The foreword — to the Draft National Land Acquisition and Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill 2011 — that says “urbanisation is inevitable” (I.p.1) signifies danger. The Bill, if enacted in its present form, is likely to worsen, and not stop, displacement of tribal, Dalit and other backward communities. The Bill states: “The issue of who acquires land is less important than the process of land acquisition, compensation for land acquired and R&R process, package and conditions … The objective is to make the process of land acquisition easy, transparent, and fair for both sides in each instance …”(p.1, emphasis added). But who acquires land is intrinsically connected to why it is acquired in the first place.

Land alienation, ownership and contradictions arising from it concern world political economy and external agencies that have been dictating conditions to the Indian government at the Centre and State level on policy matters in land reforms. Some of these terms and conditions reflect in the LARR Bill 2011 if one reads between the lines. A Policy Document of the World Bank, for instance (“India: Land Policies for Growth and Poverty Reduction,” Report No. 38298-IN, July 9, 2007, Agriculture and Rural Development Sector Unit, India Country Management Unit, South Asia Region) made a few recommendations for policy reform, which included, “eliminate restrictions on land markets.” Under this — “It will be desirable to (i) make leasing legal where it is currently prohibited…(ii) allow transferability of land by land reform beneficiaries at least through lease and explore options for making the gains from such reform permanent; (iii) drop restrictions on sale of land to non-agriculturists and subdivision which have little economic justification; and (iv) review legislation on compulsory land acquisition and, subject to the prevention of undesirable externalities, allow farmers or their representatives to negotiate with and if desired transfer land directly to investors rather than having to go through government and often receive only very limited compensation.”

It is a matter of serious concern that this Bill looks at R&R and land acquisition as “two sides of the same coin” and this is partly a result of the pressure built over the years by movements against big dams. This Bill facilitates acquiring land, including commons, presently in the hands of small and marginal farmers from tribal, SC and backward communities under the pretext of an unstated ‘public purpose' for “infrastructure development” which may well accompany future FDI in food and agriculture, and several related developments linking the global market to India. In urban areas it is very clear that it is connected to real estate development in return for crumbs such as ‘housing for the urban poor' schemes.

The government is fast-tracking into a future which facilitates transfer of land into the hands of the urban elite. Even if there is a caveat placed on R&R in case of acquisition up to 100 acres, there is no mechanism to stop the rich from taking an easy way out, opting for say 90 acres. Does that not call for R&R?

While one good point in the Bill is that “under no circumstances” multicropped, irrigated land (sic) be acquired, what if a multicropped land or two came within the 100 acres identified for the larger acquisition? The definition of “multi-crop” is unclear. Is it a number of crops grown in a single season or in alternate seasons by rotation?

As for the SIA (Social Impact Assessment), there is mention of “Two non-official social scientists, two experts in the area relating to the project.” Women, senior citizens and children are not part of this exercise. The affected people are not to select this group. What is the guarantee that the group will not favour those who wish to acquire land? Most ‘experts' come from sections not directly displaced/dispossessed. We are unwilling to have a forum with the poor as their own representatives on decisions affecting them.

The understanding of “minimum” displacement, “minimum disturbance to infrastructure, ecology and minimum adverse impact on individuals affected” is highly subjective and left open-ended without defining the “minimum” displacement (in forests, for instance; or damage to rivers, for instance — how much is ‘minimum”?)

As for the public hearing on the notification issued for acquisition, why not have a pre-notification, prior, on “intent” to acquire land, instead, where a gram sabha, or committees in urban slums, for instance, can take a collective decision for or against acquisition?

What are the implications of this Bill for the Polavaram dam? It has a lot that will actually make the dam (if the Bill becomes an Act) illegal and invalid on most points mentioned therein on land acquisition. But a deeper reading of the Bill makes it clear that much of it will actually not help stall the dam works in any major way. The onus will be on people to enter into litigation to reclaim their land from the government if the Bill is passed. The provision of “One acre of land to each family in the command area if land is acquired for irrigation project” seems foolhardy if it plans to cover entire populations displaced by irrigation projects (in Polavaram alone, the figure is nearly three lakh people). Where is this kind of land available in the proposed command area?

The first point on which the Polavaram-dislocated (who lost land, not necessarily physically displaced) can be one up on the government is within the clause “Safeguards against indiscriminate acquisition.” This says — “Land to be returned to original owner if not used in 5 years for the purpose for which it is acquired.” It was in 2005 that most of the land acquisition for the Polavaram dam started and the only ‘work' done is the digging of canals. So, will the government of Andhra Pradesh face legal action if this Bill becomes an Act?

So far as tribal communities are concerned, a point in their favour under “Minimum R&R Entitlements Special Provisions for ST's” makes space for “Preference in relocation and resettlement in area in same compact block.” In the case of the Polavaram dam, no care was taken to do so, in any of the three R&R colonies (of which only two are under construction). And here we are talking of 300 villages to be submerged, and where are those 300 tribal villages to be resettled in ‘compact' colonies? Where is the land for that space? If tribal land is to be acquired for displaced tribal communities, where will the R&R displaced tribal people be rehabilitated? In the case of Polavaram, the non-tribals illegally owning land in tribal areas were compensated with high amounts (Rs.1,50,000 an acre; minimum Rs.80,000 per acre). There is no provision in the Bill for any system to check such instances. In fact the Bill does not seem to have taken into consideration all these past injustices nor does it have any clause to correct those injustices.

How is land perceived? What are rivers perceived as? For a fisherman the river is his notional ‘land,' in livelihood and cultural terms. Faced with numerous massive irrigation (multi-purpose) projects on the anvil, ‘acquisition of river' (and forests) is not considered a case for R&R. Though one does not even remotely suggest a “River acquisition Bill.” Let's hope that such a day will not come.

How is economic value generated for the communities? How does the Bill compute the ‘economic worth' of tribal, Dalit or BC communities, women's work, to be dispossessed of a permanent asset — land/river? “Rs.3000 pm for 12 months; Rs. 2000 pm per family for 20 years.”

The Bill is making cosmetic changes to the 1894 notion of an ‘eminent domain' treating citizens as beneficiaries of private, or state charity.

(The writer is a postdoctoral Fellow at IIT-Madras and independent journalist. She is completing a book on Polavaram.)

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