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Land grabbing in the name of ‘development’

The writer is the editor and translator of Why I write: Essays by Saadat Hasan Manto, published by Westland in 2014. His book, India, Low Trust Society, will be published by Random House. He is Executive Director of Amnesty International India. The views expressed here are his own

The writer is the editor and translator of Why I write: Essays by Saadat Hasan Manto, published by Westland in 2014. His book, India, Low Trust Society, will be published by Random House. He is Executive Director of Amnesty International India. The views expressed here are his [email protected]

Ten years ago, in 2006, Lata Mangeshkar announced she would leave India if a flyover was built in front of her mansion on Mumbai’s Peddar Road. She said first that it would affect her voice, and then later that “if there is drilling on the road, the foundations of many buildings will be shaken”.

That flyover was of course not built.

This week I learnt something about coal mining in India which I thought I should share with you. It will tell you a thing or two about how fairly India is going about the great project of development. It comes from a report my colleague Aruna Chandrasekhar is working on. Let’s first look at the laws regulating mining, which protect the property and rights of Indian citizens.

In 2014, came the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act. It requires that “the consent of 70 per cent of affected families is mandatory where land is sought to be acquired for public-private partnership projects, and 80 per cent for private projects”.

That sounds reasonable to me. And the Act “also contains a provision requiring the prior consent of the concerned gram sabhas in Scheduled Areas before land can be acquired”. In addition, it requires a “social impact assessment”, meaning a study by independent experts to map a project’s impact on people’s lands and livelihoods, and its economic, social and cultural consequences, in consultation with affected communities.

If you think this is fair, you should know that this law does not apply to those lands taken for coal mining. Specifically, there is no consultation with land owners, their consent is not required before their land is taken and there is no question of assessing the impact.
It will interest readers to know, particularly after reading about Lata Mangeshkar’s objection, of one small aspect of the impact that Chandrasekhar has observed. Schools in mining areas are shut between 3pm and 4pm because of explosions so big that the school buildings tremble.

Let’s come to the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act. This law “recognises the customary rights of forest-dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest-dwellers to land and other resources. Members of these communities can claim individual rights over forest land they depend on or have made cultivable. Communities can also file for rights over common property resources, including community or village forests, religious and cultural sites, and water bodies.”
The law says that village assemblies must have a key role in deciding who has the rights to forest resources.

Sounds good? Unfortunately, the ministry of Tribal Affairs itself observes that this law is mostly ignored by the government.

Another law regulating land acquisition is the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act, also called PESA. It requires that panchayats be consulted before land is acquired in tribal areas for development projects, and also before the resettlement or rehabilitation of people affected by such projects. This law is also more or less ignored by the government.

Then there is the Environment (Protection) Act, which requires all projects of a certain size to get environmental clearance after public consultations with local communities likely to be affected by the project. Social impact assessments required by the law “are almost never carried out” says Chandrasekhar. One reason is that the government is not required to evaluate the accuracy or completeness of the assessment.

The one law that the government properly follows and applies is the one under which it grabs land: the Coal Bearing Areas Act.
Under it the government issues an order published in its gazettes (when was the last time you read a government gazette?). And then, unless written objections are filed in less than 30 days, the process begins by which the land “shall vest absolutely in the central government (free from all encumbrances)”.

Observing the policies of Coal India Ltd (which controls some two-thirds of all mining in India), a parliamentary committee said that the tribal communities “hardly have any access to the Official Gazette wherein they could see that their lands are to be acquired for public purposes”.

I would say that this is actually quite deliberate. The industrial development of this country (it was reported on Saturday, February 6, that Adani is building a $2 billion coal-fired power plant in Jharkhand) is happening on the back of India’s theft of tribal land. And the Indian middle class is totally complicit in this theft.
Which one of us would give up our flats for development? Indian elite can even veto the construction of a greatly needed flyover. They insist that others, who are unwilling but weak, make all the sacrifices on their behalf and then are puzzled when there is violence against the state. Knowing the reality of this naked land grab brings a very different meaning to words like ‘Maoist’ and, of course, ‘development’.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 7th, 2016.

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