Instead of focussing on the industry, the Centre should uphold the citizens’ rights
Madhuresh Kumar

Madhuresh Kumar

4-05-2013, Issue 18More by the author >

Left in the lurch The revised Bill is still vague on rehabilitation and resettlementLeft in the lurch The revised Bill is still vague on rehabilitation and resettlement, Photo: AP

Hectic parleys with political parties have been ongoing in the past few months to reach a consensus on the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill, 2011, so that it gets passed in the current Parliament session. In principle, it is the Manmohan Singh government’s effort at addressing the problems in the Land Acquisition Act, 1894, which is not only outdated, but has promoted forcible land acquisition.

Land acquisition continues to take place without any resettlement and rehabilitation, drastically affecting people who lose their land and/or livelihood. However, given the direction of negotiations and changes in the Bill, it is clear that although it is framed by the ministry responsible for rural development, it is more concerned about the industry sentiment and urbanisation needs.

The National Alliance of People’s Movements feels that while the new Bill is an improvement over the 1894 Act, several key issues remain. Many of these were addressed by the Parliamentary Standing Committee, but remain neglected by the Centre. One important recommendation made by the Standing Committee was that the government should not be acquiring land for private players. But the Centre has refused this recommendation, saying that it is ideologically committed to private firms playing a larger role in the nation’s development. Under the 1894 Act, the government was not legally mandated to acquire land for private firms and public- private partnership (PPP) projects. This new Bill will legitimise that. This is our fundamental problem: why should the government act like a middleman for private companies?

Second, the 1894 Act works on the principle of eminent domain, which is the power of the State to seize private property without the owners’ consent. That framework has still not been changed in the new Bill. And when you look at the current framework of development, the government is handing over sectors like power, roadways, railways, etc, to private players. As the State tries to acquire more land for private companies, there will be more and more conflict. Farmers have nothing else to depend on, and even if they are resettled and rehabilitated in some way, that may not suffice for their future generations.

It is being said that to make any acquisition for private and PPP projects, consent of 80 percent and 70 percent of the land losers, respectively, will be sought. But why is there no provision of consent for the public purpose projects? Until 1984, the Land Acquisition Act was used primarily to forcibly acquire land for government projects, leaving people to fend for themselves in the absence of any resettlement and rehabilitation provisions. That legacy of forcible acquisition will continue even after this law comes into force. This will also mean an unequal frame of land acquisition for power plants to be set up by the public sector National Thermal Power Corporation and Reliance in the same area.

Third, there remains serious concern about food security. Land is a critically limited resource. If we don’t put a cap on the diversion of agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes, this will create severe food and water shortages. The Standing Committee has said that the government should not acquire any agricultural land, whether irrigated or not. The government is saying that only multi-crop land will not be acquired, but we are saying that it is single-crop land that is most often held by marginalised farmers, who are most in need of protection for economic and food security reasons. There must be strict norms for preventing diversion of agricultural land to non-agricultural purposes, like the regulation of any diversion of forests for development projects. On the same lines, there must also be a provision for compensatory development of agricultural land whenever there is a diversion of agricultural land.

Fourth, the Standing Committee report said that more than 90 percent of land is acquired through Central and state laws other than the Land Acquisition Act, which have been listed in a separate schedule in the Bill. However, the provisions of the new Bill don’t apply to those. Why they have been left out is not clear and only three non-significant Acts have been brought under its ambit (By a notification, the Union government will bring all such relevant Central Acts under its ambit within a year). But, more importantly, there is an urgent need to uniformly streamline the process of land acquisition, and so, the process of acquisition, resettlement and rehabilitation must be the same in all cases.

Fifth, as per the Planning Commission numbers, India’s urban population is expected to go up from 377 million in 2011 to about 600 million by 2031. This implies an increase of more than 200 million in just 20 years. It also says that the duration of water supply in the cities is only between one to six hours; about 13 percent of the urban population defecate in the open; about 37 percent of households are connected by open drains and 18 percent are not connected at all. The number of urban poor has increased by about 34.4 percent between 1993-2004, residing mostly in slums and bastis. In Mumbai, 60 percent of the population lives in slums or slum-like conditions, but together they occupy only 10-12 percent of the total land area — often described as ‘encroached land’.

Even where the land deeds are disputed, or in some cases where the land is officially recognised by the government, their land rights are not accepted, their homes are demolished and they are evicted from their place of residence without any resettlement and rehabilitation. The new Bill is not going to provide any relief to them as it is enacted in a rural framework and so a separate legislation to address the urban displacement is necessary.

Lastly, while the government says that the new Bill has better rehabilitation and resettlement clauses, it does not provide those who lose land with sustainable livelihood options or land for land. The whole framework revolves around increased monetary compensation, though most of the marginalised communities need secure means of livelihood more than money. Adivasis and Dalits, who are the most vulnerable and are often cheated because of their ignorance and illiteracy, will be further impoverished and end up in penury within years of losing their livelihood and migrating to cities, putting the whole economy and urban infrastructure under severe strain.

The number of people who face loss of livelihood because of land acquisition is so huge that they cannot be accommodated within the industrial and services sectors. So, while we are forcibly pushing people out of agriculture, we are not creating adequate educational or technical alternatives for them. The State is acquiring land in the name of public purpose and industrial growth, but we need to rethink how we define ‘development’.

We have to acknowledge that India is a country of 1.2 billion people. The kind of development the government is promoting caters only to the top 20 percent of the population. The government is revising the 1894 Act after 120 years to further growth and development, which gives it a historic opportunity to change how acquisition takes place. We should not lose this chance to create a policy that helps make India’s citizens participants in the development planning of the nation.

The key issue of citizens taking part in planning development remains unaddressed. The 73rd and 74th Constitutional amendments, which empowered local self-governance institutions in rural and urban areas, have not yet been fully implemented. Their power is being taken away by the creation of other authorities and governance structures that interfere in the exercise of local institutions’ authority, thereby violating the Constitutional rights of the people.

Union Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh takes pride in the fact that the new Bill is an attempt at balancing the needs of the country. Since the likes of Medha Patkar and the industry associations are both unhappy, it means he is doing something right.

However, lest he forget, the laws framed by governments are neither for Patkar nor for the industry bodies, but for the citizens and the values enshrined in the Constitution, which recognises the supremacy of the citizens, and professes ideals of growth with justice and equity and a respect for the fundamental rights of the citizens that the new Bill violates.

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