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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 51, December 10, 2011

Debate on the Land Acquisition Bill 2011

Monday 12 December 2011, by Ambrose Pinto

Jairam Ramesh, the Union Minister for Rural Development, is one of the many Ministers in the present government who makes radical statements on behalf of the people and yet has no hesitation in being totally faithful to the norms of neo-liberalism. The Land Acquisition Bill 2011 is a case in point. To cover up the hidden agenda of selling the country to transnational and multinational corporations, there are certain clauses in the Bill which sound revolutionary and yet when analysed are found empty and even anti-people.

While in his aristocratic style, he sheds crocodile tears for the farmers and tribals on the question of land, he is not unwilling to mortgage the country to transnational and multinational corporations. The present Land Acquisition Bill has his personal seal. The Bill is presented as the Bill for the people while in reality the Bill rightly does the biddings of his invisible masters, the neo-liberals. While pretending to offer ownership to the tillers of the land, the only thing that the Bill does not do is that. What is needed is to reject the Bill in toto and work for a Land Acquisition Bill where the sovereignty of the people and not of the state is maintained.

Three Schools of Thought in the Bill

THERE are three schools of thought in the current debate on the Land Acquisition Bill 2011 as proposed by the Ministry of Rural Development.

The first one is premised on the markets when the acquisition of land is for the corporate entities by the corporations. Since the farmers, peasants and even small and middle level land-owners have been reluctant to sell their land, corporations have found it difficult to acquire thousands of acres of land without the help of the state.

The other is centred on the doctrine of “eminent domain”, where the state acquires land for the public sector or public purpose to construct roads, to build primary health care centres, schools and colleges. In the past, there has not been much of an opposition for the state acquiring land for public interest.

The third is when the state acquires land for the corporate sector. The Opposition all over the country is for the state taking over land of farmers and others and handing it over to the corporates. Given the fact that the state is the only agency with police and armed forces, in the past the state has used police and paramilitary forces to acquire land for the corporates. One cannot justify the role of the state in land acquisition for private purposes.

Perspectives on Land

AS far as land is concerned, there are at least two different perspectives depending on what land means to people. While the industrialists and corporates have a market-based under-standing of land, those who eke out their living from the lands—the tribals, members of the indigenous communities and farmers—have a different understanding. The corporate and industrial world hold land as a commodity to be bought and sold according to the market value. Once the price is paid, the commodity belongs to the buyer.

Society does not look at land in that perspective. Markets alone cannot determine the socially optimal price of land since land has also a social value. To the tribals, members of indigenous communities and the poor, land is a source of life and living. It is their civilisation and culture which cannot be measured in monetary terms. That is why there are specific laws that do not permit the sale of tribal land and land of communities that have centred themselves on land. The tribal self-rule law is a very good example where land is owned by the tribal communities and not the state. In the North-East, the state cannot take away land without recourse to the community. It is this kind of law that has strengthened the tribal hold over livelihood. Travelling in the North- East one would not find a single beggar in the communities, simply because land owned by the community provides for all.

Doctrine of Eminent Domain

THE doctrine of “eminent domain” is a contested principle. There are several questions that are raised on the doctrine. What does one mean by “public interest”? Is it the interest of society or the state? If it is the interest of the state, is the interest of society less important than that of the state? After all, society was prior to the state and all land belonged to the communities. The existence of the state was to help communities to enhance the quality of their lives and to remain as their servant.

In the whole question of land, the sad factor is that the state has come to dictate terms to society and made claims that land is a property under the supervision of the state and the state has the right to make claims to any land in public interest. What is unfortunately forgotten is that public interest primarily means the interests of the peasants, farmers and those who till the soil, sow the seeds and harvest the crops. There is an absolute need to revisit the entire concept of “eminent domain” or “ public interest” especially in the context of the neo-liberal economic policies where the state in nexus with the corporations has been acquiring thousands of acres of land across the country against the wishes of the owners of the land. A part of the violence in the country is due to this policy of land acquisition where the farmers feel that they are cheated by the very state established to enhance their economic development. If we are unable to re-look at the concept, land will more and more turn into business denying the tribals, Dalits, farmers and peasants their right to livelihood and surely witness more violence in the country.

Land and Speculative Boom

IN the last two decades and more, ever since the country took to the market economy, land has come to be commercialised. Traders and business-men with the sole intention of making as much money as possible in as little time have poured in large funds into the real estate leading to a speculative boom. This has led to not only commercialisation of land but its commodification as well. Real estate is a business promoted by politicians and business groups to acquire as much prime land as possible even with assistance from the anti-social elements. When the poor refuse to give up their land they are forcibly evicted. If eviction becomes difficult, murders and killings are resorted to. In the prominent metros of the country, there are frequent incidents of violence and killings on issues of land sale and deeds. One expected the Land Acquisition Bill 2011 to curb or totally put an end to this land mafia in the Bill so that land remains non-commercial.

