The Great Land Rush: Fake consensus at all-party meet
by Sandhya Jain on 19 Apr 2013 6 Comments

Farmers bodies are gearing up to oppose the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill, 2011, which was supposedly amended to improve compensation to farmers under directions from Congress party president Sonia Gandhi and vice president Rahul Gandhi, as the new draft perverts the meaning of “public purpose” to benefit multinationals and facilitate creation of special economic zones for private industry.


The bill, reportedly cleared by an all-party meeting on April 18, as a prelude to being tabled in Parliament when it reopens on April 22, 2013, was cleared by the Union Cabinet on December 13, 2012. In reality, the Bill appears to be an accord between the Congress which dominates the UPA coalition and the BJP, the major opposition party. The CPI(M), CPI, Trinamool Congress, Bahujan Samaj Party, DMK and AIADMK have reservations, and the situation is expected to crystallize only when the bill with all amendments government has promised to introduce are finalised and tabled in Parliament.


Farmers want it to be referred afresh to the Standing Committee on Rural Development as the 154 amendments moved by Government have altered it completely. The bill in its present form has not been cleared by the Standing Committee or even a Select Committee. The CPI, in fact, feels it is high time that India scrapped the colonial act of 1894 and prepared a fresh comprehensive law. D Raja, MP, said a new legislation should be framed around the issues of land use which should be socially decidable, scientific, and pro-people.


The core of opposition centres on the definition of public purpose, compensation, and rehabilitation and resettlement. Hitherto, “public purpose” covered land acquired by government for defence purposes, railways, roads, power plants, irrigation schemes, government universities and government hospitals.


Any project that involves profit for the private sector cannot be designated as “public purpose”. Yet that is precisely what the bill seeks to accomplish in its amended form which puts private companies and public private partnership projects at par with government in the term “public purpose”. Bharatiya Krishak Samaj president Krishan Bir Chaudhary says “public purpose” must be limited to core functions of the government performed with public money and that acquisition should not be made for private corporations. The Communist parties also favour non-dilution of public purpose.


Farmers opposing the bill question the credibility of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, who made tall promises to farmers. In May 2012, the Amethi MP had sneaked into the villages of Bhatta, Parsaul and Acchepur and supported Greater Noida farmers opposing land acquisition by the State Government. Rahul Gandhi promised radical changes in the land acquisition law to ensure adequate compensation for land acquired.


In October 2012, the UPA chairperson urged stiffening of criteria regarding the level of consent of landowners for acquiring land for private purposes, which was raised from 67 per cent to 80 per cent. Farmers say this should in fairness be changed to consent of owners of 80 per cent of land to be acquired, as multinationals entering a village could easily gobble up holdings of small and marginal farmers and thus get the consent of 80 per cent landowners, thereby paving the way for the rest to be acquired by the Government.


The main target of the amendments is to make way for FDI in agriculture and retail, and the creation of Special Economic Zones for private capital. Facilitation of FDI can be seen from clause 2(b)(ii) which specifies “projects involving agro-processing, supply of inputs to agriculture, warehousing, cold storage facilities, marketing infrastructure for agriculture and allied activities such as dairy, fisheries and meat processing, set up or owned by the appropriate Government or by a farmers’ cooperative or by an institution set up under a statute”.


Facilitation of SEZ can be seen by (iii) which specifies “project for industrial corridors or mining activities, national investment and manufacturing zones, as designated in the National Manufacturing Policy”. At Thursday’s meeting, D Raja specifically asked if the government proposed any land ceiling on SEZs or if they would have the right to buy land limitlessly, a question that went unanswered.


The twin issues of FDI and SEZ put agricultural land, particularly multi-crop yielding land, at serious risk of divergence for non-agricultural purposes. Worse, the bill leaves it to state governments to decide how much fertile land can be taken from farmers. Now, even irrigated multi-crop land can be acquired. Critics demand an immediate moratorium on the transfer of agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes as in just the last decade, according to government statistics, over 2 million ha of agricultural land has been diverted to other purposes. Yet, in view of the rising demand for food grains and climate change impacts, the country will need more agricultural land to feed the populace, so there must be an absolute ban on diverting multi-cropping land.


Another contentious issue is compensation. Previously, the National Advisory Council headed by Sonia Gandhi suggested compensation at the rate of four times the market value (circle rates are lower) in rural areas and twice in urban areas plus solatium. But under the Ist Schedule of the bill, this has been reduced to one in urban areas and twice in rural areas.


Worse, land that is obviously being acquired for commercial purposes is being compensated at rates ruinous to farmers. Farmers want compensation on converted or future land use on the basis of highest sale for similar lands in adjacent areas, multiplied by a factor of six times (including solatium) in rural areas and four times (including solatium) in urban areas. Also, 10 per cent developed land should be given to landowners free.


The BJP claimed that the Government had accepted its demand for 50 per cent enhanced compensation to original land owners whose land had been acquired after the introduction of the Bill in the Lok Sabha in September 2011. Farmer leaders, however, point out that the Allahabad High Court gave agitating farmers 64 per cent enhancement of the original compensation, so the main opposition party is actually hurting farmer interests.


Sushma Swaraj asked the Government to have a provision specifying sharing of 50 per cent benefit with the original farmers, to which Minister for Rural Development Jairam Ramesh said that land was a State subject, and the Centre could only pass enabling provisions. This indicates that this remains a grey area. Talk of leasing instead of acquiring land is equally opaque, which farmers pointing out that the lease money was a pittance and a mockery of the community. The issue of landless agricultural workers who will lose their livelihood when land is acquired remains untouched.


The previous bill provided for return of land not used for five years after acquisition to the land owner. Now, if the land is not used for 10 years it will go into the government land bank. Farmers point out that this contradicts section 93 which states that ‘No change from the purpose or related purposes for which the land is originally sought to be acquired shall be allowed. As of now, it appears that the land bank proposal may be shelved.


The bill is clearly no remedy to people’s struggles against land acquisition as witnessed in Singur in West Bengal and Vedanta and POSCO in Odisha. Far from curbing acquisition of farmers’ land, it has made land a commodity and facilitated acquisition by non-farmers.


Krishan Bir Chaudhary urges that in order to protect the nation’s food security, any transfer of multi-crop agricultural land to non-agriculturists in general and to foreigners and NRIs in particular, must be prohibited completely. At the same time, the farmer/landowner should have a level playing field and should also be permitted to do the same development activity which the authority permits to builders on the same conditions and on payment of external development charges. The present system amounts to expropriation of farmers as a class.


Ajay Kumar Jha, director, Public Advocacy Initiatives for Rights and Values in India (PAIRVI) points out that the central government does not have the jurisdiction to provide for acquisition of agricultural land, which is under the sole jurisdiction of the state governments (State List, item 18, transfer and alienation of agricultural land). Also, the previous draft provided for a one-person dispute settlement body, which may not serve the purpose of justice; it should be made a three member body.


The issue of compensation in temporary acquisitions has also not been addressed. Currently, R&R provisions do not apply in temporary acquisitions for three years, which are done by the collector on rates determined mutually with the owner (read: farmer is exposed to pressure). This is completely unjustified and must be curbed.

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