Critics may have called the food and land acquisition Bills populist, but MPs cutting across party lines voted resoundingly in favour of both

Last week, the Lok Sabha passed the food security and land acquisition Bills by voice vote, even as noisy TV discussants and irate newspaper columnists warned the nation that the passage of these two landmark legislations would be the last nail in the coffin of a beleaguered economy. Economic experts suggested that the additional allocation for food security would enlarge the fiscal deficit to unmanageable proportions; big business wailed that industrial development would come to a crashing halt if it was forced to pay enhanced compensation for farming land.

But the House of the People, which is clearly more representative than the critics of the two Bills, thought otherwise. Indeed, all the opposition-sponsored amendments to the two Bills sought to outdo the Congress-led UPA government: they wanted more money to feed the people, and greater protection for those whose land may be acquired.

Far from making grim predictions about the impact of runaway welfarism, opposition MPs made a plea for universalising the coverage of the food security legislation, not limiting it to 67 per cent of the population: the BJP’s Murli Manohar Joshi even quoted from the scriptures on the nobility of feeding the poor.

United voices

In the land acquisition debate, only the Nationalist Congress Party’s Supriya Sule stressed that the interests of industry and the farming community needed to be balanced, citing a few success stories from Maharashtra. Every other MP spoke entirely on behalf of the farmers. People had an emotional connect with their land, MPs said, pointing out that it was an economic asset that would always appreciate. Land speculators were attacked, and MPs stressed that, in recent years, expensive housing estates, five-star hotels and glitzy malls, rather than employment-generating industries, had come up on farmland.

The Samajwadi Party’s Mulayam Singh Yadav made a passionate plea for acquiring degraded rather than agricultural land for industry; the BJP’s Rajnath Singh accused the government of framing a Bill privileging the interests of urban India and big business over that of the rural poor. And the Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Lalu Prasad Yadav used mythology to warn against unjust land settlements: referring to recent social conflicts caused through forcible land acquisition, he recalled that the Kauravas’ refusal to part with just five villages sparked off the Kurukshetra war in the Mahabharata.

If there was any real criticism of the Government Bills voiced in the course of the two debates, it related to concerns about the rights of the States to create laws suited to their particular conditions. The accent in the food Bill debate was on who would get the credit — the UPA or State governments that will roll out the programme.

Minority viewpoint

Indeed, if one is to go by the speeches in the Lok Sabha, those who vented their anger against these two Bills in TV studios and newspaper columns represent a minority viewpoint. What the MPs, cutting across party lines, said about the two Bills clearly conveyed that, all said and done, both were in tune with people’s needs.

Those who inhabit gated communities — virtual or real — may call this votebank politics, or “irresponsible populism.” But in a country where an embarrassingly large number of people live below the poverty line, even the disputed one, and where conflicts over land are threatening the social equilibrium, branding food entitlements for the poor as bad economics and just compensation for land acquisition as anti-industry amounts to poverty of vision.

Despite the shortcomings in its implementation, even the much-reviled Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, as recent studies have shown, has pushed up rural wages, perhaps annoying wealthy landowners, but certainly improving the lives of the poor.

When UPA I drafted its Special Economic Zone policy, protests by farmers whose land was to be acquired created new political alignments against forcible dispossession of people. In West Bengal’s Nandigram, Maharashtra’s Raigad and Uttar Pradesh’s Dadri, diverse groups including the Jamait-e-Ulema Hind, Maoists, citizens’ action groups such as the Narmada Bachao Andolan, fishermen’s associations, hawkers’ unions and intellectuals — rather than traditional opposition parties — united to battle the SEZ scheme. The government was compelled to rethink the policy and ask the states to proceed cautiously on SEZs, with the Maoist threat looming large.

Little wonder that even the BJP, the principal opposition party, after pointing out their inadequacies, voted for the two Bills in the Lok Sabha.

There will always be a trade-off between economic calculations and social commitments — and good governance demands the two are weighed before a decision is taken.

Congress President Sonia Gandhi, who led the battle for the two bills, made a judgment that the opposition found hard to reject. For a country where vast numbers suffer from hunger and malnutrition, where farmers get dispossessed, and social conflicts abound cannot become an economic superpower.

smita.g@thehindu.co.in

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