The Bill on acquisition must be changed to prevent the wanton uprooting of people from their fields and homes

A few thousand representatives of various people’s movements from across the country have gathered at Jantar Mantar in the national capital. They are Dalits, Adiviasis, sections of unprotected working class including farmers and fish-workers but they all form one ‘biradari’ of those who live off land, water, forest. They are the ones who produce, distribute, build, operate, clean, sell, drive and do all that enable society to survive, proceed and progress. But the tragedy is that they have to battle for their own survival. And that is what they do, through non-violent means, against a state that plots to evict them, rob them of their meagre resources, transfer the capital in their hands to corporates in the name of development and then compel them to beg for rehabilitation. Asserting their right to resources and to make their own plans to develop those resources, they are also questioning a development model that is undemocratic, inequitable and unjust.

They are at Jantar Mantar to agitate against the upcoming ‘Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill’. They want to convey the message that it is time to review and discard the British legacy of forcible acquisition on the basis of ‘eminent domain’ of the state and stress the eminent domain of the people who are both at the root of democracy as well as its top. When money and labour, two of the three capital resources for any ‘development’ project (a dam, industry, infrastructure etc.) can’t be taken by force, how can any statutory agency forcibly acquire the third resource — land?

While even the British restricted acquisition to government projects termed as “public purpose”, our elected governments amended the Act of 1894 to legitimise acquisition for private companies and public-private partnership projects. Prime rural and urban land is being acquired, while lakhs of hectares of barren waste land or acquired but unused land is being ignored. The policy has created havoc. In urban areas, basti after basti is evicted in the name of ‘redevelopment’, ensuring huge profits for builders and developers. The results are obvious. With more than 18 lakh hectares of agricultural land directed to non-agricultural purpose in 10 years, and the urban land ceiling acts in States having been repealed, houses are beyond the reach of the middle class. Between 25 and 60 per cent of urban poor live in slums or are homeless.

The recent report of the all-party committee on the Bill appreciates the issues and reservations raised by many of us: no forcible acquisition for private or PPP projects; no acquisition of agricultural land — one crop or multiple crop; and bringing under the purview of this Act, all Central Acts used for land acquisition in sector such as mining, highways, railways, ports etc. It also recognises the role of the Gram Sabha and Basti Sabha, in deciding public purpose to planning the project, deciding the R&R and then monitoring it. This is nothing new, but reiterates the framework provided through Article 243 (73rd and 74th Amendment) of the Constitution, incorporated in 1992-93. If the land allotted to any industry/project is not used for five years, it can go back to the landowner, the report recommends.

Unfortunately, the Ministry of Rural Development is not agreeable to many of these reasonable proposals. Only multiple-crop land can be excluded, it says. How is this possible if, for instance, a single-crop plot is sandwiched between two multiple crop ones? Today’s non-irrigated land can be tomorrow’s irrigated. Rural development should have agriculturists as the prime beneficiaries, not the corporates. The latter are pushing state acquisition through the Ministry of Rural Development for their own benefit. Why should the MoRD or the government bow before them? The answer lies in the politician-bureaucrat-corporate nexus.

But the movements can’t submit to this. They are demanding that the government not act as the property dealer for private corporations. Public purpose itself is defined by the Ministry of Rural Development in a manner worse than in the British Act.

The weakest part endorsed by both the committee and the MoRD is, however, rehabilitation. The number of displaced/affected people since Independence is anywhere between eight and 12 crore (the number is never final as many categories are left out, such as canal-affected persons in dam constructions, and where the government has no comprehensive record). Up to 86 per cent of this number has been left pauper for generations. Whether it is Bhakra Nangal or Narmada, coastal communities of fish-workers, slum dwellers or victims of industrial development, each State has lakhs of families waiting to be rehabilitated, and still in struggle mode.

The only progressive rehabilitation policy in Sardar Sarovar dam-Narmada Project could be brought about only through a continuous struggle over the past 27 years by the Narmada Bachao Andolan. Why can’t the same provisions become part of the new Act, people ask. The answer is: no political will. Only cash — four to six times the market value, as in the Haryana, Gurgaon or U.P. models — is not rehabilitation. ‘Cash’ was offered by the British as well. It has failed to ensure livelihood. Today’s market can be very deceptive and elusive for simple farmers or labourers. Why can’t a government ensure an alternative source of livelihood using the same cash instead of destroying and dividing integrated, non-cash-based communities?

In short, the opportunity to democratise and decentralise planning to minimise diversion of land and destruction of agriculture, and to stop uprooting our own people must be viewed with all seriousness. People in every State are demanding an end to these policies. If this cry is not responded to by changing the Bill to incorporate the committee’s recommendations and calling for wider consultations for true land reforms, serious conflict can only intensify, for which the present rulers will be forced to pay a heavy price in 2014.

(Medha Patkar is a social activist and founder of Narmada Bachao Andolan and National Alliance of People’s Movements.)

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