Land Acquisition a virtual Pandora’s Box
by K P Prabhakaran Nair on 07 Sep 2015 3 Comments
Of all the problems currently facing Indian agriculture, the vexatious Land Acquisition Bill and Ordinance have mercifully been dropped. In a major embarrassment to the NDA government, the Swadeshi Jagran Manch and about 50 farmers’ organisations opposed the ordinance and the proposed changes to the original 2013 Land Acquisition Act before the Joint Parliamentary Committee. Several top agricultural institutions came out strongly against the Ordinance, pointing out that, “1.3 lakh hectares are being taken out of cultivation every year and no compromise should be made on the issue of food security”.


Curiously, industry representatives in bodies like FICCI supported the ordinance but said, “no burden of rehabilitation of displaced people should fall on private purchasers of land”.  This shows that while industry would like to have more land for infrastructure development, what happens to the displaced people, primarily farmers, is of no concern to them.


Now that the Bill is dead, it may be pertinent to recall its history from its inception. The original Land Bill introduced in Parliament was said to be the brainchild of Rahul Gandhi in 2013; it metamorphosed into the Land Acquisition Act.


The row against the NDA Ordinance by the Congress party is misplaced because late B.R. Ambedkar, architect of the Constitution of India, clearly stated that, when found necessary, the executive has the right to pass an ordinance when a Bill cannot muster enough Parliamentary (Lok Sabha or Rajya Sabha) support.


It is educative to remember that it was only at the fag end of the UPA II tenure, just before the elections, that Sonia Gandhi was in a great hurry to get the Food Security Bill (FSB) passed as an ordinance, Food Security Act (FSA), as there were several voices of dissent on the original Right to Food Bill, and many politicians, including Mulayam Singh Yadav, who walked away before voting, called the Bill a “Vote Security Bill”. This needs no elaboration.


What does the Land Acquisition Bill Imply?


1)      In the original Land Acquisition Bill of 2013, 70-80 per cent of the farmers’ families contacted must consent to the acquisition

2)    Modi government brought in an exemption for industrial corridors and infrastructure projects, including projects under Public Private Partnership  (PPP)

3)     Earlier law required a social impact assessment and review by an expert group and defined a bar on the acquisition of multi-crop agricultural land. In the ordinance, these provisions were removed

4)    Earlier Bill allowed the return of the acquired land if the award had been made five or more years prior to the coming in force of the 2013 Bill, provided either compensation had NOT been paid or physical possession of the acquired land not taken

5)     Land up to 1 kilometre included in the definition of the “Industrial Corridor”


Thus, it is quite apparent that the ordinance aimed at a much larger reach than envisaged by the original Land Acquisition Bill of 2013. What is particularly disturbing is the provision under point number 3 and point number 5. What are the implications of excluding “multi-crop” land and the provision of an “Industrial Corridor” extending up to 1 kilometre? 


Removal of bar on acquisition of multi-crop agricultural land 


The most disturbing aspect of the now-defunct ordinance is the removal of the bar on multi-crop farming. If one critically looks at the farming scenario of India, be it rural or peri urban, it is always multi-crop farming. India’s experience with mono-cropping, as was practised in Punjab, the “cradle of the green revolution”, has been environmentally disastrous, resulting in degraded soils, dried aquifers, polluted ground water with excess nitrogen load making it non-potable, and, vanishing bio-diversity.


For almost four decades, ever since the launch of the green revolution in Punjab, it has been an incessant rotation of rice-wheat. Field studies conducted by the Punjab Agricultural University have clearly established that when a soil nitrogen enriching legume like sunhemp or dhaincha is introduced, the soil is restored to its original fertility slowly. This is mainly due to the re-build of severely depleted soil carbon. Multi-crop farming has to be looked at not only from the angle of soil fertility enrichment, but as an insurance against crop failure and insolvency of the farmer.


Take, for example, the very successful decades-old research conducted at the Central Plantation Crops Research Institute (CPCRI), Kasaragod, Kerala. When coconut price fell due to false propaganda of “cholesterol scare” from use of coconut oil, a clever business strategy of the US soybean lobby, the coconut farmers went bankrupt. Then, late Edward Victor Nelliat, a brilliant agronomist at CPCRI, thought up a revolutionary idea of “multi-tier cropping” or growing in the same coconut canopy a variety of crops, starting from turmeric or ginger to the small statured banana, dwarf areca nut, or soil fertility enriching sunhemp or dhaincha, and even ornamental plants.  


One can see such multi-tier farming not only in rural Kerala, but, peri urban, as well. The idea was so revolutionary that in one stroke Nelliat’s research not only saved the coconut farmer, but helped enrich soil fertility. It became so successful that a junior colleague borrowed it and started propagating it as his own (a clear case of scientific plagiarism) when he migrated to Kenya and joined the International Council For Research On  Agroforestry (ICRAF), supported by the Consultative Group For International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), primarily a US-funded agency, headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya.


Imagine the agricultural havoc the new land ordinance and Bill could create if the bar on multi-crop farming were removed and land is acquired by the government, indiscriminately, for infrastructure development, not just depriving the farmers of solvency, but destroying the core foundation of Indian agriculture.


One kilometre land for industrial corridor


Soils in eastern India, especially in Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh, in the Terai region, below the Indo-Gangetic plains, are still virgin to a large extent, fertile, rich in organic carbon. Conversion to expand infrastructure and establishment of industrial corridor will have long lasting deleterious effects on India’s food economy.


I often feel that planners and “powers-that-be” must have a drastic change in their mindset and should not make the grievous mistake of equating “land” and “soil”.  All soils need not be agriculturally productive. India’s agriculturally sustainable land is shrinking by the day, be it the paddy fields,  the “rice bowl” of Kuttanad in Kerala, grabbed by the land mafia, or the silty fertile land of the Indo Gangetic plains in Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh. As of now, India does not have any “breakthrough” technology available on the shelf to bring about a real increase in food production.


My fundamental question is: why are so many Indians hungry? Why is the agricultural sector always a laggard? If, indeed, the claim of green revolution enthusiasts over the past decades, that India has produced “surplus” food, has any merit, why are so many still hungry?


Alternatively, is it not true that food does not come cheap anymore? Go to the villages and see. The National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) has shown that in an average rural household, more than 50 per cent of the daily income goes to purchase staples like rice and wheat. The clear mismatch between supply and demand leading to abnormal food prices hits the rural poor most.


If one carefully observes how the Indian economy has performed over the years, it will be evident that whenever there was a good monsoon, and the farmers harvested a bountiful crop, there was an upswing in the Indian economy, because more food grains in the hands of farmers meant more purchasing power and consequently an upswing in manufactured and other fast moving goods. This foundational reality of the economy must be kept in mind as and when the government moves ahead with plans to take away prime land for industry and away from agriculture. 

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