India cannot continue with a pattern of industry that yields so few jobs but has such a large ecological footprint. Neither can it be excited by the urban nightmares that its cities are today. The land law debate must be the occasion to talk about these key national agendas

The current debate on the land law is important because it affords us a chance to reflect more deeply on the nature of India’s development process and the experience of democracy for a majority of our citizens. I see the 2013 land law as part of a response — highly belated in my view — to the perception of millions of our people that while India’s economy was booming over the last two decades, they were not part of the growth story.

Indeed, many people feel that development has happened at their cost. Official estimates place the number of people displaced due to development projects since Independence at 60 million, less than a third of whom have been properly resettled. Most of the displaced are the assetless rural poor, marginal farmers, poor fisherfolk and quarry workers. Around 40 per cent of them are Adivasis and 20 per cent Dalits. Official statistics testify that on all indicators of development, Dalits and Adivasis have been the worst off groups. Already at the bottom of the development pyramid, being deprived of their land and livelihoods has completely pauperised them, forcing many to move and live in subhuman conditions in our metros. The last two decades have also seen unprecedented agrarian distress, with more than two lakh farmers committing suicide, as per the National Crime Records Bureau. This is something that had never happened before in Indian history.

A sense of hurt

It is in this backdrop that we need to understand the heightened sensitivities and palpable anger over forcible land acquisition. Given that 90 per cent of our coal, more than 50 per cent of most minerals, and prospective dam sites are mainly in Adivasi regions, there has been, and is likely to be, continuing tension over issues of land acquisition. Through these tensions, not only has a question mark been placed over our development strategy, the delicate fabric of Indian democracy has become terribly frayed at the edges. In the remote Adivasi heartlands of India, people feel such a deep and abiding sense of hurt, alienation and cynicism that they have allowed themselves to be helplessly drawn into a terrible vortex of violence and counter-violence, even when they know in their heart of hearts that it will lead to their own destruction.

The 2013 land law tried to reach out to these people, by undoing a draconian colonial Act more suited to a 19th century empire than to a 21st century vibrant democracy. At the heart of the 2013 law was the provision of seeking the consent of those whose lands were to be acquired and of caring for those whose livelihoods would be destroyed in the process. Undoing these provisions is a virtual resurrection of undiluted powers of “eminent domain”, which the 1894 law conferred on the state.

Listening to the farmer

I do not dispute the fact that there can be many situations where land is needed for a development project that could actually benefit those whose lands are being acquired. What could be the possible harm in seeking the prior, informed consent of these people, after making the effort of explaining to them how they would stand to benefit? There are those who argue that farmers would be better off giving up farming. Indeed, they say farmers do not want to farm any more. Why would these farmers conceivably say no if we were to propose more attractive and tangible alternative options to them in return for their land? Is it not for farmers to assess whether the project will actually be of benefit to them and whether the recompense offered to them is a fair bargain? And allow them to be parties in working out what could be regarded as a fair deal for all? But all this will happen only if we are willing to talk to farmers and listen to them, who, I dare say, based on my experience of listening to them for 25 years, have a great deal to teach us.

Importance of SIA

This is the essence of Social Impact Assessment (SIA), which was again at the heart of the 2013 law. SIA is an instrument meant to assess the positive and negative impacts of the project and also to assess whether the objectives of the proposed project could not be achieved in some other manner, especially by acquiring significantly less fertile, multi-cropped land, a crucial requirement of national food security. When we look back at the history of land acquisition in India, we find it riddled with instances of far too much land being acquired and not being put to use. Just one look at the huge amounts of unused land in possession of many of our universities today would make you see the point. And as a recent study by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) reveals, of the over 60,000 hectares of land acquired for Special Economic Zones (SEZs), from 2006 to 2013, around 53 per cent has not been put to any use. Just because it was possible to bully uninformed village people, we continued to do so.

SIA is an attempt to check these kinds of malpractices. It is also a way of making sure that land acquisition is not an easy way for the real estate mafia to make a quick buck in the name of development. The CAG study found many instances of land acquired at rates much below the market value being diverted to private builders in urban areas for commercial exploitation after denotification. The 2013 Act provided for the return of unused land to the original owner in cases where the land has not been used for the purposes for which it was acquired within five years. This is a key provision that should be retained.

SIA is an attempt to restore the declining faith in the democratic process, by reaching out to those who believe all decisions affecting their lives are made in distant, uncaring corridors of power, leaving them without any say. Incidentally, SIA is also best practice in development projects across the world. The 2013 law was a belated attempt to catch up with what other nations have been doing for long. Doing away with SIA would destroy a very powerful means of what is globally termed “conflict prevention”, a variety of activities aimed at anticipating and averting the outbreak of conflict.

Many people are rightly concerned about the slow pace of decision-making in development projects. They wish to do away with democracy-building, consent-seeking processes. But repeated experience shows that the attempt to push through projects without the consent of local people only results in massive delays, costing huge sums of money to the project developer. For an enlightened capitalist, it would be far more sensible and expeditious to conduct business in a peaceful, consensual atmosphere, rather than being repeatedly prevented from functioning due to endless strife and conflict. The 2013 law has proposed a time-bound SIA, which could be a powerful means of conflict prevention by taking local communities on board and making them integral partners in development. There are many instances of this across the world, as also in India.

Need for debate

The enactment of the 2013 law was a real struggle, with many, across partisan divides, fiercely opposing it. A key role in its passage was played by Parliament, which instilled the law with necessary balance. The extraordinary leadership provided by the present Speaker of the Lok Sabha was crucial in seeing the Act through with complete unanimity. Her sagacity and consensus-building skills, as Chair of the Parliamentary Standing Committee, helped reconcile conflicting arguments into a seamless whole.

It is the very same spirit that the nation seeks today from Parliament, for balance and compromise are the hallmarks of a democracy. This has not been an empty debate. All sides have had powerful points to make. All the concerns being expressed are genuine national concerns. The country needs industrialisation and urbanisation. But their specific forms need to be debated. Surely, we cannot continue with a pattern of industry that yields so few jobs, and one that has such a large ecological, especially water, footprint. We also cannot be excited by the urban nightmares that our cities are today. The debate on the land law is a great occasion to move the dialogue forward on these key national agendas. If we want to acquire the land of farmers to serve larger goals, surely the projects in which they are embodied must not be of the kinds that repeat the mistakes of the past. The people of this country, who are being asked to make sacrifices for the larger national good, must know and be convinced that what they give up will indeed serve a meaningful “public purpose” and not involve the injustices and malpractices of the past. That is why the consent and SIA clauses need to be retained in the land law that Parliament eventually passes. Let us not reduce it to a National Democratic Alliance (NDA) vs. United Progressive Alliance (UPA) issue. Let us hope Parliament will rise above narrow partisan politics and seize this opportunity to provide an appropriate response to the utterly tragic suicide of Gajendra Singh.

(Mihir Shah has lived and worked with the Adivasis of central India for the last 25 years.)