In fact, in the period preceding the launching of the economic reforms, when the state acquired land, there was not much resistance to land acquisition from the owners of land since the land acquired was relatively small for public purpose. The beneficiaries of such acquisitions were largely the public sector. People had no difficulty in parting with their land even if it was related to their livelihood since they knew that public purpose was more important than their personal satisfaction of needs. With the introduction of the neo-liberal economic policies, the poor have come to realise that the state is no more interested in the welfare of the poor. Public purpose has come to mean for the governments in power in the States and at the Centre, the well-being and the interests of the corporations. What is shocking is that in the present land Acquisition Bill public purpose is narrowed. The Bill permits the virtual conversion of public purpose into private benefit by not questioning the public-private partner-ship mode of implementation of infrastructure projects. One fails to understand why the state should buy land for private enterprise. Even if there is a public-private partnership, the state should not intervene on matters of land from the people. Since it is a partnership, an autono-mous body should be established to check whether people desire to part with their land at all. Such a body should have more members of the community and owners of land whose land is proposed to be acquired. Only if people are willing to part with their land, can land be handed over. Even if there is a single dissent, an individual should be allowed to retain his or her portion of the land.

Pre-requisites for a Good Land Policy

THE policy is presented to the country as a progressive one. The Bill requires financial, social and environmental cost and benefit analysis of a project. Is this progressive? With the market determined priorities of investment, the social and environmental considerations will be heavily at a discount in any such assessment. The pre-requisites for a successful land policy are the formulation of a comprehensive, people-centric, ecology-friendly, region-specific and scientific land-use policy. Such a policy should take into consideration the provisions of food security, preservation of biological diversity and promotion of the well-being and solidarity of all those whose livelihoods depend on land. The original policy had suggested a formula for a six-time higher compensation at the minimum which was later modified to a four- time higher compensation as if money is equivalent to livelihood. It had also proposed that the original landowner would be entitled to share 20 per cent of the capital gain at each subsequent sale of the land for a period of ten years. This is aimed at gross commercialisation. Such statements in the Bill make the Bill unpalatable.

It is common experience in the country that the poor never share in the financial transactions of the capitalists. A casual survey of land acquisition will convince any concerned citizen that the middle person is the person who makes money in all transactions of land deals. With the flow of speculative capital into the land market, the resultant land price bubble and the consequent distortion in the socially optimal pattern of land use, the very proposal is viewed as a part of the market policy. What is needed is the bursting of the speculative bubble. A complete moratorium on transfer or sale of all agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes, in particular to the corporate sector, is what is expected in the policy if the state is concerned about the plight of the farmers and the unemployment scenario in the country that is leading to restlessness.

Land for Non-agricultural Use

THIS of course does not mean that land should not be made available for non-agricultural use. Laws could have exceptions. Those exceptions could include the use of land for housing for a vast majority of poor and middle classes, or for genuine social purposes such as hospitals and schools, primary health care centres or for essential infrastructure such as roads and irrigation. However, such exceptions should be made only with the consent of the local people. All said and done, it is important to stress that land belongs to the people and not to the state. Moratorium is aimed at the corporate sector, land mafia and speculative capital. The Bill rightly emphasises the livelihood question and seeks to lay down the condition of provision of a better and decent livelihood for those displaced by land acquisition. But it sidetracks an important issue of the small peasantry’s unwillingness to part with its land. There is a section of small peasantry that is opposed to being dispossessed. For them, compensation or availability of alternative livelihood is not the issue. Even if farming is not viable, they would struggle to supplement it somehow rather than giving up the only source of security that they have. Recourse to the absolute doctrine of eminent domain to dispossess them is no right. Since society existed prior to the state, when society is reluctant to part with the land, the state may have to respect it.

The doctrine of eminent domain should also equally apply to the interests of the communities as well. If 70 per cent of peasants give their consent to part with their land for a corporate sector project, the remaining 30 per cent could be compelled to part with their land under the modified application of that doctrine. This is a ridiculous provision, corporate in nature. To state that if 70 per cent of people agree to hand over land and 30 per cent resist, such land can be taken over is a fascist attitude. Rights by their nature are both collective and individual. The state has no business to deny individuals their right over property. Majoritarianism is a threat for the existence and survival of minorities. How can any Bill in a democracy say that land of the minority can be taken over if the majority is willing to part with theirs? Should the minority be made to suffer for the greed of the corporates or the state? While the Bill argues strongly in favour of land for land as the desirable mode of rehabilitation, it discounts the case of those small peasants who would rather not give up their land in the first place. In other words, the eminent domain doctrine must give way to the doctrine of respecting the land-livelihood nexus.

There is a related aspect of distress sale of land by marginal or small peasantry to speculators in land. The economic non-viability of cultivating a small piece of land owned by a marginal or small peasant compels such peasant to dispose of his land, if he finds that a lucrative monetary offer is in sight. While it may be a sound financial decision from his personal point of view, it may have adverse social costs, in terms of his entry into the reserve army of the unemployed or in terms of reduced food production. The law may not forbid it. But market forces can cause large-scale dispossession. It has important bearing on the question of socially optimal land use. The resistance to land acquisition in recent years has highlighted this policy vacuum that has not been addressed in the Bill.

The Bill should have also addressed the structural crisis of the agrarian situation. The small size of the operational holding as far as people are concerned is still relevant. The cooperative pooling of land by the small and marginal peasantry to overcome this limitation is suggested as the obvious solution. To sum up, the current debate on land acquisition is narrowly focused. It shuts out the basic question of land of which the question of land acquisition is only a small subset. Micro-level remedies will not be equal to the macro-level questions of policy. On the one hand, we need to take immediate steps to stem the distortion, and, on the other, we must move towards a new paradigm of land use, based on progressive de-commodification of land as well as the premise that land is the basis of existence and civilisation.

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