemen for acquiring lands of the farmers by coercion.
Another issue is that of bringing 16 other laws under the purview of the Bill. The Standing Committee observed that owing to the principle of equality of law enshrined in Article 14 of the Constitution, all these 16 laws that relate to the acquisition of land must be brought together under this proposed Bill. But the Ministry is trying to keep 13 of these out of the new Bill. These laws include the Industrial Development Act, the Land Acquisition (Mines) Act and the National Highways Act. This exclusion will mean that 90 per cent of the acquisition in the country will continue to be unruly and coercive and injudicious. If 13 out of the 16 laws are kept outside the Bill it will just be an eyewash.
Another issue related with land acquisition is that of the consent of village panchayats and local bodies. The Committee said that social impact and situational effect assessment must be done by an expert committee in consultation with the village panchayat and the report must be made available to the panchayat. As regards linear projects the Rural Development Ministry has stressed only upon the consent of 80 per cent of the affected people. This Bill states that for either government or private projects, the village panchayats will have to be directly involved and their consent will be compulsory. For private initiatives the consent of only 80 per cent of the people is not enough. But why have the linear projects been kept out of it? If only the consent of the affected people is concerned then the whole thing will become fraught with a number of bunglings. The personal consent of the people will have no legal obligation. This kind of irregularity has already surfaced in the case of Mumbai slum resettlement schemes.
The last issue concerns land unused by industries and land banks. The Committee said that on the expiry of 5 years from the date of acquisition, if the land is still unused then it must be returned to the original owners. The Ministry accepted the 5 year caveat but instead of returning the land to their original owners, it suggested giving the land to the state land bank. Land belongs to the tiller. Therefore, if the land is not used for the purpose that it was acquired for, it must be returned to the tiller or should be divided between affected people. If this land is given to the land banks then it may land in the hands of the land mafia or real estate firms.
Over the Comprehensive and Resettlement and Rehabilitation Law, the Standing Committee suggested that the Ministry should rethink  it and important provisions must be included in the new Bill. But the Ministry rejected this outright.
After independence about 10 crore people have been displaced in India and just 17 to 20 per cent of them have been resettled. In a law that came in 1894 during the British Raj, land was to be acquired only for public purposes. During that era the colonial state was the private entity as well as the government and it used to acquire land by calling the projects public. But today, though the government calls itself public oriented, it is working for the private players. Even after 66 years of independence the state in India is not able to fulfill the aspirations of the bulk of the people. It has chosen to become the devourer instead of the protector.

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