The Great Indian Land Rush
by Sandhya Jain on 19 Jul 2011 15 Comments

The Indian entrepreneurial and middle classes have fueled a great land rush, even land grab, all over the country, causing acrimony and heartburn, at times even bloodshed. Over the past decade, farmers have been pressured to part with fertile multi-crop land for industrial, urban development and infrastructure projects, triggering fears that crony capitalism is becoming the virtual law of the land.


Special Economic Zones which gave promoters mega land banks for commercial profiteering were a scandal, but mercifully faltered before public wrath. In my view, agricultural land must never be alienated in the interests of the nation’s long-term food security. Contemporary market rates, however high, can never compensate for loss of fertile land for a factory that may shut down, while farmer families fritter their so-called gains on non-remunerative items.


Last month, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh promised a new land acquisition Bill in the monsoon session of Parliament. The Centre’s proposed national land use policy moots a 10-year blanket ban on purchase of multi-crop farmland and ban on polluting industries in its vicinity, and earmarking adjacent land for grazing, rural housing and agri-based activities. This could restore the vitality of Indian agriculture which has suffered serious neglect over the past decades, and is far superior to the National Advisory Council proposal that Government acquire all land required for projects and give owners six times the registered value. This is simply not on, as registered values can be really low in ancestral properties.


Actually, we cannot conflate industrial development with growth. Despite huge concessions to industry, growth has been exploitative and has not solved the problem of unemployment or poverty. There are few permanent jobs; mostly wage or contract labour, without employee benefits. Ironically, even NGOs are promoting only wage labour. Hence, we must challenge the West-given wisdom that India should double its city population by driving people out of villages – to live in slums and seek low, erratic wages in ‘sunrise’ sectors.


Fortunately, West Bengal, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Orissa have changed their attitude to land acquisition. Bengal passed a bill to return to Singur farmers the land acquired by the Left Front government for an industrial project, though the courts have stayed the process for now. Orissa last month halted land acquisition for South Korean Posco’s proposed $12 billion steel plant after thousands of villagers, women and children, prostrated themselves on burning sands to resist occupation of their land.


In UP, after the Supreme Court quashed acquisition of 156.3 hectares of land in Shahberi village, Noida Extension, a chastened chief minister promised not to acquire land for private projects again. Hitherto, (mis)using a colonial law, the land was acquired for industrial purposes, after which the land use was altered and the land resold to builders for constructing malls, multiplexes, and houses. The High Court has similarly quashed acquisition of 170 hectares at Gulistan village, Greater Noida. But unrest persists in Bhatta Parsaul in Gautam Buddh Nagar, and Chandauli village in Varanasi where 121 hectares of fertile Gangetic farmland has been notified for a cultural/city hub.


In Chattisgarh, the son of a minister conned tribal farmers of their land in Janjgir-Champa district for a corporate group’s 1200 MW power plant. Appointed public relations officer, the young man travelled in a government vehicle with the local patwari and allegedly intimidated some families to sell their holdings to him. As section 165 (6) of Chattisgarh’s land revenue code of 1959 does not permit sale of tribal land to a non-tribal without the district collector’s permission, the minister’s son, being a tribal himself, helped the company dodge this law.  


The game was exposed as the company paid for the land by cheque, and the power-of-attorney vested in its project director. About 13.65 acres had been purchased before local protests forced the state industries department to stay the approval given to the power company to buy land, and the collector cancelled the sales and ordered return of land to the original owners.


Two things are notable about this corporate-political nexus. One, some of the land was bought at one-third the stipulated minimum rate for single crop land under the state rehabilitation policy of 2010, thereby grossly shortchanging the farmers. Two, farmers were deprived of rehabilitation benefits like employment because the land was sold (technically) to a tribal, not a company.


We may also make mention of another dangerous trend - of religious land grab. For several months, an illegal mazaar (grave) has sprung up in the Green Belt along Sardar Patel Marg in the heart of the capital, across Himachal Bhavan. The Police must surely have noticed it, because they moved to prohibit citizens from stopping to feed monkeys there! In fact, there is a small board on a tree pointing to the mazaar.


A concerned citizen brought this to the notice of the Additional Commissioner of Police, who ordered the local police station to remove the illegal encroachment and arrest the offenders. Instead, he was soon shunted out; the mazaar remained untouched was soon joined by a pucca masjid. The tree now sports two boards! Further, travelling along the elevated corridor of the Airport Metro line, one can spot two masjids in the Green Belt, one near Dhaula Kuan station and the second shortly before Shivaji Stadium.


These mosques are not visible from the road. But it is unbelievable that such massive structures could be built, either in the prohibited Green Belt, or anywhere in the city, without the consent of the political leadership (are you listening, Ms Sheila Dikshit), the municipal authorities, and the police.


As Mumbai is once again racked by serial bomb blasts, which the Union Home Minister admits are terrorist attacks, we must ponder if there is a sinister design behind the erection of concealed, gigantic mosques in the capital. In fact, intelligence agencies must urgently avail of GPS facilities to locate such secret illicit mosques in green belts all over the country; investigate the sources of their funding and the motives behind their rise; and remove the offending structures without ado.


All those complicit in this covert construction activity must be dealt with harshly according to the law. The Supreme Court and the various High Courts would do well to ensure compliance with the rule of law and resist the temptation to pamper minorities at the cost of honest and innocent citizens.


The author is Editor,

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