Land for ‘development’: ground realities
by Virendra Parekh on 26 May 2011 2 Comments

In a wicked irony, Congress crown prince Rahul Gandhi, who mistakes cheap theatrics for serious politics, recently courted ‘arrest’ in support of the farmers’ agitation against land acquisition by the Mayawati government for the Yamuna Expressway. He followed it up with a sensational allegation (soon found to be baseless) that a massacre had taken place at Bhatta Parsaul and claimed to have seen a 70-ft. high mound of ashes allegedly containing human bodies.  


Rahul Gandhi is too naïve (or opportunistic) to realise that Mayawati is only following policies unleashed by his own party’s government in recent years. Many other political leaders grabbed the opportunity to register their token presence amid the agitating farmers to checkmate Mayawati, with an eye firmly fixed on the assembly elections due by next summer.


At the root of the violent agitation by the farmers of western UP lies the Mayawati government’s mega project of Yamuna Expressway. Along the fast-coming-up 165-km long expressway linking Great Noida and Agra, Mayawati government plans to build a megalopolis across an approximate area of 2.37 lakh hectares spread over 1187 villages in six districts, with over 2 million people. Five new townships are being developed along the expressway. Of these, Gautam Buddha Nagar will comprise 131 villages and Mahamaya Nagar 420 villages. Besides, new towns will come up along Yamuna in Aligarh, Mathura and Agra districts. The whole project will be 10 times the size of the present Noida and its total population will exceed that of the city of Delhi.


If one needed a classic example of crony capitalism, this project provides it. The contract for the expressway has been awarded to a private sector company JP Infratech of the JP group, which has interests in cement, hotels and infrastructure. Dotting the expressway there will be several housing and commercial projects launched by other big, medium and small builders. In addition to the multibillion road project, JP is allowed to collect tolls for 36 years besides getting development rights for 6175 acres alongside the expressway. No wonder investment analysts are already recommending the stock!


This is the project for which Mayawati government is forcibly acquiring fertile land from farmers at throwaway prices. Hence the ferocious opposition from the farmers. As it happens, farmers of villages affected by the proposed expressway are only the latest entrants into the growing club of farmers resisting the acquisition of land across the country.


Ever since the Special Economic Zone Act was passed in 2005, the government has blithely assumed land would be readily available for infrastructure and industrial projects. To its discomfiture, environmental concerns and availability of land are emerging as serious challenges to industrialisation, urbanisation and development of infrastructure. The stories of Nandigram and Singur are too well known to be repeated here. In some states, such as Goa, approved SEZs had to be de-notified because of popular resistance. There are statistics about how the difficulty of securing land has stalled projects worth more than $100 billion across the country. While the role of political opportunism in fanning discontent cannot be denied, the point is that such discontent exists and that is something the Centre needs to take into account.


There are two types of issues here. Of immediate importance are the manner of acquisition and the quantum of compensation. Most basically, should a farmer not have the right to say ‘No’ to anyone who wants to buy him out of his land? If Mukesh Ambani or Kumaramangalam Birla cannot be forced to sell their assets against their wishes, why should a poor man be?


The argument of public purpose collapses when the government is seen acting abashedly as middleman and henchman of money bags to dispossess helpless farmers of lands that they have been cultivating for generations. Faced with loss of livelihood and an uncertain future, people protest with all means at their command when they find that leaders who are supposed to protect them from predators are actually in cahoots with them.


Outdated as it is, the Land Acquisition Act 1894 has a provision (Section 5) for seeking objections from the public, presumably with a view to sorting them out before taking over the land. Mayawati government, in an indecent haste to ‘develop’ the state, has dispensed with such niceties by declaring prevalence of emergency in the areas concerned (Section 17). Legally it is skating on thin ice, but that has not dampened its enthusiasm.


The government claims that farmers are provided compensation at the market rate. The phrase ‘market rate’ is a misnomer here. Farmers are paid market rate for the agricultural land, if that. But value of land rises dramatically when it changes hands and is put to commercial use. Farmers feel cheated when land acquired from them at throwaway prices is handed over at a hefty profit to private parties who make even heftier profits from it.


This was nailed by the Allahabad High Court in a recent judgment setting aside acquisition of more than 100 hectares of land for “planned industrial development” in Greater Noida. The court noted that “The land is proposed to be acquired at the rate of about Rs. 850 a square meter and to be given, within a month, to the builders at Rs. 10,000 per square meter, and that too on payment of 5 per cent, on allotment.” The builders in turn will make at least twenty times that amount when they put up residential and commercial buildings on it.


As a way out of the quicksand, a 2007 draft of the Bill (to replace the 1894 Act) proposed that private players requiring land for “public purpose” would buy 70 per cent of the land needed while the balance 30 per cent would be acquired by the state government concerned. Mamata Banerjee wanted it to be 90/10. Some states have introduced long-term annuities, jobs and land-for-land, besides one-time payment, into the compensation package. This can be refined further.


At a deeper level, the widespread resistance to land acquisition should make us reflect, not on the politicians’ wickedness, but on the yawning hole at the centre of the State’s intervention for industrial expansion. Development for whom? At what cost, and to whom?


We must find the right answers to these questions. Is it worth converting 1200 villages into concrete jungles in the name of development? In western UP, JP group is also building India’s first Formula One racing track, barely a few km away from the villages where violence erupted. In fact, Greater Noida is scheduled to host Formula One race this October. Is this the best use of some of the most fertile land in the country? A substantial part of our coal reserves is in ecologically sensitive zones. Must we recklessly destroy forests, with their flora and fauna, to increase coal production? Is that the only way to growth and prosperity? The development model the State is pushing needs to be made far more sensitive to ecology and people.


Indian society is in ferment. No other society in history has been subjected to such momentous multidimensional changes in such a short time as post-Independence India. It needs a healing touch from a State that cares and understands.


That state will take its own time to evolve. Meanwhile, we must have a law that protects legitimate interests of landholders. The key is to give the landowner an attractive stake in the new use to which his land will be put. Industrialization has proceeded smoothly where this has been taken care of e.g. in Gujarat. But popular unrest in Orissa, Goa, West Bengal and now in UP has underlined one emerging reality: the days when farmers could be dispossessed of their land for a pittance at the whim of the governments are over.


The author is Executive Editor, Corporate India, and lives in Mumbai

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